Satoru Iwata – 1999 Developer Interview

Satoru Iwata – 1999 Developer Interview

This insightful interview with Satoru Iwata originally appeared in Used Games magazine. It captures Iwata in his role as President of HAL Laboratory, just before his transition to Nintendo the following year. Smash Bros. and Pokemon Snap had just been released, but much of the interview is spent on HAL’s early days as a third-party developer for Nintendo. Towards the end, Iwata expounds on his philosophy of programming and game design.

—Please tell us how you got started in the game industry.

Iwata: In 1978, Japan’s first personal computer display corner was opened in the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro. I used to go there and screw around with the computers on display, and run programs I had made on them. I made some friends there too, and one of these friends was investing in a new company, which became HAL Laboratory. At the time I was still in college, so I worked there part-time.

It was right after the Invader boom, so it was decided that HAL would try and develop games, but at the time personal computers were still not very powerful. So my friends and I created a hardware peripheral known as the PCG. For old computer fans, this is something of a famous peripheral—it basically allowed computers with no graphics display abilities to display graphics. With that, we got to work creating games: straight rip-offs of Namco’s Rally X, Galaxian, and other early Namco games. (laughs) We never asked for Namco’s permission—it was still an early era, when copyrights and such were not very clear.

However, just so no one gets the wrong idea, I should say also add that we were the first company to obtain a license from Namco for developing computer games. I heard that Namco then took that contract and used it as the basis for their negotiations with other companies.

That’s more or less how I got started making games (and hardware) with HAL. I graduated college in 1982 and joined the company full-time, and the following year the Famicom and MSX were released at almost the same time. That led to a big increase in our game development for those systems.

—What was the first game you worked on for the Famicom?

Iwata: It was a home console port of Joust for the Famicom. Joust is a game where you fly around on ostriches, trying to knock your opponent off. If you’re even one pixel higher than him when you collide, you win.

One of the companies that had invested in HAL Laboratories had a close working relationship with Nintendo, and it was through them that I first heard about this new interesting hardware console (the Famicom) that Nintendo was about to release. I then went to Nintendo’s office and asked them to let us develop software for them. It took us about two months to complete Joust, I think. However, due to various circumstances, Nintendo ended up being unable to release the game.

Satoru Iwata in 1999, with Pokemon shirt.

After that, the next game I worked on for Nintendo was Pinball, and then Golf. For it’s time, Golf was an extremely impressive program. It took me a really long time to finish.

—What was so difficult about it?

Iwata: I had to fit the data for 18 courses into an extremely limited memory. That alone was a major challenge—it was an era when data compression wasn’t often done, so I wracked my brain to come up with my own compression routine. Actually, Nintendo had planned to release a Golf game on the Famicom when it was first released, and they shopped the idea out to several software companies they knew, but they all declined and said they couldn’t fit an 18 hole course into such a limited memory. I heard about that and, rather recklessly, said “I’ll do it!” (laughs)

After that, we made F-1 Race, Balloon Fight, Mach Rider, Golf Japan Course/US Course… personally, I think HAL played a pretty big role in the pre-Super Mario Famicom market. Back in those days the development turnaround time was very quick, too, so it was a great experience to be able to work on a bunch of different projects in a short period of time.

Back then, programmers had a lot of discretion. The concept of “director” didn’t really exist yet, and planning/spec docs were likewise fairly crude and vague. The programmer himself would make a lot of decisions about the content, making guesses about how players would react to such-and-such idea. Then we’d show what we had made to Nintendo, who would give their advice, and we would go back and revise it. Most of our developments followed that pattern.

—Did Nintendo come up with the initial plans/ideas for these games?

Iwata: They would send a very general outline, along with some concept art. Then we’d make the more detailed decisions on how to bring that to life in the game. For something like Pinball, for instance, we’d decide how the ball moved, how the flipper response should feel, all those little details. Pinball was actually really well-made: in fact, it was so well done that the recently released Pokemon Pinball game uses the same basic engine!

F-1 Race was also a huge challenge in a different sense. It was the first game to use raster scrolling on the Famicom, a technique that many other companies would start using after. We had to program it ourselves; raster scrolling was not an innate feature of the Famicom hardware.

We also released software under our own brand name: games like the Eggerland (Adventures of Lolo) series and HAL’s Hole in One Golf.

—Were you involved in all of HAL’s game developments?

Iwata: There were games I wasn’t involved in, but I worked on all of the golf games: Golf, Japan Open, US Open, Mario Open for Nintendo, and then our own HAL’s Hole in One Golf for the Famicom and Super Famicom.

I had really wanted to make a golf game for the N64 too, but the timing wasn’t right. Then while we were working on other things, Nintendo released the definitive golf game for the system, Mario Golf 64. I admit that we felt kind of emotional about that, given our history of making golf games for Nintendo. It was like, “we’re supposed be the ones making the Mario golf games!” (laughs) But the people at Camelot who made Mario Golf 64 told me that NES Open Tournament Golf was one of their favorite games, and that they had taken all the good parts from it for their Mario Golf 64, so I was personally very satisfied with what they created.

—What about the latter days of the Famicom?

