Hiroshi Yamauchi: Nintendo president who knew little about hardware or software but crafted the company into a video games giant
Hiroshi Yamauchi, who died on Thursday aged 85, transformed his family's Japanese playing-card company into a powerful global force in the video game market, enthralling players over several decades with devices such as the Game Boy and characters including Super Mario and Donkey Kong.
Yet Yamauchi himself was no hardware expert. Nor, indeed, was he a software programmer. In fact, he could barely play the games that his company made so profitably, indulging in only very occasional sorties on Tetris, the simple building block game. Much more to his taste was the traditional, distinctly un-digital Japanese board game of Go, at which he was supremely skilled.
But as a driven executive with a fearsome reputation both within and without Nintendo, Yamauchi made an astute early assessment of the video games market. This was that, despite ever-more powerful games consoles, sales would principally be driven not by high-quality graphics or complexity, but by the quality of the gameplay on offer.
While competitors aimed to wow gamers with computational processing power, Nintendo focused on producing engaging, user-friendly entertainment. In 2000, when Sony's PlayStation console was making headway in the market, Yamauchi liked to point out that Nintendo's Pokemon, the bestselling game of all time, was developed for a machine with less than a 100th of the memory and an eighth of the processing power of a PlayStation.
Not that Nintendo shunned new technology under his leadership. For example he launched the Virtual Boy, an early foray in virtual reality. But it was a disaster, and helped to cement Yamauchi's credo that risks should be borne mostly by Nintendo's subcontractors, while Nintendo itself should retain strategic control and remain relatively sleek and nimble.
It was a gameplan that made the company vastly profitable, and Yamauchi himself Japan's richest man. "He's not a hardware guy," noted one software entrepreneur, Henk Rogers. "He doesn't understand games. He understands people and he plays people."
Hiroshi Yamauchi was born in Kyoto on November 7, 1927. His father deserted the family when Yamauchi was young, and the boy was raised by his austere grandparents, then in charge of a business which sold cards for the playing-card game karuta, which was highly popular at the time.
According to Game Over, an account of Nintendo written by David Sheff, Yamauchi's father returned years later, seeking to meet his only son. Yamauchi refused to see him.
That toughness soon emerged in the young man's business dealings, too. In 1949 his grandfather fell ill and summoned Hiroshi Yamauchi to his bedside, asking that he drop out of Waseda University and become president of Nintendo. Yamauchi, then only 21, agreed on the condition that a cousin – and potential rival – be fired. Once installed he cemented his power with a further purge of executives.
He was not intending to innovate. "The truth is, I wasn't really thinking about entering new businesses," he told The New York Times in 1992. But as karuta cards went out of fashion the bottom fell out of the business and Yamauchi began casting around for new ideas. Owing to what he called his "lack of imagination", Nintendo branched out into board games and sports equipment.
The company repeatedly flirted with collapse. But then it moved into arcade games – most famously, in 1981, with its King Kong-inspired game, Donkey Kong. The game soon transferred to Nintendo's Game & Watch gadget – a hand-held device with a basic screen. Other titles were released and Game & Watch proved a hit. Nintendo was relaunched.
Nintendo then launched the Family Computer (a games console known as the Famicom in Japan and the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, elsewhere) only to discover that, just as it had entered the video game market in earnest, the bottom was falling out of that, too. The rot was largely down to Atari, for years the market leader. It had lost control of the supply of games for its machine, resulting in a flood of poor quality titles. By 1985, when the NES was launched in America, what had been a $3bn-a-year industry was pulling in only $100m.
Yamauchi, through his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa (in charge of Nintendo's American operation), aggressively targeted shops and dealers who had despaired of video games in the wake of Atari's collapse. Nintendo offered them attractive terms of sale or return, which many considered commercial suicide. But as the market began to recover, Nintendo was alone in the marketplace to profit.
By 1988 public appetite for Nintendo was insatiable. More than a million American gamers were signed up to Nintendo's "Fun Club". By the following year the club's newsletter had more than 1.5 million subscribers and had become the largest circulation children's magazine in the United States.
Nintendo guide books followed, and hotlines staffed by 550 people received 150,000 calls a week from gamers keen for tips and, happily for Nintendo's bottom line, news of forthcoming releases.
These, regulated by Yamauchi, were few in number but of high quality. Lacking software expertise, he established competing teams of programmers. Only the best game was unleashed upon gamers.
It was a hard-driving ethic that infuriated many. Yet while Nintendo enjoyed a near-monopoly, its suppliers had to agree to its terms. Inside the company things were little better. "At Nintendo, people seem motivated mainly by their desire to win Mr Yamauchi's praise or avoid his scorn," one profile noted in 1996. "There is little done to increase corporate morale."
Nintendo's dominance was further underlined in 1989 with the release of the hand-held Game Boy device. But with competition hotting up, the company was late developing the next, more powerful, generation of console. Sega appeared set to take a large part of Nintendo's market share, only for Nintendo to parry the blow with the enormous success of its Pokemon game.
And when it came to the subsequent round of consoles, Nintendo ensured that it was first off the mark with the Nintendo 64, released in 1996.
The console received rave reviews, but as the games market proved ever more lucrative, competitors redoubled their efforts. The Nintendo GameCube was released in 2001 but was hugely outsold by Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's X-Box. The following year, Yamauchi stepped down. In 2006, the company released the Nintendo Wii console, which proved a considerable success.
Hiroshi Yamauchi lived in a centuries-old family house behind a temple in Kyoto. He had few interests outside work. However, in 2002 he ensured that Nintendo bought the Seattle Mariners baseball team when it required investment to ensure it remained in the city. He never attended a game.
His wife, Michiko, whom he married shortly after the war, died last year.
They had two daughters and a son.