The Japanese Jobs

By Jack Flanagan on October 11th, 2013

Three weeks ago, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who for more than 50 years mercilessly steered Nintendo toward billion-dollar success, died. His death seems, practically speaking, irrelevant to the company, which he left in 2005. But Yamauchi’s empathy for the customer combined with his ruthless business skills behind closed doors were what brought about Nintendo’s success, and as his company strives for relevance in the new video gaming era, it may prove fruitful to look back at his life.

Yamauchi was raised by his grandparents, after his father ran out on the family and his mother, dishonoured, chose to live with her sister. His grandfather was in charge of the Yamauchi family company, Nintendo. At the time, and since its founding in 1889, Nintendo had been a trading card company: it produced the Hanafuda cards popular amongst gamblers. It was from his grandparents that he learned the discipline and severity with which he would run his company, once he assumed presidency at age 22, dropping out of prestigious Waseda University to do so.

He quickly became frustrated with Nintendo’s progress, and the steady decline of the Hanafuda card market, and launched a number of new ideas to develop the 60-year old business for a new era. These initiatives – among them a taxi company, instant rice and love hotels – all failed horribly, and by 1964 the company, suffering from a crisis of identity, had watched its stock fall to a miserable ¥60, or about 60 cents.

Nintendo, limping through the 60s, would then establish its games research department. Presumably Yamauchi had his reasons: at the time, technologies for entertainment were reaching affordable prices, and this meant a viable commercial route for the company which had, by any measure, exhausted its options. The decision bore fruit: one of Yamauchi’s designer’s, Gunpei Yokoi, built the Ultra Hand, a scissor-like extendable arm, whose commercial success brought Nintendo back from the brink.

After another trough of unsuccessful ventures, they struck a second thin vein of gold with the Laser Clay Shooting System, a projected screen of moving objects that people could “shoot” at. The idea was they’d set up in abandoned bowling alleys. Although it achieved immediate success – better than taxi and rice, at least – an oil scare in 1973 brought with it extreme frugality: orders were cancelled and Nintendo landed in ¥5 billion of debt, facing bankruptcy. Yamauchi then launched a smaller-scale version, ‘Mini Laser Clay’, and over the next few years a steady drip of new games kept the floundering company afloat, eventually pulling it out of the red.

Famicom

It’d be almost another decade of traveling uncertain seas before, in 1983, they launched the ‘Famicom’, or the ‘NES’, Nintendo Entertainment System. A slow start – a recall of the first set of products due to a product bug – did nothing to prevent the eventually popularity of the Famicom. It outsold any console before that time, and it is still fondly remembered today.

The NES represents more than just Nintendos and Yamauchi’s survival, beyond the need for change, the failed products and the economic depression. Behind the scenes, Yamauchi was fastidious in assembling the best talent to revive the company’s fortunes. For instance, one of his first acts as president was to fire several long-standing employees after they initiated a strike in protest at his appointment of somebody so young. Any dissent within his company he weeded out: he was known to react strongly to each product he tested. He was elated when they were good, furious when they were sub-par.

Yamauchi had an understanding of the nascent video games industry – that artists ‘made’ videogames, and not engineers – and for that reason it made some choice hires. It was three men, besides Yamauchi – Gunpei Yokoi, Shigeru Miyamoto and Masayuki Uemura  – who would secure Nintendo’s future. The last, Uemura, designed the NES, and the SNES (the ‘Super’ NES), and stayed on with the company until 2004 as one of the “founding fathers” of Nintendo’s new tech manifestation.

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Shigeru Miyamoto, hired in 1977, remains a games developer for Nintendo in the present day. He was brought into the still chaotic company through a friend of Yamauchi, who knew his father, and became the company’s first artist. Similar to Yamauchi, he had a more spiritual approach to building video games: tasked with converting a failed game into a success (despite not being a developer) he conjured up the story of a love triangle between Pauline, Mario and his pet Gorilla, based on Popeye’s Bluto.

