Grand Marketer of the Year ’07: Reginald Fils-Aime, Nintendo

Despite what you’ve heard about the dumbing down of America, entertainment is getting more complex. In order to jump into the latest season of Lost or 24, for instance, you have to watch about 60 hours of shows and bear in mind that a plot may hinge on an obscure scene from the first season.

Movies like Memento and Pulp Fiction also require work on the part of the viewer, who must assemble the movies in their head, like a puzzle, to account for a nonlinear narrative.

But nowhere is this complexity more evident than in the world of videogames. The much lauded Halo 3, for instance, has a back story similar in size to the Star Wars saga and sports 34,000-plus lines of combat dialogue. Entities like The Sims seem less like games than alternate lives that are as richly realized as a novel.

There’s a corollary to this, however. The flip side of the phenomenon is that people also want their entertainment in smaller, simpler portions. ITunes, for instance, has led to the growth of the single over the album. YouTube and mobile platforms have forced Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central to shoot for three-minute lengths for sketch comedy.

So when Nintendo mulled the latest round in its battle against Microsoft and Sony, it had a choice: Simple or complex? Nintendo chose simple. Simple was good.

In the fall of 2006, Nintendo’s Wii was thought to be an also-ran to the real gaming console battle between Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. By comparison, Nintendo’s Wii was considered to have cruder graphics and a more basic selection of games than the other two. Nintendo, many thought, would merely peddle its Mario and Zelda games to its core audience: young kids.

That thinking was proved false. By August, Nintendo had sold four million Wii units, versus six million for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (which had a year’s head start) and more than doubled the U.S. sales of PS3, per NPD, Port Washington, N.Y. In April, Nintendo reported that its sales for the previous fiscal year hit $8.1 billion, a 90% jump over the previous year. Net income also rose 130% to $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, market researcher IDC, Framingham, Mass., predicts Wii will be the bestselling console in 2008, and Merrill Lynch forecasts that 30% of U.S. homes will have a Wii by 2011. Not everyone agrees: Yuta Sakurai, an analyst at Nomura Securities in Tokyo, expects Sony to sell 71 million PS3 units by 2011, versus 40 million for the Wii. But analysts concur that Wii has legs. “Despite what people say, ‘Oh, it’s a novelty, PS3 and Xbox 360 will come back as the true gaming consoles,’ Nintendo seems to be holding them off,” said Paul Jackson, principal analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.

This was precisely the ass-kicking that Reginald Fils-Aime (pronounced FEES-oe-MEY), president and COO of Nintendo of America, prophesied. Those in the industry know Fils-Aime as brash and competitive, and may recall his introduction at the 2004 E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles: “My name is Reggie. I’m about kickin’ ass. I’m about takin’ names. And this company is about makin’ games.”

That was a shock to many who viewed Nintendo as a conservative company, but Fils-Aime knew “he had lightning in bottle” with Wii and wasn’t afraid to brag about it to the press, analysts and consumers. One half cheerleader for the brand, one half bully to the competition, he has become, arguably, as much a public figurehead for Nintendo as Mario,Donkey Kong and (his favorite) Link from the Zelda franchise.