Satoru Iwata passed away, and Nintendo will never be the same
Sunday afternoon, deep within an avalanche of stories about superhero movies and TV shows, Nintendo quietly announced that its president and CEO, Satoru Iwata, died at the age of 55.
The announcement was typically understated. It was a simple letter with the header “Notification of Death and Personnel Change of a Representative Director (President).” The notice went on to say “Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth.”
It was understated, missing the flowery epitaphs that frequently herald such news. The time for that will come though, and anyone that is familiar with Iwata and what he has done at Nintendo already knows what a tremendous loss this is.
Iwata missed E3 in 2014 due to a tumor in his bile duct. He underwent surgery soon after, and things seemed fine. That obviously wasn’t the case.
I never personally met Iwata, but I have spoken with many people that knew him well, some of which were close friends. It wouldn’t be exactly right to say they spoke fondly of him – that understates it. They revered him. It was just an accepted fact that he was not only the man in charge, but the spiritual center of the company. They didn’t analyze his decisions, they just accepted them and got to work.
There was a harmony in that belief, an ease knowing that Iwata was the boss. He was only the fourth president and CEO in the 125 year history of Nintendo, assuming the role 13 years ago. He oversaw the success of the Wii, as well as the rise of the DS and 3DS. He also oversaw the failure of the Wii U, along with the development of its replacement, which is rumored to be out next summer.
Throughout the ups and downs of Nintendo under Iwata, there was never talk of his firing. An American company would have almost certainly had a shareholders meeting after the poor results of Nintendo’s newest console (maybe even after the GameCube), and voted him out. But not Nintendo. Not Iwata.
A good part of that is because of Nintendo and the way is run, and some of that is cultural. But a lot of it is credit to the man himself.
Iwata first began creating video games in high school, and did so with enough skill to gain acceptance to the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he majored in computer science. During college he began to work for game developer HAL Laboratory, eventually accepting a full time position after his graduation. Iwata’s entire career was spent in video games, which is exactly how he wanted it.
Iwata quickly climbed the corporate ladder. In 1983 he became the coordinator of software production in 1983; within ten years he was promoted to the role of president.
Seven years later Iwata accepted a position at Nintendo as the head of its corporate planning division. Within two years he gained a reputation within the company, a sterling one at that. When Hiroshi Yamauchi announced his retirement after a 53 year reign that saw Nintendo transformed into what at the time was the preeminent gaming company in the world, Iwata was chosen as his successor.
Iwata’s era was not nearly as successful as Yamauchi’s, but it would be have been unbelievable if it had been. Given the growth of video games over the last two decades, no company could have continued that level of success – and if it somehow had, it would have been bad for the industry.
Under Iwata, as Nintendo’s competitors pushed to improve its hardware, Nintendo elected to think differently. Microsoft and Sony created more powerful hardware, while Nintendo developed an underpowered console with weird controllers that went on to sell over 100 million units. At the same time, the DS was well on its way to becoming the second best selling console of all time, eventually moving over 154 units.
You can’t give Iwata all the credit for that, but he certainly deserves a good share of it. Likewise, he also deserves a share of the blame for the Wii U – but as long as Nintendo continues, it has shown that it can never be counted out. That too you can thank Iwata for.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Nintendo, if you are a fan of video games directly or indirectly you owe Iwata a debt of gratitude. Without Nintendo constantly pushing, without its ability to innovate, we would all be worse off.
Now that Iwata is gone, the process for selecting the fifth Nintendo president will commence. There is likely a short list already, and Nintendo will likely hire from within. But no matter what, no matter who is next to take over, Nintendo will not be the same.
Iwata put his stamp on Nintendo and infused his own personality into it. The next person will do the same, but it won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. The gaming industry has lost something and it can never get it back.
Iwata will be missed.