Nintendo's Marko Hein on Wi-Fi
8th Nov 2005 | 16:02
As you've probably worked out by now if you're a keen-eyed reader, we were lucky enough to attend Nintendo's Gamers Summit in Frankfurt last week. While we were there, we had the opportunity to mess around with much of the company's diverse Q1 line-up, as well as road test Mario Kart DS against a bunch of US games journalists thanks to Nintendo's new Wi-Fi Connection Service.
The arrival of the service on 14th November in the US and 25th November here in Europe, alongside Mario Kart DS, marks Nintendo's first stomp into online gaming after serveral half-hearted attempts with various peripherals across the GameCube era. Unsurprisingly, it's simple to use and offers a nice sturdy gaming experience, just as Nintendo's repeatedly promised. With other games like Animal Crossing: Wild World, Tony Hawk's American Sk8land and Metroid Prime Hunters on the horizon for DS wi-fi, there's plenty more to look forward to too.
We caught up with Marko Hein, Nintendo's head of European developer business in a dark and noisy canteen somewhere in the depths of Nintendo Europe's Frankfurt headquarters to chat about the Wi-Fi Connection Service, its development and where the company plans to take it in the future.
Would you care to introduce yourself?
Marko Hein: My name's Marko Hein, I'm head of European developer business. I take care of all the developers across Europe, try to support Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America on the product acquisitions side and try to manage our relationship with developers to get them on board for Revolution and DS and our other platforms.
What's has been Nintendo's main goals from the outset as far as development of the Wi-Fi Connection Service is concerned?
MH: Nintendo has been criticised quite heavily for not providing online gaming and we always said online gaming is a very interesting concept, but we would like to make it as accessible as possible for gamers - with no subscriptions or other huge costs and no technical hazards for the consumer. Now, after years of investigation, I think we are confident we're at that point where we really can make online gaming accessible for all people, even if they have no technical knowledge at all, particularly without that need for further costs - that's very important for us.
What was the most difficult of those goals to achieve?
MH: First of all, getting the price structure right was difficult, but also investigating what we'd need to do to get everyone online: what type of hotspots we'd require if someone doesn't have wi-fi at home, what we'd need to offer in terms of technical possibilities if that was the case, and doing all the negotiations with all the hotspot providers. I mean, in the UK alone, we have 7,500 hotspots right from launch and we're having to negotiate with European hotspot providers to ensure we have that sort of coverage everywhere - as we've said, our goal is that everyone who owns a copy of Mario Kart should be able to join the online community to play with people all around with the world.
How long has the wi-fi service been in development?
MH: The idea has been there for quite a while now but we were looking for the most appropriate game to support the wi-fi and we discussed it with Mr Konno, the producer for Mario Kart, and he always liked the idea of having Mario Kart online and I think the players have cried for it. I mean, what was the next logical step for Mario Kart? We had it on the Super Nintendo, then in 3D on N64 and with LAN functionality on GameCube, so what is the next step? The next logical step is to play with somebody in Japan, America and so on.
It should be as easy as playing with the people beside you though, that was the idea of wi-fi. It means that local network playing is relatively easy, you switch on the console and select multiplayer then let's go. Wi-fi works in exactly the same way - you open the DS, select wi-fi and start playing with somebody straight away.
When would you say that Nintendo's plans for online gaming properly fell into place?
MH: Online gaming is a huge thing and we knew that it's a huge thing but there were too many hurdles up to that point. As we announced the DS, we were very clear that Nintendo was heavily considering this option, it was just the matter of time before all the infrastructure was set up. I think that we wanted to do our first test with the Nintendo GameCube but it never really kicked off because of the hurdles I was mentioning. We didn't want to do exactly what Xbox Live was doing with subscriptions and so on, we wanted to make it free and easy for consumers. Especially, with a handheld system, we wanted gamers to be out on the street or in Starbucks etc and be able to open their DS and play wi-fi. We thought that would be a stimulating and appealing option for consumers.
Was there some intention then to introduce this kind of wi-fi service earlier on, some time during the GameCube's lifespan?
MH: Not seriously. We were providing the technical capabilities but Nintendo decided that we were not making a huge commitment at that point - if a publisher wanted to take a game online, the infrastructure was there but we were looking further into the possibilities, which we finally considered most suitable for the DS.
Why do you think Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing - big traditionally offline franchise titles - have been most suitable for the launch of Nintendo's wi-fi service?
MH: It's not just the issue that they're big franchise titles, but also it's the type of game. I mean, racing games are perfect because you can take on anyone around the world in your kart. Animal Crossing however, from the gameplay perspective, it's perfectly suited for wi-fi too. Obviously, we've got Metroid Prime Hunters coming out and that wasn't actually designed to be online, but it was always intended to be multiplayer. During the lifecycle though, when the wi-fi plan was finally established, we realized we had to implement it.
In terms of encouraging third-party support, what is it about the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection Service that you consider to be its best facet?
MH: Well, it's not just about encouraging developers to adopt wi-fi, but we're also very keen to ensure that developers embrace the many unique features of the DS. Of course, one of those features now is wi-fi so that means if a publisher has a great game, with strong multiplayer components for example, then the wi-fi is the logical next step.
As you've said, Nintendo has implemented a deal to make 7,500 hotspots available to UK consumers for its wi-fi service. What was the thinking behind the selection of these specific areas, what were you trying to achieve?
