Satoru Iwata

How To Be A Loved And Respected Game Company President (Like Satoru Iwata)

For most developers, the thought of being the president of a video game company never really crosses our minds. Instead we’re thinking about how we’ll make the next Mario, Minecraft, or other massive hit that will bring joy to gamers all over the world. But for the few of us who can see ourselves as the leader of a video game studio or multi-billion dollar company one day, you can’t go wrong with trying to be more like the late Mr. Iwata.

Like any man or woman who has had a positive impact on people around the world, Nintendo’s recently-passed president had the most influence on those he worked closely with. In the handful of people who spent decades with Mr. Iwata, few know just how great he was as both a boss and friend as Masahiro Sakurai did. The two collaborated on many classics such as Kirby’s Dream Land and Super Smash Bros. before founding a company together called Sora Ltd.

In his latest Famitsu column, translated by Toshi Nakamura of Kotaku UK, Masahiro Sakurai reveals five impressions of what made Satoru Iwata the perfect president for Nintendo. Perhaps by looking at what Sakurai had to say, we too can serve as a beloved and influential leader should we ever find ourselves in such a role…

“He was a man of virtue…”

Where a normal person would get annoyed or angry, he would never show such emotions and would instead analyze, organize, and offer ideas. He was someone who could bow his head and apologize for things that weren’t his fault. I often worried about his stress levels, but he always talked with a smile.”

If there’s one thing aspiring developers never realize until they’re actually making games, it’s how stressful making games can be. From technical problems and strict schedules to limited budgets and gameplay ideas that simply don’t work, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome while making a game that could very well drive one mad. Even more intense, is when you’re in a leadership position, which more often than not involves everyone on the team coming to you with the problems they are facing.

Instead of losing his cool and tossing blame around, however, Sakurai reveals how calm and collected Mr. Iwata proved to be even amidst pressure. Even more incredible is his ability to take blame and accept his errors, even when they weren’t his fault. Perhaps this is why Sakurai wasn’t surprised when Iwata took several pay cuts when Nintendo started doing poorly around 2011.

“He had a brilliant mind…”

Even when people would talk at length or without focus he was able to quickly say, “so, what you’re trying to say is…” and quickly summarize their point. He was able to see to the heart of people and things and was a master of simplifying them so that anyone could understand their point. He could immediately make a call on changes to improve. I have no doubt that many people were saved by this quality.”

It certainly takes a level of skill and intelligence to run a company, especially one as big as Nintendo. Even if you’re only leading a handful of people, it’s important to always make sure you remain focused and willing to understand what others are trying to say. This can become difficult when development reaches its hectic stages and there’s a lot going on.

Like Iwata, any leader must do their best to not only understand what others are sharing but also be able to simplify your own ideas so others can understand. As a brilliant mind himself, it is powerful to hear Sakurai talk about Iwata this way. He never let his position get to his head and instead wanted everyone to be on the same page.

“He was a man of effort.”

“Even though he didn’t start out in the managing field, he read numerous management books, he would ask for advice from the necessary people that he would take to heart, and managed to become the president of Nintendo. What he gained from his years as a programmer allowed him to take many long-term projects to successful fruition.”

It’s not every day that a programmer works his way up to be the president of a company, much less Nintendo. We say this because Nintendo’s previous president, Yamauchi, was said to be very picky about who he chose as leaders. But as a hard worker, Iwata impressed him to become the first Nintendo president not to be directly related to the Yamauchi family.

Having worked with Iwata in his early days as a programmer, Sakurai knows what it took for the late president to rise to the top. Like he mentions, Iwata was reading management books well before he was in the field. If you ever find yourself as the leader of a game company, it will most likely be because you had been preparing for it long before the opportunity was presented.

“He was open and generous.”

“Things like his Iwata Asks, and Nintendo Direct weren’t things that necessarily required the president of Nintendo to stand at the front and do. There was always the risk of frivolous criticism. And yet, by being the spokesperson, I believe he showed the importance of properly conveying a message to his audience.”

It’s easy to believe that Iwata was a busy man. Even so, this didn’t stop him from taking the time to serve in roles that let him show his personality and genuine passion for the products Nintendo developed. Suffice to say, Nintendo Direct will not be the same without him.

