Saturday 22 October 2016

Satoru Iwata

President of Nintendo who broadened the social appeal of gaming

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Satoru Iwata in 2008.
Satoru Iwata in 2008.

Satoru Iwata, who died of cancer earlier this month, aged 55, was the fourth president and CEO of Nintendo, responsible for the most transformative period in the history of the video-game company.

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When Iwata took over the presidency from the 75-year-old Hiroshi Yamauchi in 2002 - the first person from outside the Yamauchi family to hold the reins since the company was founded in 1889 - Nintendo faced serious competition. Sony and Microsoft were preparing to launch the next generation of consoles, aimed at men aged between 18 and 24.

Unlike previous Nintendo presidents, Iwata was a gamer and games developer himself, with an instinctive appreciation for the feel of a product. Under his watch, developers eschewed the prevailing enthusiasm for photo-realistic graphics in favour of bright updates of classic franchises. While Sony fans could revel in the violence of Grand Theft Auto, the biggest releases on Nintendo's GameCube console included Mario Kart: Double Dash! (colourful go-kart racing) and Lego Star Wars: The Video Game.

For a time, sales of the GameCube lagged behind those of Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox, and by 2003 Nintendo's market share had slipped to just 16pc. Undeterred, Iwata resolved to tailor his vision for a new, hitherto neglected audience: the mobile gamer.

The resulting product was a hand-held console, the Nintendo DS, that aimed to make gaming on the move straightforward and sociable. Equipped with a touchscreen, a mic port and wireless network capabilities, the DS brought a new level of interaction to the gaming experience.

Iwata also capitalised on an appetite for "serious" games. He skipped the DS's Tokyo launch to meet Professor Ryuta Kawashima, a neuroscientist whose puzzle books had been a runaway success in Japan. The meeting turned into a three-hour brainstorming session, out of which came Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! (2005), produced for the DS. By September 2010, sales of the DS had reached 135 million units.

Satoru Iwata was born in northern Japan on December 6, 1959 and grew up in Sapporo. He first became fascinated with computing aged 15, creating games on a Hewlett-Packard programmable calculator.

Equipped with a computer science degree from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he joined HAL Laboratory, a Nintendo affiliate. He rose to become company president in 1992, joining Nintendo eight years later.

Iwata also thought of how to broaden gaming's social appeal. Nintendo's 2006 home console, the Wii , introduced a more physical element with a built-in motion sensor. Rivals scrambled to copy its example, and Wii sales worldwide trounced those of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Faced with competition from Apple and Android hardware, however, in 2011 Nintendo suffered its first-ever annual loss. Iwata responded by volunteering to take a 67pc pay cut. Weak sales of the Wii U console in 2014 prompted another tumble in revenue.

Iwata remained popular in the industry and with Nintendo die-hards, frequently engaging with gamers on social media. He is survived by his wife, Kayoko.


Sunday Independent

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