Satoru Iwata

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Satoru Iwata
Satoru Iwata - Game Developers Conference 2011 - Day 2 (1).jpg
Satoru Iwata at GDC 2011
Native name 岩田 聡
Born (1959-12-06)December 6, 1959
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Died July 11, 2015(2015-07-11) (aged 55)
Kyoto, Japan
Cause of death Complications from a bile duct tumor
Alma mater Tokyo Institute of Technology
Occupation President and CEO of Nintendo (2002–2015)
Spouse(s) Kayoko Iwata[1]

Satoru Iwata (Japanese: 岩田 聡 Hepburn: Iwata Satoru?, December 6, 1959 – July 11, 2015) was a Japanese game programmer and businessman who served as the fourth president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Nintendo. He expressed interest in video games early on, and later majored in computer science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Iwata joined the game developer HAL Laboratory in 1980 while attending the university. During his early years at HAL Laboratory, he worked as a programmer and closely collaborated with Nintendo. Notable titles he contributed to at this time include EarthBound and the Kirby series. Following downturn and near-bankruptcy of the company, Iwata became the president of HAL Laboratory in 1993 at the insistence of Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's president, and brought the company to financial stability. In the following years, he assisted in the development of the Pokémon and Super Smash Bros. series, among others. Iwata joined Nintendo as the head of its corporate-planning division in 2000.

Nintendo soon saw notable growth with Iwata's assistance and, as a result, he succeeded Yamauchi as the company's president in May 2002. Under Iwata's direction, Nintendo developed the Nintendo DS and Wii video game consoles, helping the company to achieve financial success in the industry. As a self-stated gamer, he placed focus on making games to appeal to everyone, and is widely regarded as a major contributor in broadening video games' appeal to new audiences through a "blue ocean" business strategy. Later releases of the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U proved far less profitable, prompting Iwata to voluntarily halve his salary as an apology in both 2011 and 2014. In 2015, he put a portion of Nintendo's focus into the rapidly growing mobile game market; a landmark partnership with mobile provider DeNA was established that March. Throughout his career, Iwata built a strong relationship with Nintendo fans through social media and his regular appearances in Iwata Asks and Nintendo Direct; he accordingly became the public face of the company.

In June 2014, a tumor in his bile duct was discovered during a routine physical exam. It was successfully removed and Iwata returned to work in October of that year. However, the issue resurfaced in 2015, and Iwata died at the age of 55 from its complications on July 11. Funeral services took place on July 16 and 17, with an estimated 4,100 people attending to pay their respects.

Early life[edit]

Satoru Iwata was born on December 6, 1959, and raised in Sapporo, Japan, where his father was a municipal mayor.[2] He expressed interest in the creation of video games at an early age, and began developing games at his home during his high school years. The several simple number games Iwata produced made use of an electronic calculator he shared with his schoolmates.[3] Iwata obtained his first computer in the late 1970s, a Commodore PET. He dismantled and studied the machine out of his desire to understand it. The computer coincidentally had a CPU similar to the one used by Nintendo for the Famicom, a gaming console he would later develop games for.[4] Following high school, Iwata was admitted to the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1978 where he majored in computer science.[3][5] While attending the school, he was one of several unpaid interns at Commodore Japan, assisting the subsidiary's head engineer with technical and software-development tasks.[6] One of his main reasons for taking the job was simply to spend more time around computers.[7] Iwata and several of his friends rented an apartment in Akihabara and soon formed a club where they would create and code games. This club would later become HAL Laboratory, Inc., a game developer that often collaborated closely with Nintendo.[8][9]


HAL Laboratory[edit]

While still attending university, Iwata worked for HAL Laboratory as a part-time programmer in 1980.[8][10] Iwata joined the company in a full-time capacity after graduating in 1982, becoming its fifth employee.[8][9][10] Despite his passion, Iwata's family did not approve of his career choice and his father did not talk with him for six months after joining HAL.[10] He became the company's coordinator of software production in 1983, during which he helped HAL create a relationship with Nintendo so they would be able to produce games for its newly released Famicom system.[11] His first commercially published game was Super Billiards for the MSX.[4] Other video games he worked on were Balloon Fight, NES Open Tournament Golf, EarthBound, and the Kirby games.[11][12][13] His proficiency with programming quickly garnered him "cult status" among fellow programmers and gamers alike. Oftentimes, Iwata would continue to work on weekends and holidays because of his passion.[14] Iwata's heavy involvement in the development with Kirby's Dream Land is credited as one of the main reasons that the series was able to take off.[10] With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Iwata was promoted to president of HAL in 1993 at the insistence of Nintendo's then-president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Eurogamer writer Martin Robinson suggests that Yamauchi saw similar traits in Iwata that he did in Gunpei Yokoi, who brought Nintendo into the video game market.[8] With assistance from Nintendo, Iwata helped turn the company around and stabilize its finances.[2][9][11] Lacking prior experience in the management field, Iwata put a lot of effort into learning how to better himself, often reading books on the topic and seeking advice from others.[15]

