For those who aren’t aware, recently Reggie Fils-Aime, formerly the president of Nintendo of America, released a memoir: Disrupting The Game – From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo. Kind of amazing to think a man who has such high prestige would come down to earth to write his thoughts on his journey, from Proctor & Gamble to Pizza Hut to Panda Management to Guiness Imports to Derby Cycle to VH1 to Nintendo. No, of course he’s not going to reveal any sort of secret projects Nintendo had during his time there, but he does go behind the scenes with reasoning with people, mostly Satoru Iwata and sometimes Shiguru Miyamoto, about the courageous decisions he made. Like why Wii Sports should be bundled with the Wii in the Americas, or why the 3DS should launch with a $199 price tag rather than the $249 it came with in the end.
Not everything worked out in his favor, but, as the title of the book brings out, he “disrupted” the gaming industry with his ideas. Sales of Nintendo’s hardware, particularly the Nintendo DS and the Wii, wouldn’t have the numbers we see today without his help and ideas. Brain Age wouldn’t have sudoku in the West if it weren’t for his convincing. Nintendo would have likely crumbled in 2004 with Sony’s dominance of the gaming market with the PS2 and PSP without Reggie’s help.
Naturally, the question arises, “What does this have to do with Linux gaming?” Well, it may not have to do with Linux directly, but certainly this memoir ties into the gaming part of that term. Nintendo grandfathered the gaming industry. That’s where everyone else would come in after them: Sega, Sony, Microsoft, Valve. No doubt in my mind Valve was looking over Nintendo’s shoulder when it came to the design of the Steam Deck. I think even Gabe Newell could learn a few things from Reggie’s book.
There was just so much that I liked in this 16-chapter, 200+ page book; I simply couldn’t write it all here since the review would be way too long. So I jotted down a couple of notes that I thought were most interesting.
- Reggie and Iwata were close friends. They rarely disagreed
- came from the Bronx in a five-story tenement building with mice and cockroaches
- Reggie spurred many radical ideas even before his time at Nintendo, for example pushing the Bigfoot pizza from Pizza Hut to national stores
- appointed as head of marketing and sales at Nintendo in 2004, lead the E3 presentation of that year and became famous
- pushed the DS to be sold in the Americas ahead of Japan, a first for Nintendo. Sold over a million units in its first two months
- including Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt as a demo for the first few million units lead to even more sales
- Nintendogs’ audience went out to girls and those over 50, and became the second best-selling game for the DS
- added soduku to the western version of Brain Age to increase sales
- included Wii Sports with the US version of the Wii, which boosted sales significantly. Wii Play would be included with separate Wii Remote sales, to which said game would become fifth best-selling
- adding Netflix to Wii in 2010 would make the console sell the fastest in its history
- appointed president and COO of Nintendo of America following the success of the Wii in 2006
- dramatically improved work atmosphere after being promoted as president
- failed to launch 3DS at $199; viewed as biggest mistake he made
- retired in April 2009 along with Flip Morse. Doug Bowser would succeed him
- shared his life lessons at schools and other places
The Passing of Satoru Iwata⌗
The memoir kicks off with Reggie’s third flight to Japan in less than six months. The purpose of the trip was, in part, to be told face-to-face from his boss, friend, and mentor, Satoru Iwata, that his cancer was back. But Iwata always prioritized the business ahead of his health concerns, so he tasked Reggie with testing the prototype of the Nintendo Switch. Reggie goes into detail about the pain regarding the loss of him, while also mentioning that he persisted in seeing Iwata back when he was in the hospital in 2014, despite no one else visiting him.
It’s here in the first chapter that there’s a subtle hint of Nintendo’s security details. Reggie had to reach the seventh floor of Nintendo’s headquarters via a specific elevator, and at the time it required key-card access. To log into a computer, even as the president of NOA, he was given a unique login and password combo every time he accessed it.
Image credit: nitnendolife.com
Reggie’s Early Life⌗
It’s in chapter 2 onwards that the events in Reggie’s life go into chronological order. Despite his rise to fame with Nintendo’s E3 presentation in 2004, he came from humble origins. He came from Haitian immigrants and lived in a Bronx tenement until he was eight. He was part of the lower middle-class, with an older brother that’s two years older than him. The family only had a single bedroom in a fifth-floor apartment. The building they were in had roaches and mice.
