Over the course of 15 years at Nintendo of America,  Reggie Fils-Aime rose from vice president of marketing for a giant in decline to president of a company back at the forefront of gaming—all the while endearing himself to millions of fans with his exuberant personality and obvious passion. Retiring in early 2019, Fils-Aimé embarked on a select series of public speaking engagements to engage the next generation of gamechangers, including stops at University of California, Cornell University and the Ringling College of Art and Design 2019 Commencement, where his own daughter earned a degree in illustration. With the game on pause, SRQ picked up a controller to go head-to-head on non-linear progress, a fear of public speaking and the future of gaming.

What is the through-line in these student addresses?  Fils-Aimé:  I’m constantly reinforcing to young people that life is not linear, and you have to constantly be thinking about alternatives in order to progress forward. You have to have a sense of curiosity. Always being open to alternatives, always thinking about the “what if” scenario is tremendously important. 

How do you train yourself to spot those opportunities?  There needs to be thoughtful introspection—how you view the landscape, how you view your own strengths and weaknesses, and how you can best position yourself to be effective in the marketplace. Nintendo is over 130 years old. It started making Japanese playing cards called hanafuda cards. Its orientation from its beginning was about fun and entertainment. Oftentimes the company refers to itself as a toy company, because it has that mentality of creating unique forms of entertainment. As you know yourself and what you do well, it drives a thought process on how you can continue to build on your strengths.

When did you have to face your fear to make that pivot?    I used to be deathly afraid of public speaking. When I started my career at Procter & Gamble, I was right out of undergrad, and I was working alongside people who were five to 10 years older than I, doing exactly the same work. I tended to be quiet, to hunker down in taking my notes and collecting my thoughts. And I was challenged. “Reggie, you’ve got to be a little bit more out in front. You’ve got to speak more.”

What did you do?  I took some classes. I challenged myself to be put in situations where I would have to be that person out in front and to do more public speaking. It was through that learning, that discovery, that I turned public speaking into an asset. The ability to give press conferences, the ability to off-the-cuff play video games with Jimmy Fallon. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed. It really is being conscious about your own fears—your own areas of opportunity—and challenging yourself to make progress on them.

When did you know you’d mastered that fear?  I was making a presentation in Europe and the teleprompter died. I had a thousand people in the audience and I needed to keep going. I had rehearsed the speech. I knew the content. I essentially plowed forward. Eventually the teleprompter caught up.

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While Sony and Microsoft competed to make the most photorealistic games possible, Nintendo did not seem to make that the priority. Is there an underlying principle or lesson that people can learn from that decision?   Absolutely. Nintendo’s philosophy was always that the content is what motivates the consumer. And in the end, the content needs to be fun, the content needs to be compelling, and the content needs to be differentiated. In the video game space, more visual power and more processing power isn’t differentiated. Having prettier pictures by itself is not going to create compelling content. So Nintendo’s philosophy was always, “How do we make it fun? How do we make it more interesting?”

How do you?    The best case in point was when Nintendo launched the Wii. The PS3 was about to launch, Xbox was coming out with its own next generation machine, and Nintendo took a very different path. Its compelling proposition was based on the Wii remote—the first motion-based input device. The key game that it launched was Wii Sports. So clearly not focused on high resolution graphics, but completely focused on fun. And what happened? Nintendo went on to sell about 100 million machines. Wii Sports is still one of the top all-time sellers in video game history. And it was through that differentiated approach that Nintendo was able to really succeed in the marketplace.  

What is the difference, if any, between a boss and a leader?  Leaders create a culture where the organization wants to follow where the leader is identifying. So when a leader says, “We’re going here,” the organization says, “We’re with you.” To me, a boss simply states, “Here’s what we need to do.” And the organization doesn’t necessarily rally around that direction. A leader can inspire others to do things that they never thought they could do. That’s the difference.

When did you learn from a mistake to move forward?   I’ve made a tremendous amount of mistakes. Any leader who says that they haven’t is just kidding themselves. For me, I was [Senior Director of National Marketing] at Pizza Hut, and one of the products that I launched was a product called Bigfoot Pizza. This was during the recession. Consumers were gravitating toward Little Caesar’s and the value proposition that they offered. So we launched Bigfoot Pizza—two feet of pizza for one low price. And it put tremendous competitive pressure on Little Caesar’s as a business. It really hurt them over the course of what would be almost 10 years. 

But it was a mistake?  The reason I frame this as a mistake is, as a young executive, I didn’t think through the full consequences of launching a product that didn’t deliver on the core premise of what the brand stood for, which was quality. It wasn’t a very good quality product in the end. And the consumers fed that back to us. This product did quite well in the marketplace for its first two, three years of availability, but then we saw that it was having a negative impact on the brand’s perception. And in the end, Bigfoot Pizza went away because it was hurting the core equity of the brand.

What did you take away from the experience?   You really need to be thoughtful on whatever business initiative you’re launching, to think about what might be unintended consequences. 

Do you have a favorite game?   Favorite game of all time: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo system. And my favorite franchise is Breath of the Wild. In my hotel room I have a Switch. On the plane I play Breath of the Wild. Even though I’ve completed the game twice, I’m still on the hunt for every Korok Seed in the game. Even though I’m retired, I still play Nintendo content.

What will the video game experience be like in five years?   I had the opportunity to meet one of the executives that was involved in building the Nintendo Entertainment System. This was the system that launched with Donkey Kong and the original Mario Brothers game. I asked him about the creation of this system. He said, “Reggie, what we were trying to do was to build a system that the consumer could play Donkey Kong at home.” At the time, Donkey Kongwas only playable in the arcades. “Our thought process was that we wanted to create a system that would be a parasite to the TV. Because the TV was the one thing that was ubiquitous in everyone’s home.” What’s video game content or a video game system going to be like five or 10 years from now? How do you create a system that’s a parasite to whatever is the most ubiquitous form of entertainment out there that consumers have? How do you create a method to deliver content directly to the consumer?