Every human being that reaches a position of relative power is faced with two options: either become completely self-absorbed inside their bubble of perceived superiority, hence shutting out external influences and productive exchanges of ideas; or – like an adult who comes to his knees when talking to a child – reach out to the outside world and, at the expense of being able to feel and be looked at as a creature of heavenly strength, leave the door wide open to truthful feedback and human values by letting others know they are your equals.
Satoru Iwata took the latter road. Aside from treating his employees as peers with whom he could sit down and have a light-hearted talk about their common hobby – fun videogames, which also happened to be the ultimate creative goal of their professional lives; he did the same for his fans.
Nintendo had always been known for its colorful characters and family-friendly franchises, and Iwata dared to bring the same loose and goofy philosophy that gave life to icons such as Mario and Kirby to the business environment. The board of directors may have awarded him with a position that required him to wear a black dull suit, but under it he carried the same passionate heart that made him turn towards game development in the first place.
With him, the inventiveness of Nintendo’s line of software leaked right into its hardware. Traditional control schemes took a backseat to touch screens and motion-based technology. Surely, he was not the sole responsible for the advent of those features, but it takes one courageous soul – and a person who truly believes his instincts – to put his position and the company he loves on the line by green-lighting projects as utterly insane as the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii.
More than that, it takes someone with incredible power of persuasion and honesty – someone that is willing to leave the throne to which he is entitled by the title written on his business card and reach out to all of his employees (from the high-ranked folks to those that sweat to make the magic happen), to make everyone believe it will all work out in the end.
Iwata pulled that off because to Nintendo’s programmers and hardware engineers he was one of them. He had suddenly become the one calling the shots, but his background was that of a guy that coded, projected, and pulled off amazing feats by himself. Bigwigs that arrive on an industry as outsiders have a hard time understanding what the new market they face is all about, and no amount of studying or good-will can compensate the lack of hands-on experience. Iwata did not need any of that; he had been born and bred within the gaming world, and his impressive technical career paired up with his humility made people believe him.
In fact, his ability to communicate a message and affect people positively was so big that it transcended the walls of the Kyoto headquarters. Firstly, it was via little gems such as Kirby, Smash Bros., Balloon Fight, and Earthbound – series whose existences can be accredited, partially or entirely, to him. Lastly, it was by making a world of people – both gamers and those living on the outskirts of the industry – test and buy into his ideas of fun and intuitiveness over sheer power.
Like all human beings, his track record will display both successful endeavors and sad failures. Unlike many, though, and especially those that reach positions as high as he did, his life will show a person whose professional actions were guided by one single purpose; not money, not profits, not greed, and certainly not fame. His target was to entertain as many people as possible, and every business decision he made during his tenure was rooted in good intentions, because – first and foremost – he was a passionate and silly gamer sitting on top of a giant of the industry.
Whether through the Nintendo Directs, his own special way of having a heart-to-heart conversation with the legions of fans that longed for his every word and announcement; or through the software and systems that Nintendo has produced, and will certainly continue to do so, under his philosophy, his legacy will live on.
As long as there is a console out there turned on and serving, either to a starry-eyed child or to a delighted adult, as a colorful window into a fantastic world, Iwata will live on. The magic he worked so hard to keep alive will continue to travel, in the form of bright bits, directly to our souls.