Satoru Iwata

Nintendo's CEO doesn't want to be compared to rivals Sony and Microsoft

This summer marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Nintendo Famicom in Japan, the console that would soon afterwards become wildly popular in the West under the name Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). With such a milestone comes retrospection, and Nintendo has attracted its fair share as of late. But don’t be tempted by a black and white comparison of the gaming mastodon and its CEO, Satoru Iwata, with their peers Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo’s legacy of divergence and innovation is so ingrained in company culture that it’s almost natural to deliberately avoid what other companies are doing.

Iwata took over at Nintendo it 2002, only two years after arriving as head of its corporate planning division and seven months into the disappointing launch of the company’s GameCube system. The choice surprised many, as both a relative newcomer to the company and the first Nintendo president who is unrelated to the Yamauchi family through blood or marriage. It was Hiroshi Yamauchi who transformed Nintendo from a family-owned Japanese business into a global byword for video games.

Nintendo’s sixth generation GameCube was selling OK out of the gates, but long-term growth was heavily tempered by a scarcity of games supported by the new system. “We could not provide the market with strong software titles in a timely fashion,” said Iwata in a 2007 interview, “as a result we could not leverage the initial launch time momentum.”

Iwata knew he needed a bold, new strategy to break the company free of past failures. Despite sluggish sales, the company was in relatively good health with some $4 billion banked away from the phenomenal success of Pokemon. A lesser executive would have easily frittered away the money, but Iwata launched two game systems that would completely redefine the way consumers interact with game consoles.

Contrary to many executives, Iwata is 100% creative. From his days as a geeky computer science major at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he has been developing video games. Even in high school, the young developer began producing electronic games making use of calculators. It was no surprise then that, after completing college, Iwata joined HAL Laboratory, a leading Japanese video game developer, where he had already worked in a freelance capacity.

The young man quickly became the company’s coordinator of software production a few short years later in 1983, considered something of a “genius programmer”. During his years at HAL, he helped create games such as Balloon Fight, EarthBound, and the Kirby games. By 1993, Iwata had been promoted to president and began cooperating closely with his future employer Nintendo.

Iwata’s two great breakthroughs were the handheld DS in 2004 and the revolutionary Wii two years later. Both consoles rocked the gaming paradigm and have shown impressive long-term sales. By the end of 2012, the DS had sold a cumulative total of 152 million units, just trailing behind Sony’s PlayStation 2, and the Wii just over 100 million.

The seventh generation Wii console introduced the Wii Remote controller, which can be used as a handheld pointing device and detects movement in three dimensions, completely changing the way users interact with their video games. Sony and Microsoft soon followed suit and developed their own peripheral devices to allow for motion detection play. In a precursor to the Wii’s innovative controls, the extremely popular DS was the first handheld to  introduce touch screen controls.

Despite the resounding successes, the Japanese businessman remains characteristically humble. “I always and strictly tell Nintendo employees never to use the term ‘success’ to describe our own performance,” Iwata said in an interview with IGN in 2012. “If we call a result of any of our efforts a ‘success’… we might apply it as the standard for success for future projects as well, and we could wind up not trying to do better than that or not making something which is very different in nature.”

More than any other company in the market, Nintendo knows well the pursuit of new and bold avenues of entertainment. Iwata doesn’t like Nintendo to be compared to Sony and Microsoft. “They attract young, adolescent males,” while Nintendo, he says, while Nintendo “wants to provide gaming solutions for everyone, games for each demographic.”

With every new game system, Nintendo, “aims to create something better than what is already available in the world,” Iwata said. “We believe this can happen by creating something unprecedented. Since Game & Watch and NES, all the Nintendo hardware has been developed consistently under this philosophy.”




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