Miyamoto’s contribution to video gaming cannot be understated. He took a keen interest in creating stories for each game – this, in a post-cyber tennis, heavily pixelated era of video-gaming – and tried his best to incorporate “non-linear play” or experiencing the game outside of its main narrative, which is something GTA V has taken especially to heart. He produced games that, without question, made Nintendo: Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Star Fox and later Pikmin.

Finally: Yakoi, who was instrumental both as a mentor for Miyamoto as an early games developer and for Nintendo post-SNES. He created the Game & Watch, Nintendo’s first console, and the Game Boy – which together revolutionised the handheld market. This wasn’t because they were the first, or even the best: the Atari Lynx was much more powerful, but also more expensive and had worse battery life. Yakoi capitalised on these flaws by providing an economical machine, with enough horsepower to run good games. He also invented the “cross” pad – which the great majority of gaming consoles still use today.

gameboy

By the early 90’s, Nintendo was at the top of its game: Yakoi created Game Boy in 1989 which, with the help of Tetris, proved wildly popular. To date almost 120 million iterations of the Game Boy have been sold worldwide. Its evolutions, the Game Boy Colour and Advance, kept tech specification trolls at bay. The Nintendo 64 has been credited as one of the greatest game consoles of all time – a prominent feature in the childhoods of millions of children. Yamauchi stepped down in 2002, one year after the release of the Gamecube, the generation of console which followed the N64.

While the Gamecube and its successors – the Wii, Wii U, the Nintendo DS and 3DS – impressed critics and customers, the company’s hailo has slipped over the years. The consoles impressed critics because Nintendo refused to play the specification war that Sony’s Playstation and eventually the Xbox, Microsoft’s entry, were playing, and instead innovated with features like motion sensors, touch control and the 3D screen, besides a ton of peripheral advantages. Nevertheless, the latter Nintendo consoles and games lost out, partially for appealing to the family and children demographic which, in the 21st century, is perhaps the smallest.

It’s hard to understand what it was that Nintendo did back then that it is not achieving now: was it Yamauchi’s blind luck? The man was a recluse – there aren’t any interviews to delve into. The only personal testimony from him that we know about is his mantra, “artists make video games”.

But when we look at how he ran Nintendo – or, rather, how Nintendo was run, as a unit – we can see he put his customer, the gamers, first. Nintendo’s contribution to technology has been minimal – the NES, the Game Boy and the Wii were all reworking of current, sometimes decades-old, technologies. What he understood best was human psychology.

The same has been true of tech legends from Edison to Jobs – their inventions were generally derivative. Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb, but his was the best. Equally, Yamauchi didn’t even play video games, nor did he hire a crack team whose job was to develop the finest technology. Instead, he hired Yakoi and Miyamoto – a “lateral” thinker, and a recent graduate who had spent his childhood exploring caves outside Kyoto.

Yamauchi never tried to reinvent the wheel; he simply wanted to make the ride more enjoyable. It was perhaps his attraction to hiring Yokoi, whose philosophy of “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology” advocated taking old technologies and giving them a new lease of life. Nintendo’s first ever console, the Game & Watch designed by Yakoi, was built with this philosophy in mind.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect strategy: Nintendo lost a lot by remaining “lateral” for so long. Big names like Final Fantasy, which started out on the NES, and Metal Gear Solid chose to make Sony’s Playstation their console of choice after it was apparent Nintendo was never to make the leaps in graphic and software engines that game developers needed to realise their vision.

It’s unlikely Yamauchi cared too deeply about the video games industry – he rarely played video games, and the company’s early years are a tale of searching to stay afloat, not of creating an art form. And his other outstanding achievement, buying the Seattle Mariners, was done with little fanfare. He didn’t go to a single one of their games, suggesting a disdain for public life.

Nintendo, founded in 1889, literally means “responsibility to heaven”, or “trust in heaven”. There’s some irony there: Yamauchi didn’t do this once. His hyperactivity, relentless focus and talent for bringing in the best people during his time at Nintendo guaranteed the quality and popularity of the company’s products. It’s exciting to think what another Yamauchi could do for Nintendo now.