Before Japan’s startup elite, Nintendo president talks innovation and the search for something new

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata

This is a part of our coverage of B Dash Camp Osaka 2013.

The highlight of day one at B Dash Camp in Osaka was the final session featuring Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. It’s unusual for him to join an open event like this, so this was a bit of a treat, especially following the social gaming session that took place earlier in the afternoon.

Iwata started out with some slides to remind us that Nintendo started out as a card game company way back in 1889. He outlined how the company transitioned to TV games and then to consoles as a game platform. Nintendo is an old company, but always one that wants to make something new, he emphasized.

When we talk about Nintendo we cannot ignore (former president) Hiroshi Yamauchi who just recently passed away. He always said that if you have failure, you don’t need to be too concerned. You always have good things and bad, and this reflects the history of Nintendo [1].

Iwata, as you might expect with so many folks from the mobile industry in attendance, really focused on his company’s longevity, innovation, and legacy of surprising the world with something entirely new.

If you do the same thing as others, it will wear you out. Nintendo is not good at competing so we always have to challenge [the status quo] by making something new, rather than competing in an existing market.

Iwata left, Nobuo Sayama right

While fans are screaming out for the company to go the way of Sega and and produce games for our mobile devices, Nintendo has been a stubborn holdout. That was, of course, the elephant in the room during Iwata’s talk, with the final question of the Q&A session predictably asking if Nintendo would ever shake from its stance of refusing to produce games for hardware other than its own. Iwata’s response to that was predictably curt:

No one knows the future, but I don’t think that’s going to happen with Nintendo.

As our readers may recall from a few weeks back, I myself have been dreaming that someday soon Nintendo might make a Hail Mary pass by producing a DS Phone. From Iwata’s comments, that does not look to be a likely scenario – although he did leave the door open a crack to the possibility.

I confess, I’ve all but given up hope for the salvation of Nintendo. But at the same time, hearing Iwata describe his company as one that looks for something entirely new – well, that claim appeals to the nostalgic gamer in me, the one that has been three times captivated by the company’s innovations [2]. I’d love to think that the company could pull off a home run again, but the skeptic in me thinks Nintendo is no longer capable of such things.

And yet, Iwata still kept talking.

And it did not sound ridiculous:

It’s often called the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’, looking for something that no one else is working on. When we created the DS, people said it was strange to have a dual display, and people said elderly people don’t play games. But they did. Opening the first door is when things are most interesting.

He went on to speak of the challenge they faced in pushing Pokemon abroad:

Will America accept cute monsters? No, they said. Some people even recommended to make Pikachu more muscular. If we followed their advice Pokemon would never have been the success that it was. Brain Training software (Brain Age) became a hit in Japan, and I proposed that we sell it globally. And even as I said that as the president, no one listened.

But actually, Brain Training did better in Europe than anywhere else, and Iwata rolled out a handy chart to show as much.


He went on to praise his company, explaining how motivated Nintendo staffers are. “It’s easy for our employees to see the benefits of the work they do”, he explained, “and when employees are excited, well, that’s the best possible state for a company.”

It’s all too easy to bash Nintendo for its stubbornness in the face of the smartphone revolution. I’ve done it, and I’ll probably continue to do it. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t also rooting for the company to pull off that last second miracle that turns the gaming industry on its head.

The giant is now the underdog, and I’m really not sure why, but I’m still rooting for them to do well.

  1. Do note that quotes in this article are taken from live translation during the event, and that Iwata’s talk was in Japanese. So it’s possible that quotes may not be entirely accurate or verbatim, but I think they are generally solid.  ↩

  2. When I say three times, I’m referring to the Nintendo Entertainment System, Gameboy, and the Nintendo DS. I didn’t buy a Wii, so I missed that train.  ↩