- Written by Will Borger /
- Published: 22 July 2015
Nintendo’s president and CEO, Satoru Iwata, died this past weekend. According to a statement released by Nintendo, Iwata passed away from a bile duct growth. He was fifty-five years old. Iwata’s health concerns were a known issue. Last year, he missed E3 as well as a meeting of Nintendo’s shareholders due to health concerns. It seemed minor at the time, though later we would learn that it was because Iwata was having surgery to remove the mass.
Iwata downplayed the surgery in a letter to investors, saying: "In general, it is said that a bile duct growth can be difficult-to-treat, partly because of the difficulty of detecting it early. In my case, luckily, it was detected very early and I had no symptoms. I was counseled that removal at an early stage would be the desirable medical option. Therefore I had surgery last week, and I came through it well, as predicted. I have already resumed my business by email and by other means, but it is anticipated that a little more time is needed for me to return to my regular work schedule."
All in all, everything sounded fairly routine. Iwata’s doctors caught the disease early, the surgery was successful, and he was recovering well. We all assumed that, barring a little extra time for recovery, Iwata was fine and the danger had passed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Even with the most optimistic diagnosis and very early detection, cancer of the bile duct has, at most, around a 30% survival rate over five years. Iwata’s odds were never good. The fact that his cancer was extremely rare and rather unknown means that we just never knew that.
That knowledge, of course, doesn’t make this loss easier. No loss is easy, regardless if the person in question is a family member, a close friend, or even an acquaintance. Life is precious, and fragile, and so easily taken away. By knowing someone, we invite them into our lives, and their very presence touches our lives in some way, in the same way that, through them, we touch the lives of others.
Through their games, Nintendo has touched many lives. Iwata has been in charge of Nintendo for more than a decade. For many of us, he is the face of Nintendo. I was alive when Hiroshi Yamauchi was president, and enjoyed a number of products the company made during his tenure. But I didn’t seriously start following video games until after Yamauchi had stepped down. Iwata was the only face of the company I had ever known, and his friendly, outgoing direction of the company the only one I can associate with it.
Were that the extent of Iwata’s contributions to Nintendo or video games, the industry would still have suffered a great loss. But Iwata was a unique figure in the industry. He joined HAL Laboratories as a programmer straight out of college, and made a name for himself by working on the Kirby games and using his programming prowess to save troubled titles like Earthbound.
Iwata would eventually go on to become the president of HAL, but that didn’t stop him from getting down and dirty when a team needed help. When Mother 2 (Earthbound)’s development stalled due to a number of programming issues, Iwata stepped in and saved the title nearly single-handedly, to the point that project manager Shigesato Itoi said the team “relied on Iwata-san.”
He also helped localize Pokemon Red and Green/Blue for international release, helped Masahiro Sakurai develop the prototype for the original Super Smash Bros., ported the battle system from Pokemon Red and Green/Blue to Pokemon Stadium in a week without any design specifications (they didn’t exist at the time), and designed tools to compress the Johto region of Pokemon Gold and Silver so that developer Game Freak could fit the Kanto region from Red and Green/Blue into the game. Remember how incredible it was to return to Kanto for the first time in Gold and Silver? You can thank Iwata for that. It wouldn’t have happened without him.
Despite working on a number of titles for the company, Iwata didn’t officially join Nintendo until 2000, when he was made president of the company’s Corporate Planning Division. Despite his new duties, Iwata still found time to lend his now legendary programming skills to Super Smash Bros. Melee. When it became obvious that the game wasn’t going to hit its planned release date, Iwata got to work. He spent most of his time helping to debug the title, an incredibly basic and tedious task. Iwata, however, was just happy to be “back in the trenches.”
This background in game development gave Iwata a unique view on the industry when he took over as President and CEO of Nintendo in 2002. He was the first Nintendo President who was not a member of the Yamauchi family, and only the fourth since the company’s founding in 1889. His background in development meant that Iwata could do more than make smart business decisions and reassure shareholders. More than anything else, Iwata felt genuine – he legitimately loved gaming and making games, and wanted to make games that everyone could play. He once said that “Above all, video games are meant to be one thing: fun. Fun for everyone,” and that philosophy guided every decision he made at Nintendo.
His biggest success was the DS, a bizarre, dual-screened clamshell of a portable system that featured a stylus and a touchscreen years before smartphones made them ubiquitous. Many felt that Nintendo’s decision to move away from the proven GameBoy was odd, and that the system was doomed in the face of Sony’s powerful and impressive PlayStation Portable. The rest, of course, is history: the DS is the best-selling game system of all time, and contains one of the strongest game libraries of any platform, with games that truly appeal to everyone.
His biggest gamble was the Wii, a motion-controlled console that attempted to bring games to a wider audience with a simplified interface in motion controls. That was a wild success, too, becoming the second best-selling game console ever, and bringing gaming to a whole new audience.
Iwata would never have success like that during his tenure again; the Wii U, while bold in terms of design, never caught on with a wide audience, and the 3DS, which started slowly but eventually came into its own thanks to bold moves from Iwata and strong support from Nintendo, faces ever-growing competition from smartphones. Even when Nintendo failed under Iwata, however, it did so boldly and with a sense of fun and whimsy unlike any other company in the medium.
What Iwata will most likely be remembered for is how he embodied the company. He was an engaging and charismatic speaker, even in English, a language he was never completely comfortable with, who was always presenting and directly interacting with gamers. He opened Nintendo to the world like never before, creating the Iwata Asks interview series to give fans direct insights into how the company makes games, and the Nintendo Direct, which brought news and announcements from Nintendo directly to fans.
In many ways, Iwata was the personification of Nintendo. He led calmly and with integrity, despite constant pressure from shareholders and fans to make mobile games and produce DLC, always taking time to make sure things were done right. When the company lost money, Iwata cut his salary in half instead of downsizing employees. When asked about the lack of restructuring by a shareholder, he said, "If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, however, employee morale will decrease, and I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world. I also know that some employers publicize their restructuring plan to improve their financial performance by letting a number of their employees go, but at Nintendo, employees make valuable contributions in their respective fields, so I believe that laying off a group of employees will not help to strengthen Nintendo's business in the long run."
But perhaps Iwata came be summed up best in his own words, said as part of his keynote speech at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2005:
"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."
More than anything else, that was Satoru Iwata. Through him, that was Nintendo. He taught us the joy of play and the power of imagination, and he invited us to share those things with others. With his passing, the industry has lost an incredible programmer, a charismatic and visionary leader, an incredible presence, and a great man. I speak on behalf of everyone at Endless Backlog when I say that he will be deeply missed.
Thank you, Mr. Iwata. We will never forget you.