Like Mr. Iwata, any president and/or leader should never let their position get to their head. Iwata wore suits and attended shareholder meetings, but he also did things few (if any) other presidents do and that included engaging his audience.

Nintendo fans will always remember the fun moments they shared with their favorite developer’s president, whether it involved him holding bananas, asking you to “Please Understand,” or taking on Reggie in a Smash Bros.-esque fight.

“He was empathetic.”

“After he became the president of Nintendo, he would write emails to all employees to communicate and as hard as it was, took a stance to try to treat everyone as equals. He would often ask third parties to see how people were doing. As an individual, he had no self-righteous qualities.”

Much more with a large company like Nintendo, it is no easy task to make every employee in the company feel like you, the president, genuinely appreciates them.

Most CEOs have others write their letters to employees because they are too busy with meetings and such, but not Iwata. As Sakurai points out, he took great effort in treating every employee as an important part of the company.

As a leader in the future, you’d be wise to do the same. There’s just something about having the top guy (or gal) in the company taking their time to communicate with you and make you feel important, even amidst hundreds or thousands of employees.

Lose the complacent attitude many leaders have, and perhaps you too will become a loved and respected president.

Learn more about the School of Game Design at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The CEO With The Heart Of A Gamer: Remembering Satoru Iwata

Perhaps by the time you’re reading this it has finally started to sink in that Satoru Iwata, one of the most beloved figures in the gaming industry, has passed. It is also possible that you’ve already seen the following quote a thousand times recently:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. In my heart I am a gamer.”

This was said by Mr. Iwata in front of thousands in 2005 at the Game Developers Conference held annually in San Francisco, California.

A loud applause echoed throughout the room upon hearing these powerful words that might have sounded empty if said by any other CEO in the industry. To everyone who knew of Mr. Iwata, whether you worked with him closely or simply enjoyed his presence in Nintendo Direct streams, it was obvious that although he led a multi-billion dollar company, he still genuinely cared about only one thing: making great games.

This passion already showed at a young age when Mr. Iwata was still a student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Here, he worked on several Commodore Japan titles as an unpaid intern before being hired by HAL as a programmer. There he played a large role in the creation of titles still considered classics today, including Kirby’s Adventure and Earthbound, before becoming president of HAL Laboratories. In this role he saw many more great titles released, including the first entry in the very successful Super Smash Bros. series.

When Nintendo’s long-time president, Yamauchi, retired in 2002, Mr. Iwata was handpicked by him to lead the company his family had worked hard to build up since 1889. Although a great honor to be the first CEO that wasn’t directly related to the Yamauchi family, the new president knew the difficulties that were ahead. The most recent console release, the GameCube, was being pummeled in terms of sales by its competition.

However, if there was one man that had enough vision to see Nintendo pull itself out of its poor situation and rise back to the top, it was Mr. Iwata. In the next few years he succeeded by guiding the release of two of the most successful video game devices ever created: the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii. And like most innovative ideas, Iwata and Nintendo would receive plenty of criticism upon the unveiling of both these products.

For the Nintendo DS, having two screens working in tandem while playing a game sounded confusing and tedious. Who wants to look up and down between two screens to enjoy their game?

The Wii was also predicted to be a failure simply because it lacked the specs of its competitors and did away with classic controls in favor of motion. But as both devices continued leaving others in the dust, the industry began to respect the visionary mind of Nintendo’s young new president.

Even when Nintendo began falling behind in 2011 and onward, Iwata continued showing us that he wasn’t in it for the money or position. He voluntarily cut his salary on more than one occasion to avoid having to fire other employees. His frequent presence in the Nintendo Direct series and Iwata Asks interviews gave people the ability to see a very busy president take the time to show his personality, sense of humor, and genuine adoration for the things he and his company develop for us to enjoy.

It was also in these hard times that Iwata gave an inspiring speech at the 2011 Game Developers Conference:

“Trust your passion, believe in your dream… For 25 years, game developers have made the impossible possible. So I ask you, why would we stop now?”

Although Iwata would live to see Nintendo finally turn a profit in 2015, no one can deny that Iwata still had much more to give. Satoru Iwata will always be remembered as the perfect example of just how far patience, dedication, and the courage to innovate can take you in our industry.