Near the end, mortality weighed heavy on the mind of Nintendo’s youngest-ever president. He ached. He was tired. But even as his own body failed, he was preoccupied with the health of his company — one that had shape-shifted through the ups and downs of an entire century — and the well-being of its fans.
When he died, Satoru Iwata was thinking of you.
Iwata began his career at 19, as a part-time programmer at HAL Laboratory in Tokyo. Twenty-two years later, he became president of Nintendo, shepherding the games giant through an era of intense experimentation that won new fans and lost old ones in equal measure.
Compared to rivals like Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has always been seen as an eclectic toymaker. Across its 127-year history, the company has made extendable arms, pitching machines, light bulb–powered skeet shooters, “love testers,” electronic congas, and, of course, video games. Even so, when Iwata addressed shareholders in January 2014, the reveal was a stunner: Nintendo was making an aggressive move into the health business with a sleep-tracking device.
The Kyoto-based company had dabbled with improving people’s lives before: After landing its first megahit with 1981’s Donkey Kong, Nintendo parlayed the character into a schoolwork supplement titled Donkey Kong Jr. Math. With its first home console a huge success, Nintendo prototyped an add-on to help you knit. Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo, which used a mouse, could be seen as a gateway for increasing young players’ computer skills.
But this was a dramatic shift into a new category, an entire platform separate from the company’s games business. It was code-named QOL, for Quality of Life. The first product would be a sleep sensor built in collaboration with San Diego–based ResMed, a medical device company focused on sleep apnea.
But then, in 2015, months before the sensor was to go on sale, Iwata died of complications from bile duct cancer. He was 55. The sleep sensor never made it to market, and the QOL platform remains in limbo.
“We do not have the conviction that the sleep-and-fatigue-themed [device] can enter the phase of actually becoming a product,” Tatsumi Kimishima, Iwata’s first successor, said to investors in early 2016.
This was a stark change in direction. Under Iwata’s leadership in the mid-aughts, Nintendo had charged head-on into providing software with purported health benefits. Its dual-screen, touch-enabled handheld system, Nintendo DS, offered games that tracked your walking (Personal Trainer: Walking), aided your vision (Flash Focus), improved your diet (America’s Test Kitchen: Let’s Get Cooking), flexed your cortex (Brain Age), and introduced you to the literary canon (100 Classic Books). Its motion-controlled Wii console was a phenomenon due in part to the included compilation Wii Sports, proving that moving and shaking could be good for Nintendo’s bottom line and your gut.
“Nintendo is clearly not interested in health- or fitness-related games anymore.”
Heck, Nintendo even designed an interactive bathroom scale (Wii Fit) and sold more than 40 million of them at $100 a pop.
The company’s plans for a new Quality of Life platform, then, fit snugly in its history. But the ResMed announcement came at a low point for Nintendo’s stock and didn’t move the needle.
“My personal opinion is that Nintendo’s quality-of-life business is dead,” Serkan Toto, founder of consulting firm Kantan Games, told Medium.
“Nintendo is clearly not interested in health- or fitness-related games anymore,” he added, “[which] is interesting, given how big this kind of software was 10 years ago on the Wii. It seems like Nintendo thinks times have changed and people don’t consider consoles for this use case anymore.”
Nintendo and ResMed both declined to comment for this article. But the shift in focus is evidenced pretty clearly in the game company’s marketing. Though Nintendo published Fitness Boxing for the Switch last month, the game barely registered a mention on the company’s social media channels, though Wii Fit and its progeny were heralded at industry conferences like E3. While the Poké Ball Plus, released last fall alongside Pokémon Let’s Go, technically counts your steps, it’s advertised primarily as a simple, intuitive controller for gameplay. Compare that to the Pokéwalker device, which Nintendo released in 2009 alongside Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver and explicitly described as a pedometer in its marketing.
Ultimately, the problem was less about health-focused gaming per se and more about marketing and resources.
“It’s at least somewhat difficult for any large entity that has experienced success in one or more fields to suddenly branch out into new ones,” said Richard Hoeg, a business lawyer who’s handled cases related to both software development and medical devices. “And the [health] market is full of enormous, enormous players.”
Hoeg explained how Nintendo’s market cap, or the total dollar amount of the company’s stock, hovers around $33.5 billion. That seems like a big number, until you compare it to Johnson & Johnson, say, with its market cap of $350 billion.
“Even before getting into legal exposure or anything like that, you are talking about trying to enter into a market with existing, entrenched players that are orders of magnitude larger,” Hoeg said.
A game company tied to the health industry is less of a crazy idea in Japan than it might be in North America. Konami, best known for Castlevania and Metal Gear Solid, owns and operates fitness clubs across its native country. But tellingly, Konami has never tried to expand these clubs beyond Japan’s borders. The Quality of Life platform from Nintendo would have been a global initiative.
“There will always be at least some conservative voices at the management or board level that will advocate staying the course and will look on the loss of resources to pursue another endeavor as risky or reckless,” Hoeg said.
In the years following the QOL announcement — and its eventual fade into oblivion — Nintendo has released the Switch console, a major success, in addition to smartphone games like Fire Emblem Heroes, consistently one of the top-grossing apps on the iOS and Android app stores. It has released two “classic” consoles that flew off shelves and debuted an online subscription service for playing classic titles from the 1980s and ’90s.
Operating profit is up an astounding 696 percent from two years ago, abetted by a renewed focus on traditional video games.
The day Iwata revealed the sleep sensor, he also made public that he had recently undergone an operation. We didn’t know then that he had cancer. Less than a year later, he’d be gone.
“Everyone needs to sleep,” he said. “And all of us get tired.”
His dream of the QOL platform has faded, but it’s not gone entirely. The Switch launch title 1-2-Switch was an unabashed attempt to get players looking away from their screens and into the eyes of their competitors. DIY experiment Nintendo Labo offers a wild array of cardboard add-ons for the console to aid in activities that are practically preapproved for the STEM-thirsty parent. Even the ability to play at home or on the go, the baseline pitch for Nintendo’s latest consoles, helps players be more efficient with their time.
Iwata can rest easy; the company he led is more prosperous and healthier than ever. The rest of us are trying our best.