Life after Iwata: The video game industry has lost its sense of fun
“Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone!” -Satoru Iwata.
The gaming industry was in shock over the untimely passing of Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata.
In a business where it’s all about entertaining the consumer, most video game executives try to give their games a sense of gravity that seems rather inappropriate. Words like “epic” and “legendary” are thrown around in an industry where people seem to seek validation and try to transcend the fact that video games are also meant to amuse.
I understand this is in the name of differentiation and hoping the industry is taken seriously, but they all seem to be reading the same script. I’d bet if you watch the E3 presentations for Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony back to back, you’ll barely find a mention of anything remotely suggestive of fun. Instead, they’re filled with a slew of words to manipulate your emotions and nothing else.
It’s as if the word “fun” is forbidden in these companies, and this marked Iwata’s enthusiasm even more. He seemed to be the executive embodiment of the term. How many business owners would happily accept being portrayed as muppets while showing off their new games? It’s something Iwata did during Nintendo’s Nintendo Direct E3 2015 – one of many videos the Kyoto-based company does to reveal what it’s offering at different times of the year.
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While video conferencing itself received a mixed reception – with Metroid fans furious at the apparent treatment of the franchise – Nintendo was the only company at E3 2015 that only showed off games that would be available to buy this year. Sure, Sony stole the show with an emotional combination of a remake and a Kickstarter-funded sequel, while Microsoft had backwards compatibility and a solid roster of games, but Nintendo didn’t have to resort to talking about things to come at a distant time. He could talk about the immediate future.
Between the 3DS and the Wii U, each franchise has been counted. Sticklers might scoff at the lack of an Earthbound sequel outside of Japan, but other than that, there’s not much to fault Nintendo’s release. As for backward compatibility, the Wii U and 3DS had it from day one, minus the download mechanism required with the Xbox One. This all goes to show how far Nintendo is ahead of the competition in terms of features. Every game featured at its event will be released this year, and the focus on fun was paramount.
And while Nintendo may have the strongest line-up this winter, life after that is fraught with uncertainty. The company is to unveil a slew of games based on its partnership with DeNA, an initiative that Iwata spearheaded. Plus, there’s the new NX console which is set to be unveiled at E3 next year.
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Will Iwata’s successor be able to carry on his legacy? With every game and console maker adopting practices like DLC and free play in an effort to stay competitive, the pressure on Nintendo to speed the same is immense. Under Iwata’s rule, such measures which might be good for the bottom line but harm the enjoyment of the game, have not been taken. In fact, the way the company has done with its new shooter, Splatoon, has been admirable. It’s a testament to the games-as-a-service concept done right with constant content and live events to ensure fans have no reason to want anything else on the Wii U.
That Iwata actually cared about games was something that was clear from many Nintendo Direct presentations over the years. Most costumes in the industry are anything but cheerful, but his laugh was the subject of an internet meme. In an industry where giant, high-profile games that will sell in the millions are released in a broken state, Iwata was the kind of admired executive gamer.
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Putting out a good game is a task in itself, but being honest about it and resisting the temptation to hype it seems like an even bigger task. Throughout his career, Iwata has handled both with aplomb. And he did it by posing as a banana-carrying muppet. Although Nintendo’s future is uncertain, one thing is certain, the industry hasn’t just lost a great leader, it’s lost its sense of fun.