The neighborhood the family lived in was dangerous. Teenagers would steal money from Reggie and his brother when they were four and six respectively, when they would go get the newspaper. Their mother quickly came to their rescue. The last straw for living in the Bronx tenement was when a man had been stabbed and blood had been dripping down the stairs.
The family moved to Brentwood, Long Island. Reggie said he “flourished” there and mentioned it was a lot safer than the Bronx. He applied to three schools: Syracuse University, Hobart College, and Cornell University. He was accepted by all, but chose Cornell in the end. Apparently Reggie suffers from “poor eyesight.”
Reggie’s Jobs Prior to Nintendo⌗
Reggie worked at Proctor & Gamble straight out of college. Eventually he would become brand manager and would work with the likes of Sun Drop and Crisco’s advertising business. He would later join Pizza Hut as the marketing director in 1991.
He battled through thick and thin for the Personal Pan Pizza program to help grow sales across the West Coast. Reggie helped the “Bigfoot” pizza product become national (rather than just being a West Coastern thing) as a way to compete with Little Caesars. This was in 1993 when the US was dealing with a recession, and Pizza Hut needed a way to combat this threat by offering more food for less money. The product “drove huge revenue and profit growth for the company,” but he would later recall this due to consumers noticing that the quality of the crust and the cheese were inferior to the Hut’s original pizzas.
It was during his time at Pizza Hut that he bought a SNES and ended up owning 70+ games. Super Mario World and Zelda: A Link to the Past became his personal favorites, and he referred to playing Zelda as a second job outside of Pizza Hut.
Reggie went from Pizza Hut to Panda Management Company in 1995. He describes this role as being his first “as a department head and my first time to sit on an executive leadership team for an entire business.” Once again, Reggie with his leadership role would help increase the traffic to Panda Express by creating a selection of dishes in tandem with Panda’s head chef that would cost less to make than orange chicken/chicken with asparagus and would help drive profit to the Chinese restaurant. He would leave when he discovered the founders of PMC would not take their business to new heights, which was what Reggie initially signed up for.
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Reggie moved on to Guinness Import Company. It was here he realized “you don’t always need brand-new ideas to drive strong growth. Executing the hell out of existing ideas can also be fantastic.” He also noted that you can’t succeed without a great boss. He challenged Guinness’ “Win Your Own Pub” promo “to drive retail activity in conjunction with Guinness can draught.” The result “was a huge success.” Further success would be driven by promoting an Irish music and lifestyle festival called the Fleadh to Chicago and San Jose, in addition to New York City. He left following a disfavorable review from his boss, and went on to join Derby Cycle Corporation as CMO.
At Derby, Reggie helped wake “a very sleepy industry” and created world-class TV ads for a few different bike brands, trained the company’s sales team “to work with the independent bike shop owners to better merchandise their stores,” and made it possible to order hundreds of different bike options via online sales. Though it worked for a short while, he left the company due to private equity not wanting to invest a significant amount of money with his new business strategy.
Reggie’s last three jobs did not last long, and what was worse, he was going through a divorce. But PepsiCo offered Reggie a job. He declined in favor of working for VH1 as senior vice president of marketing. This was the first job where he was no longer the key driver of the product; he had to be “more collaborative and suggestive.”
Surviving 9/11, Second Marriage⌗
Traffic to VH1’s website was low, so Reggie resolved to fix that by collaborating with devs from Vicarious Visions “in creating content that would live on the VH1 website.” Unfortunately, the idea had to get canned with the interruption that was September 11, 2001. Reggie and his team were in the middle of a meeting at 9:00 AM at VH1’s Times Square office in NYC when the attack happened and the TV was showing the South Tower getting hit. Reggie immediately ordered everyone to go home.
Reggie got a call from security and was told the building he was in may be the next target. Thankfully he got everyone, including himself, out of the building. After the terrorist attack, he helped coordinate The Concert for NYC. It generated over $35 million in relief for “those directly affected” by the attack. During the coordination efforts, Reggie would marry Stacey Sanner, who also worked at VH1 as the director of public relations.
