Satoru Iwata, who lost his battle with cancer over the weekend at the age of 55, was the very best kind of CEO. Invested in Nintendo’s history from his time as a star programmer, Iwata rose up the ranks to take command at a young age and usher in one of the most dramatic transformations ever seen from a Japanese company. His vision upended and expanded the video game market, bringing years of astonishing profit to Nintendo with the DS and Wii. But more importantly, he made countless people happy.
This afternoon I went down to the company’s headquarters, situated in a nondescript Kyoto suburb peppered with run-down garages and overgrown playgrounds. A forlorn employee made her way through the gate, wiping a tear from her cheek, and as I saw the Nintendo flag flying at half-mast I was hit by a tidal wave of sorrow. For any other company, for any other president or CEO, I wouldn’t have felt this way. But Satoru Iwata was more than just a CEO to many. He was an architect and steward of memories; I’ll be forever thankful.
I only ever saw Iwata speak once in person, but it made a big impression. He had a rare gift, blessed with both a brain the size of a planet and a soft, articulate tenor that made his industry-shaping ideas seem like friendly advice from an uncle. Gaunt yet confident at Nintendo’s joint press conference with DeNA in March, Iwata explained the company’s situation and decision to enter the mobile market with remarkable eloquence, clarity, and poise. It was yet another example of how he often managed to rise above the short-term thinking of analysts and investors, sticking true to his beliefs and the principles of his company. And it breaks my heart to know that he’ll never see the plan through, nor the upcoming NX system he coyly mentioned that day, nor anything else.
It’s easy to forget how revolutionary Nintendo’s products in the mid-2000s were, since they became ubiquitous so quickly. But following the technically proficient yet unadventurous and underselling GameCube, Nintendo and Iwata embarked on a strategy that struck many as reckless at the time. The Wii had terrible graphics and a weird motion controller that needed an attachment just for one analog stick. Nintendo also ditched the popular Game Boy brand for its next handheld, a curious device called the DS with two screens, a microphone, and a stylus for touch input. What was the company thinking?
"For me, I actually found that it would have been more frightening to take the conventional path," Iwata said. "That path would eventually lead to a battle of sheer brute force with our competitors, and fewer and fewer consumers would be able to keep up." Of course, both consoles turned out to be wild successes, in large part down to unconventional, accessible software like Wii Sports, Nintendogs, and Brain Age. It can’t be overstated how much Nintendo changed the mainstream image of gaming with the Wii and DS, and it reaped the rewards of a broadened audience for years.
But to those who follow Nintendo for its games rather than its stock price, Iwata had a knack for connecting unlike any other suit. He ducked out of the regular press cycle by announcing news through quirky, entertaining Nintendo Direct web broadcasts. He offered fascinating insight into how Nintendo games are made by talking to developers in his Iwata Asks series of interviews, which now stands as a priceless archive of information. And he used social media in a humble, endearing fashion. "I became a little thin as a result of my surgery last June," he recently tweeted alongside a cartoonish picture of a new, slimmer avatar. "It looks like I’ll be able to maintain this figure since leaving the hospital, so I’ve updated my official Mii accordingly."
sometimes his strategy veered into hubris
From any other president or CEO, tweets like that would seem dubiously on brand. But Iwata was the brand. He truly believed in the method behind Nintendo’s occasional madness, supporting the company as an artisanal group of creators closer to a toy maker than tech giant. And sometimes his strategy veered into hubris. Launching the 3DS at $250 four years after the first iPhone was optimistic in the extreme, resulting in a swift and painful price cut (and voluntary salary docking on Iwata’s part). The Wii U has proven to be a rare misstep at the conceptual level, as Nintendo failed to justify its design with complementary software. And Iwata’s steadfast pronouncements that the company would turn a major profit in 2013 were either naive or outright misleading; the only shock when Nintendo revised its forecast to a heavy loss in the year’s final quarter was that it had taken so long.
But everything Iwata did was driven by an unshakeable belief in what Nintendo is and what it stands for. Nintendo is sometimes late to certain parties, but when it does do things that people have long clamored for, like mobile games or an online service, it does so on its own terms. Iwata passionately stood against the devaluation of games, for example, which is why you won’t see ports of existing Nintendo titles on phones. And his forward-thinking perspective extended to how he ran the company on an operational level. "If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease," he told an investor who was calling for heads to roll in 2013. "I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world." The exchange sums up Iwata’s leadership — empathetic on a human level, yet grounded in a firm perspective that it was the right thing to do for business.
In many ways Nintendo is a slow-moving, traditional company, but to characterize its leadership as stereotypical Japanese conservatism would be unfair. Creatively, there is no other company like Nintendo on Earth, and Iwata’s vision over the past decade-plus is a major reason that has been maintained. Never reactionary, always calm and focused — Iwata’s lasting legacy will be ensured if his successor shares the same devotion to company culture. Nintendo signalled that talismanic developer Shigeru Miyamoto will keep a role at the top of the company alongside hardware general manager Genyo Takeda, suggesting that dramatic change is unlikely.
But speculation over the company’s future feels academic today. The reason I happened to be in Nintendo’s hometown of Kyoto when I heard the news was BitSummit, a now-annual event that serves as the beating heart of Japan’s rising indie games scene. It was a positive, uplifting occasion with a ton of talented people in the same raucous room. How many of those developers’ passion and inspiration has roots in Nintendo’s relentless artistry?
"Trust your passion, believe in your dream," Iwata said in an inspiring speech at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. "For 25 years, game developers have made the impossible possible. So I ask you, why would we stop now?" Satoru Iwata’s time has been cut short far too soon, but his memory will remain as a shining example of the best the video games industry can be.