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Iwata: 'Essence Of Fun' Can Overcome Gap Between Japanese, Western Culture
Iwata: 'Essence Of Fun' Can Overcome Gap Between Japanese, Western Culture Exclusive
February 6, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

February 6, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata says that the culture gap between Japanese and Western consumers helps explain why the company's more unusual innovations, like Wii Music, seem to perplex American audiences initially and take time to catch on.

Iwata points to the rapid, ubiquitous proliferation of the Nintendo DS in Japan as compared to its slower spread in the U.S. as an example.

"In Japan, as the number of people who saw DS players in trains skyrocketed early on, its recognition spread extremely fast as it piqued the curiosity of even those who were not interested but wondered what the gadget was," Iwata said during a briefing that followed Nintendo's recent financial results.

"In the United States, on the contrary, not only are passengers not sleeping nor using cell phones, many Americans do not regularly use trains and instead use their cars to commute," he added.

"So their ways of how to spend time on the go differs, and as a result, how, when and where portable consoles are played in their daily life will also differ."

Iwata recalled that "we faced the same doubt" when launching Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Nintendogs and other Nintendo staples. "Many of were [skeptical] of those being accepted overseas," he said.

"What Japanese people simply found interesting and favored was also welcomed overseas in many cases, with appropriate communication," says Iwata. The exec also recently spoke about how a holistic cycle of communication around new, unfamiliar Nintendo products helps spread positive sentiments around it.

"Of course I don’t mean that all that Japanese people favor will be accepted overseas," Iwata continued. "What I mean is that with the essence of fun, what people find interesting can overcome culture and language gaps."

Iwata said he was surprised that Brain Training, which became Brain Age in the U.S., sold twice as much outside of Japan. Similarly, Japanese marketing staff had warned Iwata Pokémon wouldn't catch on overseas, and that its distinctive yellow Pikachu would "never be accepted."

"So my understanding is that culture gaps can be overcome," he said. "And I think what is necessary is not to change the product itself, but how we introduce and show the features."

Talking about the company's new focus on expanding the global gaming population and specifically targeting Western markets, Iwata discussed Nintendo's separate U.S. and Europe-oriented Touch Generations products.

"[They] may have a smaller demand in Japan than overseas. I can not tell if it will go well or not at this moment," said Iwata.

"I think one or two of these initial trials will reach the market within this year. If they actually flourish, I think our strategy will have to take the next step."

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Tom Newman
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Every article I read on this topic irks me even more. I am in disbelief at Nintendo's level of arrogance. The game fell shy of sales expectations, it was coldly recieved by the critics, and gets a ton of negative feedback from players.


It can't be because the game is not good - it has to be because people are stupid, because Nintendo is incapable of releasing a dud.

Gimme a break!

Ian Wright
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Come on guys! Both your responses to this article would be more at home at a fan-site than Gamasutra. Wii Music might not be for you (it's for families with young kids) but is neither "puerile, insipid" or "mediocre".

Iwata-san is acknowledging disappointment in Wii Music sales and is reflecting on why it didn't meet their expectations. Hardly "arrogant".

I think that the industry as a whole should be enormously grateful to Nintendo for the Wii. As they themselves have said, "it's got people talking about games again", and widened the market.

Miyamoto's designs have almost single-handedly saved the games industry from retreating to the safe and comfortable "hardcore" demographic this generation. The sales figures for Wii Fit, Wii Play, Nintendogs etc. speak for themselves.

In my view, we are going though something of a "golden age" for games design. The market is sending a strong signal: fun experiences trump CPU power, GPU power, high-definition etc. every time.

Sean Parton
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I like Iwata's ultimate stance on this: change how we show you, not what it is. I always hate it when localization butchers a game (something Nintendo was very famous for during it's first decade or so in the industry). I hope other companies take note.

Also, Iwata's analysis of the DS and it's acceptance also seems quite accurate. Most people I know here in Canada get their own vehicle, despite it's expense. From what I understand of Japan, public transit is far more common. I can say though that in recent years, I'm hard pressed to not find someone else with a DS on a packed, major bus route.

@Ian Wright: I'm not sure if we can call this a "golden age" for game design. Depends on your definition, I guess; I will admit that there's a lot of experimentation that's going on (even partly with bigger names, but mostly with indies).

Also, don't feed the trolls.

Rhodri Broadbent
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Unfortunately for Iwata-san, the occasionally enormous pleasure of performing well at Wii Music is *exclusive* to the performer. No matter how powerful that enjoyment, this exclusivity means it fails to sell itself. Especially to those who are not fond of MIDI.

Wii Music is remarkable in so many ways, but as shown in these comments, not least in its ability to confuse and offend normally rational people.

I liken playing Wii Music to time-trials in a racing game (of which I am also very fond). You begin with a goal in mind (to improve on the original/your performance in Wii Music. To beat your record in a time trial) and as soon as you hit a note you're unhappy with (the equivalent of clipping a corner), you remember your mistake and instantly hit pause->retry. This manic 'must... do... better' compulsion is so pronounced when I play Wii Music as to make it one of the more addictive games I've played in the last few years.

