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What always made Iwata stand out to me above other game company execs is that he started as a game developer.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

July 15, 2015

11 Min Read

Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata passed away this week; everybody knows that by now. It's made many of us reflective on his career, which is a good thing.

What always made Iwata stand out to me above other game company execs is that he started as a game developer. I didn't even realize until this week how deeply he was involved in programming EarthBound, for example. (You can read a short bio of him here on Gamasutra, if you're curious about his background.)

I think his personal history was the source of the very concrete difference in the company he worked for. Inside Nintendo, the game development culture of Nintendo is clearly sacred. Not unquestioned, mind you, but so essential to the core of the company that it's inseparable from what it is.

It turns out that he had this insight himself: "... since I myself come from a development background, I think I understand the minds of developers better than most executives."

This made him an excellent manager, too, since he knew how to work with developers. His expertise as a developer also lent him significant insight into what factors make great games possible:

"I feel there's a depth, a wonder to the act of making games. Creating a single game involves constant trial and error, integrating control and play while remaining true to your theme, your concept. You wade through the vast possibilities, converging on a product. I really don't think there's anything else quite like it," he said.

That quote sums up what we know about Nintendo's game development culture very well, in fact. (There's plenty more insights into Nintendo's dev at the Iwata Asks archive, which I wish I had the time to comb through.)

As I read through a number of interviews with Iwata this week, including many interviews that I'd never read before, I found myself fishing out quotes and saving them in a text file. This stuff is worth considering, and worth sharing.

I think Iwata's somewhat goofy image in Nintendo Direct videos overshadowed, in a way, the seriousness and experience with which he approached his job as president and CEO of Nintendo in the popular imagination. So here are some significant quotes that shed light on his professional chops -- with links to their sources. Any and all of these articles are worth reading in full.


One constant of Nintendo is that the company will surprise you. Iwata discussed this many times in the interviews I've been reading, and it's fascinating. It's not an accident that Nintendo behaves this way; doing something different than what's expected has become a codified part of the Nintendo way of doing things, but it also stems from Iwata's own convictions, too.

Prior to the launch of the Nintendo DS and the Wii, Nintendo was convinced that video games would become a niche if there wasn't a deliberate effort to speak to a broader audience. Those systems did a lot to bring the medium to mainstream audiences in the prior decade, in a way that's very easy to forget in the age of the smartphone.

The Gamecube was a product of traditional console thinking: It was simply a linear improvement over the Nintendo 64, with very typical capabilities for the time. Its much more conventional controller was a concession, in fact, to the PlayStation's victory in the prior generation.

Great games though it had, the system flopped, and Iwata and his colleagues saw a need for change, as outlined in this must-read Iwata Asks interview, where the CEO is himself interviewed about the development of the Wii. It's revealing.

"It's frightening to take a different path than everyone else," Iwata said, as the Wii was on the cusp of release. "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."

So why do it? "We were convinced that if the number of people playing games increased, there would definitely be a future ahead of us."

He expands on these thoughts in a 2007 discussion with his EarthBound collaborator and friend, writer and media personality Shigesato Itoi:

"The reason why Nintendo isn't doing the easy [thing] is because our goal is clear. Our mission is to surprise people in a good way, and this became very clear as we made Nintendo DS and Wii."

That clear goal made it possible to brave new and uncharted waters, Iwata said, in his Wii Iwata Asks: "... in developing Wii, we didn't work to a fixed plan. Rather, we had to improvise a lot, and the finished product is the result of a lot of groping in the dark for what was a workable solution at a given time. I think the reason we arrived at where we are now is that, even when there was uncertainty, we never wavered from pursuing the clear goal we had in mind."

It's obvious that Iwata's experience with the Gamecube was formative, but he seemed just as worried about repeating successes as well as failures, which is intriguing. Here, he speaks about how experience in the game industry can be a blinder:

"If you start making such decisions without thinking, you start doing the easy stuff. You disengage yourself with the pursuit of true entertainment," Iwata said. "Such decisions" refers to conventionally good ideas, like signing up popular athletes for promotional deals, for example. "You end up doing the easy [thing] if you compare one thing with another, and choose the one that seems to have more gain. That's sort of a short-sighted cleverness." Again, from the Itoi interview.

Deciding that Nintendo had to reach out to new audiences meant that it was imperative to shy away from obvious decisions, even ones that would necessarily work: "If we could do away with such goals, all we have to do is make new version of games that are already a hit. That's much easier than creating a new game."

But it goes deeper than that. In another conversation with Itoi, Iwata talks about how tough it is to let go of conventional thinking in the video game business.