Nintendo: Head of Sales and Marketing⌗
Reggie left VH1 in the spring of 2003 due to his MTV mentor, John Sykes, being promoted to a different company, and not being able to control the direction of the channel. It would be late summer of 2003 that Reggie would get the call from Nintendo to be their next head of sales and marketing. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t detail how Nintendo got his information.
Nintendo was in a difficult situation at the time because the PS2 was far exceeding sales of the GameCube. The Big N was in further predicament since their stock price had dropped more than 10% when the PSP was announced. Despite friends discouraging Reggie from taking the job, he saw the value of Nintendo and their games and decided to take it in the end.
Reggie requested a video conference with Satoru Iwata. People at Nintendo Company Ltd and Nintendo of America viewed this request as unconventional. However, Reggie viewed this as important so he could get a better understanding of Nintendo’s structure. Reggie was sold working for the company after the call.
Despite his posture at times, he wanted to let his team know he was a down-to-earth guy. He asked Nintendo Power, ‘Why didn’t you publish the photo of my three-year-old son beating Super Street Fighter?’ Of course, this was meant as a joke, even though the people at NP took it the wrong way at first.
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There were “short term wins” for the company after he launched a program where retailers could promote their own unique colors of gaming consoles/handhelds or bundle of games included with them.
Reggie describes the prototype Nintendo DS that he saw in January of 2004 as “laid out on a large, flat motherboard with exposed chips and soldering. At the center were the two screens of the system.” It was “fully functional.” Reggie described the touchscreen as “a major differentiation for us,” as this was before the time of the iPhone, and said this was going to be needed in consumer communication as one of the major selling points. Shigeru Miyamoto was present at the time, and agreed with him. This is where Reggie would meet Miyamoto for the first time.
E3 2004 and Reggie’s Rise to Fame⌗
Reggie observed past E3 presentations and noted that they could use a lot of improvement. Namely, Nintendo employees were stating a dry list of facts before presentation, showed off a game that’s more than 20 years old, and even held a list of notes on stage. Reggie was determined to dramatically improve 2004’s E3 by eradicating these issues.
A man by the name of Don helped pitch Reggie’s opening words for E3: “My name is Reggie. I’m about kicking ass and taking names. And I’m about making games!” Notice how this was different than the final product: “…And we’re about making games.” After all, Reggie isn’t a game developer. It took a lot of convincing for Iwata to accept these opening words. Iwata’s interpreter even thought Reggie sounded angry. But Reggie said he wasn’t; he was trying to open a new chapter for Nintendo with these words. Iwata finally agreed.
Reggie noted himself as being calm while he was onstage giving the presentation. As E3 2004 went on, the audience’s applause was only getting louder, especially when Miyamoto was seen carrying a sword and shield after the presentation for Zelda: Twilight Princess. It was after this E3 presentation that Reggie would become famous and become known as “The Regginator.” “Reggie Pins” was another term coined for giving away pins and personal notes to thank those who worked so hard getting the E3 event together. One manager even cried when Reggie publicly recognized her and thanked her for adjusting her old way of doing things.
Design Improvements to the DS, Pushing the DS to be Sold in the Americas First, Nintendogs⌗
Reception of the prototype Nintendo DS was poor, so in two months’ time the design was changed and this had been met with much better reviews. Also, for the first time for Nintendo, they released their Nintendo DS unit to the Americas first before Japan. Typically this would be the other way around. Of course, Reggie spearheaded this effort, and again it took a lot of convincing. The result? Over a million DS’s would be sold in November and December of 2004. In January of the following year Nintendo would report that global shipments had “exceeded expectations.” This same model would later be applied to the Wii.
The selling of Nintendo DS would further be accelerated by including the demo of Metroid Prime Hunters to the first few million units sold in the Americas, due to the strong sales of the Metroid Prime franchise for the GameCube. Yet again this took a lot of convincing on Reggie’s part, because according to him “our developers hated to give content away for free.”
Reggie might be a gamer, but he’s also an avid reader. Books that he and Iwata would read to “disrupt” Nintendo’s business strategy included The Innovator’s Dilemma and Blue Ocean Strategy. These helped them to recognize that game development did not need to make better quality graphics as the push; rather, it was to incorporate more unique ideas that their competitors could not iterate on. It would also help them to find out a way to reach audiences that typically wouldn’t touch a video game, such as girls or players over 50 years old. Using this approach, Nintendo created Nintendogs. It would become the second best-selling game for the DS and would appeal to people of all sorts, including girls and older ladies and gentlemen.