It's like speed-running, but for music nerds.

I've not found it shallow nor puerile, nor indeed 'for kids'. The joy and fun of Wii Music comes in it's playful and sophisticated use of harmony and rhythm, which allow the player to create personalised, satisfyingly individual 'routes' through each track of each song.

Exactly as they might find their most comfortable and suited-to-their-play-style route around a race course to shave seconds from their time.

Sean Parton
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@Rhodri Broadbent: That's a pretty interesting analysis of Wii Music. I've not thought of it that way.

It is unfortunate that the Midi sounds turn people off so easily. We just don't have the technology to pull that sort of game off without midi-generation with our current technology; many people seriously underestimate what Wii Music allows you to do. Maybe next console generation.

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The problem with the positionning of wii music is that it is HIGHLY on the creative side.

I mean, it's the most hardcore and geeky game out there, in a sense that you cannot play it right away and actually get an instant rewards (except from chaos)...

I have only "get" the game while seeing the rendition of super mario in classical then in rock interpretation, this is pretty hi level! To come with an idea to "reinterpret" the song? You must be a musician freak! THAT reduce the market (but with 2 millions sold this is hardly a faillure). On the contrary rock band premise is: match the color of the button according to instruction on your favorite song.

As Miyamoto himself put it in his video on the wii channel, most people derive pleasure imitating their favorite band, that's why humming is so pleasurable. Creative fun is a very different beast itself, you must have a vision, even to explore... That's why the game is geard toward kids in my opinion. You know kids fear the big bad wolf, what they don't fear is dancing, sketching, expressing themselves. When we grow up we do not fear anymore the big bad wolf, but dancing, sketching and expressing ourselves... I wonder if it's more mature to fear things that cannot actually hurt ourselves like the big bad wolf.

Dave Endresak
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Iwata-san summarizes a couple of the many cultural differences that impact everything people do. I am about to give a lecture on this subject for an undergrad course that is part of an intro to simulation, animation and gaming curriculum, and I have to choose a few specific points to offer about differences between Japanese gaming culture and America or other Western markets.

On the other hand, it's critically important for everyone to realize that differences are generalities and do not mean that various cultural elements are not wanted or desired elsewhere by other people, even if they are not common (or even known) at any specific point in time.

I was one of several people who worked very hard at promoting recognition of Japanese entertainment focused on girls and/or targeted for a female audience during the entire decade of the 1990s. The market was always here but the people in charge of the market refused to consider different offerings. It was a Catch-22 sort of situation and, to some extent, it still is; there's a very wide variety of excellent works that continue to be virtually unknown outside their native market. Gaming suffers from the same type of problem as manga and anime did during the 1990s. No one has really succeeded in opening the gaming market to the many excellent Japanese works that appeal to a different type of gamer/audience, not in the way that the shoujo and kids' markets were finally opened for manga and anime, anyway.

This is why it's so disturbing to hear Japanese game company reps claim that they want to "change" to "appeal to Western markets". The markets want diverse products, not "me too" offerings. I am not a fan of Nintendo nor am I much of a fan of music games, but I'd never make some of the negative comments I've seen here because offering diverse products that appeal to different gaming preferences is the best way to expand the market. It's the same with anything; for example, even pizza varies greatly from location to location across America and elsewhere in the world.

Aaron Knafla
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I said it once and I'll say it again; music games are all about the sound. Wii Music's MIDI sounds and track list are unimpressive. The results are predictable. Music games are not about freedom or creativity; at their core, they are about sound. Without that, you cannot succeed.

I don't know how you can introduce the features of Wii Music without me hearing it. Hearing the actual content is what turned me away. There has to be quality at the core of a quality product. You can't fake that. You can't "introduce features" your way out of that.

I find the stereotypes about American life insulting. There are plenty of urban markets inside the US that rely heavily on mass transportation. And, the DS has found similar success with people that ride the train or bus... It's much more accurate to point out that America is a more diverse market in general.

Anthony Charles
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Wii Music is not mentioned after the first paragraph. Iwata doesn't say anything about it. It seems the thesis of this article doesn't match the body.

JeanMi Vatfair
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It's quite amazing to see how Nintendo publicly refuses to accept Wii Music's failure. Iwata is talking about Wii Music like this "yes it will take you time to appreciate our product, you're not ready yet, but someday you'll understand...".

It's nothing else than an attempt to make us curious about his soft. And it has always been that way they have sold Wii consoles, Wii Fit etc. Their products are always related to a human need, like no other. They make us feel they have the unique thing. And that's what keep us curious about it until we buy it...

Christian Nutt
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Man, what's hilarious about these comments is that Iwata doesn't even mention Wii Music -- it's just mentioned in the intro. Good grief.

JeanMi Vatfair
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Duh. Of course it is mentioned in the intro, because that's what Iwata is talking about. These are samples of an interview. And when I say Nintendo refuses to accept Wii's Music failure, I'm refering to more interviews.