Well, someone who's made games for a very long time will have naturally devised a standard set of solutions to problems that pop up during the game creation process. The more experience they've had, the larger their set of solutions is. So, when there's a problem that needs to be resolved, the first thing they'll go to is their standard response; "This problem calls for this solution." They can see their own solution clearly, but have difficulty coming up with any others.

For example, there are "double pictures" that are optical illusions drawn in such a way that you can see two different things depending on how you look at them. This is like those; once you see one image, you lose sight of the other one. In that sense, your results will never be out of the ordinary if all you can see is the one half-hearted solution.

Once you find an answer, that pathway inside your mind activates, meaning you lose sight of any other solutions that might be interesting or unusual.

The more you've grown up with games, know about games, and work with games, the easier it is to fall into that trap, I think. The more standard your solutions are, the less punch they have with the audience. In other words, your solution may fix things, but it also makes them bland and ordinary.

Iwata's relationship with Miyamoto, and what he learned

Before moving over to Nintendo, Iwata was president of HAL Laboratory. HAL's best-known IPs are probably the Kirby and Smash Bros. franchises, both of which it created when Iwata worked there.

Iwata, it seems, saw Shigeru Miyamoto as something of a rival. I think that also affected his management of Nintendo, once he took over; his company was intimately connected to Nintendo from its earliest days (Iwata programmed Balloon Fight for the NES, for example.) As an outsider looking in, and a collaborator and a rival, and ultimately Nintendo's boss, Iwata brought something unique (that can't be replicated by anybody else, I think).

"It might be better to say that I didn't learn from him, but rather stole from him! From the early days of my game development at the HAL Laboratory, I was always watching and learning from him. From outside of Nintendo I used to observe him, my eyes like saucers, wondering: 'Why does Miyamoto-san always succeed?' Now, by a curious twist of fate, we've ended up in these relative positions to each other...it really is funny how things turn out!" (From that Wii interview, again.)

"Mr. Miyamoto taught me a painful lesson: Content really is king. His games outsold mine by a huge margin. I found out then that engineering is not quite as important as imagination. To be honest, I was ashamed," Iwata said, in his 2011 GDC keynote speech.

But here's the insight that's worth considering. HAL made great games and originated classic franchises while Iwata was its president. How did it do that without its own Miyamoto?

"Since not everybody can be a Miyamoto, we discovered that ideas can come from several team members, building on each other, to make something superior to what one person could invent," Iwata said.

That team thinking is something Iwata embraced at Nintendo. It's impossible for me to know if his leadership is what inspired the Animal Crossing team to work so collaboratively and listen to everyone's ideas, and to do so to such good effect, but it seems likely that creating an environment like that made it possible.

But it remains important to remember that Iwata was also a programmer, and a highly pragmatic man. (Take this quote, from the first Itoi interview, as proof of that: "I like consistent logic, I'm from the computer field. When someone asks me a question I don't have an answer to, I verify if my answer is consistent with everything that I've done and known. Even if I feel confident that an answer is correct, I still need to test it from every angle.")

But when it comes to game development, nothing sums that mentality up quite so well as this 1994 interview, conducted the year after he became the president of HAL.

The majority of the time, the programming of a game isn’t completed by the projected deadline. But most companies, due to advertising and budget concerns, will put a game out regardless of whether everyone is fully satisfied with the final product. You do the best you can to approach that ideal product before you have to release it, but in the end, this process is eventually self-defeating for a game company.

We programmers, however, are professionals, and we must take our limited time into account when deciding what we can and cannot do in a game. If we don't have enough time for something, we have to find a workaround that doesn't damage the original idea of the game. Coming up with remedial measures is a necessary skill for a programmer.

The job of a programmer is to produce good work, meaning that the planners and designers shouldn't feel the limitations of the hardware. I tell my programmers to think carefully before they say something "can't be done." There isn't that much that can't be done with a little ingenuity.

After all, if the game turns out boring, who cares if you followed the design plans to the letter? Programmers have that kind of decisive power over a game. Accordingly, you won't succeed as a programmer if you don't like revisions and updates. If change bothers you, you shouldn't work in the game industry.

HAL had reached a crisis in the early 1990s, before Iwata became president. He resolved that crisis, saved the company, and was hand-picked to lead Nintendo. It's worth remembering these facts when reflecting on his career, and listening to his words if you have your own tough problems to solve. 

If you just want to reflect on the man and who he was to his friends, we can always return to Itoi. The image above was taken from GameCenter CX by Nina Matsumoto, via Tiny Cartridge.

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