Satoru Iwata (1959-2015)

I was going to start my recap of this year’s ConnectiCon visit today. But something happened while I was there, and I was taken back upon getting home. As everyone has heard by now, Nintendo’s CEO, Satoru Iwata passed away. Of course, I never had the chance to meet the man, or know him. But under his leadership Nintendo did a lot of things. Some good. Some perplexing. But also a lot of stuff people didn’t even realize they were going to like in games. Iwata was a developer for many years before running the helm of Nintendo. Go back, and play any old HAL Laboratory title from the NES on, and he probably had a hand in it.

People often griped during the Wii’s run because it didn’t have the horsepower to operate the big third-party games on the Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3. But in doing so overlook what the Wii did. It drove home the point that video games were supposed to be fun to play, and that they can be for everybody. For the first time since perhaps even the Atari 2600, video games were being played by people who had never bothered with the hobby before. Moreover, they took something that hadn’t been used in a while, Gyroscopic controls, and made it successful. At least for the most part.

The DS brought back the Game & Watch concept of having two screens to work with, as well as a touch panel monitor. Many people thought that the PSP was going to mop the floor with the DS. But it went on to be the most popular thing since the Game Boy. It’s true that the current systems haven’t come close to the lofty bar set by these. But they still followed Iwata’s drive to keep trying to innovate in ways to make games fun.

More importantly, this was a guy who came from making games. So often those of us who play games wonder why some company leaders don’t seem to get what people want. Or we tire of companies relying on safe bets all of the time. How many times have you been on a message board, or in a game store, and heard somebody bemoaning that more titles are following the path of sports games? Games that update a roster, or mildly update the graphics, and not much else over their predecessor?

Whether or not you agree with Nintendo’s decisions in this regard, it is the very thing Iwata was trying to prevent. And although you could argue Nintendo also has sequels, they aren’t nearly as frequent. They also may make a few refinements, but they don’t try to fix what isn’t broken in the process. At least not in most cases. Satoru Iwata understood that video games are supposed to be fun first, and foremost. He understood what his products were, and how they worked. That actually was an asset on the business end. Because it meant that he wasn’t going to let the company put out anything slipshod. It meant that you were getting more than prettier graphics. And it meant he cared about the long-term growth of his company. You can find the rare bad Nintendo game. But a bad Nintendo game usually merely translates to an average one.

Was the man flawless? Of course not. Nobody ever will be. But by all accounts he was liked by his employees, loved by those closest to him, and  was a consummate professional. In 2005 he famously said ” 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.” One can only hope that his work inspired creators to keep striving for new ways to make games fun. One can only hope that his work inspired business leaders to be fair to their employees, and focus on their company’s long-term outlook. One can only hope that the good he did in his personal life inspired those he knew to be better, kinder, people.

Goodbye Mr. Iwata. Life, and video games aren’t going to be the same without you.

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