in the mind of the president of Nintendo

July 11 marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Satoru Iwata, the former president of HAL Laboratory and Nintendo who, most of all, is committed to modernizing the strategies and vision of the Kyoto House. A trait that we explored in our special on the history of Nintendo Direct, and which returns with even more vigor in the recent book Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata. The work, currently only available in English and expected this autumn in Italian with the next edition of Panini, represents a precious testimony of the reasoning of the CEO Iwata.

A president who placed passion, understanding and listening at the center of his work experience. It is no coincidence that the good Satoru still described himself as a programmer and, above all, as a player in the eyes of colleagues and consumers. In Ask Iwata, through his own words (collected by the editorial staff of Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, from the testimonies of the closest ones and from the official sources of Mario’s company), it is possible to understand why the face of Nintendo has gone down in history as a splendid person, and not just as a boss.

Since it would be unfair to summarize each passage of the book in a skimpy article, in the following lines we will enclose in three essential points is the wisdom of Iwata. The advice of the writer is to get a copy of the free, since it contains the essence of an exceptional mind and capable of leaving a deep mark in popular culture. That said, it’s time to “ask Iwata”. Once again.

I listen

It may seem trivial, but Iwata’s listening skills for his colleagues, employees and friends have been one of his specialties not only in his career, but in his entire existence. At HAL Laboratory, the CEO spent his first month as president organizing individual interviews with every single employee of the company.

The initial intention was to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each resource, but the amount of information was so overwhelming that it led Satoru to a personal revelation: “Ask me in which company I would like to work and I will answer one in which my boss understands me and is interested in the quality of my life”. This is why every meeting always opened with the same question, namely “are you happy with what you are doing?”. An approach that also favored the interviewee’s tranquility, who was offered a safe space in which to open up. Since then, twice a year Iwata included personal management of these meetings among his duties, organized individually with each of HAL’s ninety employees.

For the president, the interviews were so important that they were also repeated in Nintendo, where the volume of voices to be heard quadrupled. Yet everyone had their time, everyone could make their opinion heard. This characteristic trait of Iwata was also present in his personal life: for example, for decades he had lunch on Mondays with Shigeru Miyamoto, exchanging ideas and opinions. Mario’s father tells how Satoru came out of nowhere with the solution to a problem posed days before, testifying that he found the time to reflect on every issue even in the midst of his commitments. Both Miyamoto and Shigesato Itoi (to whom we owe the Mother trilogy), Iwata’s mentor and friend, tell how the CEO had a prodigious memory for every single exchange of observations. Not just attention, but a real one ability to deeply assimilate any ideas of others.


Although he was a very talented programmer and a scholar who was always active at all times, Iwata rejected the thought of being superior to any employee. He loved to call himself the first fan in the world of Miyamoto, whom he fondly envied his creativity, while he saw in Shigesato Itoi an exceptional mind to learn from. The first meeting with Itoi took place four years after the start of work on Earthbound (the second chapter of Mother).

Miyamoto and Iwata

Shigesato Itoi

Iwata was called to put order to a development that had gone adrift and, when questioned on the matter, put the studio in front of a choice: fix the project in two years while maintaining the same approach, or start from scratch and spend six months of time. Although the choice seems obvious, Iwata took care to make Itoi and all his boys decide which path to take, respecting their wishes.. Shigesato himself later recounted how the CEO of HAL put each person in the condition of working with the new tools he had designed, rather than locking himself in an office leaving the studio in the dark about his work.

Earthbound arrived on the market in the promised time, and became a cult that is still remembered by gamers today. Satoru Iwata’s footprint in development is clear, yet in the pages of the book he downplays his contribution, stating that it was only possible with the four years of material that had already been built. To understand how much Iwata cared not to overwhelm anyone with his position or his knowledge, just mention a famous quote from him, namely “a programmer should never say no”. This is a key point in the development of a video game, that is the constant tug-of-war between a creative who imagines something and who has to actually insert it into the product. It was Iwata’s belief that a programmer had to do his best, and if something was not possible, explain why in order to find the optimal conditions (or compromises) to realize that idea. This quote has become so widespread that it intimidates Iwata, who, as a code string expert, knew the difficulties of a programmer. Simply put, he was afraid of increasing the potential stress for an employee. At this level came his empathy, his sensitivity.

“Years ago, when I was much younger and had a strange sense of urgency, I would say to myself ‘I wish I could clone myself three times.’ Looking back, I recognize that this thought was arrogant and narrow-minded. so precious and give meaning to life. I’m embarrassed to have had this thought. “


The theme of happiness recurs throughout the pages of Ask Iwata, and represents the leitmotif of all the choices made by Satoru in his life: the interest in programming and the joy of doing it in the company, first of friends and then of college mates, led him to become the president of HAL Laboratory, and later he had embraced Nintendo’s mission to convey happiness to more and more gamers. As explained above, in order to succeed in these positions it was necessary that every employee was equally satisfied with the role they played.

To make matters worse Satoru Iwata is described by the most intimate as a person capable of putting his own interests in the background to help someone: if at work he and Miyamoto represented “facilitators” capable of solving problems on the creative and practical front, even in private life he always found the time to be close to those he deeply respected. A trait that emerges from Iwata’s own words: “It makes me really happy when people appreciate my work. It doesn’t matter whether they are players, friends, or the companies we work with, what interests me is to help people have fun. happy people around me is what keeps me going “.

Iwata reflected deeply on this element in the professional sphere, given that the focus of his work was precisely the ultimate happiness of the consumer. A splendid example is provided by his reflection on multiplayer titles: “From my point of view, online games are unusually biased towards the strong. It takes the misfortune of a hundred or a thousand users to make a single player happy. Of course, I don’t mean. reject these platforms entirely, but as long as they retain this element, it will never expand beyond a certain level. As fun as it may seem from the outside, most people will be bogged down at the entrance. There has to be another way. Ho spent so many years trying to figure out how to make these online games a place where parents can feel comfortable encouraging their children to play and how to create a world where harassment is not a problem. “

Faced with thoughts of this depth, it becomes clear that “make every player happy“(motto that Iwata accompanied with a large gesture of the hands, mimicking a smile) was not a slogan said coldly by the head of a large company. This is the mission of a lifetime, a life that until the end made the existence of many people special. In this regard, we can not help but refer you to our special on Satoru Iwata.