Iwata: There was Metal Slader Glory. It’s famous for being one of the most expensive Famicom games of its time. (laughs) This game took a tremendously long time to finish. It’s actually kind of amazing that we stuck to it, persevered, and eventually released it, but from a management perspective it was a mistake.

Metal Slader Glory for the Famicom. The flyer on the left advertises the “astonishing” 8Mb cart size. Note the price of 8900 yen (about 89 dollars), exceptionally high for a Famicom game. According to a 2003 interview on GameCenter CX, the immediate cause for HAL’s bankruptcy was spending too much on the advertising for Metal Slader Glory.

—That’s a legendary game.

Iwata: Very few copies were produced and put in circulation—for that fact alone, I can’t really praise it. (laughs) On the other hand, there’s a lot of people that continue to love this game, and I think that’s due to all the energy and love we poured into its development. That’s something I can be very happy about.

—Were you involved in the development of Metal Slader Glory?

Iwata: I was. Though I played more of a producer role, to be more precise. I also helped out with the programming in a number of places.

—After that, we enter the era of the Super Famicom…

Iwata: By the time of the SFC, we had published a number of titles under our own name as HAL Laboratory, but we were under immense time pressures during this period. As you probably know, in 1992 the company almost went bankrupt. It was due to that crisis that I ended up becoming President. We were caught in a vicious circle.

—What was going on?

Iwata: It went like this: we didn’t have enough time, so we released games before they were really finished and ready for release, then those games wouldn’t sell very well because they weren’t very good… which put us in an even more desperate position for our next development. Obviously this wasn’t going to work, and the only way to break out of this cycle was to create a proper game, something that would garner the support of players. But as developers, the whole situation had taken a big toll on our morale.

We were right on the verge of bankruptcy when I turned to everyone at HAL and said, “Ok, from here on out, every game we create is going to sell a million copies!” I think everyone thought, “he’s lost his mind.” (laughs) But after that we released Kirby’s Adventure, and then Kirby’s Dream Course and Mother 2 (Earthbound) on the SFC. Thanks to those successes, everyone’s attitude changed, and they started saying things during development like, “if we don’t change this it won’t sell a million copies!” Their initial response though was more like, this is impossible—but what else can we do? The Kirby’s Adventure development stands out as the most “unreasonable” in that sense.

—On Shigesato Itoi’s site, I read that during that time, Nintendo offered to help HAL out of bankruptcy on the condition that they make you President.

Iwata: About that, well… I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to go into the details. (laughs) Itoi knows a little bit of the background from that time, so I think he just said that in an offhand way. It’s definitely true things weren’t going well for HAL, but many people at Nintendo had faith in us: “if they can just unleash their true potential, they’ll be a great developer.” People like Miyamoto, who had known firsthand about our contribution to Nintendo since the early Famicom days, were saying stuff like that, and so were several other key people at Nintendo. In the past we had applied ourselves and made solid, quality games that were profitable.

As such, it was Nintendo that came to us in our darkest hour and, in more ways than one, gave us vital support to get through it. Accordingly we left the marketing and sales side up to Nintendo after that, and returned to our original focus of making good games. I think it was that experience that set us on the path to having our next several releases be million-sellers.

I have one memory that has stuck with me through the years. Right after we had been rescued from bankruptcy, the President of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, gave a speech at a game expo. In that speech, he said the word “HAL Laboratory” 13 times (laughs), saying how he was looking forward to seeing how we turned out. At the time I was embarrassed to have the matter of our bankruptcy discussed in a public space like that, but now that I look back on it, I believe that he was really cheering us on.

Iwata and Miyamoto circa the Kirby’s Adventure development in 1992. Nintendo’s faith in HAL paid dividends with successive hits like Kirby’s Adventure and Mother 2.

—Your next release was Mother 2 (Earthbound).

Satoru: We weren’t originally involved in the development of Mother 2. But right after we finished Kirby’s Adventure, someone spoke to us about Mother 2 and said, “they’ve been working on this for four years, and they’re still not done! Can you help them?” At first we had only planned to give some advice here and there, but ultimately we ended up overhauling the entirety of the programming.

—I heard you had to scrap everything and start completely over.

Satoru: That’s right. But a lot of the design work was already done, so we were able to really focus on the development and our work. Dividing things up like that can be very effective if it’s done right, allowing each team member’s individual abilities to shine through; in fact, many of the members from that development became the key people we rely on today. I also met Shigesato Itoi then. Itoi was very interested in the way we made games at HAL, and I was very interested in the way he thought… of course, I never imagined we would become such good personal friends!

—Speaking of Mother, it looks we won’t be seeing Mother 3, will we? (laughs)

Iwata: Mother 3, well… (laughs) For Mother 3, we tried a whole new process for the development, and I don’t think it went over very well… to be frank, it was a management mistake on my part. If we hadn’t cared about the quality, we could have released it right away. And the core of the game engine was actually completed very early on, when the N64 was still new.

