Paying tribute to Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's president, who passed away at the age of 55 this weekend.
Company executives, by the nature of the role, are often remote and rather cold figures. For 56 years Nintendo was led by Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was such an executive; he was an authoritarian figure with a reputation for imperialism (infamously, he only accepted his position at the head of Nintendo on the condition that other Yamauchi family members were fired, and was the sole arbiter when it came to judging Nintendo’s new products). His extraordinary business instincts made Nintendo one of the most successful companies in Japan.
Satoru Iwata was a different kind of CEO; he was warm, approachable and creative. It is impossible to imagine Yamauchi dressing up in hats for fans in a Nintendo Direct broadcast. But talking to fans – and to developers – always seemed to come naturally to Iwata, because he cared deeply about video games. He’d been making them since he was in secondary school. The below quote, from Iwata’s 2005 keynote at the Game Developers Conference, has circulated widely today and tells you all you need to know about his approach to running Nintendo. People who worked with Iwata say that he was not just a great leader, but a great philosopher and creative mind.
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” -Satoru Iwata, 2005
Iwata’s career with Nintendo began at HAL Laboratory, a company that he founded while he was still at University. By the time he became president of Nintendo in 2002 he had worked on many of the games that have defined Nintendo, from Kirby to Pokémon. He transformed Nintendo after the Yamauchi era. As the first president of the company who was not part of the Yamauchi dynasty, he pushed Nintendo in a direction where fun and inclusivity were paramount. In the Nintendo DS and the Wii, he and the company found enormous success.
Iwata’s perspicacious understanding of video games is best apparent in his Iwata Asks interviews, which have been running for almost ten years. In his thoughtful, good-natured and gently probing questioning of developers both new and legendary, Iwata showed himself to be a better games journalist than a great many of those working in the media. In the very first of these interviews, which concerned the Wii hardware and makes for even more interesting reading after the fact, Iwata outlined a vision of gaming that was for everyone. ‘With the final model of Wii in front of me, I cannot help but think, "This could not have been accomplished if we had tried to make a new game console in the conventional manner’,” he says. He did not run Nintendo in a conventional manner.
Nintendo has a reputation for being rather obtuse, but no other game company offers as much transparency when it comes to the philosophy and process of video game and hardware design as these Iwata Asks interviews do. Along with millions of other Nintendo fans and gamers, I have enjoyed these interviews immensely – not just because of the fascinating nuggets of game design gold that they would frequently unearth, but because of Iwata’s easygoing manner. He always kept the developers and engineers he was talking to firmly in the spotlight, even when it was clear that his own suggestions were a driving force in development. (laughs)
Iwata asked some fundamental questions about video games and our approach to them, many of which are as relevant today as they were when the Wii first came out. “As we spend more time and money chasing exactly the same players, who are we leaving behind? Are we creating games just for each other? Do you have friends and family members who do not play video games? Well, why don't they?”, he asked in that same GDC keynote speech in 2005.
When he took over as president of Nintendo, Iwata believed that games were getting smaller creatively even as they were taking off as a global entertainment business. “We are smaller in the amount of risk we're willing to accept. We are also smaller in how we define video games. The list of genres seems fixed: shooters, sports, platformers, puzzles, and so on. When is the last time we invented a new genre?”, he asked his audience. “We are even getting smaller in how we define progress. Making games look more photorealistic is not the only means of improving the game experience.” In the years since, Nintendo has redefined and remixed genres over and over again, from Animal Crossing to Wii Fit to Splatoon.
I believe that Iwata’s philosophy about the nature of video games marks him out as one of the great visionaries in this medium’s history. The Wii and the DS proved him right.
In the latter half of Iwata’s presidency of Nintendo, he also revolutionised the relationship between this traditionally mysterious and opaque company and the people who love the things that it makes. Nintendo is often misleadingly characterised as being rather slow on the uptake when it comes to new trends, and though it’s true that the company has viewed things like online gaming with enormous suspicion, it also embraced the social media generation by deciding to cut reporters and analysts out of the equation and talk directly to its fans.
Nintendo Direct as a concept is emblematic of Nintendo’s way of doing things: earnest goofy, unusual, frequently adorable. Iwata and his fellow executives dressed up in costumes, messed around with props, danced around as specially created puppets. He always came across as sincere, self-deprecating and incorrigibly enthusiastic. Nintendo Direct is a world away from your typical corporate presentation. But then, in many ways Nintendo is a world away from your typical company.
Miyamoto and Iwata frequently came across as a kind of dynamic duo in Nintendo Direct presentations. I have no doubt that their collaboration was significant in defining the direction that Nintendo has taken over the past ten years.
“Even artists must know the business side of game development. After all, if a game never comes to market, there is very little chance of it making any money.” - Satoru Iwata, 2005
Iwata clearly understood not only the art of video games, but also the philosophy and the business of them. Nintendo, under his leadership, successfully combined those three aspects of gaming, creating games that were extraordinary in their artistry and consoles that were unprecedentedly successful, underpinned by the belief that games should be for everyone. His presidency marked a memorable and transformative period not just for the company that he helmed, but for video games as a whole.