Despite mixed record, Nintendo’s Iwata was a visionary

The death over the weekend of Satoru Iwata has not only left Nintendo without its president, but has also taken a visionary leader away from the games industry.

Under the leadership of Iwata, who died Saturday, Nintendo was always trying to zig when its rivals were zagging. While Sony and Microsoft tended to focus almost exclusively on game enthusiasts, touting the spectacular graphics and impressive performance of their game machines, Nintendo under Iwata was determined to focus on offering a different, fun experience in an attempt to draw in new players, young and old.

When Iwata was named president in 2002, Nintendo was a humbled company. After dominating the video game industry from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, it had been knocked off its perch by Sony and the original PlayStation. The GameCube, which Nintendo launched just before Iwata’s arrival, failed to regain the company its lost position.

Iwata’s job was to turn things around. When he unveiled the DS handheld in 2005 and the prototype for the Wii console in 2005, many doubted his chances. Both devices looked like they would be hopelessly outclassed by their rivals in terms of performance and developer support.

When I spoke with Iwata in May 2006, right after he unveiled the shipping version of the Wii, there was considerable skepticism in the air about Nintendo’s strategy. But it’s remarkable now to see how accurate he was in his critique of the industry and how prescient he was about the potential for games to appeal to a much wider audience than just game enthusiasts.

Both the DS and the Wi were priced below their rivals and offered features they didn’t have, like the dual screens on the DS and the motion sensing controllers on the Wii. Combined, those features helped make them accessible and popular to new audiences. The DS ended up outselling Sony’s rival PlayStation Portable by nearly two-to-one. Not only did the Wii outsell Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, but the more than 100 million that Nintendo sold was about five times the number sold of its previous console, the GameCube.

Nintendo’s stock price jumped with its market and financial success.

But even amid Nintendo’s great rebound under Iwata, the company was slow to recognize how the game industry was changing. Part of the reason why the Wii was inexpensive was because it was designed to work on older televisions, not high-definition ones. That allowed it to have less powerful central and graphics processors.

That made sense in 2006 when the console was launched, because few homes yet had HD sets. But by the end of the decade, HD TVs had become the norm and Wii sales had started to stall, in part because gamers wanted to play games that looked good on their big new screens. Unfortunately for Nintendo, it didn’t have a HD console — the Wii U — ready to launch until 2012, long after the craze over the Wii had passed.

Indeed, when I spoke with Iwata in 2011, he seemed unconcerned about the decline in the Wii, chalking up the sales declines to seasonal fluctuations — the Wii had seen relatively robust sales during previous holiday periods — more than anything.

At the same time that it was missing the move to high definition, Nintendo missed out on the boon in smartphone and tablet gaming. Despite the fact that growing numbers of kids (and adults) were putting down their handheld game machines in favor of playing games on iPhones, iPads and Android devices, Nintendo under Iwata was resolute on keeping its iconic games and characters — Mario, Zelda and the like — on its own devices.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s legendary game designer and arguably Iwata’s right-hand man, expressed that best when I spoke with him in late 2011. After telling me that the company was focused on making games for dedicated game-playing devices, he said he had actually tried to play some smartphone games recently.

“I just have not been able to find any games so far that I particularly like,” he said.

The company later changed direction, but arguably late in the game.

Instead of focusing on high definition television and mobile gaming, Nintendo instead jumped on the 3D bandwagon, launching the 3DS handheld system in 2011 — even as the buzz around 3D televisions was already starting to wear off. It later jumped on the notion of the so-called “dual-screen” experience — the notion that people were using a handheld device while watching TV in the living room — launching the Wii U in 2012.

The Wii U has been an undeniable flop, sinking the company’s revenue and stock price. The 3DS was initially a flop and has not sold as well as the DS, but it has picked up some steam more recently.

Regardless, what’s most notable about Iwata was that the company was willing to take chances. Nintendo under his leadership played by a different playbook than its rivals. He and it weren’t content with simply making game machines that were faster and more powerful. He wanted to offer consumers new ways of playing games — ways that were so compelling that they’d bring in non-gamers too.

In some cases — like with the Wii and the DS — Iwata’s strategy worked spectacularly well. In other cases — like with the Wii U — it failed. But you’ve got to respect the company — and Iwata — for doing things differently.

Photo: Nintendo President Satoru Iwata showcasing the Nintendo 3DS game system at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2011. (AP Photo/Nintendo of America, Kim White)

 

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  • Stewart Seltz

    It’s because of the success of the Wii and DS that accelerometers, gyroscopes, and touch screens were able to be produced in bulk and adopted for use 5-6 years later in smartphones. Motion sensors and touch interfaces are now commonplace in consumer electronics and exercise equipment.

 
 
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