When he first appeared on stage at Nintendo's E3 2004 press conference, Reggie Fils-Aimé was a rarity as a person of color heading up a major video games business.
Fast forward to 2022 and things have not exactly changed much.
Following the launch of his memoir Disrupting The Game, we spoke to Reggie (he doesn't like to be called "Mr Fils-Aimé") on The GamesIndustry.biz Podcast and asked his thoughts on the ongoing lack of representation in the sector, especially at the executive level.
"It's incredibly disappointing for the industry, and it highlights a broader issue," he tells us. "I do believe the industry's commitment to diversity -- and diversity in its broadest scope, of individuals taking their whole self to work, leveraging the experiences that make each of us unique.
"I see that the games industry has been woefully behind embracing that level of diversity. You don't see it in the executive ranks, you don't see it in the leadership ranks of key developers. It's incredibly difficult to find it in various games. For me as a Black man with my particular skin tone, hair, curls and everything else, it's difficult to make a character look like me, and it shouldn't be."
In conversations around diversity, those who come from backgrounds underrepresented in games often express frustration at being alone in meeting rooms with no one else of their race or gender (or both) on the team. Reggie admits even he had these moments, conscious that he was the first Black American to lead Nintendo of America, the first to be on the Mario maker's executive committee, and the only Black person in senior leadership of industry councils he attended.
But the biggest moment was actually on the day of his E3 debut.
"No one knew who I was, and I went to the side area of Nintendo's stage as the crowd is filling in. Someone mistook me for security, because I happened to be a tall Black man in a suit with a black T-shirt underneath. That's disappointing, and it certainly stuck with me and continues to stick with me.
"But I was at a point where I recognised that I would be the lone Black face in a room, and not only became comfortable in that situation but I would use it as a teachable moment, to reinforce across the spectrum of events and activities that I participated in that we needed more diversity and a broader range of individuals who brought unique experiences to bear, whether it was at Nintendo or an industry event, whatever the case may be."
He adds: "You need to see [diversity] in the levels below president or chief executive in order to see the pipeline of people who could step into that top leadership role at some point in time. So I do fear it's going to take us quite some time because I don't see that level of diversity one, two or three levels down. It isn't there yet, and that's a disappointing statement to make."
The discourse around the industry's lack of diversity is in some ways connected to the growing number of companies that face criticism over workplace issues. This can encompass all manner of discrimination, harassment, and abuse, and there have even been reports of disparity in terms of pay and treatment at Nintendo of America, something Reggie claims was not the case when he retired in 2019.
"You need [diversity] below president or chief executive in order to see the pipeline of people who could step into that top leadership role"
The former Nintendo exec believes the company cultures that enable such problems to arise are the root cause, and the responsibility falls squarely at the feet of leadership.
"Leaders need to be very thoughtful about the culture they are creating and perpetuating in order for employees to do their very best work. I can say with pride and confidence that as I led Nintendo of America, we shaped the culture in a very positive way. There are unfortunately too many examples of companies that have not created an effective culture. And I don't believe this is unique to the games industry, but I do believe we have too many examples of this type of perpetuation of bad cultures.
"When you get into the specifics of any company, I think what's critically important is understanding exactly what's going on, understanding whether the issue is systemic or whether it is a limited number of issues. And, to be clear, because we're all people and a leader can't be in every room, [that]is why culture is so important. Unfortunately there are always individual employee issues that need to be understood and positively worked through. But the critical question is whether there are systemic issues happening in a particular organisation. It's an issue that leaders need to spend a significant amount of time being thoughtful about."
Later in the podcast, we discussed various visions for the future of the games business, with a particular focus on technology. The subject first came up when discussing how video games can become even more mainstream, similar to the shifts Reggie saw at Nintendo with the release of the DS and the Wii.
Both consoles dramatically broadened the audience for gaming, but that audience has since migrated to the ubiquitous smartphone, with little to no need for a dedicated games device. With the shift unlikely to reverse, can video games even recreate that Wii moment? Reggie is optimistic, but says it will come down to high-quality content that creates something completely new.
"For example, what if the narrative magic of a game like The Last Of Us is leveraged with the best in current AI and machine learning, so that the end result was a narrative-driven but completely open-world type of experience where you're blending genres and creating something very, very different? My hope is that's the type of content, as an example, that's pursued.
"Another harebrained idea is how to create something that is, as a game, persistent. As a player you would have a wide range of approaches or adventures you can do in the game, but because it's persistent I'm able to stumble across what you've done in your exploration of the area and that leads me to have a different experience than you had when you were first in that part of the game.
"My hope is that it's some of these types of initiatives that will fuel the ongoing creativity that this industry has had, and enables us to continue having new and unique experiences that you can't have on a smart device."
"The core experience is just not up to snuff compared to what great games offer... I'm optimistic, but it's incredibly hard to do"
His comments on persistence bring to mind the push for cloud computing led by companies such as Improbable. Midwinter Entertainment's Scavengers promised a multiplayer shooter survival game where you would be able to detect whether other plays had been in the area by their footprints in the snow, while Bossa Studio's Worlds Adrift attempted to spark the imagination by teasing a world where if you find a shipwreck, it's not developer-placed set dressing but the result of a past battle between players.
But we've seen many a stumble in this area. Improbable itself has now divested itself from its dedicated game development studios to chase the metaverse, and it's not the only one that has explored cloud computing and failed to deliver. Why is it taking so long to realise the potential that so many people believe in?
