“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”
Satoru Iwata, 2005.

A son of a municipal mayor, Satoru Iwata lived and breathed games. He spent his time in high school programming games with his classmates’ calculators. His passion would take him through a Computer Science degree at the Tokyo Institute of Technology into HAL Laboratories, a studio that is now known for franchises such as Kirby and Super Smash Bros.

Once performing freelance work for HAL, he was hired full time straight out of university in 1982. With the company facing bankruptcy a decade after he was hired, any conventional human being would have seen fit to abandon ship and seek greener corporate pastures. But Iwata, as many gamers would later find out, was not conventional.

He became President of HAL, and his tenure oversaw work on games such as Earthbound, Kirby’s Dream Land, and the original Super Smash Bros. Needless to say, the runaway successes of the latter two franchises indicates that Iwata not only saved HAL from bankruptcy, but returned the company to profit.

Yet another decade later, in 2002, Iwata was faced with another monumental challenge. As the first CEO of Nintendo whose last name was not Yamauchi, Iwata had to save another company. The GameCube, while boasting excellent first-party titles, was not performing financially well against the Xbox and the PlayStation 2, only selling 22 million versus the latter two’s 24 million and 153.6 million, as of 2010.

So poor was Nintendo’s financial performance that there was talk among the gaming media that the company might go the way of Sega, and leave the hardware industry altogether to make games for the other two consoles.

Satoru Iwata, man of the hour, at E3 2004, debuting the Nintendo DS

Satoru Iwata, man of the hour, at E3 2004, debuting the Nintendo DS.

E3 2004 was a major moment. First came a loud, energetic American, proudly proclaiming that he was all about kicking ass, taking names, and making games. Then came the man himself, to announce Nintendo’s new handheld: the DS. But another, more important announcement, was the upcoming console, codenamed Revolution.

Like the DS, which sported two screens, one of which was a touchscreen, Iwata proclaimed that the Revolution would take gaming where it has never gone before. Graphics would get more photo-realistic, but not much would change about the games themselves, he said.

When it became known that the Wii, the Revolution’s final name, would sport graphics only marginally better than the GameCube, sceptics were quick to speculate on Nintendo’s impending demise. Who would want to play games on a console with previous-generation graphics?

At least 101 million people, according to the sales figures as of the first fiscal quarter of 2012. Iwata’s visionary gambit worked. The motion controls, the ability to download old games onto the system, and the fact that one of the best received Zelda games launched with the Wii ensured that it would be a runaway success.

This writer recalls constantly calling game stores every day during the winter of 2006, asking if the Wii was available, only to be told that not a single unit was anywhere to be found. In contrast, the PlayStation 3 (PS3), which launched at around the same time, was in ample supply. The motions controls not only changed the way people played games, it also introduced many non-gamers, including the Queen, to gaming.

Of course, the core gaming audience felt ignored by the Wii. E3 2008 focused solely on software such as Wii Sports Resort and Wii Music, with hardly any proper gaming titles to be found, with the exception of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. The Wii’s reputation with core gamers was exacerbated also by the fact that third-party developers were abandoning the platform in droves.

How could they port a PS3 or Xbox 360 (X360) game to the Wii if it cannot handle the graphical requirements of the former two? Popular third-party titles, such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, had to enjoyed on the PS3 or the X360, and while the Wii sometimes had ports of such games, they were often watered-down, featured-stripped ports, the developing work outsourced to throwaway companies.

Iwata's ideas pulled no punches during his tenure.

Iwata’s ideas pulled no punches during his tenure.

Yet, in spite of all the scepticism, the Wii emerged victorious from the console wars, outselling the PS3 and X360.

Not only did the Wii lead in sales numbers, it also influenced its competitors, leading Sony to develop PlayStation Move and Microsoft to develop Kinect, both pieces of hardware that utilised motion control. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Sony and Microsoft were already buttering Nintendo up towards the end of the console cycle.

Meanwhile on the portable front, Nintendo’s was influencing its competitors, too. While its hegemony was challenged by the PlayStation Portable (PSP), the touchscreen controls of the DS, along with its extensive library, ensured Nintendo’s continued dominance. So successful was the DS, that the PSP’s successor, the PlayStation Vita, implemented touchscreen controls.

While it can be argued that the handheld market is now dominated by Apple’s iOS, whose games also use touchscreen controls, the DS’ successor, the 3DS, is continuing the same tradition of its predecessor, introducing glasses-less 3D graphics, an analog stick, and handheld games with far more depth.

But Iwata was not just a visionary to the people who played his games. He was also a great leader to the people who worked for him. In a world where most major game developers go through major restructuring, letting go of hundreds, if not thousands of employees in the process, Iwata, once again, bucked the trend.

In a Q&A session, he stated that laying off employees, while good for short-term finances, would be detrimental to morale. He went on to say employees that were worried about being laid off would not be able to make good games. This is a clear contrast from companies like Sega, Nintendo’s one-time rival, which laid off 300 employees and closed its famous San Francisco office earlier this year.

A CEO who truly understood what Nintendo stood for

A CEO who truly understood what Nintendo stood for.

There are plenty of decisions that Iwata took that this writer did not agree with. The Vitality Sensor, the insistence on children as their games key demographic, and the decision to region-lock the 3DS. Nevertheless, as he is writing now, he feels as if he had just lost a good friend. Perhaps the same could be said for the thousands of gamers that grew up with the games that were made under his tenure.

What made Iwata so exceptional was the fact that, in the face of an industry that is prioritising profit over content, where publishers force developers to rush their games out the door, where half the game is sold while the other half is sold separately as downloadable content, he was a gamer at heart. Under him, Nintendo, for all its faults, was still very much about the games, and the gamers that played them.

Thank you very much, Iwata-san. May you Rest In Peace.

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