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Brain Age, the Wii, and Being Promoted as President⌗
Typically sales of a game decline as the months go by, albeit on holidays. This wasn’t the case for Brain Age: not only did it continue to excel in sales well after its release in Japan, but it was reaching to those over fifty. In fact, it would be reported that children would be annoyed at their parents borrowing their DS too much!
Developing Brain Age in Japan only took five months. It would be another story, however, bringing it to the US, as the proprietary toolset for recognizing hand-written numbers would have to be improved. The voice recognition software would have to allocate not only English, but Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portugese. Even more languages would be needed for the European release.
It took a lot of convincing, effort, and education, but Reggie finally got Iwata to ask Kawashima, the brilliant mind behind the brain age theory, to add Sudoku in the US version of the game. This would add appeal to the US market, as the US has a younger target audience than Japan. Kawashima gladly supported the idea. The US version of Brain Age would then launch a year after the Japan release in April 2006. Just as they saw with the Japan release, sales were steady initially, but would grow as the months went by. Sales were often associated with buying a new DS as well.
The Wii remote was purposely shaped like a TV remote in order for “everyone in the household to be comfortable playing games.” Limiting the number of buttons on it would make it more accessible. The more hardcore gamers could make use of the Nunchuk for more sophisticated gameplay. Just as the Wii was designed for both casual and hardcore gamers alike, the name of the console would reflect “a concerted effort to highlight the inclusive nature of” Nintendo’s approach. A name that could easily be said in any language.
Image credit: nintendo.wikia.com
Wii Sports was designed to appeal to people of all age groups, while the simultaneous release of Zelda: Twilight Princess would let fans know that Nintendo still had their tradtional audience in mind. It would also let third-party developers/publishers know that they could bring their game to Nintendo’s hardware just as comfortably as they would with competing consoles.
After the press conference at E3 2006, Iwata approached Reggie with a last-minute change and wanted to have a shorter demo for Twilight Princess and a longer Wii Sports demo for the retailer presentation. This moment reflects one of the few occasions where the two friends disagreed, and Reggie lists his reasons why it wouldn’t work well in the end. Iwata finally acquiesces and keeps the planned presentation the way that it was. Reggie reports that the result “worked.”
Reggie was in fear when he found out Iwata would be visiting the US again just a week after his arrival in Los Angeles. He worried that he might be fired over the decision that he had made regarding the retailer presentation. He even prepared twenty-plus page documents showing how well media reception was going in his defense. He tried to show the documents to Iwata, only to be stopped and be shown a paper that read “Promotion.” It was at this point that Reggie would become the President and COO at Nintendo of America.
Role as President of NOA, Bold Decisions with Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Netflix⌗
Poor sales of the Game Boy Micro would inspire Reggie to teach Nintendo of America the lesson that “company leadership needed constant communication on our priorities.” Meetings would be held every week to review key priorities. Again, this would lead to better results, now that everyone was on the same page.
Tenure for Nintendo employees was great, but now that Reggie was president, he would institute semi-annual reviews on them by department heads. “Weak performers” would either have to improve or leave the company. An example of someone he had to demote was the VP of sales and marketing at the time, who was a “horrible people manager” and didn’t want to improve, despite additional training. He would leave shortly after his demotion, which would relieve those who were under his leadership.
It took months to convince not only Iwata but also Miyamoto to include Wii Sports with the Wii at launch in the US. Initially he was asked to include Wii Play instead, but Reggie saw this as lackluster compared to Wii Sports. He proposed Wii Play be included with new Wii remotes to further push sales of the controller. Nintendo staff finally agreed to both ideas. Miyamoto wasn’t happy about it. But the result? The Wii especially sold well in the US and Europe, and including Wii Play with a separate Wii remote purchase would make the game the fifth best-selling game in the history of the Wii.
In 2009, Netflix was fairly new to the digital market. It was virtually unheard of in Japan, not very well-known in Europe, but best known in the States. Netflix was added to the Wii in January of 2010. Reggie mentioned that after this couragous decision, the Wii would become “the console of choice for the main living room television.” During the holiday season of that year, the Wii would be selling at the highest pace in video game history.
