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14 July 2015

Satoru Iwata: an innovator and true gamer

Satoru Iwata wasn't your run-of-the-mill CEO: he was an innovator and a true gamer, says Tom Watson MP. He'll be sorely missed.

By Tom Watson

The very best games makers have curious, playful minds. That’s why Nintendo President and CEO Saturo Iwata will be so badly missed. 

Iwata, who led one of the most creative video games manufacturers on the planet, was an enthusiast for video games who had a playful mind and an affinity with gamers that will be hard for his successor to replicate. That’s why he was so often included in lists of the world’s top CEOs. “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.” he said in 2005.

It took a curious mind like Iwata’s to understand that the video games market could expand only by extending its reach into new sectors by crossing generations. The industry’s inability to appeal to consumers beyond the youthful demographic it had always appealed to was a problem waiting to be solved. Iwata cracked it.

Satoru bought intergenerational joy to Christmas days in 2006 and 2007 with Nintendo’s Wii console. You need to have witnessed a grandparent waving a Wii remote wildly through the confined space of a living room stuffed with half opened presents and half drunk glasses of sherry to truly appreciate his genius. For a grandchild to bond with a grandparent over a video game was revolutionary – and extremely commercially successful for Nintendo. The company has sold over 100 million consoles since the Wii hit the market less than ten years ago. It’s little wonder it had the working title “Revolution” before it’s launch.

Sarturo was a games maker from childhood – he created games out of calculators for his friends at school. So he was destined for a career in the video games industry from an early age. As a graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he understood the minds of developers better than most executives. It was a quality that set him apart from his peers and it served him well when he took over as Nintendo President in 2002 from Hiroshi Yamauchi – a man who had been at the helm of the company for over half a century. Iwata quickly softened Nintendo’s corporate by making it less hierarchical, spending time on the shop floor and enjoying the company of designers and developers. 

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Before he was elevated to executive level he worked as a developer on a raft of successful games, including the Legend of Zelda series that occupied far too much of my time in the late 1990s. Zelda was rich in playful ideas, even introducing night and day game time in Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 1998. “Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone”, he once said. To him, games did not have to be complex to be enjoyable. In 2006 he joked that if Tetris had been launched back then it would have needed better graphics and a film spin-off in order to be deemed commercially feasible. Iwata understood that simplicity has its own beauty.

Tetris was the game everyone played on the Nintendo Game Boy, the handheld device that belong to a previous generation. But Iwata pioneered a new approach to gaming with the introduction of the Nintendo DS. Almost overnight, the strange-looking device with two screens and a plastic stylus fascinated people who weren’t supposed to play video games. Doctor Kawashima’s Brain Training became a huge hit amongst the over 40s, selling gaming to older generations whose only previous experience of gaming was limited to changing the batteries in the consoles that belonged to their children or grandchildren. It was a typically far-sighted move from a man who can accurately be described as a game-changer. Iwata was once asked what it is like to be a corporate leader.

He replied: “Time passes very quickly, and if you are complacent, you’ll be too late.” 

Iwata Sarturo was never complacent but time passed too quickly for this titan of the video games industry.