Although not part of Nintendo at the time, Iwata assisted in the development of Pokémon Gold and Silver, which were released for the Game Boy Color in November 1999. He created a set of compression tools utilized for graphics in the games.[16] While working as a go-between for Game Freak and Nintendo, he aided in the programming of Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64 by reading the original coding in Pokémon Red and Green and porting the battle system into the new game in just one week.[8][16] Additionally, he assisted Masahiro Sakurai in the development of Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64.[8]


Early years (2000–2003)[edit]

"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."

Satoru Iwata in his keynote speech at GDC 2005[17]

In 2000, Iwata took a position at Nintendo as the head of its corporate planning division. Over the next two years he sought to reduce the cost and length of game development while still creating unique game experiences.[18] During his first two years at Nintendo the company saw profit increases of 20 and 41 percent, values which are at least partially attributable to his work.[10] When Yamauchi, the company's president since 1949, retired on May 24, 2002,[19][20] Iwata succeeded as Nintendo's fourth president with Yamauchi's blessing, and Yamauchi would advise Iwata over the next few years.[21] He was the first Nintendo president who was unrelated to the Yamauchi family through blood or marriage since its founding in 1889.[22] Yamauchi left the company in Iwata's hands with a final request: "that Nintendo give birth to wholly new ideas and create hardware which reflects that ideal. And make software that adheres to that same standard."[8]

At the time of Iwata's promotion, Nintendo was not performing as well as other console makers, with its latest release the GameCube performing poorly compared to competitors.[2] His presidency also came at the onset of the popularization of online gaming and Nintendo had yet to move into this aspect of the market. He took a cautious approach to the issue, stating: "We're not negative toward the idea of going online. We're just practical."[23] During an interview in 2002, Iwata stated that he felt that the gaming industry was becoming too exclusive, and wanted to develop hardware and games that would be appealing to all players rather than top of the line graphics.[23] Iwata used a "blue ocean" strategy to help Nintendo successfully compete against the other console manufactures: instead of trying to making hardware that matched the technical capabilities of their competitors, Iwata instead focused on novel and entertaining hardware units and games, using his previous experience as a game developer to help shape this vision.[1][5][8][11] He also fostered a relationship between Nintendo and Capcom which improved the GameCube's appeal.[8]

Revitalization of the company (2004–2009)[edit]

Iwata directed Nintendo to produce the Nintendo DS (left) and Wii (right) units, which proved financially successful for the company.

Under his charge at Nintendo, Iwata helped to lead a revitalization of their handheld system, transitioning from the Game Boy to the Nintendo DS with a unique form factor and inclusion of a touchscreen that allowed for more novel games to be played on it.[24] In an interview prior to the launch of the Nintendo DS, Iwata stated: "Games have come to a dead end."[25] He stressed that developers wasted far too much time focusing on core gamers and would be unable to turn a profit if the average game player was not tended to. Furthermore, he wished to prove that Nintendo, considered a "conservative" company at the time, would become a forefront innovator of entertainment.[25] The Nintendo DS proved to be a highly profitable system and went on to become the second-best selling video game console of all time with more than 154 million units sold by September 2014.[26][27] On the day of the console's release in Japan, December 2, Iwata sought conference with Dr. Ryuta Kawashima about a game that could appeal to non-gamers. This project would later become Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, which released in May 2005. Iwata personally oversaw development of the Brain Age series over the following years and it would go on to sell over 20 million copies.[4]

