Learn From the President! Vol. 7 – Saving the Battlefield

(Iwata) I’ve always hoped that I gave back more than expected to customers, or to another company giving me a job. When HAL Laboratory was in trouble, those same people said “If there’s anything we can help with, we will”, and they honestly meant it. When I think about it now, I always got a lot of help when I was in difficult situations.

(Itoi) That’s amazing. It’s a great thing.

(Iwata) Normally in this case, you’d say “We can’t trust an unstable company to do this job”. But that’s not what happened. Nintendo helped us in a lot of ways, but also told us “Please continue on with your work, based on our mutual trust”.

(Itoi) Were you already married at this time, Mr. Iwata?

(Iwata) I was married. We weren’t newly-wed, but my oldest child was still quite young.

(Itoi) Of course there will always be times that are difficult because you have a family, but on the other hand there are also times that you’re glad you have them.

(Iwata) I’m so grateful to my wife, because she’s never blamed me for any of this once. My public image wasn’t very good, and I was taking on a lot of risk. It wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to ask me “Why do you have to do all of this?”. I’m so very grateful to her for that.

(Itoi) By just having a person who doesn’t blame you for anything, and that same person having a cool head is a very big deal, isn’t it?

(Iwata) I said this before, but the people around me who I wanted to make say “I want to work with him again next time” never left me during this. Rather they helped me out greatly by offering to do anything they could. I don’t think I would have been able to make it if not for that, and I probably would have collapsed. It’s going back to something I talked about a while ago, but the bank should have been way harder on me.

(Itoi) Even if you had ninety percent support and the other ten percent was something worthless like people saying “Give us a break Mr. Iwata, this is common sense right?”, a chill would have suddenly run down your spine, wouldn’t it?

(Iwata) But that would be a natural thing, given not everyone in a company is positive to begin with.

(Itoi) It was a battlefield after all, wasn’t it? This is a conversation sorted out from asking after the fact, but if I’d asked you the same question back then, I don’t think I would have been able to say “Mr. Iwata, what can I do that would make you the most happy?” either. But it’s always hindsight that makes it into the textbooks. Like how you can use the word “prison school” to describe someone imprisoned who’s read all the books available to them, there’s also such a word as “bankrupt school”. I think that’s what I’m hearing you say. In other words, whether you’re imprisoned or bankrupt, all you can do is move forward. At least according to a person who doesn’t consider running to be a choice.

(Iwata) The choice of running occurred to me at the start, but I immediately tossed that aside. I could only think that way because I ultimately decided “If I ran away, I’d regret it for the rest of my life”.

(Itoi) We could see that as your ethics Mr. Iwata, or perhaps your aesthetics……Generally scientific and logical types of people will think something through that way.

(Iwata) I can’t think of it in terms as being something that any scientific person would do. Instead, if I scientifically calculate the anticipated value and think about what the advantages are, it no longer becomes a choice. So I don’t know if it has to do with aesthetics or ethics, but that’s how it was.

(Itoi) In other words, HAL Laboratory is where you’d always been, and you had a lot of friends there. That makes a big difference, absolutely.

(Iwata) Even though there are people here who have worked hard with me, “how can I get away from this?”  was the biggest element in it all.

(Itoi) Was there anyone who had been at HAL Laboratory longer than you, Mr. Iwata?

(Iwata) Apart from me in development, there were four people who had been there longer, I think? And if you count the business and head office, I think they’d all been around longer than me.

(Itoi) You didn’t search for a more senior person to take on that leadership role?

(Iwata) I’d done development, and when I thought about what the company’s strengths were, I realized immediately that there was no other way but to rebuild the company based on development as its axis. It may have taken me about ten seconds to come to that realization.

(Itoi) And in this case by development you mean “games”, right?

(Iwata) That’s right. It was an easy thing to see. Particularly at the time, games were things that had a good chance of success if done right.

(Itoi) I see, I see. It was easier to get that hit then as opposed to now.

(Iwata) Yes. It was at the height of popularity of the Super Famicom. We began making Kirby’s Dreamland as soon as I became president.

(Itoi) I remember Kirby. Its original title was Twinkle Popo, right?

(Iwata) We did have plans to release the Game Boy title under that name, but Mr. Miyamoto said “It seems like such a waste”. So we tweaked it and it became what Nintendo sold as Kirby’s Dreamland.

(Itoi) Actually, I can see how that scene played out. It started with Mr. Miyamoto saying “We’ve got this game called Twinkle Popo, but if we just mess with it a bit more we could come up with something really interesting. Can we postpone the release and redo it?”, right? Even though you guys on the HAL Laboratory side had put a lot of effort into making it.

(Iwata) That’s about right. At that time I think I was rather indifferent to naming things and how they were sold. I viewed it as something that wasn’t for me to think about it. There was never really a question as to whether or not there was someone who could think up those things, so that’s why I thought about it that way. Incorporating T\taking interest in these things, looking at how things worked in the world, and analyzing them all into the scope of what I do…wasn’t something I’d really done before. We’d been going from one new thing to the next up until this point, and continuing on that way wouldn’t keep the business running. I had the rather crude outlook of “If everyone thinks it’s fine, then isn’t it fine?” when it came to naming and how things were sold.

(Itoi) There had already been advertisements for Twinkle Popo, right?

(Iwata) We had already ordered them to be made. 26,000 of them. The Game Boy version of Kirby’s Dreamland ended up selling over five million copies……so we outsold that number by 200 times.

(Itoi) Stopping production of something that’s already being made is such a reckless thing to do. And you stopped it!

(Iwata) At the time there were definitely a lot of heated discussions in the compay.

(Itoi) Naturally.

(Iwata) Yeah. After all from the perspective of a business person, it’s a complete loss of face.

(Itoi) Furthermore those 26,000 copies don’t sound like too many in retrospect, but at the time it was probably huge. But thanks to that you ended up with five million right?

(Iwata) If not for that halt in production, Kirby wouldn’t be what it is today. The Kirby series has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. And if you count the Smash Brothers series, in which Kirby has appeared, that number greatly exceeds 30 million. So it really was a big turning point.

(Itoi) That makes me laugh. I’ve asked Mr. Miyamoto about this, and apparently he doesn’t do things like this all that often. Mr. Miyamoto being reckless enough to do something like this really makes one believe in the amusing things that go into making games.