3DS And Failure to Launch at $199⌗
By 2010, the DS had sold more than a hundred million units. Interestingly Reggie doesn’t go into detail about the planning and production of subsequent DS hardware, such as the DS Lite, DSi, or why there was a need to make the DSi XL.
Even though the Virtual Boy might have been a failure, the technology behind the device would later be carried on with the Nintendo 64 and would again be re-iterated on with the Nintendo 3DS in 2011.
Unfortunately, the software lineup for the 3DS, despite eager anticipation from fans, was weak. The 3D remake of Ocarina of Time would not be ready at launch. Only two first-party games would be available. Third-party publishers only had 15 or so games ready for launch. The 3DS also struggled with price. Reggie pushed for a $199 price tag, but Iwata disagreed and told him it simply wasn’t possible to manufacture the handheld at that price. It would end up launching with a $249 price tag. Reggie viewed this as his biggest failure while at Nintendo.
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Initial sales for the 3DS were strong, but quickly tumbled afterwards, due to the pricing and weak software lineup. Price would quickly get brought down to $169 four months after launch. Existing customers would be able to make use of the Ambassador Plan so that they could be treated fairly. They could download 10 NES and 10 GBA games from the eShop to their system. It cost Nintendo “millions of dollars in profit,” but sales would now become “massive.” Reggie doesn’t mention 3DS XL or New 3DS/XL at all.
Failure of Wii U and Massive Success of the Switch⌗
The Wii U was created following a slowdown of sales for the Wii. Nintendo wanted to end the battle for who got the living room TV by allowing the console to be used in tablet mode, thus was the design philosophy for the Wii U.
Similar to 3DS, initial sales were strong, but slowly died down over time due to none of the software being a “must-have.” This struggle further intensified with the announcement of eighth-gen consoles and big franchises like Mario and Zelda not being ready until later on. The white-colored model of Wii U would be scrapped entirely; retailers would only sell the black model that had four times the storage space and included Nintendo Land, despite the bundle being $50 more expensive. Eventually the black model would become the same price as the white version.
Less than a year after launch, Nintendo would make Wii U units with special branding or include different games. This was unheard of in the video game industry; there was no way Nintendo could keep the console alive for five years or more, thus desparate tactics were made. The launch of Splatoon would help sales of the Wii U a little bit, but it wouldn’t keep the system alive.
Lack of games would cause Nintendo to adopt engines like Unreal and Unity to pick up the pace with game development; their proprietary, in-house tools weren’t cutting it.
Despite poor sales of the Wii U, customers enjoyed the portability it offered. Nintendo would learn from this and incorporate the handheld nature into their next console, the NX (AKA Nintendo Switch). This would allow players to take their game anywhere with them, not just 20-30 feet away from their TV, while still having the option of docking it to a TV for a more immersive experience.
It was during the middle of key product planning for the Switch that Iwata would pass away, but a lot of his “touches” were left on it, including the UI, the Joy-Cons, and the eShop.
Compelling advertising, a competitive price, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild ready at launch would lead to a “perfectly executed” launch. Clearly, Nintendo learned from their mistakes with the Wii U, taking all the negative points about the previous console away while maximizing on its strengths. The Switch sold over 15 million units just in its first year. This exceeded the total sales the Wii U had during its six-year life cycle! And thanks to Nintendo adopting to third-party tools for development, indie devs could more easily get their games on the eShop as well.
Retirement and Sharing His Life Lessons⌗
Flip Morse and Reggie would retire from the company at the same time in April 2019. Reggie would be succeeded by Doug Bowser. Reggie would make sure Nintendo was in good shape before he left.
He would immediately kick off retirement with delivering the commencement address at Ringling College, the college his daughter went to and would be graduating from that year.
The purpose of the book? “To inspire and empower the next generation of leaders…with the hope that I could shape the leaders and companies of tomorrow.”
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Reggie would go on to share his leadership lessons and principles at Cornell’s Dyson School. Later he would join Harold Goldberg’s New York Videogame Critics Circle, a nonprofit organization that uses games to help young people develop writing, critical thinking, and communication skills in underserved communities. Ironically one of the schools he visited would just be a few miles away from the Bronx tenement he was in years ago.
