Satoru Iwata – the president of Nintendo – passed away last month. I was shocked when I heard the news, and after a few hours, I finally realized why: he was a hero of mine, someone who occupies the same space in my mind as Shigeru Miyamoto and Jim Henson.
I didn’t follow his career closely. I had never looked at his full resume. (That came after he had died, many thanks to this Polygon article). I knew his work though. And a few details.
I looked up to him for those details. He was a long-time programmer who had enough business acumen and people skills to become president of HAL Software. While serving as president, he sat down and still programmed, including working on the beta for Smash Bros. His importance to the company couldn’t take him away from a project he believed in.
He became president of Nintendo, and even with no idea who he was, you could tell it was important. He was a programmer. He wasn’t part of the ownership family. He was an outsider who had somehow arrived at the top of Nintendo, hand picked by his former boss. I was fascinated by the move, and started to pay attention.
My first memory of his presence in the public eye was an E3 appearance to introduce the hardware for the Wii. He held up a prototype, and promised that it would be ‘smaller than 3 DVD cases stacked together’. It came out later that Iwata had no such assurance from the hardware division from Nintendo that his promise was possible. He described it as something he knew was possible, and he used the E3 presentation to challenge his staff. (They exceeded it, by the way).
From there, he was frequently a public face of his company. The ‘Iwata Asks’ articles showed what kind of boss he was; calm, confident in his team, and happy to accommodate the many experiments that a creative company like Nintendo has to make to produce great software.
Prior to his arrival, Nintendo was happy to trot out what the press wanted – new games, new consoles, the next entry in whatever series people were most impatient to see. Afterwards, the message changed: talk about decisions by the developers, the Blue Ocean strategy, and the philosophies behind what Nintendo was trying to do. From fast-paced sizzle reels, to long explorations about how Nintendo’s teams came to the ideas behind each game. The messaging in those industry events started showing what Nintendo was like behind closed doors. It appealed to me, the business of a very private creative industry. Iwata opened the doors for me to see it, and I greatly appreciate it.
Satoru Iwata is – was – my hero, because he had an understanding of his company, his people, and the global video game market, where to focus, how to push, and what employees he needed to let free to explore (like the Splatoon team that knocked it out of the park for Nintendo this year). He started his career like I have, just a programmer making experiments that hopefully people enjoy. Anything I can do to emulate his career after that point, I’ll happily try.
Mr. Iwata, thank you. You will be missed, and you will be remembered.
Header photograph by In Memoriam Day, licensed under Creative Commons