Iwata: Nintendo must not be arrogant

Satoru IwataAnyone who’s followed video games and, by extension, Nintendo for the past 20 years (like the entire senior staff of Infendo, for example) can tell you all about how the house that Mario built became rather arrogant in the 1990’s. It’s not tough to see why this was: Nintendo was enjoying immense success in the industry, and when kids wanted to go play video games at a friend’s house they would, with squeaky little voices, tell their parents “I’m going to go play some Nintendo at Todd’s.” Fun fact: For better of worse, everyone should know someone named Todd.

This is not to excuse Nintendo. Not in the least. It’s a black mark on an otherwise stellar 100+ year career; and it’s a huge black mark at that. But it was a necessary one, in my opinion, and one that was partly responsible for spawning the DS and the Wii. The other part was the industry itself.

In an interview with N’Gai Croal (he’s everywhere this week, no?), Nintendo president and savvy dresser Satoru Iwata discusses the dangers of arrogance, as well as the importance of recognizing the faults in one’s past so mistakes are not recreated in the future.
Personally, I think that today Nintendo has just the right balance of Iwata’s calm, quirky business sense, Shigeru Miyamoto’s amazing imagination, and Reggie Fils-Aime’s American-bred kickassery. Oh, and Reggie isn’t above making a fool of himself on a Wii Balance Board at E3 either. I like that because I don’t know too many high power execs in this industry that would dare show themselves having fun on stage. Or having fun in general. It’s all about the macho. Seriously, we need more Wil Wheaton’s in this place.

But back to that arrogance, and how it may have helped present day Nintendo learn a few lessons. Mr. Iwata, if you please…

Another thing we’ve learned at Nintendo is how to disseminate the information to third parties on how to build a successful software for the Wii. Last month, we had a developer’s conference sponsored by Nintendo. One thing that happened: the Wii sports programmers put together information on how to better utilize the motion sensor and how they utilized it in Wii sports. We gave that information out at the developers’ conference. We’ve heard some rough feedback, and what I have heard is that some people were surprised that Nintendo was willing to give that sort of information out to other people. I mean, up to that point, Nintendo had a reputation of being very, very closed mouthed and close-fisted with that sort of information: develop it on our own, keep it to ourselves, and not being very friendly to outside developers.

On another note, people today just don’t seem as satisfied as they were 10, 15 years ago. What I mean is, is that Nintendo just can’t seem to get the “right” kind of games out the door fast enough. Case in point: Strikers and Prime 3 are both out the door, and both reviewed incredibly well — both by the gamers themselves and by the media outlets (which I criticize regularly, I realize). There were also a number of other sleeper hits from earlier in the year, like Rayman, Tiger Woods (minus the graphics and that deer, natch), Madden ’07 and even the love-it-or-hate-it Red Steel. And yet people complained. “My Wii is gathering dust,” they would say. To this, I really no longer know what to say, so I’m just going to ignore you. You make no sense. No one can please you. And even after Smash Bros and Galaxy launch, I anticipate this dynamic in the industry to continue, so I’ll simply consider you in the same 30% boat that still approves of President Bush. You are unreachable. And yes, I just went political on your ass, and for that I apologize.

Even Iwata seems frustrated with the “Nintendo has forgotten us! Oh noes” sect of gamers, and tries to alleviate their irrational, unsubstantiated claims in the interview:

Looking at the titles that I just mentioned–Mario Galaxy, Smash Brothers and whatnot–those are hitting the latter phase of production right now. So we’ve already started moving manpower into new products, new titles, new themes. Still, we really believe that part of our mission is to make traditional games for our traditional audience.

In our quest to see just how short sighted we can become in the Internet age, we have seemingly missed the fact that Nintendo is working on completely new IP right now using some of the same developers that just finished up Galaxy and Smash Bros. With this information in hand, I can only ignore those who wonder what 2008 will bring once Mario Kart Wii hits shelves and the “Wii vacuum” begins. You mean to tell me you think Nintendo has no plan in place for after Mario Kart Wii? ! Really? You can say that with a straight face? The reality is we really have no idea what’s coming in 2008, but we know that there will be something. And Iwata hopes it will surprise us, because if it doesn’t then the industry stops expanding and begins to stagnate. Again.

Being part of the entertainment industry, part of our job is to surprise our audiences. So actually, if you look at this pattern where we came out with these ideas, everyone said you’re not going to succeed, and yet we overcome all these obstacles and we do succeed, there’s sort of a drama in there that is very fitting for us being part of the entertainment industry. [Laughs.]

On the other hand, if we now say “Oh yeah, that’s probably going to work out okay,” there’s no drama involved in that. And there’s a danger that comes with that. Because if you’re introducing these new things and everyone’s saying, “Oh yeah, this is great,” “We’ll take that,” “That’s a great idea,” it’s very difficult to maintain within the company the energy it takes to be always looking forward. That’s probably Nintendo’s next obstacle is to not lose its internal energy and internal momentum. I believe my most important role right now is to prevent Nintendo from being in a company where people say, “Oh, Nintendo is arrogant,” “Nintendo has let its guard down,” or “Nintendo has lost its challenging spirit.” We want to avoid all of the pitfalls that can come from losing one’s momentum.

But remember, that bubble is about to burst, dear readers. The fall of Nintendo is, as it always has been, just around the corner.