"So from my perspective, the issues are these: first, you need a really good technical platform to build this one," says Reggie. "Many of these companies have tried or are building their own tech platform to bring these to life and that's incredibly difficult to do. I suspect part of the reason they do that is they don't want to be beholden to someone else's platform or tech when they're trying to build out their vision, but many of these companies go down this path and it's incredibly difficult and financially draining to do. That's the first hurdle.
"The second hurdle is that the gameplay itself needs to be compelling. There needs to be more to the idea than I've stumbled upon someone else's footprints or their ship on an alien planet. From the content I've seen, that's where it falls short -- the core experience is just not up to snuff compared to what great games offer from an experience or storytelling standpoint... I'm optimistic, but it's incredibly hard to do."
One technology Reggie believes will have a hand in advancing the industry is blockchain. He emphasises that this technology is "just an enabler" and that "in the end, it has to be a great game" that uses it.
We've made our feelings about blockchain pretty clear by this point, as have large swathes of consumers with companies like Team 17 and GSC Game World quickly backtracking on their NFT plans due to the backlash received upon announcement. Reggie likens this to the "similar backlash" seen when microtransactions and related gameplay loops first emerged in the early days of free-to-play.
"I remember the GDC where Satoru Iwata made comments about free-to-play games and how he saw they were a significant danger for the industry," he says. "And yet here we are today where there are great quality free-to-play games. There are in-game monetisation loops that fans are... maybe no one's ever happy to spend money on content, but they don't mind spending money for outfits and things of that nature and they get enjoyment from that.
"Industries going through change see divisive elements. [And] because the underlying technology isn't completely proven, there are scams and bad actors taking advantage"
"There are times as industries are going through change that there are divisive elements. [And] because the underlying technology isn't completely proven or sorted, there are scams and bad actors taking advantage of the situation. I'm old enough to remember the earliest days of the internet and the scams and issues.
"So I understand the divisiveness, I really do, and certainly the environmental elements -- this is something that has to be solved. And not all blockchain is so environmentally disruptive... Certainly, there's a lot to be proven out and the massive loss in value of different platforms in the blockchain environment that we've seen over the past few weeks tells you this technology is still immature. But in my mind that's not a reason to just completely push it aside and say it can never be anything of substance or value."
When it comes to the games industry, a large part of the issue is there has yet to be a title that proves it can do something that wouldn't be possible without blockchain. Even Axie Infinity, the poster child for the sector, is essentially an iteration on Pokémon -- but Pokémon itself has been doing similar things for more than 25 years. Monsters traded between Red and Blue all had their own unique stats and ID number, and remembered the name of their original trainer no matter how many times they were traded. This was 1996, and not a blockchain in sight.
"You're absolutely right," Reggie says, "and I've said myself that there needs to be a use case where you've got a really fun, creative experience that leverages the technology for people to come around. The 'what if?' that I give you is what if there was an experience that blended the best of Pokémon with the best of five other genres or game experiences, and all of them had this ability for you to play and create your own character, and then exchange them with someone else and get something of value back. Now it goes beyond a singular game or experience, it touches on a variety of interesting experiences and that gets interesting and compelling."
He goes on to spin the usual tale of games where you can train up a character and sell or exchange them with other players, often for monetary value, as well as the oft-touted promise of interoperability -- something that some developers have questioned given the complexity of taking even the most basic asset from one engine and game code to another.
There are so many barriers to overcome before such levels of interoperability would become even a vague possibility. The dream of blockchain gaming that people are selling -- and it is a dream at this point, and people are very much selling it -- is a long-term vision with short-term promise.
"I don't disagree," Reggie says. "You can make the same analogy with VR. How long has it been that people have been selling a vision where VR immersive experiences are going to take over the games industry and they'll be the most compelling experience you can ever have? It's been incredibly difficult to deliver on that vision.
"I do not take for granted what it will require in order for this type of vision to come about, but I think there's value in thinking about these issues and how to potentially overcome them, because if in the end content can be delivered to the player that is unique, differentiated, compelling and fun to play, I think there is value to be created with those types of experiences."
Finally, we asked him about the prospects for his former employer -- especially in the light of Nintendo's recent comments that the transition from Switch to its next platform is a "major focus" at the moment.
This is something the company has struggled with before. Wii and DS both brought down barriers and achieved success the company had never managed before, but then Wii U and 3DS failed to build on that momentum. Can Switch's successor avoid the same fate?
Reggie observes that in the history of the industry, few companies have ever managed such a transition. The two exceptions he gives is Sony building on the success of the original PlayStation with the PS2, and Nintendo elevating its handheld business with DS after the accomplishments of Game Boy and Game Boy Advance (which he grouped together).
"So let's just acknowledge that moving from one successful platform to the next is incredibly difficult and challenging to do," he says.
"Specific to Nintendo and Switch, the company has also said that in their view the Switch is still halfway through its lifecycle. If that's true, the company needs to be thinking about what it's going to do over the next four or five years to continue the core business momentum for the Switch. Then it's about following the heels of that and what the future holds. It's quite a heavy lift to be done.
"I believe that, first and foremost, you need to be thinking about the content pipeline and what's going to keep players engaged. I do think you have to look at history and what have been some of the historical tactics that have worked to maintain a lifecycle of a particular generation -- and that includes everything from mid-cycle upgrades to thinking about pricing and value. There's a number of different tactics you can play, but fundamentally the content pipeline needs to be there.
"I continue to be very active in this industry, I'm active as an investor and advisor, and I think that being aware of demographic changes and geographic opportunities, about how technology is continuing to evolve, these are all things a company like Nintendo needs to be thinking about in order to launch the system after Switch."
You can listen to the full interview below, or via the podcast platform of your choice.