With encouragement from Yamauchi, Iwata pushed for development of a revolutionary home console that would later become the Wii. He proposed a console without a typical controller in order to make gaming more accessible to everyone.[28] The Wii ultimately introduced the use of motion control-based video games and was initially codenamed "Revolution" during a teaser at E3 2004, following Iwata's goal of creating a gaming revolution.[24][23] During the console's development process Iwata challenged engineers to make the Wii no thicker than three DVD cases stacked together, a feat they ultimately accomplished. Iwata publicly revealed the console at E3 2005, holding it above his head to emphasize its small size and light weight design.[29] Reveal of the Wii's signature "Wiimote" was withheld until the Tokyo Game Show in September 2005. During his speech at the conference, Iwata reiterated his stance on expanding the gaming market but expanded upon it by making controls less sophisticated.[30] The remote control's design partially stemmed from Iwata's desire to have a device that was "immediately accessible" to all. He also insisted that the Wiimote be called a "remote" rather than a controller to emphasize its accessibility to anyone.[31]

The console proved highly successful to the company, with its release helping to nearly double the stock price of Nintendo.[24] Tapping into the market of casual players, the Wii marked "a breakthrough moment in the history of video games":[32] a new genre of gaming was established for the family market.[33] Chris Kohler of Wired magazine stated that "thanks to Nintendo's Satoru Iwata, we're all gamers now", referring to the surge in video game popularity following the release of the Nintendo DS and Wii.[34] Accordingly, Iwata was referred to as a "gentle revolutionary."[8] Iwata's former experience as a programmer, a rarity for technology CEOs, was said to help contribute towards his leadership of the company.[35][36] Due to his success, Barron's included Iwata on their list of the 30 top CEOs worldwide from 2007 to 2009.[24][37]

Downturn and the mobile market (2010–2015)[edit]

In 2010, it was revealed that Iwata earned a modest salary of ¥68 million (US$770,000), which increased to ¥187 million (US$2.11 million) with performance based bonuses. In comparison, Shigeru Miyamoto earned a salary of ¥100 million (US$1.13 million).[38] During the development phase of the Nintendo 3DS, a handheld device featuring stereoscopic 3D without the need of accessories, Iwata stated that his background in technology helped keep Nintendo's engineers in line.[39] Subsequent hardware units under Iwata's tenure, including the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, were not as successful as the DS and Wii, and Nintendo's finances took a downward turn starting in 2011.[40] Iwata voluntarily cut his salary in 2011 and 2014 as apologies for the poor sales while other members of the Nintendo board of directors had pay cuts of 20–30 percent.[41][42] The company did not see operating profits until the end of the 2015 fiscal year in May.[40]

In June 2013, he took the role of Nintendo of America's CEO.[43][44] As one of his first changes as CEO, Iwata decided that they would not hold large press conferences at E3, and instead have several smaller events, each aimed at a certain demographic.[45] While traveling to Tokyo in late-2013, Iwata sketched an idea for a series of physical toys that could connect with Nintendo's games. This concept soon developed into the Amiibo line of figures which launched less than a year later. More than 6 million Amiibo were sold by the end of 2014.[39] In March 2015, Iwata put part of Nintendo's focus on the growing mobile game market, creating a partnership with mobile provider DeNA to publish titles, as traditional hardware console sales began to falter.[21][46] This came in stark contrast to the company's previous business model which put focus on console exclusive titles to prompt people to buy their platforms.[47] Iwata emphasized that although Nintendo IPs would be utilized in mobile games, the company would not compromise their integrity. He also stressed that the main goal would be to reach as many people as possible rather than which options would earn the most money, similar to the idea behind the Wii.[48]

Public relations[edit]

Iwata was well known for incorporating his humor into his Nintendo Direct videos, such as during a pre-recorded video shown at E3 2012 when he stared at bananas in silence for several seconds before turning to the camera.[49]

During the earlier years of his presidency at Nintendo, Iwata would often forego media appearances, unless new hardware was being announced, in order to spend more time programming.[50] However, his attitude towards this changed and he eventually became a prominent part of Nintendo's public relations. Iwata helped Nintendo to improve relations with its fans, regularly responding to them through social media,[36] and brought insight to on Nintendo's employees, games, and hardware through his interview series Iwata Asks.[35] Inspiration for this series, which began in September 2006, stemmed from Iwata's background as a game developer and his curiosity of the mindset of other developers.[51][52] These interviews often showcased the friendly camaraderie between Iwata and other members of Nintendo as jokes and laughter were commonplace.[22] They also revealed a different side of the normally secretive Nintendo: openness to discuss some of the inner workings of the company.[53]

