Satoru Okada – 2014 Developer Interview
Although his name is not well-known here, Satoru Okada designed (or co-designed with Gunpei Yokoi) every Nintendo handheld from the Game & Watch to the Nintendo DSi XL. In this retrospective interview from STG Gameside, conducted just before his retirement, Okada offers several interesting anecdotes about working at Nintendo, opining freely about the current game industry in Japan, and whether it is conducive to creativity and good design.
—Okada-sama, you’ve had an amazing career as the businessman responsible for so many hit mobile consoles at Nintendo. There’s so much I want to ask, I’m not sure where to begin.
Okada: There’s no need to worry about formalities, please ask me whatever you’d like.
—First, I’d like to get a picture of your history, from your childhood to the present day. As a Junior High student, was there anything particular you were especially passionate about?
Okada: In Junior High, I really got into making radios. I used to go to Nipponbashi (Denki no Machi) and buy all the radio parts, then make my own creations. I started with Crystal Radios, then progressed to radios that used vacuum tubes. In college I was part of a research lab that did things with vacuum tubes. That was right at the transitional point between vacuum tubes and transistors, and integrated circuits weren’t in use yet either. In other research labs, I think they were assembling computers out of lots and lots of transistors, too.
—It sounds like you were a “science” kid.
Okada: Yeah, though I loved the outdoors too. I had an older friend who I used to go on trips with, travelling by train without any destination in mind, setting up tents and camping wild. I remember one time we had to borrow money from a policeman for train fare back. Then after joining Nintendo I used my 2 weeks of vacation for a tour of Hokkaido. Taking shifts driving, a friend and I made it from Kyoto to Aomori in just one day.
I also have an international driver’s license, and every year I used to take a trip to America and drive all over the country there. Nowadays my traveling is limited to skiing trips with my grandkids, though.
—You’re very well-traveled, I see.
Okada: In High School I used to secretly ride my motorcycle to school, even though it was forbidden by school regulations. I also resented the restrictions on our hairstyles. And with school uniforms, too, although everyone wore black, I researched the regulations and found out that brown was also allowed, so I wore that color instead. My teachers could only try and get my parents to warn me, but I wasn’t really a delinquent. I just had a kind of oppositional, defiant attitude: “why must I do the same thing as everyone else?!”
—Doing things differently from others can be seen as the root of creativity, I think. What were your college years like?
Okada: I applied to various schools with engineering programs, and enrolled in the first one that accepted me. It was actually a kind of co-ed school, and we’d do things like hiking and sightseeing around Kyoto with the female students, have dinner together, then head back to our respective dorms. It was an invigorating program.
—Since you’ve participated in the creation of so many different handheld gaming consoles, I was thinking you’d be more particular and high-strung. But in fact you’re very open and relaxed.
Okada: The first thing I made using a computer was the Game and Watch series. After that handheld gaming consoles became the main focus of my work at Nintendo. Speaking of being particular, you know, I didn’t originally apply to Nintendo with any special ambitions or designs. Originally my friend was supposed to have taken the company’s entrance test, but due to circumstances he couldn’t make it out. In his place I was chosen to take the test. When I say “in his place”, though, I don’t mean that I was a mere susbtitute; I was given the chance as part of a job-search program at my school. I knew if I took it lightly that it would damage the reputation of my school, and I couldn’t allow that. Still, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I ended up being late to that test, but thanks to the kindness of the test administrator, I was allowed to take it anyway.
Nintendo’s entrance exam had a section where you had to actually engineer something. You were given a design and had to make a model of it using small metal pieces. Since I had spent so much time in Junior High doing those electrical engineering projects, it was an easy task for me. As a result, rumour got around at Nintendo that “someone good at soldering has joined!” It seemed I was the first person to join Nintendo with any electrical engineering abilities, a fact which would turn out to be a huge investment in my future.
—In your career you’ve made many devices for children, but what has been your attitude as an engineer throughout this work?
Okada: When I made things for children, I didn’t try to make it from the perspective of a child. Instead, I made something that we adults at Nintendo would enjoy ourselves.
—Are you saying that “fun” is something more objective, something without an age limit or restriction?
Okada: If an adult thinks “I want that”, then a child will certainly want it too. It’s a mistake to just follow a pattern of what you think kids like.
—Do you have any special methods for generating ideas, or for observing what others are wanting?
Okada: I used to stroll through the aisles of department stores and see what was selling, but other than that, I didn’t have any special methods. New ideas are born from the fusion of two things: first, what you yourself desire, and two, the breakthroughs that open up new possibilities thanks to technological revolutions. If you only have the vision or desire for something, it won’t work without the technological ability to realize it (or it will end up being too expensive).
—It must be hard to achieve an objective perspective when evaluating your own ideas. How do you keep from becoming self-satisfied or complacent?
Okada: I think you have to keep focused on what you want to do in the game, making sure not to let the technology side get too ostentatious or take center stage. To make something others will want to buy, it has to be something you yourself want to play.
—Are there any devices on the market right now that you personally really want to own?
Okada: Apple has a lot of great products. The first generation Macintosh mouse was so comfortable to use. When I investigated it I discovered it was because the mouse accelerates when you move it. That responsiveness left a big impression on me.
—What was a moment in which you felt total joy as an engineer?
Okada: When the products I’d developed started selling well. That was the moment for me, personally, when I gained the respect of my family: “you can express yourself freely at your job, and take vacation time whenever you want to take it. There aren’t many salarymen like that!”
—The intellectual property rights to all the products you’ve developed belong, of course, to Nintendo. Have you ever felt like you wished your own name could be out there in front more?
