As Nintendo announced just after midnight today the passing of its president Satoru Iwata, the games industry found itself in a situation unique to it. A sad situation, but one never encountered before until now.
Up until midnight, the games industry was young enough to have never encountered the death of such a mammoth, recognisable name. Unfortunately, we’ve now arrived at such a time and it’ll now be interesting to see how it’ll unfold over the next few days.
The reaction on Twitter was that of sudden shock when Nintendo’s Japanese Twitter tweeted the link announcing Iwata’s death on Saturday with the added news that the company’s other biggest icon, Shigeru Miyamoto, would take charge of the company along with Genyo Takeda until a permanent successor for Iwata is found.
Miyamoto has said today Nintendo’s development team “remain committed to our development policy which Mr. Iwata and we have been constructing together and to yield the development results which Mr. Iwata would appreciate.”
It came out of nowhere, even for a man who a year ago went under surgery for a bile duct growth. It was because of that Iwata missed last year’s E3 due to doctor’s orders not to fly abroad and the subsequent annual shareholders meeting for the surgery.
“I was counseled that removal at an early stage would be the desirable medical option,” he said at the time. “Therefore I had surgery last week, and I came through it well, as predicted.”
Unfortunately, despite everything seemingly pointing towards what looked like a recovery, Nintendo cited the cause of Iwata’s death as a second bile duct growth.
Iwata’s passing has led to journalists, fellow game developers and game executives tweeting tributes this morning and this afternoon, which is absolutely right for how iconic he was. Say what you will about Nintendo as a company, as a business – I certainly have been critical of the company at times from a business perspective for decisions its made – but you will not hear word one that is negative from me or anyone of a man who was so likeable, had the greatest of charm and warmth around him and who’s path from developer to executive is the rarest of things.
In fact, one story that has gone around about Iwata was an interview he conducted with Japanese publication 4Gamer last December in which he described a situation towards the end stretch of Super Smash Bros Melee’s development that saw him get his hands dirty again in development despite his executive duties.
“I couldn’t write code during the week days, but, well, my nights were my own, as they say,” he said in the interview (thanks to StreetsAhead on NeoGAF for the translation). “Or, I’d take work home on my days off and write code there. If I made anything cool, I’d bring it in to work on Monday to show it to everyone and they’d all be glad to look at it and that was fun for me.”
Here’s the Smash transcription in full:
Iwata: Aaah, I wonder if it’s alright to admit this? Well, I guess the proverbial statute of limitations is up, so I’ll tell you, but my actual last work on programming happened when I was working as the General Manager of Corporate Planning at Nintendo. Something happened and the Gamecube version of Super Smash Brothers didn’t look like it was going to make its release date so I sort of did a code review for it (Wry Laugh).
All: (Laugh Loudly)
Kawakami: No matter how you look at it, that’s not the job of the General Manager of Corporate Planning, is it? (Laughs)
Iwata: Yes, it isn’t really, is it (wry laugh). At the time, I went to HAL Labs in Yamanashi and was the acting head of debugging. So, I did the code review, fixed some bugs, read the code and fixed more bugs, read the long bug report from Nintendo, figured out where the problem was and got people to fix those…all in all I spent about three weeks like that. And, because of that, the game made it out on time.
Kawakami: So you even did the debugging yourself!
Iwata: And that was the last time that I worked as an engineer ‘in the field’. I was right there, sitting by programmers, in the trenches, reading code together, finding the bugs, and fixing them together.
Kawakami: That is such an interesting story. But with that being the last time you worked as an engineer, does it mean that there’s a knowledge gap between you and people who are currently working as ones?
Iwata: Yes, stepping back from something means that a knowledge gap is inevitable. Even if I understand the principles, I just can’t take the time to fully update my skills. So, with time, I’ve found myself having to ask what certain things are.
So, even though I’m looking over the system development departments, I find myself having to ask them to explain certain things to me. Through that I’m sort of struggling through trying to not let my judgements standards waste away.
