Words of wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's legendary CEO

[This is from my Substack newsletter, The Magnet – Mark]

Satoru Iwata (1959-2015) was Nintendo's beloved fourth president and CEO. A new book, Ask Iwata, collects interviews with him to form a short business autobiography. I don't normally read business books, but once I started this I couldn't put it down.

Iwata starts the book by talking about getting a programmable HP calculator and writing a game on it that his friend enjoyed. (He doesn't specify the model but I think it was probably the HP-65, which I wrote about in The Magnet 22.) He then describes working in the game development firm HAL Laboratory, where he created games for Nintendo, including the popular Kirby series. He eventually rose to become president of HAL at a difficult time, when the company was in debt to the tune of 1.5 billion yen (roughly US$15 million). When he went to Nintendo and became CEO, he led the development of the Nintendo DS and the Wii and paved the way for Pokémon Go and Nintendo Switch before succumbing to cancer.

Between each of the seven chapters is a list of short pieces of advice, called "Words of Wisdom." Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Someone might understand your explanation, but it takes a different kind of understanding for them to be able to relay the message to somebody else.
  • Picture yourself at a restaurant. A customer looks at their food and says it's "too much." When a person says "too much," what makes them see things that way? At the root, the problem isn't about there being too much, but rather about the food being unappealing. Plenty of times, things can look excessive when there really isn't too much there. If you overlook the unappealing aspect, and simply reduce the portion, it won't make any difference. If the problem is about it being unappealing, you need to fix the unappealing thing. At first glance, the idea of scaling back because it was too much may seem like a solution, but it solves nothing.
  • Sometimes in a game, you'll find a stone just sitting there for no reason. Ask whoever made it, "Why did you put this here?" And they're liable to say "Why not?" But "why not" is the worst reason imaginable.
  • When you're making a game, at first there are so many things you want to do, but piling on all the features you want won't make the game superior. When you figure out exactly "what is necessary for this game," a world of possibilities will open up. So, rather than tossing in whatever you want, it's good to remember the creative power of paring back.