July 11,2016 marked the first death anniversary of Satoru Iwata. He was a video game programmer, a businessman and, perhaps best known as ,the fourth president of Nintendo (the first unrelated to Yamauchi family). He was tremendously successful in all of his positions.
In his early days Iwata joined HAL laboratory, then a team of 5, as the only programmer. At HAL laboratory he worked on a device that allowed old computers to display video game graphics. He went on to assist in development of games that won HAL a license to develop for Namco.
Within three years he was promoted as the coordinator of software production.
In his new role he successfully established a partnership between Nintendo and HAL which lead to the production of smash hit video games like Kirby, Earthbound, Balloon Fight and Open tournament golf. Games like Kirby and earthbound would go on to become all time fan favorites.
Even though he had no experience in management Iwata saved HAL laboratory from bankruptcy by paying off ¥1.5 billion debt in a period of six years bringing the company back to stability. During this time he spent a lot of effort in learning the essentials of management through books and taking advice from people in similar positions.
As the president of HAL Iwata’s love for programming remained strong . He personally reviewed the code for pokemon Red/Green and developed plans for it’s localization. His efforts were instrumental in popularizing pokemon in the west. His influence was also felt in development of games like Super Smash Bros. and Pokemon Stadium.
His crowning achievement however came as the president of Nintendo. In 2002 when Yamauchi retired from his position Iwata inherited a company which though still profitable was under pressure from it’s competitors. Gamecube was performing poorly as compared to PS2 and XBOX. Nintendos’s dominance in the handheld market was about to be challenged by the Sony’s PSP
Soon after taking his position Iwata conducted an analysis of the company, and the market which formed the basis of his strategy in the coming years.
He recognized the importance of third party developers. The loss of final fantasy franchise to Sony had hurt Nintendo in the past. Learning from their mistake he focused on building good relations with third party developers. Many developers pledged their support towards Gamecube. Capcom announced a Capcom 5 program a series of 5 video game titles to be published by them on Gamecube in order to boost it’s hardware sales.
As a result Gamecube became host to many exclusive non Nintendo hits like SoulCalibur, Resident Evil 4,Beyond good and evil,Tales of Symphonia,Killer 7 and Viewtiful joe.
This lead to an increase in Gamecube’s sale though it didn’t do much to make it popular. When all was said and done Gamecube was crushed by the PS2.
At this point the video games publishers insisted on making games more graphically appealing. This called for very powerful hardware support,development budgets that spanned millions of dollars and games that took years to build.
Iwata took a drastically different approach. Instead of focusing on making games that were graphically intensive and appealed only to a specific set of gamers he decided to put his effort into making games more fun and accessible to a wider audience. This allowed Nintendo to make cheaper hardware and cheaper games with quicker release cycles.
Rather than taking their competitors head on Nintendo played it smart. Through value innovation both in hardware and software Nintendo unlocked new markets and managed to sell games to people who were not “gamers”.
DS a handled console that supported dual touchscreen lead Nintendo’s resurrection. With games like Nintendogs , Brainage and Pokemon, DS became an instant hit selling in excess of 150 million units. It had a record 140 titles selling more than a million units with total software sales amounting to a staggering 943M.
On the other hand Wii, Nintendo’s home console and answer to PS3, exceeded 100 million in sales. Once more with Wii nintendo relied on innovation rather than raw hardware power. It came with a revolutionary motion sensing controller called the wiimote that allowed players to play a game with a movement of their hands rather than the press of a button.
“In our business, too often people with a fresh idea don’t have a chance. I believe if Tetris were presented today, here is what the producer would be told: Go back give me more levels give me better graphics give me cinematics and you’re probably going to need a movie license to sell that idea to the public”
Games like Brainage and Wii Fit were built to appeal to a very different set of people. Many of these people would have been completely clueless about pokemon,mega man or castlevania. But they loved playing sudoku and they loved doing yoga. And they bought Nintendo’s consoles to be able to do just that.
Iwata’s strategy did not go unnoticed by his competitors. It became clear that to make games more fun you don’t necessarily need to have a powerful hardware or a million dollar budget.
Sony conducted their own experiments on the PSP and released titles like loco rocco a game which controlled rolling ball like characters with just two buttons. Pressing either button would make the loco rocos roll around singing against colorful backgrounds and have the time of their life.
Or take patapon, a strategy game in which the player had to control an army of ferocious tribal warriors by making musical drum beats.
And not to forget patchwork heroes in which you took control of a renegade hell bent on cutting enemy battleships mid air. These games did not achieve a blockbuster success, like the Nintendo games, but they nevertheless enjoyed a devoted fan following and became some of the most endearing games on the PSP.
While both DS and Wii had plenty of innovative titles the traditional gamers were not forgotten. Nintendo kept their fans happy by consistently releasing games like Mario,Zelda and Pokemon year after year.
DS became the first handheld console to get an exclusive numbered Dragon Quest game. Dragon quest IX published by Level 5 went on to sell millions in Japan alone.
Iwata promoted re release of consoles with different colors and hardware changes that would immediately breathe new life into the sales. Nintendo DS was re released in three different models viz DS lite, DSi and DSi XL and in every possible color. There was ,a red DS, a blue DS, a purple DS and people just kept on buying it.
On one hand Nintendo conquered new territories unlocking a marketing potential where there was none. And on the other it strengthened it’s base by giving it’s most ardent fans what they desired. Between the years 2005–2012 Nintendo could do no wrong.
Gamer at heart
“I’ve never once been embarrassed that children have supported Nintendo. I’m proud of it. That’s because children judge products based on instinct. Everyone wants to appeal to people’s instincts, but it’s not easy.”
As a programmer who headed one of the most respected brands in entertainment industry Satoru Iwata is a rarity. Not only was he directly responsible for coding some of the most beloved video games in history, he was also a visionary who popularized video games in markets that were previously out of reach.
As a businessman Iwata was a genius. His focus on value innovation lowered the costs increased the sales and made the competition entirely irrelevant.
Throughout his presidency Iwata enjoyed the total support of his fans. He frequently posted on social media, interacted with fans and started an interview series called Iwata asks where he shared insider information on games and the inner workings of the company. Eventually Iwata became the face of Nintendo and the inspiration behind popular internet memes like “Please understand” a phrase which was often used by him as a precursor to some bad information like the announcement of a delay .
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Iwata was the self control he displayed in the presence of bananas. The temptation must have been too strong. I can tell you from experience that the effect of a ripe, curvy banana on a man is mesmerizing to the extent that it becomes positively spell binding. Lesser men have lasted all but 4 seconds. My personal record is 3. But it seems that Iwata could just gaze at bananas all day long without ever feeling the compulsion to peel one off and take bite out of it. Men like him are one of a kind. May he rest in peace.