Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata died on July 11 from a bile duct tumor
Iwata targeted everyday gamers with the Wii and DS, which were big successes
But the company faces an uncertain future
Plenty of CEOs like to give public presentations. Few of them are as natural or engaging as Steve Jobs, but that doesn’t stop them trying to emulate the late Apple co-founder by getting up on stage and speaking.
Satoru Iwata’s final appearance was as a Muppet.
Nintendo hired the Jim Henson Company to build a Muppet likeness of the Nintendo CEO to deliver an off-beat and quirky presentation at E3, video gaming’s biggest annual show.
It would be the last time Iwata spoke to gamers. The Nintendo CEO died on July 11 after suffering from a tumor in his bile duct at the age of 55, his company announced Sunday.
Iwata did things differently.
He was the first Nintendo president from outside the Yamauchi family. His predecessor, Hiroshi Yamauchi, famously never played video games. But Iwata was a gamer. He started as a game programmer at HAL Laboratory before becoming that company’s president. Iwata eventually moved to Nintendo, which enjoys a very close relationship with HAL. It took just two years for Iwata to ascend to the top job.
But he took over a troubled Nintendo. Knocked off its perch by Sony and facing new competition from Microsoft, the one-time giant of gaming was suddenly facing two larger opponents. Iwata quickly realized that Nintendo could never triumph in a straight fight; Microsoft and Sony would always be able to outspend them to produce more powerful consoles and secure more exclusive games.
So Iwata changed the terms of the fight. Instead of competing for the small pool of hardcore gamers, they would target a far larger market: Everybody else. Nintendo’s goal was to expand the definition of “gamer”.
We know now that Iwata’s gamble on the Nintendo DS and Wii were spectacular successes. But at the time, few predicted that.
DS and Wii
The Nintendo DS went head-to-head with Sony’s PlayStation Portable in 2004. Sony’s device was sleek and absurdly powerful; Nintendo’s was a chunky hunk of plastic. Sony boasted the PSP was more than a dedicated gaming device, but also a portable entertainment system that would play music and movies; the DS just played games.
But the DS had one thing the PSP didn’t: A second screen that was also a touchscreen. Long before Apple made touchscreens the standard for smartphones and tablets, Nintendo discovered that touch made for a far more intuitive and welcoming interface to non-gamers than controllers. Games like “Brain Age” and “Nintendogs” hooked people who’d never played games before.
Iwata and Nintendo effectively repeated the trick with the Wii. Again, Nintendo faced powerful rivals: The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were capable of high-definition graphics, offered extensive online gaming services, and had hit franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty”.
The Wii? The Wii had a funny name and an odd controller. But that controller opened up a whole new way to play games, a fresh experience that nobody else could match. Put simply: The Wii had bowling.
The friendly and approachable nature of the Wii matched Nintendo and Iwata. He began a series of YouTube broadcasts called “Nintendo Direct” where the CEO delivers news direct to gamers. He also features in an interview series called “Iwata Asks”, where he interviews developers on their latest games; the series is popular among fans eager for secrets and insights into how their favorite games are made.
But Iwata’s bold bets didn’t always work out.
The Wii enjoyed rapid success, but soon stalled. Nintendo successor, the Wii U, was ill-fated almost from the start; its introduction confused many who thought it was an add-on to the Wii, not an entirely new console. And the Wii U’s touchscreen controller, while a first for a home gaming console, didn’t impress anyone used to using an iPad.
The rise of mobile gaming was also starting to lead people to question how viable Nintendo’s handhelds are. In March, Nintendo announced a tie-up with mobile game maker DeNA. It appeared the company had finally bowed to pressure to bring its games to smartphones and tablets, but as always, Iwata had a slightly different plan.
He reasoned that mobile games and console games were very different; what worked for one wouldn’t necessarily work for the other. So Nintendo won’t bring their existing games to smartphones – they’d create brand new games with their rich lineup of characters.
But perhaps Iwata’s most dramatic gamble is one we know precious little about: Nintendo’s “quality of life” platform. Late last year, he outlined a new platform that would help users monitor their health. The first device will be a sleep tracker that people can place besides their bed and will send data to their smartphones. In a way, it makes sense; Nintendo found success by dabbling in fitness with Wii Fit. But that came out in 2007. In 2015, there is no shortage of fitness devices.
It remains to be seen how well it will work out for Nintendo. There is a long line of analysts who doubt whether these unconventional moves will meet with any success. But history has shown that you can’t count Nintendo out. And that is Satoru Iwata’s legacy.