A year after retirement, Reggie would join Spin Master and GameStop as board of directors.
Reggie wraps up his memoir with two lessons:
- “Learn from the people who matter most during the course of a career.” Even when they’re not around, you can still learn from them.
- “Once a disrupter, always a disrupter.” Reggie says that during his time at Nintendo, this is what got his blood flowing, and he hopes it does the same to others.
He notes the strong relationship that he had with Iwata, noting that they agreed far more times than they disagreed. It was at Keens Steakhouse in NYC that Reggie would meet up with Miyamoto and Minagawa (who served as translator). Miyamoto asked questions about the pipes that lined up the ceiling. When he wasn’t satisfied with Reggie’s answers and wanted to learn more, pretty much everyone who worked in the restaurant would take turns explaining the origins of the pipes. Reggie concludes with this: “If you next see a game from Nintendo that features a room with long, thin-stemmed smoking pipes on the ceiling, you will know where the idea came from.”
Though Reggie wanted to “disrupt” GameStop’s plundering business, he know he needed to move on when the Strategic Planning and Capital Allocation Committee rejected his idea of giving “customers with value beyond what they could get by simply downloading software from platform-holders.”
The So What⌗
Throughout the book are boxes called “So What.” These little tidbits of information are pieces of advice for those who may want to endeavor to pursue the same path that Reggie did. In other words, these boxes may not apply to most people, but it can certainly help those who are, or may be looking to, taking the lead in the business industry. So here’s an excerpt from the first one:
There is a fine balance between staying true to your beliefs versus just being stubborn. Do you truly believe in a particular course of action or is it your ego talking? When you are making a difficult or complex judgment, it’s especially difficult to know your own motivation.
Another piece of advice is to “be approachable and ‘human’ as a boss. Your team needs to know that you have their, and the company’s, best interests at heart. They need to feel your support…being best friends with your employees isn’t necessary; leading with empathy and heart, as well as with vision, are the requirements.”
There was one that I especially benefitted from. It was in chapter 6 after he left Guinness that he wrote this, when you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum:
When you have a boss who is toxic, get away as fast as you can…toxic bosses leave a trail of good people running away from them. Eventually, this catches up to them, and they move on to run a different team, division, or organization into the ground.
He goes on to mention that the good bosses “add value,” build on your ideas, assist in navigating through “office politics or difficult peer relationships,” and are not threatened by those under his management who are superior in some way. Under an average boss, you can do well so long as you “continue to learn and contribute.” In the various jobs that I’ve had in my life, I’ve certainly had my fair share of toxic and average bosses. I’ve also rarely had that “great” boss. Unfortunately they’re hard to find. But I think this will be good advice as I move forward with my personal career.
Image credit: kotaku.com
There’s plenty of other “So What’s” sprinkled in, enough where if I mentioned all the ones I personally like, this review would be way too long to read. It’s long enough as it is. Go give the book a read. You’ll like it.
After reading the book I’ve discovered Reggie strikes the perfect balance between not constantly footstomping on his mistakes or shortcomings, but he doesn’t come off as arrogant or prideful either. He does admit a few mistakes that he made during his time as president, but he doesn’t excessively beat himself up for it. In fact, that’s why the “So What” boxes are sprinkled throughout the book: so you can learn from his mistakes and get advice on how to build up your career as a business leader.
Nothing grinds my gears more than reading or hearing the F-bomb. I’m happy to report that’s not in here. No cussing or swearing. There’s the occasional “ass” or “hell” but other than that nothing worse.
I kind of wish Reggie never left Nintendo. Doug Bowser has only been president for a brief amount of time, but I don’t see him being as “disruptive” as Reggie is. He’s given the typical PR responses for what the plans are for the next-gen Switch or his comments regarding Activision Blizzard. Now that Reggie has published his memoir, though, I think Bowser could learn a few things from him.
In the end Nintendo is still going to be the walled garden much like Apple; they’re not going to put their games on a platform outside of their own hardware. But with Reggie’s memoir, this is about as much information behind the scenes about Nintendo as you can get. And I learned quite a few things from Reggie in his book, even though I never met him personally. So thanks, Reggie. I wish you success in your future endeavors, and I certainly hope the younger generation of leaders will take your advice to heart!