[Feature] Satoru Iwata’s legacy, Five years on

Written by Kieran Fifield

On my business card, I’m a corporate president

How five years have already passed since the tragic and ultimately passing of Satoru Iwata is beyond me. I remember waking up to the news as if it was yesterday. It was a day that not only reverberated through the Nintendo community, but also sent shock waves that were felt by gamers throughout the world, regardless where their platform allegiances were.

Perhaps his most famous quote references his presidential credentials, his developer mind and his gamer heart. Not only was he responsible for overseeing the success of the DS, Wii and 3DS era, he was also heavily involved in laying the foundations for the success that Nintendo is seeing now with the Nintendo Switch. As we’ve alluded to multiple times before, the Switch owes a huge amount to the Wii U, with that console essentially serving as a prototype. It was very much a case of Nintendo testing the waters in preparation of what was to come.

Aside from his work with hardware, Iwata’s DNA was ingrained in the way in which Nintendo delivered information regarding upcoming software. After all, Satoru Iwata was Mr. Nintendo Direct. When Nintendo started their Direct-branded digital presentations, there was discontent amongst the armchair analysts, however, due to the demeanour of Satoru Iwata: his pleasant and seemingly approachable manner paired with his jovial sense of humour, and of course his unwavering dedication to Nintendo, all fears were soon alleviated and the Direct format has become the norm within the industry.

Above everything else, Iwata-san was an extremely likeable fellow.

In my mind, I’m a game developer

Having started as a Part-Time Programmer for HAL Laboratories, eventually rising to the position of Coordinator of Software, Iwata-san helped the studio build a rapport with Nintendo and when others turned down the opportunity to develop NES Open Tournament Golf, Satoru stepped up to the plate. He immediately impressed Nintendo with his pro-active approach and his coding capabilities. With NES Open Tournament Golf, he cleverly built a data compression technique in order to fit all 18 holes on a single <1MB NES cart.

Iwata’s work ethic was remarkable too. He would often work evenings, weekends and public holidays. When he was promoted to President of HAL (at the Nintendo President’s behest) his leadership turned around the company and took it from the edge of bankruptcy to profit in his six-year tenure. Naturally, Nintendo took notice, and he was offered the position of Head of Corporate Planning, as well as a seat on the board.

In his first two years at the company, due in no small part to strategies that he implemented, Nintendo saw year-on-year profit increases of 20% and when Hiroshi Yamauchi stepped down in 2002, there was only one possible candidate to modernise the company and guide them into the young millennium: Satoru Iwata. This was a bold move from Nintendo. Remember, this was the first President since the company’s conception that was not a part of the Yamauchi family, either through birthright or marriage.

One of his first moves as president was to get to know the people. As Shigeru Miyamoto describes it – under the previous administration, it was stuffy. The ventilation has been improved now. Iwata encouraged employees to express themselves creatively, and if they disagreed with a decision, to prove why they thought they were right. As he states in Nintendo Magic: Winning the Video game Wars, creators only improve themselves with risk.

Please understand

As well as being a people person, he had an astute understanding of management, due in part to the management courses he took – on his own time no less – during his HAL days. He was an advocate of following the data and modernised Nintendo’s own archaic practices and implemented a more scientific approach. When he made a decision, he could always back it up with logic; with reasoning and statistics.

Iwata demonstrated bold, front-facing leadership as well. While being a little media-shy in his earlier days, Iwata was always a forward-thinking leader. He loosened up during his tenure and with his newfound love for the PR limelight, Iwata-Asks was born. If you’ve never heard of or read any of the Iwata-Ask series, then you must immediately remedy this. They offer a fascinating insight into game development, and for a company as traditionally private as Nintendo is, once more showcased Satoru Iwata’s longing for a somewhat more transparent company.

This transparency was only matched by his integrity. Twice during his time as President, he took a 50% pay-cut as a means of apology for the below standard performance and sales of products. In relation to others at the company, he was already earning a modest wage as it was, and his sacrifice only further demonstrated the selflessness and humbleness of the man.

In my heart, I’m a gamer

Perhaps Iwata’s greatest achievement came during the Wii era. While the GameCube remains one of Nintendo’s most creative and beloved machines, it was regarded as a failure. Selling only a hair more than twenty million units, Iwata helmed a Nintendo that had to bounce back from its worst-performing machine. For Nintendo to right the ship, something had to change.

