Satoru Iwata, the president of Nintendo, died earlier this month, succumbing to cancer far too young at the age of 55. Some consider Iwata Japan’s Steven Jobs, an instinctive, ambitious and stubborn visionary who bent an industry to his will — mercifully free of Jobs’ sharp edges. Any observer will credit him with revolutionizing gaming, transforming it from a refuge for 18-35 year old males to a form of entertainment and activity for all.
Born in Sapporo, Iwata was a computer-science major at the Tokyo Institute of Technology when he joined HAL Laboratory, a Nintendo affiliate. (HAL was so named, he said, because each letter preceded the initials of IBM). While there, Iwata worked as a programmer and helped develop some of the company’s biggest video games. That success propelled him to the company presidency in 1993; seven years later, he was picked by Hiroshi Yamauchi, then president of Nintendo, to join the parent company as head of corporate planning. Two years later, Yamauchi asked Iwata to succeed him as the company’s fourth president and CEO, the first time in Nintendo’s history — founded in 1889 as a playing card company — that a non-family member assumed the top position.
Iwata’s experience as a software engineer gave him special insight into the industry; in fact, he was one of the few industry leaders with that background. Other manufacturers developed cleaner, more distinctive graphics or resolution and scope that emulated feature films; Iwata did not. For him, that path, the reliance on ever more computing power, was “a dead end.” Rather, he insisted that the industry had to change in fundamental ways to survive. That meant not more of the same — better, of course: bigger explosions, cooler avatars — but an entirely new experience. Since he said that at a time when the games market was exploding, the prevailing response was that Iwata’s views were “sour grapes,” the thinking of a company that was losing out to more innovative competitors, such as Sony’s PlayStation.
But Iwata had a very distinct and distinctive idea in mind and Nintendo unveiled it months later: the Nintendo DS, a handheld dual-screen product, one of which was a touchscreen. This was a critical innovation that transformed the gaming experience. Rather than having to learn and master a bewildering console, with buttons, switches and sticks, users merely had to touch the screen to make the system work. With that simple step, gaming was no longer the province of the experienced (some might say obsessive); instead, it became a simple device anyone could use.
Nintendo DS did not revolutionize the industry (although it has sold more than 150 million units in its various guises). As Iwata understood, hardware was not the answer. He also needed software — not just games, but experiences — that would appeal to all family members. He got that with Brain Age, a program designed by neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima that is supposed to stimulate the user’s brain and keep it healthy through puzzles. It was an instant hit, and has sold more than 19 million copies since it was introduced. It has been recognized as one of the most influential games of the decade.
Iwata followed that success with the Wii, a seventh-generation home console introduced in 2006. It has sold over 100 million units since then, making it one of the most successful pieces of gaming hardware ever made. Building on the design philosophy of the DS, Wii uses motion sensors instead of buttons, allowing users to point or swing their hands to operate the machine, a system so simple that anyone — even grandparents — can use it. And sure enough Nintendo used photos of seniors playing tennis to market the machine.
That image was the realization of Iwata’s dream as well as that of every other game manufacturer. It signaled that the games market had finally burst its banks and was ready to be populated by every age and gender. The gaming experience would no longer be restricted to testosterone-driven males. Products would now aim, in Iwata’s words, at improving “quality of life.”
Iwata made some mistakes, of course. His refusal to let his products be used in mobile phones and the reluctance to license Nintendo characters in theme parks cost the company a lot of money and considerable numbers of customers; both policies have been reversed in recent months. Wii U, the successor to the Wii, has failed to catch on and sales continue to languish. Iwata took responsibility for the failure by cutting his own salary in half.
Iwata was guided by the belief that “video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone.” Incredibly, that was considered a revolutionary statement. Fortunately for us all, Satoru Iwata was a gamer at heart, who know not only what a game should be, but was able to write programs that closed the gap between that ideal and their reality. He took risks to make that vision a reality and did it in a way that won him admirers and made him friends, even among the competition. He changed his industry and he changed reality, both virtual and real.