Kawakami: So that’s an on-going thing, then?
Iwata: Yes, of course. How do I put this? I, personally, don’t want to lose my position as the ‘CEO of a listed company in Japan with the most knowledge of programming’.
All: (Laugh loudly)
And above all else, whilst Sony and Microsoft were in the pursuit of ultra-realistic graphics and evolved storytelling in games (not to say those are bad things to chase), Nintendo made sure its core tenant in games was about one thing: fun. And Iwata made sure of that. If proof of that is needed, all you need to do is look at the games Nintendo has put out in the past 18-24 months on Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. This was a culture of fun that was headed up by him.
And not just in his time developing games like Earthbound, Balloon Fight, Kirby, Pokemon and many other games, but also at an executive level too. When presenting Nintendo Directs, Iwata was not afraid to open himself up to be made fun of and have a laugh at his expense. Who else would randomly hold a pair of bananas in the middle of a Nintendo Direct or during E3 as a muppet? Who else would surround himself with a ton of Luigis on screen for no particular reason? Who else would have made a motion made at the start of every Nintendo Direct or have two words said so often turn into memes? Satoru Iwata.
He’s a man who also very much cared about Nintendo as a company from a business perspective as well as a personal perspective. At the start of 2014, when Nintendo announced a 30 percent loss of profit over the nine-month fiscal period ending December 31, 2013, Iwata announced he’d take a reduction of his salary by half. He was not a fan of layoffs either.
He was also a personal executive too. When he’d come to Nintendo of America, he’d change his StreetPass message to reflect his visit. And there is quite a lovely personal story of him that I have to quote in full from NeoGAF from NintendoGal.
“A few years ago a few thought I was kinda crazy because I got super frustrated I wasn’t able to meet Mr. Iwata. During E3, I’d just show up too late here or there, always missing the window of opportunity to meet him. I really wanted to meet him because of everything he helped accomplish with Nintendo and I just wanted to say thanks. Call it something akin to meeting an idol or something, I don’t know.
“Anyway… my husband was lucky enough to work with him when he was in the RWC office and always had the nicest things to say about him. Well, whenever he was in the office, I’d have him take my 3DS to work to get Mr. Iwata’s Mii and StreetPass. For SOME reason, he had all the rare puzzle pieces, who’da thunk it! One time when he was in town, I decided to write a private message to him, just for fun. I never thought he’d ever take the time to write something back.
“Well, shockingly he did! I’m still stunned he took the time to do so because unlike E3, this is a company/work environment and I imagine he was fairly busy at a CEO.”
Everyone, no matter how big or small, has a memory of Iwata to talk about, a game he was involved in that people want to play or just want to pay tribute to a one-of-a-kind executive the likes of which we will never see again or at the very least won’t see for a very, very long time.
Even I have my own thing to be thankful for from Iwata, even if he didn’t perhaps play that much of a part in it. But I’ll give it to him considering it happened under his watch.
When Nintendo announced it was publishing and funding Bayonetta 2 for Wii U in 2012, I knew I had found my one sole reason to own the console. To Nintendo’s credit, there’ve been many games since that have made me kept my Wii U about. But I digress.
Last year, just before my mum passed away, I’d picked up the Bayonetta combi-pack for Wii U, featuring both Bayonetta 2 and the Wii U port of the original Bayonetta that launched in 2010 for PS3 and Xbox 360. Playing Bayo 2 whilst my mum, who was seemingly getting better but still ill, was still in hospital helped in being a great comfort to me. I was playing a lot of games either side of her passing, but Bayonetta 2 is a game that stands out from that time for me.
And for a series that was effectively dead and buried beforehand from original publisher Sega, Nintendo brought it back to life. And it all happened under Iwata’s watch. And I am very thankful it happened.
What else needs to be said of a man who made such a positive influence in the industry? Not much, it seems, but it is fitting that if there is one quote he’ll be remembered by, one that represents his principles, it’s this one.
“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.”
Please understand, Satoru Iwata, you will be heavily missed.