Interview: Marc Franklin - Nintendo of America

We chat with Nintendo's head PR honcho about 3DS, Earthbound and Zelda

Between test drives of a selection of Nintendo's 2013 line-up, including The Legend of Zelda 3DS, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and Animal Crossing: New Leaf, we had the chance to catch up with Nintendo of America's PR wizard Marc Franklin to talk about what makes a sequel, 3DS's colossal line-up, and just what the heck took so long to get Earthbound on Virtual Console.

To start off, have 3DS sales hit expectations so far in North America this year?

We are tracking about a million units ahead of where the DS was at a similar point in its lifecycle, 24 months in. You heard some of the stats that Scott (Moffitt, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing) brought in. Beyond the hardware sales, there’s strong momentum behind software. We’re looking at 20+ million unit sales to date — that doesn’t include digital — and then we have a strong digital story that is representative of a number of different games. If you look at the 15 games in particular that were both available in package form and also digital form, 11% of sales of those were in the eShop.

Our connection rate is climbing, it’s at a 12% increase over last year, to 67%, and that’s healthy. Then there’s some standout performers as well: if you look at the total number of downloads at 41 million, that’s everything, and that’s a healthy number. If you look at some of the stand-out performers like Fire Emblem: Awakening, a third of the sales there are coming from digital. That game in particular lends itself to having it on your 3DS all the time — it’s a game that you want to play every single day, that you want to progress through, you’re talking about players who have spent 70+ hours, so it’s a lot easier to own it digitally. Plus there’s DLC for that game. An interesting stat is that of the people who bought it digitally, about half of those are purchasing DLC.

What this says is there’s good momentum behind 3DS that’s represented in the software, in the digital growth, but most importantly it’s in the content. Certainly the examples of Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon and Fire Emblem are good ones, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity has done well; Luigi's Mansion in particular, when you’ve got over 400K unit sales in a manner of weeks, that’s a good sign. Those are strong games, and now we’ve got a whole slew of great games coming one right after the other. The system is really poised to maximize its potential this year.

About two thirds of 3DS owners are connected. How does that compare with Wii U, for example?

I don’t think we have the connection rate right now for Wii U. Today we’re focused on 3DS, and that number is a strong number from a connection standpoint. It also tells the story about how when we’re talking about digital, the fact that so many people are going to the eShop to get their content and so many are using ways to connect with each other to play games, it’s a good sign that the system is connected.

I know we’re here to talk about 3DS today but there was an announcement in the Nintendo Direct I need to ask you about: Earthbound is coming out on Wii U Virtual Console. Basically, what took you so long?

(Laughs) We did the Nintendo Direct in January, and Mr. Iwata announced to the Japan market that (Mother 2 was releasing on Wii U Virtual Console). People saw the reaction to that announcement in the United States and the reaction was very, very...well, they wanted to see the game. It brought up a lot of desire to see the game. So we finally found that it was the right time to bring it out. There’s a lot that goes into the decision of when to bring a game to market, it’s not as easy as saying “OK, well, let’s bring a game to market,” push a button and there it is. The time was right, and what’s most important is that we’re all excited about it. There’s a lot of fans within Nintendo just as there are outside who are just as eager to play the game. We’re just happy that it’s coming and we’re happy that the fans are excited.

It seems like a lot of theories among the community as to why Earthbound hadn’t made it out yet were related to names, licensed music tracks and the like. Is the version coming out on Virtual Console going to be what is found on the cart, or has anything been changed at all?

The game is going to be representative of Earthbound. In terms of anything else, we don’t have much more to announce right now. But since it’s coming through Virtual Console, you can expect to get a Miiverse community going and be able to play it off TV on the GamePad, which is pretty cool.

Speaking of Virtual Console, Wii U has been announced as getting GBA games, and 3DS hasn’t been announced specifically as getting them despite having some brought to it via the Ambassador program. Are there any plans to bring GBA games onto 3DS?

The most important point is that it’s [The Legend of Zelda 3D] an entirely new game. It’s not a remake, it’s not a reimagination, it’s not a remaster, it’s brand new.

Today we announced two Zelda games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, that were Game Boy Color games. Those'll be coming to the eShop for 3DS, but as for GBA we have nothing to announce right now.

