Nintendo president Satoru Iwata died on 11 July at the age of 55, of complications caused by cancer from which he had been thought to be recovering. Any time someone dies young it’s a blow, all the more when the individual lost is such a significant and well-liked figure – an avalanche of tributes, many quite moving, appeared in the days following his death. Satoru Iwata became president of Nintendo in 2002, having risen through the ranks on various projects since the 1980s. Iwata-san’s personality was unusual for a titan of industry, and the way in which his personality fit into Nintendo’s character was also unique.
In 2005, he made a remark that sums himself up quite well.
On my business card it says I am a ‘Corporate President.’ In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart I am a gamer.
Honestly, most people say something like this and the audience is going to roll its eyes. It’s a ploy of Bobby Kotick’s when he’s trying to justify his latest corporate malfeasance to an unfriendly crowd. Even read with good intentions, the remark seems like a sound bite fed to an executive through their earpiece at an E3 keynote. Which, in fact, was when he said it. But in Iwata-san’s case, all three elements were true, and all three were of equal gravity.
Satoru Iwata’s masterful navigation of the past thirteen years speak to what was printed on his business card. He was a consummate administrator. What made him unique was his ability and his willingness to be guided by his heart as well as his mind, even though both must at times have conflicted with the business acumen. It was this skill, and his distinct personality, that made it possible for Iwata-san to steadfastly retain Nintendo’s identity even as it seems increasingly incompatible with a world that grows more cynical each day.
To a great degree Satoru Iwata was Nintendo, which is odd when you think about it because it had been around for a hundred years before he was even an employee, let alone its chief executive.
He was not “just” a company president. The world is full of those and many are perfectly capable, but they usually don’t (and don’t need to) exemplify their organization; the job is to administer it, not be it. The president of American Express died suddenly in May; Ed Gilligan was also 55 and by all accounts a widely-liked, highly respected leader who did his job well. But he wasn’t Amex. They weren’t interchangeable.
On his card it said he was a company president. In his mind, Satoru Iwata was a game designer. He started out as one and worked on a number of well-known franchises, from Kirby to Zelda, moving into the producer role later in his career before his transition to executive. “Game designer” is probably the least recognized of his three identities, but it was very important to his nature, both when he was designing games and when he was running the company.
Iwata-san’s death is a greater blow to the Nintendo identity than even Shigeru Miyamoto’s would be – which may seem like a blasphemous remark. The legendary game designer Miyamoto created Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Zelda. How could a mere businessman compare to those achievements? Because for all his genius Shigeru Miyamoto is not Nintendo. He is Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Zelda. Shigeru Miyamoto imagines; Satoru Iwata built. And he was wise enough to build according to the genius of his designers, present and past — and, of course, his own design acumen.
Nintendo has suffered more loss than many other companies. Gunpei Yokoi, also in his mid-fifties, was struck by a car and killed in 1997. He had recently left Nintendo to launch his own venture, but Nintendo felt his death most keenly. The creator of Metroid, the creator of the Game Boy, the inventor of the D-Pad, was gone not just from the organization but from the earth. With him went all the shards of ingenuity and sparks of inspiration still captive in his dreams. Gunpei Yokoi’s approach to innovation, roughly translated as Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, has been gospel at Nintendo for forty years and an important secret of its success. Iwata-san stuck with that approach, and in so doing further cemented the indelible Nintendo-ness of the company and its products.
But in his heart Satoru Iwata was a gamer. That means a lot of things, not all of them necessarily having to do with playing games – and not all of them necessarily shared by all “gamers.” Fans and customers didn’t always agree with his decisions, but there was always a certain confidence that those decisions did, at least, come from a position of actually caring about games. That wasn’t all he cared about either.
He was nice. Not just “friendly,” but genuinely warm, pleasant to strangers, and usually at home conversing with whoever happened to approach him at a conference. A lot of executives at that level are pretty inaccessible, literally and figuratively. Iwata-san’s affability came from the deeper well of being a good person whose job matched his sensibilities, a person who liked himself and thus found it easy to like the company that was so like him.
He enjoyed the idea of Nintendo, and often enjoyed its products with an almost childlike glee. There’s no point in faking that so we have to assume it really was his heart on display. There was a deep connection between the man and the company. Satoru Iwata did not “create” Nintendo’s identity, but he was an uncanny mirror for it, much more so than you’d expect from a non-founder. When he was named company president all that really changed was the information on his business card and the authority with which he could execute his ideas. Running Nintendo effectively was, from his point of view, simply a matter of being himself.
Under his able hand, Nintendo enjoyed the greatest moments of triumph since its 1980s heyday. The DS redefined mobile gaming in 2004, drawing in masses of new fans. Its dominance of handheld continues to this day, hopping from DS to DS Lite and then 3DS.
Two years after the DS launch, Nintendo pulled back the curtain on Revolution, the codename for hardware that would soon be known as Wii.
To say the Wii performed beyond expectations is colossal lapse into understatement; the console was a sensation, hailed as a new chapter in games consumerism. At 102 million units worldwide, it is among the highest-selling consoles in history, exceeded only by Nintendo’s own DS/DS Lite handheld and the mighty PlayStation 2. During the first frenzied year of release, demand exceeded inventory by an average of 180 days.
History will remember the last two decades as successful ones for Nintendo, but each success was tinged with doubt that must have seemed very personal to Iwata. Nowhere is that more evident than the Wii.