In 2011, he helped to institute Nintendo Direct, a series of online press conferences open to all that revealed upcoming Nintendo games and products outside of typical industry channels.[36] These videos were often quirky and humorous, reflecting the personality of Iwata himself.[8] This stood completely against the generally serious tones displayed by Sony and Microsoft.[54] One such video displayed mock battle between him and Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé to showcase the inclusion of Mii characters, Nintendo digital avatars, in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U.[36][55] These frequently spurred the creation of Internet memes, such as the phrase "please understand" which was often used by Iwata for delays or other negative news and adding "[Iwata laughs]" to forum posts as a reference to his frequent laughter in segments of Iwata Asks.[4][56]

As a byproduct of his presence in Iwata Asks and Nintendo Direct, Iwata became the public face of Nintendo.[54] Iwata enjoyed conversing with reporters and would prepare stories in advance to entertain them. Even when time did not allow, he would mingle with interviewers and chat casually.[57]

Other projects[edit]

Iwata assisted in the founding of Creatures Inc., which was established in 1995 by Tsunekazu Ishihara.[58] In 1998, Iwata helped his colleague and personal friend Shigesato Itoi establish Hobonichi by working as the company's IT Manager. He acquired this position after being asked by Itoi one month prior to the June 6 launch date to arrange a website and the company's technical systems, to which Iwata complied. Iwata personally enjoyed the role and even still held the position in 2007, despite running Nintendo full-time by this point.[59] Soon after his promotion to president of Nintendo, Iwata assigned himself to a development team at HAL Laboratory working on Super Smash Bros. Melee, for the GameCube, to continue his programming passion.[5][17] He also worked on Animal Crossing, Mario, Metroid Prime, and the The Legend of Zelda series of games, among other titles.[10][60] He also had a cameo in WarioWare: Smooth Moves.[61]

Illness and death[edit]

On June 5, 2014, Nintendo announced that Iwata would not be present at E3 2014 due to medical-related reasons.[62] Iwata later issued a public message to shareholders on June 24 that he was undergoing surgery to remove a tumor in his bile duct that was discovered during a routine physical examination.[60][63] After roughly four months of recovery from his successful surgery, he returned to work in October. During this time he lost a notable amount of weight but stated to be feeling healthier as a result.[64] Iwata made his first public appearance on a Nintendo Direct announcement on November 5, but looked "gaunt and pale."[65] He appeared to take this in stride and updated his own Mii in June 2015 to reflect his slimmer self.[66] On January 28, 2015, Iwata came down with a high fever and was suspected to have influenza; a meeting with shareholders was postponed accordingly.[67] At an unknown point after attending a different shareholder meeting on June 26, Iwata suddenly became ill again.[68] He later died due to complications with a bile duct tumor on July 11 at the age of 55. A formal announcement of his death was made by Nintendo the following day.[44]

Flags at Nintendo's headquarters were lowered to half-staff on July 13.[69] All of Nintendo's regional offices took a day of silence on July 13 across all of its social media accounts in remembrance of Iwata.[70] Nintendo confirmed that until an official replacement is announced, general directors Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda would be acting presidents, taking over Iwata's former duties together managing the company in the interim.[71] Members across the gaming industry and fans alike expressed their sadness on social media over Iwata's passing and gratitude for his accomplishments.[69][72] Fans established memorials across the world, including at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow, Russia, and the Nintendo World Store in Manhattan, New York.[73][74] Shuhei Yoshida, president of SCE Worldwide Studios, stated: "He has given a great contribution to the development of the gaming industry. I will pray for Iwata's soul".[75] Composer and director Junichi Masuda, most known for his work with the Pokémon games, tweeted: "He was a man who understood Pokémon, and a great leader. When I visited the other day, he was well. I will pray for his soul from the bottom of my heart".[76]

Several hours after the announcement of Iwata's death, a photograph of a rainbow over Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto was posted to Twitter and widely shared; it was dubbed "the Rainbow Road to heaven" in reference to a stage in the Mario Kart series.[77][78] Funeral services for Iwata were held in Kyoto on July 16 and 17. Despite stormy weather produced by Typhoon Nangka, an estimated 4,100 people attended to pay their respects.[79][80][81] Following the wake, Iwata's remains were cremated.[82]


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