Miiverse is expected to roll out to mobile and browser soon. Is it in the cards still to bring it to 3DS?

We don’t have much to announce on that front for now. That’s certainly the hope: off-device Miiverse. The great thing about Miiverse is you’ve got a great community of like-minded people talking about the passion of everyone in that community, and it’s a very civil and friendly place. We want to create the opportunity for people to continue that experience off-device and we’ll have more to share in the future.

With the recent cross-compatibility of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on Wii U and 3DS, is that connectivity something that we’ll be seeing more of? Granted, that was a Capcom game, but Nintendo has pushed connectivity in the past.

One game we’ve announced where we’ve talked about cross-platform connectivity is Smash Bros. Other than that, there’s nothing else that we’ve talked about so far.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, an all-time classic and fan favourite, is getting a sequel...ish? How would you characterize Zelda 3DS’s relationship with the SNES game?

The most important point is that it’s an entirely new game. It’s not a remake, it’s not a reimagination, it’s not a remaster, it’s brand new. It takes place in the world of A Link to the Past and the story happens after A Link to the Past, so that’s the way to look at it. There’s so much unique about that game, you know, if you’ve played the original game I think there’s great respect for that (16-bit) look and feel, but then takes it to, if I can be literal, another level as it really looks at the game from a vertical standpoint. You’ve got the 3D visuals and the verticality of the game; it really enhances that whole dynamic. Most interesting about the game right now is the new mechanic of Link being able to form into a chalk drawing and move along the wall to be able to get through to different areas. That’s a fresh approach to puzzle-solving when you’re dealing with a franchise that is so esteemed and so long-running. We hope that fans are going to like it.

What does Nintendo consider to be the key characteristics of A Link to the Past, and how do those characteristics inform Zelda 3DS?

There’s going to be a great amount of respect and understanding of the past game. There’s a nod to the graphics but it’s really taking it a step further and enhancing it. It’s the way that we look at many of our established franchises: how do we take that franchise, create a new, fresh experience that is going to bring a new experience to the consumer? People love Zelda, for example, they always want to see a Zelda come out, but they also want to see it slightly differently. That’s what we’re doing with A Link to the Past: having respect for the franchise and the original game but doing it in a way that we think fans are going to love.

There are different Zeldas: 3D and 2D. Even within them are the sub-types, like motion/stylus-controlled versus buttons, realistic and “Celda.” How do you fold fans of each into the same enthusiasm for a new game?

If I may borrow your words, I don’t think we want to fold everyone into a similar path. I think each game is unique on its own and each one has an opportunity to create a distinct experience. You look at Wind Waker, we’re remastering the game in HD, that’s going to be a great experience, and we’ve announced Zelda HD for Wii U, which is going to be an entirely new take on Zelda (in comparison). That’s what people appreciate: being able to have those different experiences.

About a third of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s sales came from digital, which is an odd spike in comparison to the 10-20% of other titles. There’s been anecdotal evidence that the game has sold out in a lot of retail channels. Do you think that may be a reason why Fire Emblem’s numbers are higher than others, or were high eShop sales something you anticipated happening for the game?

There’s a couple ways to address that. First is that Fire Emblem is a game that is naturally suited to be purchased digitally and always accessible — you don’t have to worry about the cartridge getting lost, swapping it in, and so forth. And when you’re logging in upwards of 50-70 hours, accessibility becomes a prime concern. In and of itself, Fire Emblem is just a game well-suited to being purchased via digital. I think there’s a lot of that in the sales, and yes, I think there’s probably some where maybe people couldn’t find it right away at retail and then went to digital. When you look at the fact that all this DLC is coming as well, that also lends itself to having it in a digital format because people are going to want to be online to get those map packs. I think all of that goes into the digital sales.

What do you believe are some of the challenges the 3DS faces in 2013?

We feel like we’ve got good momentum right now. I think the opportunity is that we’ve got great software coming and we want people to get their hands on it. Look at Animal Crossing: here’s a game you can play for dozens and dozens of hours as a really positive and enjoyable experience, and there’s so much new in this game we’d love for people to pick that up.

Our challenge and our opportunity is to convey and communicate the Nintendo experience to more people. We’re having some traction there and hopefully with the content and line-up that’s coming this year that even more people are going to see the opportunity.

Thanks to Marc for his time.

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