The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of transition for Nintendo. Beset by outside influences that saw their considerable lead in the early 1990s in the North American and European markets shrink, Nintendo has seen setback after setback plunge the company deeper into obscurity.
First, it was the Nintendo 64. Although profitable for Nintendo and home to many titles that gamers fondly remember, such as the one from 1996. Super Mario 64 and the years 1998 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the Nintendo 64 failed dramatically compared to Sony’s behemoth PlayStation. Selling almost three times as much as the Nintendo 64, the PS1 managed to take advantage of the changing whims of an entire generation, swapping the family business schlock from Nintendo’s heyday in the 1980s and early 90s for a new brand of more daring, more conspicuously âmatureâ marketed games that featured more strongly sexualized characters and placed more emphasis on violence. This ingenious marketing, straight from the SEGA playbook, coupled with a prospective use of CD-based technology has allowed Sony to market itself as the company most in tune with changing consumer tastes.
Nintendo has attempted to combat this rapidly calcifying âkiddieâ image by adapting some of Sony’s marketing tactics. At the end of SNES, they used so-called “extreme” marketing in the Donkey Kong Country series, they released games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day by major developer Rare and they’ve even attempted a more drastic change with the GameCube, leading to some notorious marketing stunts that haven’t really paid off with a younger audience.
When Satoru Iwata took over as head of the company in 2002, Nintendo ran into problems in the home console market. The GameCube hadn’t launched well and the overall industry content was leaning heavily towards Sony’s PlayStation 2. Even the newcomer, Xbox, was doing better than Nintendo in North America, led by an incredibly powerful console and unrestricted marketing. campaign that precipitously drained money from parent company Microsoft.
By the time of his death in 2015, Nintendo had completely transformed the video game market, bringing a whole different kind of âcasualâ gamer with both the DS and the Wii. After the Wii U’s failure to catch on to consumers, Iwata positioned the company to seek another line of innovation in the future “NX”, which would become the Nintendo Switch. The recently released book, Ask Iwata, published by Viz Media and translated by Sam Bett, examines how Iwata viewed his jobs at HAL Laboratory and Nintendo and how he viewed the gaming industry as a whole.
At the heart of Iwata’s tenure at Nintendo was a listening philosophy. Since being president of HAL Laboratory, a secondary Nintendo developer known for making blockbuster games like Kirby and Super Smash Bros., Iwata made a habit of interviewing every employee in the company throughout the year, investing her time in learning how employees viewed the company, its vision and plans for the future.
He carried this same concern for the thoughts of others in his work at Nintendo. Mindful of the average consumer, the one for whom video games were a bit too involved, Iwata built Nintendo around reaching these consumers and getting them involved in video games. During the development of the Wii, he sought to eliminate all barriers to entry, insisting that the Wii controller be called the âremoteâ and helping to make the gaming experience more relaxed so that more people than. could never be involved in the games.
It would be easy to dismiss this concern as being another business executive looking for the bottom line of his business by expanding his target market. However, that was not the case with Iwata. A gamer at heart, as he joked so well at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, Iwata was a born problem solver who noted the hold that television had on the average consumer and wanted to expand it. industry in this niche.
In a post-smartphone world, it may seem odd that these casual markets should never have been drawn to in the first place. Today, a deluge of games and game companies are making their profits by injecting consumers with free products and microtransactions, taking advantage of the reduced attention span and ubiquity of smart devices to take advantage of the boredom of users. consumers. In the early 2000s, this was not the case. Gambling, for all its cultural hiding place, was still a relatively niche activity, one that still carried with it negative stereotypes about mental health, sociability, and obesity that are less entrenched today.
Iwata’s design philosophy, its game philosophy you might say, was to make sure that everyone, regardless of their age or experience with video games. He has actively sought to listen to consumers and, through Nintendo’s beloved innovation, provide them with new experiences they never imagined imaginable. The DS, 3DS, Wii and Wii U were all the result of this pivot towards the casualness of the gaming experience, so that everyone could play.
When there was a backlash over what some saw as the Wii’s excessive leaning towards a casual audience, Iwata attempted to fill both markets with the Wii U, a system that Nintendo has positioned as something that hardcore gamers have. and casual could appreciate. The result turned out to be less than satisfactory and Iwata passed away before the “NX”, the Switch as it was called, proved that it was possible to please a casual and hardcore audience with just one product.
Iwata’s tenure at Nintendo was marked by constant innovation and a concern for the casual markets that had not been seen before and has not been seen since. Today’s Nintendo, while still ostensibly focused on those markets, has moved away from Iwata’s philosophy of focusing on casual gamers, attempting a sort of synthesis that has proven to be particularly successful.
Ultimately, Iwata defined Nintendo for over a decade. A creative force and a model of choice for consumers, Iwata saw Nintendo’s role as a market accelerator, a company that would seek to attract new consumers while other companies seek to extract more money from the same group of consumers. . In doing so, he turned Nintendo and the games into something everyone could enjoy.