MH: The most important thing for us is that the service is accessible to everyone so we were really trying to maximize our penetration with the hotspots we chose. We've secured around seventy-five percent of available hotspots around the UK and I think that's very good in terms of accessibility for the consumer.
We've seen today that Animal Crossing has an obscenity filter to prevent gamers from using bad language online. How much of a focus was put into the design of the wi-fi service to ensure it was suitable and safe for access by audiences of all ages?
MH: Well, of course, with Mario Kart, it's also the case - you cannot share personal information, you cannot talk to people, you can only log on with other DS's and play with them. I think security is a big issue for Nintendo because our major target group is still very young and parents naturally are very concerned about the security and the protection of their kids. Nintendo has a certain reputation and that means we have to be secure and safe and that was kept in mind throughout the development.
The main complaint we've heard today about the online functionality in Mario Kart is that without the ability to chat to your opponents, the competitive element can feel quite anonymous and sterile. Why did you decide that chat shouldn't be an element of online play in the game rather than giving gamers the option if desired?
MH: I think that it's a step-by-step process. Mario Kart DS is a gigantic step for Nintendo moving into the online world and I think that we wanted to get from this first experience, how it works, how it works technically and what kind of feedback we get from this initial game. I'm pretty sure we will get a lot of feedback after the launch and people will say "I miss this" or "I would like to see this" and I think there's nothing that will hold us back from implementing further features in forthcoming games.
In Animal Crossing there's an option to download new content from Nintendo directly, which is an interesting feature. Are there any plans to use this sort of feature in future games?
MH: There are no concrete plans in place yet, but the possibility is definitely there. You can technically download any type of content to your DS basically, from demos to screenshots to artwork, game information, high score lists, so we're playing around with it at the moment, experimenting with different ideas and seeing what really makes sense for the consumer.
Is it going to be possible to permanently store this content to your DS on cart for example, or is it only ever going to be a temporary download?
MH: Initially, we're only looking at temporary content but it's possible to store things permanently but you would have to use the cartridge. As long as there's room on the cartridge, it can be stored for as long as you like but obviously if you're looking at a complete demo there isn't likely to be room.
A lot of Nintendo's focus is on the DS, wi-fi and the Revolution at the moment - what does the future hold for the Game Boy line at the moment with Nintendo's resources being pooled away onto other projects?
MH: The Game Boy Advance has a huge installed user base so we provide a lot of support for it still, just as we do the DS and GameCube. However, it's obviously logical that when you have four consoles to support - including the Revolution - there are certain limitations. You can't programme for all consoles so at the moment we're investigating a lot into what we can do with the Revolution and what can we do with the Nintendo DS.
With the massive installed base of hardware and software we have, someone who buys the Game Boy Advance now will have a library of games which is incomparable - that's one of the biggest arguments. Of course, we're still producing new titles for it and each of the other consoles but not in such quantities now.
We know that Elecktroplankton, Brain Exercise and Chibi Robo - several definitely non-mainstream titles - are hitting Europe next year. Why has Nintendo chosen to push ahead with the release of such unorthodox titles in the territory?
MH: It's not a very new strategy for Nintendo - remember the Virtual Boy? We always try to look into new possibilities. We have the pleasure of having big franchises at Nintendo which sell: Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and so on. Our financial benefits come from these million-sellers so this gives us the opportunity to think more creatively, even if these new titles don't sell millions and millions.
Electroplankton is a very good example - it's not a big seller and everybody knows it. But, it sets certain standards and shows developers and consumers the direction in which Nintendo is thinking and I think we'll see very similar sorts of titles over the course of the Revolution.
How do you go about convincing the market that they want to play something like Electroplankton?
MH: It's not about convincing people to buy it. I think that sort of game gives us a reputation and the hardcore gamers know that Nintendo means something outside the normal types of games. I've been with Nintendo for almost eleven years now and I've seen a lot of games, not only from us but from other companies as well. When you go to E3 you always see the same sorts of games again and again and again. When you've played your one thousandth first-person shooter now you can say "Nice graphics, but what's new?" As an old gamer, I'm very, very hungry for new ideas.
In the US we've see that Electroplankton is going to be available through online purchase only. Is this the kind of strategy we're likely to see in Europe for Nintendo's less mainstream games?
MH: It's not clear yet. I think that this move is pretty clever because with the online channel you reach many of the hardcore gamers who appreciate the innovative nature of these sorts of games. Specifically for Electroplankton, we've not one hundred percent decided how we're distributing it. Of course, as well as the hardcore gamers, online means you do not have to convince retailers to take such a game onto their shelves which probably won't sell in big quantities.
With Nintendo Revolution we're thinking about digital distribution too - maybe not for Revolution games right now but for our back catalogue. I think that's also the step-by-step strategy that Nintendo always follows to see if it works technically and for the consumers and to see if maybe it's an option for the future. Maybe not now because we're depending on the retailers, who're very important partners to us. I don't think we'll be going full-steam towards digital distribution at the moment.
The Wi-Fi Connection Service marks another key step in Nintendo's long history. What would you say your most proud of in terms of the company's achievements?
MH: I'm very proud after all my time at Nintendo that we're really seeing a major shift in where the market is going. We were the first to use the analogue stick, the first to use the rumble pack and so on and I hope that we set certain standards that can be established across all consoles. That makes me proud, that we are always innovative leaders - maybe not leaders in terms of world market space, but leaders in forward thinking. That makes me proud.