Jul 15, 2015

How will the loss of Satoru Iwata impact Nintendo?

I don’t normally feel much of a connection to heads of multinational companies, but when I heard the news that Nintendo’s President Satoru Iwata had died, I really felt like someone I knew and liked had passed away. Obviously, this is silly in a way. I never met him and he didn’t know me from Adam. Still, my daughter and I watched his disarmingly charming Iwata Asks videos many times together, and his creations added hours of enjoyment to our house. Unlike many company presidents, Iwata worked his way up from being a programmer (he created Kirby) to being the first Nintendo president that wasn’t a member of the company’s founding family. This is even more impressive in light of the fact that Nintendo was founded in the late 1800s.

There aren’t many companies where the president was so central to its vision and public perception. Think about it, if you heard that the CEO of Exxon passed away, what would your first reaction be? Mine would be, “I have no idea who the CEO of Exxon is.” Iwata wasn’t like that. Along with Miyamoto, Iwata was the public face of Nintendo.

The company will go on, obviously, but I think this is a massive loss. How will Iwata’s passing change Nintendo?
Iwata's influence at Nintendo will outlive him. One thing that he did was make a concerted effort to expand the customer base of the company by making gaming accessible to new gamers and even "non-gamers." In fact, you mentioned his work on Kirby, and this was an effort by Iwata to make an excellent game that would be fun for people new to gaming. Let's face it, many of today's games are complex and intimidating to someone who hasn't been playing for years. Because of Iwata, at least in part, Nintendo made an effort to keep games fun for everyone.

As Jim said earlier, Nintendo will carry on. This is a company with a long history and deep pockets. However, this could impact the way Nintendo goes with their upcoming console. Iwata emphasised fun game play with friendly, colorful visuals over expensive hardware and cutting edge graphics. That worked out well for the Wii, not so well with the Wii U. His replacement may re-examine this approach.

One thing that remains to be seen is whether Iwata's replacement will be the same sort of risk taker that Iwata was. Iwata didn't hesitate to create something unique and take a chance that people would like it. That's how we got the original DS and Wii, and they were huge successes. Sometimes these gambles don't pay off though, and a more risk adverse president may push Nintendo down a less experimental path that emphasizes avoiding risk more than risking innovation.
Nintendo is like any other company, it will carry on when it loses a person. Remember that many thought Apple was doomed when Steve Jobs died, but Apple is alive and well. Nintendo will survive.
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