The gaming industry is now bigger than the total global film industry, with revenue well in excess of $100 billion a year. It’s no longer confined to a narrow demographic, but instead is near-universally popular. A central figure in this extraordinary growth, bringing to the mainstream what was until recently seen as the preserve of teenage geeks, was Satoru Iwata, who died on July 11 at the age of 55.
As president of Nintendo, the Japanese games giant founded in 1889 as a playing card company, Iwata was the first chief executive not to be from the Yamauchi family, and only the fourth person to lead the company. Under his leadership, the Kyoto-based firm became the largest video games company in the world by revenue. But its success was founded not on a traditional corporate approach or on clever marketing, but on Iwata’s genuine passion for video games.
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a computer programmer,” he told the Games Developers’ Conference in 2005. “But in my heart, I am a gamer.” This declaration, and his obvious love of the form, endeared Iwata to many gamers—as did his personable manner and evangelical zeal to bring gaming to everyone.
Though not short of business acumen or the ability to hold his own in the formal hierarchies of Japanese corporate life, Iwata’s greatest successes came from his insights into what fans wanted from gaming, his own background in programming, and his focus on imaginative, inclusive, family-friendly games. Two of Nintendo’s most popular innovations on his watch were the handheld Nintendo DS and the Wii console. Both broke new ground for the industry; the first by introducing the touchscreen to gaming, and the second by creating genuine interaction with the screen and reimagining the ways in which a games console could be used.
At a time when most manufacturers were producing action-based shoot-em-ups modelled on Hollywood blockbusters, Iwata had the foresight to see the potential for the Wii as a fitness aid, and the appeal of tennis or ten-pin bowling to an audience that had no interest in traditional video games. Shortly after the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, which cost $265 million to develop—and despite the fact that it grossed more than $1 billion in the first three days of sales—Iwata warned that following the example of Hollywood studios would fail to expand gaming beyond its core fans, mostly 18-35-year-old men.
“Games have come to a dead end,” he said. “It’s obvious that there’s no future to gaming if we continue to run on this principle.” The rest of the industry was sceptical; Nintendo were then lying behind Sony and Playstation in sales. But Iwata then launched a product which allowed for more playful gaming, with wider appeal; the DS. Keen to find software that would bring games to a much more varied audience, he enlisted the help of the neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima. The result was Brain Age, one of the most successful games of the past decade.
Satoru Iwata was born Dec. 6, 1959 in Sapporo, a city in northern Japan, where his father was a local politician. He was interested in computing and electronics from an early age; while still at school he produced code that allowed him to turn a programmable calculator into a baseball video game. He continued his studies at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he majored in Computing Science and had work experience with Commodore, developing software and programming.
He also found freelance work with HAL Laboratory, a small firm that had collaborated with Nintendo. After graduating in 1983, he joined HAL as head of software development. His insight into the appeal and psychology of games, and his ability and readiness to step in and rewrite code when he was dissatisfied with the development of a game—something he continued to do after his rise through the management—led to rapid promotions. A decade later, he was president of HAL, and working closely with Nintendo on the development of games such as Balloon Flight and NES Open Tournament Golf.
Despite not being a formal Nintendo employee, in 1999 Iwata was also central to the development of one of the firm’s most valuable properties, working on Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color and on Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, adapting and compressing previous games by working and rewriting the code directly from the originals. He had also proven his skill as a manager; HAL, which had been near bankruptcy when he took over, was now a thriving company.
In 2000, Iwata joined Nintendo as chief planning officer and within two years had been selected by Hiroshi Yamauchi as his successor. At that time Nintendo’s fortunes were rather in the doldrums; their Gamecube had not fared well against competing consoles, and independent software firms dominated game development.
The launch of the DS transformed the company’s fortunes. Iwata’s expertise also led to the development of some highly successful titles for the twin-screen handheld console, often in collaboration with the designer Shigeru Miyamoto.
Among the most successful titles on which Iwata worked were The Legend of Zelda, the Mario series, and the Animal Crossing games. The launch of the motion-detecting Wii in 2006 proved another huge success—Nintendo’s stock doubled in value after its release and the console’s hugely innovative approach brought video games to an entirely new set of enthusiasts. Other companies, such as Microsoft, scrabbled to catch up by producing the Kinect system for their Xbox console.
Not all products fared as well. The Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U were less popular, and Itawa at one stage cut his own salary by half to show his solidarity with the company. Some critics also felt that Nintendo, having introduced the touchscreen with the DS, had been too slow to respond to the growth of other devices, such as smartphones and tablets, which used the technology, and the subsequent migration of many games to those platforms and within social media.
But Iwata himself inspired considerable devotion not only amongst Nintendo’s employees, but also from the gaming community in general. He pioneered question and answer sessions with developers and fans, both in video webcasts and a series of “Iwata Asks” brainstorming meetings. He constantly urged games developers to cultivate “blue ocean” thinking, arguing that the playability, originality and fun that a game offered ought to be paramount. “Engineering is less important than imagination” was a frequent mantra.
He had recently been absent from the industry conferences at which he was a popular figure, and after missing E3 last year, announced that he had been suffering from cancer, and that a tumour had been removed from his bile duct. There had been a recent upturn in Nintendo’s fortunes, with the company returning to profitability earlier this year. After his death last Sunday, thousands of people attended his funeral, which was held over two days. He is survived by his wife, Kayoko.