The Legacy of Satoru Iwata

[Originally published July 11, 2016]

A year ago today, Satoru Iwata passed away in Kyoto, Japan of a bile duct tumor. A fitting location – Iwata referred to Nintendo as “a company of Kyoto craftsman” in his last interview with a western media outlet. He held his company and the people it employed in equal regard – to say nothing of the games that they made. Today, many will likely write pieces about Mr. Iwata – as they rightly should. They will talk about his life as a gamer, a designer, a CEO. There will never be enough written about this incredible, influential man – there will never be enough words to describe his storied and wonderful life.

I’d like to talk about something a little different. I’d like to talk about how special Iwata was. But I’d also like to talk about how – hopefully – he wasn’t unique.

The games industry is an economy of personality – has been for years. That’s part of why Satoru Iwata was so well-known, and so well-regarded. He had one of the most infectious personalities of anyone in the games industry, and he made it central to his position as a CEO. Iwata Asks is an achievement of transparency. We got to see a CEO talking to a group of developers about their process and their motivations. That’s crazy. In an industry that often struggles to provide devs with a voice, Iwata Asks was a visionary, important step in the right direction. It taught us about game development. It taught us about Mr. Iwata. It taught us about people. Every aspect of Iwata Asks reflected the immense care and passion Mr. Iwata held for the industry. It was a glowing example of the ‘Celebrity CEO,’ and – for the first time in a while – ‘Celebrity CEO’ was a term of adoration – not derision.

I’m trying to remember when gamers got so cynical about CEOs – I believe it was around the height of Bobby Kotick’s fame. For those too young to remember: Bobby Kotick was the face of Activision for much of the early 2010s. In many ways, he was gaming’s biggest celebrity CEO. When people thought of gaming’s biggest franchises – Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, etc. – they thought of Bobby Kotick. As you might imagine, however, this wasn’t necessarily a positive association. The new CoD trailer might be one of the most downvoted in history, but the CoD hate began long before then. It didn’t help that Kotick was clearly unprepared for his celebrity. He was a businessman – first and foremost – and his occasionally brutal sense of business manifested in a series of pretty damning quotes. Cue obscured context, cue angry gamers, cue a united campaign against poor Mr. Kotick.

Bobby Kotick – completely unintentionally, God bless ‘im – killed the Celebrity CEO.

I think Iwata may have brought it back.

Important to note is that CEOs really do care about human beings. I would ask you to, for a moment, consider the implications of Kotick’s crucifixion. I would then ask you to consider how, in the face of death/rape threats, people like John Riccitiello still got up on those E3 stages and fumbled their way through some awkward spiel. Why did these people ever do this to themselves? Yes, E3 is sort of the ultimate consumerist nightmare. It exists to sell us products. But so do television adverts. So do press previews. So do youtubers. One of the caveats of marketing is that it allows for the boundaries between the CEO and the consumer. These businessmen don’t have to get up on that stage. Nobody has to give their speech, only to end up on some Top 10 list or internet cringe video – to be mocked for the ‘crime’ of struggling with speaking in front of millions of people. They do it for us. They do it because they love games and gamers more than they fear the mob.

This is ultimately why Satoru Iwata was so important. That man was charming god-dammit. He was the first CEO in years to consistently thrust himself into the public eye and still win hearts and minds. If you think he never made a Bobby Kotick / John Riccitiello-type call, then you’re a fool. Mr. Iwata was a businessman. But he was also a human being – a human being without fear. He had confidence in his ideas and decisions – he owned them, even in the public sphere. His E3 stage extended far beyond one week in the summer. He held his own E3 as much as he possibly could, and we loved him for it.

In the spirit of E3, I would like to tell you my favorite moment from this year’s expo. It’s relevant – I promise. It didn’t take place during a press conference, an interview, or even on the show floor. It took place during the final hours of That Great Week, during the Giantbomb Weed3 livestream.

It begins one hour and thirty-nine minutes in. The main players are Jeff Gerstmann and three very, very drunk men – Adam Boyes (former VP of Publisher and Developer Relations at Sony Computer Entertainment of America), Dave Lang (CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios), and John Vigniocchi ((soon to be former) VP of Disney Interactive). These are the higher-ups I’ve been talking about this whole time. These are the people we don’t get to see. And that’s why this particular livestream was so enthralling.

Sure, it’s fun because it’s hilarious to watch three grown-ass men getting toasted like a couple of college folks. I would recommend you watch their segment in its entirety for that very reason – it’s the drunken office Christmas party of the games industry. But like those parties, there’s a moment towards the end when it gets late, things start winding down, and the alcohol surging through everybody’s veins pushes their brains into an introspective realm. It gets very serious, and very honest, and very vulnerable. The layers of business are stripped away, leaving only the human beings beneath. John Vigniocchi discusses his fears and anxieties given the end of Disney’s in-house game development – how he fears for all the people who’ve lost their jobs.

“I’m just one dude that’s part of, like, a huge team… and that’s the one thing that kills me. Because I can’t protect everyone.”

In that moment (2:48:00), there was some Satoru Iwata in John Vigniocchi. He was a man who was more devastated by the loss of other people’s jobs than his own. He was a man who was willing to put himself out there in a public setting, despite his self-consciousness. He was a man who let his guard down in front of thousands of strangers, and showed them some truly genuine humanity.

Satoru Iwata’s care and compassion was beautiful, and special, and amazing. The games industry will forever suffer without it. But it’s more commonplace than we think. Iwata and John Vigniocchi are but two men in an industry full of diverse, charismatic, likeable human beings.

Satoru Iwata knew what it meant to be a Human Being, and he took it upon himself to share that knowledge with the world.

I think that – today – as we reflect on his legacy of humanity, Iwata would’ve wanted us to do the same.

Satoru Iwata (岩田 聡), December 6, 1959 – July 11, 2016.

When he’s not weeping uncontrollably after watching the GDC Iwata Tribute Video for the 8th time in a row, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writings here. Follow him on twitter@tloughnessmnstr

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