However, over at Nintendo, Miyamoto had gone and created a masterpiece in Super Mario 64. (laughs) I hope it won’t sound rude to say this about someone like Miyamoto who has received so many awards from all over the world, but I wanted HAL to try and make a game of that same caliber, something that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Miyamoto’s work. But how to do it? We studied and learned a number of new development methods, and the whole staff had to get used to them… we had to first distill the essence of a great game into distinct points, and then reassemble those ideas into a coherent game. But all that took a huge amount of time.

—Do you still consider yourself a programmer, primarily?

Iwata: Well, I’ve been programming now since before the Famicom, for over 20 years. When it comes to the work of creating games, it’s definitely the role I’ve played the longest. I also still do some programming for HAL, even though people tell me “Iwata, please stop programming. You’re supposed to be the President now!” (laughs) I have so much experience, though.

—I read another comment at Itoi’s page, where you said, “A programmer must never say ‘I can’t do that.'”

Iwata: Wow, you’ve really done your homework. (laughs) I think the way I phrased that (I was trying too hard to sound cool!) has invited a lot of misunderstanding. I meant to say that a programmer should not be dismissive when he says he can’t do something. Most of the time there’s a solution to be found if you slow down and think about it. Of course, there are also ideas that really are impossible.

But the moment a programmer says “I can’t”, that idea dies. That’s why I say, if you’re going to tell someone something isn’t possible, instead of just saying “I can’t”, say “if we do this, we could do it” or “if we can get further with x, it would be possible.” I think that’s a principle that applies equally to any work, actually. The people who actually think up the ideas for games—designers—often don’t understand programming very well, and it can be easy for programmers to use “we can’t do that” as a convenient excuse.

Iwata the programmer
circa 1983, age 24.

—Do you have a “programming philosophy” of your own?

Iwata: I think programmers are the ones closest to players. All the art, all the music… if programmers don’t put it in the actual ROM, players will never even see it, right? In that sense, programmers act as an intermediary of sorts, between the designers who envision the content for a game and the players whose hands that game will eventually reach. At the same time, while things like the user interface are the responsibility of the game designers and planners, in fact, it’s ultimately down to the programmers whether that interface feels right in-game. The wonderful ideas that others come up with can be made better or worse depending on what we do.

Also, this is my personal stance, but I want to make games that bring others joy. And I try to make something that I would enjoy playing myself. I feel very lucky to be doing work that can make other people happy, be it my fellow developers or the players. That really motivates me.

—Please say some final words to our readers.

Iwata: I think it’s amazing that the biggest hit the game industry has ever had, Pokemon, was a Gameboy game. I think there’s so much to learn from that. Cutting-edge graphics and impressive CGI are tools, but they aren’t the only tools we have. Of course there are some players who really want to see the latest and greatest in graphics and technology, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But I definitely think there are other avenues of approach. I don’t want every game developer to do the same thing; it will be a richer, more diverse, more enjoyable industry if we’re all moving along different vectors, don’t you think?

—I agree.

Iwata: That’s why I was personally very happy to see Super Smash Bros., a game which eschews traditional vs. FTG gameplay conventions, be so well-received by players. And Pokemon Snap, which features a gameplay idea that has never been seen before (taking pictures) also did well. In those games, I believe we created something new, something with an appeal no other game had before.

I think games journalism and media today has become fairly pessimistic. When I read reviews, I expect them to talk about what a game did well, but rather than focus on the merits, they seem more interested in finding flaws. But the lack of obvious flaws isn’t what makes a game compelling; even a flawless game can be boring. That’s why I feel it’s better for a game to have a single great idea than to focus on that kind of perfection.

Also, I think today’s games are too often asking players to be completely passive entities. They reward your progress with event cutscenes, and it sort of becomes like, “hey, you wanna see the next awesome movie we made, right? then go do this!” The player ends up feeling like the developers’ little errand boy. I don’t want to make games like that. I want the player to be able to find his own way to enjoy the game.

I realize that puts a certain demand on players. However, if the industry continues down the path we’re on now, where games are simply about collecting rewards, and gameplay itself becomes stale and formulaic, and the important thing is not having any mistakes or flaws in your game… if we go down that path, there will be no end to it, and games will ultimately all become the same—and very boring.

Let us therefore sing the praises of the new and the different. (laughs) You know, whenever I talk to games journalists, I always talk about this. But I think it’s a critical issue for the gaming industry.

—I completely agree. I also think players should be more creative, too.

Iwata: Yeah. I’d love to see more games that ask the players to express their creativity. But I must admit that having released two games like that in a row, deep down it made us all really nervous. (laughs)

—That creativity is part of Smash Bros. too. Everyone has to come up with their own techniques and test them in the field of battle. If someone masters some great new move or combo, it fuels you to search for something to overcome it or counter it. That whole process is what makes it so fun.

Iwata: Yeah, I think so too! And I know that there are still some players out there who, if they aren’t given an explicit reward for their efforts, will ask “what was the point?” But should developers respond to that by creating linear games that guide players around by the leash? Is that supposed to be more fun? Gameplay like that actually prevents players from coming up with their own exciting ways to play—ways that the creators never imagined. Of course, I also understand that not every game can be the way I’m saying.

The trend today is for games to have ever more impressive visuals, sound, and movies… lest the entire industry be homogenized in this way, perhaps it is our role at HAL to make games that are different.

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