While the GameCube focused on offering a traditional gaming experience, the Wii took a different approach. Iwata-san envisioned a different sort of machine. He wanted to create a console that would fit in every home, something that anybody could intuitively understand, bolstered by games that everyone could pick up and play. The result of this was Nintendo’s boldest gamble yet: the Blue Ocean strategy.

In essence, the Blue Ocean strategy targeted an untapped market outside of core gamers: everyone else. It was an enormous gamble, but a necessary one. As Sony and Microsoft continued to edge Nintendo out of the pool of Red Ocean consumers (those core gamers), Nintendo needed to forge their own path. To do so, under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo pivoted and reinvented the company’s appeal to capture the imagination of an entirely new demographic.

Implementing his Blue Ocean strategy began with the hardware itself, particularly the Wii Remote. Picture Iwata, Miyamoto and Takeda in a room brainstorming together. With creative juices flowing in tandem, they arrived at the concept of fun for everyone, gaming that wouldn’t be bound to the blueprint of traditional concepts and controls. The idea of to do away with a traditional controller was Iwata’s. He even insisted it was called a remote to really further this ideology. Iwata broke convention to appeal to that Blue Ocean crowd. He helped to realize a machine that didn’t require gaming vernacular to understand – from its inception, the Wii was inviting.

Iwata carried that Blue Ocean appeal into the Wii’s software and marketing initiatives as well. From the Wii line of casual titles ranging from Sports, to Fit, to Party, and the genius “Wii Would Like to Play” marketing campaigns, all of Nintendo’s bets were hedged on this tactic. Considering that the Wii went on to sell five-times that of the GameCube, Iwata was able to navigate the company in an uncharted, new direction that proved to be incredibly lucrative. While the big-picture ramifications of the Blue Ocean strategy are hotly contested to this day, it’s undeniable that Iwata’s innovative thinking at the time provided the company with one of the most lucrative and important periods of its history.

To the point. Direct!!

While the Wii was perhaps Iwata’s most important chapter, many Nintendo fans may argue for a different decision of his to be the best: the creation of the Nintendo Direct. Upon accepting the position of Nintendo of America’s CEO, he immediately did away with live E3 presentations and birthed the format. The rest, as they say, is history. With this move, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that Satoru Iwata salvaged Nintendo from the abyss of their previously vapid online presence.

With the launch of Nintendo Directs, Nintendo finally had a regular online presence and a way to update and keep fans engaged. It was refreshing to see, and over the years the show has evolved into a slick and concise glimpse into the inner-workings and upcoming releases from Nintendo. More than that, they’ve become communal lighting rods, garnering an overwhelming amount of hype and speculation with each installment.

On a personal level, my main takeaway from Nintendo Directs has been, games aside, just how fun they were. The streamlined approach has always allowed for a more focused presentation, but Nintendo always found the time to insert little moments that made you smile. As much as Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata was always heavily involved in these little segments. While they weren’t new to Directs (who can forget the cut-away to Satoru Iwata staring tentatively at a bunch of bananas, in a nine-second snippet during the 2012 E3 presentation) they really let the silly shine in these pre-recorded presentations.

From the Matrix-esque brawl with Reggie, to Iwata-san wearing a Luigi hat looking deadpan at the camera with Miyamoto frantically frolicking in the background with the Poltergust on his back, Satoru Iwata’s presence always elevated Nintendo Directs.

The Triforce

The genuine friendship Iwata shared with Reggie Fils-Aime and Shigeru Miyamoto was the highlight of every public appearance, whether at games conventions or award shows. Who can forget all three (plus a competition winner) on stage at E3 having a doubles match demonstrating Wii Sports, or the time Jim Henson took control of the narrative with Nintendo puppets at E3 2015. Who could forget the aforementioned Fighter reveal, with Iwata-san and Reggie personified on the big screen while they faux-brawled on stage. Pure, unadulterated joy.

Even to his final blessed days, he worked tirelessly on bringing the Nintendo Switch to fruition, serving as the console’s head developer. He might not be around to see it, but its exponential success is testament to his tireless endeavour, curiosity, creativity and until his final breath, dedication to Nintendo.

Satoru Iwata: 6/12/1959 – 11/07/2015

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