Over the past few decades, we've come to learn two important things about Nintendo. One is that they make brilliant video games. The other is that they make absolutely baffling decisions.
Whether it's the lack of a unified account system or their persistent Virtual Console stubbornness, Nintendo's choices are frequently questioned by even its most loyal fans. People always wonder: why does the company behind so many smart games seem to make so many dumb decisions? Why does it seem like Nintendo is always in its own world, where they're steps behind their biggest hardware competitors in terms of online infrastructure and other features they should've got right by now?
Dan Adelman, the former Nintendo indie champion who left last year to do consulting for independent game developers, has some insight into why Nintendo is so... Nintendo. And it's really interesting. In a newly-published (and fascinating) interview with Nintendo fan and reporter Emily Rogers, Adelman gives us at least one reason the company does what it does.
Here's a big explanation (emphasis mine):
Nintendo is not only a Japanese company, it is a Kyoto-based company. For people who aren't familiar, Kyoto-based are to Japanese companies as Japanese companies are to US companies. They're very traditional, and very focused on hierarchy and group decision making. Unfortunately, that creates a culture where everyone is an advisor and no one is a decision maker – but almost everyone has veto power.
Even Mr. Iwata is often loathe to make a decision that will alienate one of the executives in Japan, so to get anything done, it requires laying a lot of groundwork: talking to the different groups, securing their buy-in, and using that buy-in to get others on board. At the subsidiary level, this is even more pronounced, since people have to go through this process first at NOA or NOE (or sometimes both) and then all over again with headquarters. All of this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can be very inefficient and time consuming. The biggest risk is that at any step in that process, if someone flat out says no, the proposal is as good as dead. So in general, bolder ideas don't get through the process unless they originate at the top.
There are two other problems that come to mind. First, at the risk of sounding ageist, because of the hierarchical nature of Japanese companies, it winds up being that the most senior executives at the company cut their teeth during NES and Super NES days and do not really understand modern gaming, so adopting things like online gaming, account systems, friends lists, as well as understanding the rise of PC gaming has been very slow. Ideas often get shut down prematurely just because some people with the power to veto an idea simply don't understand it.
The last problem is that there is very little reason to try and push these ideas. Risk taking is generally not really rewarded. Long-term loyalty is ultimately what gets rewarded, so the easiest path is simply to stay the course. I'd love to see Nintendo make a more concerted effort to encourage people at all levels of the company to feel empowered to push through ambitious proposals, and then get rewarded for doing so.
Too bad, right? On one hand, this conservative decision-making is undeniably one of the reasons Nintendo has survived for over 100 years now; on the other hand, come on. Go read the rest of Adelman's interview, too—it's full of interesting nuggets for anyone who's curious about Nintendo's motives and decision-making process.