Satoru Iwata was a renowned Japanese video game programmer and businessman who is best known as the fourth president of the Japanese video game company, Nintendo. He later took additional responsibility as the CEO of Nintendo of America. Prior to joining Nintendo, he served as a programmer for HAL Laboratory, Inc., which he joined during his university days. While still at HAL, he collaborated with Nintendo on a number of video games and came close to Hiroshi Yamauchi, the then-president of the company. He trained himself in marketing and helped both HAL and Nintendo in increasing their profit margins. He is also known for his revolutionary ideas, and had a great role in developing the touch-enabled dual screen Nintendo DS, the motion controlled Wii, and in conceptualizing the Amiibo figurines. He became the public face of the company in later years and hosted the interview series titled ‘Iwata Asks’ and showed his sense of humor on ‘Nintendo Direct’, a series of online press conferences. A proficient programmer, who is also a self-proclaimed gamer, he was highly respected by programmers and gamers alike.
Childhood & Early Life
Satoru Iwata was born on December 6, 1959, in Sapporo, Japan. His father, a politician, served as a prefectural official there and was later elected as the mayor of Muroran.
Satoru Iwata became interested in computers and video games while in middle school, and started creating simple games in his HP-65 programmable calculator during his junior year at Hokkaido Sapporo South High School.
In 1978, he enrolled into Tokyo Institute of Technology with major in computer science and purchased his first computer, a Commodore PET, which he later disassembled to study how it worked.
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Career at HAL
In 1980, while still studying at the university, Satoru Iwata was invited to the game development company, HAL Laboratory, Inc, to work as a part-time programmer. As part of the company, he developed a peripheral device to enable older computers to display latest graphics, which helped them become the first company to obtain a license with Namco for developing games.
Following his graduation in 1982, he became the fifth full-time employee at HAL, as well as its only programmer. The next year, he became the company's coordinator of software production and helped it reach a deal with Nintendo to produce games for the newly released Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Starting with a port of the 1982 arcade game ‘Joust’, he went on to work on games like ‘Balloon Fight’, ‘NES Open Tournament Golf’, ‘EarthBound’, and the ‘Kirby’ games. He even created his own data compression method for ‘Open Tournament Golf’, a game that several major developers initially declined to produce because of the difficulty to store large amount of data on NES cartridge.
In 1983, with the support of Nintendo's then-President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, he was made the president of HAL, at a time when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. He successfully recovered the company from its ¥1.5 billion debt within six years, often polishing his management skills by reading books or taking advice from experienced professionals.
Career at Nintendo
Even before joining Nintendo officially, he helped create a set of compression tools for the games ‘Pokémon Gold and Silver’, released in November 1999. He also assisted in porting the code for the battle system of ‘Pokémon Red and Green’ into ‘Pokémon Stadium’ for the Nintendo 64 within a week.
The president of The Pokemon Company, Tsunekazu Ishihara, has credited him for popularizing ‘Pokémon’ in the Western markets. He was also involved in the development of ‘Super Smash Bros.’ for Nintendo 64.
In 2000, he joined Nintendo as the General Manager of the Corporate Planning Division and became a member of its board of directors. He immediately focused on reducing the cost and duration of game production without affecting quality, and contributed significantly to the company’s 20 and 41 percent profit increase during the next two years.
Following the retirement of Hiroshi Yamauchi on May 24, 2002, he became Nintendo's fourth president, and the first one not related to the Yamauchi family. Right after joining as the president, he met directly with the heads of various departments of the company and its employees, breaking Yamauchi’s practice of holding only an annual speech.
He observed that to be competitive, they have been focusing on hardware-heavy consoles, which satisfied only a small group of hardcore gamers and made the process of developing games increasingly difficult. He subsequently adopted a ‘blue ocean’ strategy which, instead of competing in terms of technical specification of the device, attempted to make the overall gaming experience more entertaining for the average user.
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In 2004, as the successor of the company’s popular handheld device, Game Boy Advance, he introduced the Nintendo DS, which came with two screens, one with touch enabled. It became a huge success, partly because of the ‘Brain Age’ training game series, which was developed particularly to attract non-gamers.
He likewise focused on developing the family-oriented home console, Wii, which was released in 2006 and was slimmer and more power efficient than its predecessor GameCube, while improving performance. To make it more accessible to everyone, he ditched the typical controller and replaced it with the signature Wii Remote, which came with a motion sensor that allowed gesture control.
Following the success of Wii, he starting developing products to improve the quality of life, including the exercise game ‘Wii Fit’ and the cancelled Vitality Sensor. However, the company’s profit margin started to decline in 2010, and the next two devices—Nintendo 3DS, released in 2011, and Wii U, released the next year—failed to revive its sales figures.
In June 2013, he became the CEO of the company’s American arm. Later that year, he conceptualized the Amiibo figurines, a line of physical toys related to Nintendo games, which became immensely popular. While initially he was against switching towards the emerging mobile gaming market, he served as the head developer of the Nintendo Switch during his final months.
After taking over as the president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata introduced the ‘blue ocean’ strategy which helped the company successfully compete with rival console manufacturers.
In 2004, he brought into market the touch-screen enabled handheld console, Nintendo DS, which sold over 154 million units within a decade and became the second-best selling video game console of all time.
He spearheaded the development of the revolutionary family gaming console, Wii, which made motion control-based video games popular. It opened the market to a large number of casual gamers and contributed to almost doubling the company’s stock price.
Awards & Achievements
Satoru Iwata was posthumously honored with ‘Lifetime Achievement Awards’ at the 2015 ‘Golden Joystick Awards’ and the 2016 ‘DICE Awards’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Satoru Iwata, who had been suffering from health issues for over a year, died on July 11, 2015, at the age of 55, due to complications from a tumor surgery he had in June 2014. He is survived by his wife, Kayoko.
Satoru Iwata’s family did not initially approve of his decision to pursue a career in game developing. After he joined HAL as a fulltime employee, his father did not talk to him for six months.