Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi passed away this morning, at the age of 85. His legacy is incredible. During his 53-year reign, he turned his great-grandfather's Japanese playing card company into the cornerstone of the video game industry.
In 1994, journalist and New York Times bestselling author David Sheff wrote the book on how Nintendo got that way. In Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World, he details how the first male Yamauchi in three generations ruled Nintendo with an iron fist, how the 21-year-old Yamauchi first fired the old guard and then drove the company towards business after failed business (including love hotels — it was said Yamauchi was his own best customer) to satisfy his ambitions.
Yamauchi comes across as a Japanese Steve Jobs of sorts, a ruthless man who terrorized his employees to come up with the next brilliant idea, and one who insisted on having the final say on how products were designed. At the same time, he seems to have been a fantastic judge of character. He hired employees for their creativity alone, some of whom would turn out to be Nintendo's greatest assets in the years to come.
Yokoi's early inventions: a grabber arm, a pitching machine, and a love tester
For instance, after hiring Gunpei Yokoi to be the company's janitor and maintanance man, Yamauchi charged him with building an incredibly popular series of toys for the company. Yokoi went on to create the Game & Watch, one of Nintendo's early video game hits, and produced some of Nintendo's most popular video games before eventually creating the company's unstoppable Game Boy handheld. When a young Shigeru Miyamoto came in for an interview, Yamauchi created the brand new position of staff artist specifically for him, based on only a portfolio of inventive toy drawings and a clothes hanger designed for children. Many of Nintendo's greatest hits, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Zelda, Nintendogs, Wii Fit, and Pikmin sprung from his imagination.
Also, like Steve Jobs, Yamauchi insisted on owning the hardware and software ecosystem. Under his watch, Nintendo obtained a monopoly on the production of game cartridges for Nintendo game systems and built an authentication chip so only official games would run. Nintendo called it the Seal of Quality. He pioneered the model of charging third-party developers licensing fees to produce games for Nintendo's consoles, then leveraged that power to restrict the number of games developers could release each year, arguing it could improve quality across the board. While it's not clear whether the move prevented a second great video game crash like the one that nearly destroyed Atari in the early 1980s, it's not hard to draw parallels to today's App Store.
There's much more in the full book. You can read the first chapters for free right here.