Conservative, stuffy old Nintendo and its weird habit of wild radicalism

Every big game company has its own personality, its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Few companies are as quirky and idiosyncratic as Nintendo.

One of Nintendo’s characteristics is the fierce loyalty of its employees (and its fans), and their everlasting fealty, even after they have moved on. It’s almost like a code.

I have good friends who once worked there. No matter how much I beg and plead for tidbits of gossip, they just smile down at me, like I’m asking to meet the Tooth Fairy.

If you walk through the offices at Nintendo of America, the desks are covered with knickknacks and toys, just like any other game industry place of work. The only difference is that they are almost all Nintendo-themed. It’s kinda cute and it’s kinda creepy.

So it’s rare for a former employee to come out and talk about the company in anything other than glowing terms.

amiibo

Dan Adelman worked at Nintendo for almost a decade, focused on creating a bridge between the company and indie developers for digital distribution. He was involved in bringing releases like World of Goo and Shovel Knight to Nintendo platforms.

He left last summer, to set up his own indie agency, which is working on games like Axiom Verge and Chasm. At the time of his departure, he was seen as something of a maverick, having been previously advised by Nintendo to cease tweeting, after making some relatively unremarkable comments about the company’s variously bizarre and semi-paranoid policies as regards indie partners. (They were not allowed, for example, to operate out of home offices.)

In a new interview today, Adelman talks about Nintendo’s hidebound and conservative culture in which, he says, decision-making is hampered by an ageing network of managers who dislike taking risks.

Now, before we dive into this, let’s be clear. There is much about this company that merits deep admiration. Nintendo is the single most innovative and daring company in the history of video games. Even within the last decade, you can look at the immense risks it has taken with products like Wii and the DS series. Its longer history, right back to the Nintendo Entertainment System, is one of boldness and creativity.

But, it is also a company that declines to operate at the cutting edge of hardware technology, and has consistently been way behind the curve when it comes to the internet, social outreach and third-party games.

Much of its first-party output is based on brands and franchises that are decades old. Lest we forget, its big idea du-jour, amiibo, is based on an innovation that Nintendo of America rejected, when it was first pitched to them by the Skylanders team, five years ago.

Talking to Dromble, Adelman said today that Nintendo senior managers “do not really understand modern gaming,” and that Nintendo chief Satoru Iwata “is often loath to make a decision that will alienate one of the executives in Japan.” This is strong stuff.

“Nintendo is not only a Japanese company, it is a Kyoto-based company,” he said, replying to a question about the difficulty of effecting change at Nintendo. “For people who aren’t familiar, Kyoto-based are to Japanese companies as Japanese companies are to U.S. companies. They’re very traditional, and very focused on hierarchy and group decision making. Unfortunately, that creates a culture where everyone is an advisor and no one is a decision maker, but almost everyone has veto power.”

NES

To be fair, anyone who works at a company of a particular size can recognize these traits. Organizations get to a certain scale, and often become devoted to maintaining the status quo, which usually confuses the interests of managers with the interests of the company.

But Nintendo in particular has a reputation for caution. This is, by far, the oldest company in gaming (it was founded in the 19th century). It comes from the toy business, which is way more traditional than the gaming industry. It is still very much an extension of its formidably iron-willed former chairman and president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who passed away in 2013.

“To get anything done, it requires laying a lot of groundwork,” added Adelman. “[This includes] talking to the different groups, securing their buy-in, and using that buy-in to get others on board. At the subsidiary level, this is even more pronounced, since people have to go through this process first and then all over again with headquarters. All of this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can be very inefficient and time consuming. The biggest risk is that at any step in that process, if someone flat out says no, the proposal is as good as dead. So in general, bolder ideas don’t get through the process unless they originate at the top.”

If someone says no, the proposal is as good as dead

You begin to see why it is that Nintendo seems to take a long time doing the things that seem obviously urgent to the rest of us. It moves at its own pace. Infamously, the company did not make the move to optical disks until 2001.

And yet, it is hard to imagine Sony or Microsoft doing anything as flat-out daring as a console built entirely around movement control, or a console with a built-in touchscreen controller. So Nintendo’s conservatism has an interesting side-effect. While it may hamper changes in day-to-day operations, it simultaneously allows the company to make absolutely huge bets on ideas that are far too radical for its competitors, once it does gain universal internal buy-in. Nintendo is both conservative and completely wild.

Still, in the area of Adelman’s expertise, which is forging win-win relationships with third parties, it cannot easily be denied that Nintendo often seems like a reluctant partner.

“They need to invest and absorb some of the risk for third parties who try to embrace the features of Nintendo platforms and help communicate to consumers which games are on par with Nintendo first party games in terms of quality,” he says, on the subject of third party games. “Sony and Microsoft spend a lot of money securing exclusives, or at least exclusive features, on the top games and since Nintendo doesn’t really do that, third parties focus on the other systems … If Nintendo doesn’t want to be a first-party-only system, they may need to be more aggressive in securing those games and making sure that they’re high quality.”

The best way to help Nintendo is to be open about the problems

In an email interview with Polygon, Adelman said he cares about the company, admires its achievements, but wants to see some change. “I think one of the reasons that ex-employees don’t talk about the company much is because of respect. Most people who work or have worked there, myself included, have a lot of respect for the company,” he said.

“It may be the only large company that truly understands and respects games and game design. They are fully prepared to walk away from a lucrative business opportunity if it might call into question the integrity of the games. They are also the only platform that is continually trying to shake up the games industry and challenge what kinds of things are possible in gaming. I think all of those things are highly admirable.

“Probably the one area that I differ from a lot of other ex-Nintendo employees is that I think the best way to help Nintendo is to be open about the problems and what is holding back the company. I’d love to see Nintendo operate for another 50-100 years, but there are some systemic cultural issues they need to address. Sweeping them under the rug will only make it easier to avoid dealing with them.”

Wii U

Possibly his most interesting insight has to do with Nintendo’s own ways of rewarding those the company views as most valuable to its future success. “Risk taking is generally not really rewarded,” he told Dromble. “Long-term loyalty is ultimately what gets rewarded, so the easiest path is simply to stay the course. I’d love to see Nintendo make a more concerted effort to encourage people at all levels of the company to feel empowered to push through ambitious proposals, and then get rewarded for doing so.”

This may well be so. And yet, Nintendo and its many fans have one great argument in their arsenal and that is the simple fact of Nintendo’s continued existence. This is not a company that has become ossified. It’s always operated in the same way, and, in all probability, has become less stratified under Iwata’s youthful leadership than under the venerable Yamauchi’s.

Its conservatism, which feeds into its ability to occasionally astound the world, is a major contributing factor in its continued knack for the toughest trick of all: survival.