Despite the rocketing sales and mainstream attention, analysts were already predicting long-term gloom for the console, even at the moment of its greatest ascendancy. The console’s success was also its failing, they warned, and dazzling unit sales didn’t tell the whole story. The warning signs were splattered across the Tescos and Best Buys of the world, and plain to see if you watched the numbers… or the shelves. Right beside all the empty ones meant to hold Wiis were rows of others that remained obstinately, saggingly full of Wii games.
Ideally, you want customers to buy some games at the same time they buy the console – this is called “attachment” – and Wii’s attachment rate was ominously low. Wii Sports came bundled with it and many customers never bought another game. Much of its library took poor advantage of the motion controls, if they took advantage at all. The allure of the device was playing it at a party or in a group, ideally while drunk and laughing. In this environment Wii Sports and the rather gimmicky control scheme could shine. Guests at these parties shuffled off to bed, passed out, woke up the next day, took some aspirin, dredged up a vague memory of fun, and went to buy their own Wii. But inebriated social gatherings offer lots of entertainment options, and most Wiis were gathering dust inside of six months.
That wouldn’t have happened if the Wii’s library had been stronger, which is kind of a backhanded thing to say since the library was, depending on your perspective, plenty strong. Though it was viewed as a mainstream console, Wii had a lot to offer core gamers. Exclusives like Metroid Prime, Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Super Mario Galaxy enjoyed universal acclaim, though cynics were quick to point out the obvious: that all three were longstanding Nintendo franchises built of Nintendo trademarks developed from Nintendo IP. And it was a long wait between each. One mark of an influential console is the library of third-party blockbusters, and that’s where things really went south for the Wii.
An avalanche of eyeball-scoopingly bad minigame collections tried to capitalize on the “drunken partygoer” success of Wii Sports, and all of them failed because Wii Sports was actually a pretty good game and most of them were not. Meanwhile, core developers struggled to make compelling stuff for the platform and its controls. Some efforts were really inventive, too, and deserved more attention than they got; No More Heroes, Epic Mickey, and Madworld were all underrated.
There was also this ongoing, unfulfilled promise of future masterpieces of innovation, that would change the world and overcome all the inherent flaws in a control system based around doughy couch potatoes flailing at their televisions. Games like Sadness and LMNO were little imaginary holy grails of groundbreakery, forever “in development” for the Wii. None were ever released.
So the analysts were right, ideologically, in their cautions about the Wii. But ideology matters little in the corporate world. From Satoru Iwata’s office the light of 102,000,000 units was much brighter than the darkness of poor attachment and shoddy me-tooism. Nintendo’s bottom line looked better than a first world GDP. It wasn’t a mistake to ignore the predictions. The mistake came later, when the company ignored the fact that they’d all come true.
In an industry that predictably pays attention to your most recent failure only, no one can dissociate Nintendo — or its president — from the disastrous Wii U, the failure of which has already cost the firm more than a billion dollars and seems likely to cost much more before it’s relegated to footnotery. Wii U’s kerplunk drove Nintendo to publicly acknowledge it was working on new hardware at a point when most consoles would just be hitting their lifecycle stride. So for Wii and DS, Satoru Iwata was rightly lionized; for Wii U he was implicated. Which wasn’t entirely fair, especially now when the man’s legacy is being considered.
Present economic bummerdom aside, Nintendo’s story for the last fifteen or twenty years has been one of overwhelming strength and solidification of its postion. Blow for blow, it’s done better during that period than pretty much anyone else except maybe Valve. Nintendo’s long-term prosperity is chiefly a consequence of good management: it sticks to its philosophy, attracts and retains extremely gifted people, makes timely decisions and engages in risk from a position of knowledge.
And again, in part through the efforts of Satoru Iwata, it stubbornly stayed true to itself. Nintendo presents as a family-friendly company that shies away from grit and grime; Sony and Microsoft both spent billions establishing flagship franchises of dudebro gun-chugging splatter (and did well with many of them). Nintendo’s big franchises have always had gentle hearts. Metroid is its darkest property by far, and when the decision was made to take it to a darker place still, Nintendo let outside studios handle the drear. Even at its most bleak, Metroid shares no philosophy with Gears of War.
Nintendo has always been this way, always this-far-no-farther when it comes to content and tone. As games become more literary and developers experiment with more themes, it’s a stricture that feels increasingly narrow and difficult to work within — if not altogether naïve. Nintendo’s success during the Iwata years came as a result of the company staying true to itself, something that might not have happened with a different personality at the helm. The experts have always predicted its identity will be its doom, but so far they’ve been proven wrong again and again.
Any company as big and well-run as Nintendo has good succession planning. Satoru Iwata’s passing is more an emotional suckerpunch than a corporate beheading, at least from an operational perspective. From a human perspective… well, Satoru Iwata’s heart was that of a gamer – a kind, accessible, moral, savvy gamer. Nintendo’s heart was Satoru Iwata.
Since it’s not in Nintendo’s nature to make foolish personnel decisions, the future leadership of the company will hopefully have plenty in common with its past. If so we’re likely not done seeing big things, even huge things, from Nintendo. But in losing Iwata-san Nintendo inarguably lost a piece of itself. A piece it can do without functionally, but will be sorely missed all the same. He was the kind of leader and (more importantly) the kind of person we don’t see often, in this or any industry.
Email the author of this post at Steerpike@Tap-Repeatedly.com.