Why video game creators have plenty more to learn from former Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata

‘Ask Iwata’, a new book featuring the words of the late gaming visionary, proves the value of being open and taking things slow

Ever since Nintendo shifted from selling traditional card games to video games in the 1970s, the company has had several visionary leaders who have changed the face of gaming. Aside from Shigeru Miyamoto, the flamboyant creator of the legendary Super Mario and Zelda franchises, there’s nobody more influential in its recent history than the late Satoru Iwata. (I’d place “ass-kicking” Reggie Fils-Aimé third.)

Iwata, who served as Nintendo’s president and CEO from 2002 up until his death in 2015, transformed video games culture by putting accessibility, patience and empathy at the heart of all he did. The ripples of his influence can still be felt today, and his wisdom has recently been compiled into a new book, Ask Iwata. The book consolidates essays written by Iwata for Nintendo’s website and the Japanese gaming site Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun.

Ask Iwata is not just a posthumous declaration of the pioneer’s impact. It demonstrates how the gaming industry and culture today would still benefit from his ideas and ideals on everything from business models to new platforms to gaming fundamentals.

Ask Iwata
Ask Iwata. Credit: Nintendo Life

Iwata may have passed away six years ago, but his early ideas would seem quite daring even today. In one of his earliest roles, as a programmer and producer for 1994’s EarthBound, he recalls the team led by Shigesato Itoi struggling with the game’s production after four difficult years.

“Working with what we have, it would take two years to fix things up,” he told Itoi, as noted in Ask Iwata. “If you don’t mind starting from scratch, we could be done in half a year.”

The game was eventually released with the kinks ironed out, and went on to become a huge fan favourite, even featuring in the Super Nintendo Classic mini console released in 2017. It displayed Iwata’s focus on and deference to a game’s core features, a belief that stands in opposition to the iterative ‘rapid prototyping’ design thinking that’s prevalent today.

The incident reminded me of EA’s recent cancellation of Anthem. The ambitious live-service game was originally released in early 2019 as the company’s direct competitor to titles like Destiny. Unfortunately, bugs and poor gameplay left the game in a muddle, with planned updates put on hold while the game was rumoured to be reworked entirely.

I wonder how much time and manpower would have been saved if a similarly friendly face had asked the BioWare team about the game’s basic features rather than releasing a buggy game, something that is far too common in the industry now. We only have to look at Cyberpunk 2077’s botched console launch to see the reputational damage that can be inflicted through such errors.

Satoru Iwata
Satoru Iwata. Credit: Bob Riha Jr / WireImage

Putting aside his work as a developer, Iwata’s ascent as Nintendo’s president in 2002 reflects how much he did to expand the market. The GameCube had recently been released at the time, and was arguably Nintendo’s last technical hurrah before it switched focus. Iwata refocused the company’s aims, bringing the medium to new players with the release of the DS handheld in 2004, and then in 2006 with the Wii.

Despite my love for Sony’s PSP, I knew just how much of a juggernaut these two Nintendo consoles were at the time. First, a cousin who had never bought a console went to purchase a Wii. And secondly, while waiting for a train on the station platform once, I remember seeing a man in a suit, on his journey home from work, petting animals in Nintendogs on his DS. Eventually, over 154 million DS units and more than 100 million Wii consoles would be sold.

Before his departure from Nintendo in 2019, Fils-Aimé said the company’s target audience was everyone aged 9-99, something that continues with its unique Switch system and games with wide appeal, such as the latest Animal Crossing.

It’s clear that Iwata had planted these seeds. It’s also interesting to see Xbox now trying to expand the market and experiment in different ways with cloud gaming, Game Pass subscriptions and the lower-cost Series S console. And now, Google and Amazon have their own game-streaming services, while Apple has its Arcade subscription model for casual gamers.

Satoru Iwata
Satoru Iwata. Credit: Kimimasa Mayama / Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the most charming anecdotes in the book is Iwata describing the happiness he felt making games on a programmable HP calculator as a high school student. “I went crazy for this calculator. I had no hobbyist magazine to turn to and nobody to teach me, so I had to figure things out on my own,” he said.

He goes on to admit how he was let down by Apple’s first home desktop computer, realising it was “not some dream machine, capable of anything”. He’d go on to become a developer at HAL Laboratory, a leading developer for Nintendo.

Shigeru Miyamoto has a lovely essay named “The Iwata I Knew” in the book, in which he discusses how they’d have lively discussions where Iwata wouldn’t stop talking, but also disagreements where he’d sit in silence. Observing this, Miyamoto said, was to see Iwata thinking carefully in order to give considered replies.

It seems to be a perfect embodiment of Nintendo’s principles. The company doesn’t constantly yell from the hilltops about its work; it slowly chips away in the background, far from the noise of the industry, unlike many of its competitors. The gaming world today could use some of these Iwata-isms: being collaborative listeners, embracing openness, and thinking slowly before rushing in to solve all problems. It’s the best way to honour him.

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