Nintendo is a company that historically has been reticent to let the public behind the curtain. They let us plunder the depths of magnificent realms only they could create. But their greatest creation, perhaps, is the fiction of the company itself, one built largely by a refusal to give answers and the imaginations of a captive and titillated audience, hungry for an explanation never given.
Until recently. When Satoru Iwata accepted the baton from Hiroshi Yamauchi and became the company’s fourth president in 2002, the high walls surrounding the castle seemed to sink a bit. Windows opaque with a hundred years of grit and paranoia were wiped clean, as if for the first time.
Through the invention of Nintendo Direct, a frequent video presentation that unveiled the company’s projects on their schedule, Iwata undercut the long-held belief that an annual conference or two was the only accepted place to promote the company’s wares. But it was the quieter, near-subversive collection of Iwata Asks—video interviews between the president and his development staff on specific projects—that promoted a new level of transparency in the company and delivered unparalleled access to heretofore private discussions.
Secrets remain. Even with Iwata’s generous philosophy, Nintendo continues to be a mystery to most. And with the 55-year-old’s tragic death last week, we lose the greatest source of the company’s untold history from this new century. An era is over. And with it, we lose a large part of the recent past. At least he was kind enough to transcribe some of it for us.
If Iwata was Nintendo’s Great Oz, this was one case where the man wielding the levers is not the inverse of his mythic stature, a tiny shriveled thing hiding behind manufactured bombast; the reality may be that Iwata was even greater than the stories we know. Here he is speaking about games, loyalty, tradition, empathy, and the future.
People have a certain amount of potential within them. Ensuring that this potential is used as productively as possible greatly helps an organization. To put it another way, there is a vast amount of energy which disappears inside organisations, or is expended going in directions which don’t end up leading anywhere. If all that energy is properly directed, it can add up to a huge amount of power that can be used to produce visible results.
I would say that, of the things I have experienced up to now, there is very little that has not proved to be useful.
When you try to do something that has never been done before, it goes without saying that there is no guarantee of success. It also becomes more difficult to defend your efforts by saying that you know they will result in at least a certain amount of success. For all you know, it might turn out to be a complete failure.
I actually found that it would have been more frightening to take the conventional path.
We knew that there was no future on the conventional path. 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. So the only thing we were sure of at first was the fact that we wanted to point the company in a different direction.
[W]e knew there was no future on the path straight ahead of us, and we realised that there would be no meaning to our efforts if we were just slowly plodding towards the end of that path. So we decided to do something about it. We were convinced that if the number of people playing games increased, there would definitely be a future ahead of us.
[Y]ou have to go forward with a sense of urgency. Time passes very quickly, and if you are complacent, you’ll be too late. If you feel that the course you are on has no future, then you have to change your direction even if you’re the market leader and everyone is telling you, “You’re at the top, so there’s no need to change. Just keep going along as you are.”
Wii was a product where we were not able to see how things would end up from the start. The only thing that was clear was the fact that there were no answers along the path we were on, so we decided to change our direction. Of course, time is limited, and we have to keep releasing products, just as we always have.
[W]ith Wii, I have a feeling that the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that has come with developing something so new and unusual will not dissipate even after its release. That’s what the mood is like around here.
It might seem a little odd to say this about my own employees, but I would say it’s the look of satisfaction on their faces after knowing they’ve done a good job! (laughs)
Well, you’ve been sitting pretty close to me, I think you can sense how much I’ve been enjoying these interviews, can’t you?
Iwata: You’re all wearing matching t-shirts.
Nogami: Oh yes, we are. (laughs)
Sakaguchi: It was just a coincidence. (laughs)
Iwata: It doesn’t look like a coincidence to me. (laughs)
(From “Iwata Asks: Splatoon”)
On the productivity of failure
Virtual Boy was, I think, a commercial failure. Normally, I think it would have been understandable if Nintendo experienced a kind of trauma with regard to the whole 3D genre. But Nintendo continued to doggedly make attempts in 3D technology. And you could say that those attempts have now finally borne fruit.
(From “Iwata Asks: Nintendo 3DS”)
I began making video games with a programmable calculator. It could only display numbers, but I worked hard to finally get one, used it to make games, and enjoyed playing them together with my friends in high school.
As someone with that kind of experience, I’m very jealous of people today… Of course, even if you don’t make any games, you can enjoy [them], but I myself feel quite strongly that the joy of making games is deeper than the joy of playing them.
On programming habits
There was a time when HAL Laboratory worked in an apartment while I was residing with them, too. I don’t think I could program without taking off my shoes.
On managing people
It does feel like you would get much more energy from someone feeling empathy with you than from you empathizing with someone else. I suppose that’s just human instinct.
Kiyoshi Mizuki, Network Business Department: I had a StreetPass message with a Mii character at the company. When I opened it, Iwata-san had written a comment that said “I’m the real one.” I felt like, “Whoa, it’s the real Iwata-san! He’s here!”
Mizuki: Then, in the greeting, he’d written, “Do your best on the matter we discussed. I’m rooting for you.” I was touched, honestly.
(From “Iwata Asks: Nintendo 3DS”)
Everyone, thank you very much for your hard work.
(From “Iwata Asks: Wii Party”)
Nintendo, and by extension the game-playing community, has lost much with the passing of Satoru Iwata. But I was heartened to remember, while trawling through this massive reservoir of secrets hidden in plain sight that Iwata and his insatiable curiosity has left behind, that Nintendo is filled with many brilliant minds, most whose names and faces we see for the first time in these interviews.
But they are still there, working hard, the memory of their mentor and friend urging them onward. May their contributions continue to delight us as we mourn their boss’s passing and wonder what, and who, comes next.