Okada: Nope. I’d rather they gave me a pay raise instead. (laughs)
—What do you think about the state of gaming companies in Japan today?
Okada: I think employees are too restricted by compliance, internal regulations, and so forth. If you want to begin something new you have to get permission from so many people above you. When ideas exist only as ideas in your mind, it can be difficult to convey them to others. That’s why developing prototypes is so important, but in the way things are currently done, there’s too much adherence to planning schedules.
—Yeah, although some would say that giving employees too much freedom results in them slacking, too.
Okada: It’s true that there are some people who, if given freedom, will just play around and not produce much. But identifying those people and building a proper team is the job of a manager, isn’t it? When a new project is proposed it’s so easy for anyone to say “I can do that, give it to me!”, so you need someone who can tell whether an employee is producing actual results, or if they’re just playing around.
—In your case Okada, were you aware of a kind of self-management at work?
Okada: Especially after I took on a managerial role, I became very aware of the need to make profits each year. We have to earn our own wages. Developing games isn’t simply about making what you want to make; you also need to be sensible about what will be profitable for the company. And to make Nintendo run, at a minimum we’re talking about selling millions of units. If you can’t do that with something new, it’s better to release a follow-up to an existing product.
I also think that rather than making everyone work long hours and wringing the life out of your employees, results should be emphasized, and those who achieve should be rewarded with a higher salary.
—I get the impression from your comments that while you went with the flow at Nintendo, you never lost sight of what you wanted to create.
Okada: Well, you can’t only work on projects that you personally think are great. As an employee you have to take advice and guidance from those above you, and you can’t always completely ignore it. At a game company, when you’re ordered to do something you shouldn’t just say “It can’t be done.”
But the problem is that if you just let time pass and do nothing about a bad order from above, in time it will ruin the whole project. It’s fine if you have an alternative idea to begin with, but if not, people end up wasting their time pretending to work. (laughs) That’s an unreasonable situation no matter how you look at it, and soon there will be an angry backlash from all sides. Yet if you state your opinion too strongly to those above you, it could hurt your chances to rise in the company to an executive officer. I never made it to that level myself. (laughs)
—Do you feel pride over the fact that your handheld consoles are played by so many people around the world?
Okada: I do feel satisfied. It’s all thanks to the great partners and employees I had working with me. If you have something you want to do at a company, you can’t do it alone. Learning how to make allies and friends is important. Personally, I was always bad at utilizing the employees under me, but I had someone who was more than just a fellow craftsman—he was an ally, and he helped me out there. He was a mechanical wizard with an artist’s temperament, and he helped me out where I was weak.
—Right now in Japan, a lot of video game work is being outsourced. As an engineer what do you think about that?
Okada: Outsourcing comes from treating people like just another raw material, I think. Companies overseas have done a lot of headhunting of Japanese engineers, and until there’s a shift in technology, they can afford to pay them more.
—Did you attend E3 this year?
Okada: I did. There were a lot less people there compared with previous years. I also felt that the graphics of recent consoles have become too realistic.
—Lately there has been a variety of research on the influence of video games on children. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Okada: Not personally. Though my family has chided me, saying “thanks to to this game console you created your grandkids don’t study!” (laughs)
—Are there any games you’ve been playing recently?
Okada: I play games on my smart phone. One strange game that caught my fancy recently was Gunma no Yabou. You steadily try to expand Gunma Prefecture into all of Japan, but the game is endless. It’s a free to play game. I started to feel like buying something, so I’ve purchased some things for it. But I think that if you’re going to charge people for things in your game, it would be better to just make it a game you have to buy from the get-go. If they really want to make it free to play, they should make everything free.
—Right now the world of games is going through dramatic changes. Consoles are being replaced by handhelds and smartphones, and traditional game software is being replaced by a free-to-play model.
Okada: Consoles designed specifically for games have their own unique strengths. Unlike the generic smart phone touch panel, consoles can have controllers and input devices specifically designed for games, which is a big advantage. I don’t think that consoles today have exhausted those possibilities yet.
I think there’s a need to draw a sharp distinction between the casual type of games on smart phones on the one hand, and the traditional games we’ve had up the present. The traditional-style games should continue to be created by major developers. As for casual games, I think those games should be developed cheaply and quickly by generalists. If that distinction is maintained, then I think the unique advantages inherent in game consoles will be realized sooner.
—Recently livestreaming of games has been gaining a lot of attention. What are your thoughts on that?
Okada: If it helps spread the love of games, I think it’s a good thing.
—Do you have a final message for our readers regarding the present state of the game industry?
Okada: I think the spirit of an era is something we make ourselves. For my generation, there was no opposition to us starting something new, so we were able to create that spirit ourselves. Nowadays, to do anything there’s so much bureaucracy and red tape that new ideas get crushed before they even have a chance. It’s vital that developers make prototypes. Without a prototype, you don’t know know where the solution to the problems with your ideas might lie, nor do you even know where to look in the first place.
In my case, I once worked on a project where I built a prototype device where the PC and the display were connected by a cord. Someone saw this and said, “I don’t think it’s going to work to connect these with a cord.” Of course, the cord was only there because this was a prototype unit, but he was able to sense it was a problem. When it comes to finding problematic parts of new ideas, each person will be able to see something different.
—Which is why, as you were saying, prototypes are so important when you want to try out something new.
Okada: Since it’s not possible to work on both finishing a product for sale and simultaneously make a prototype of that same project, I’ve thought a lot about how interesting ideas can be worked out, refined, and conveyed to the company today. I think that good ideas sometimes start outside of work, as extracurricular activity of the employees. You shouldn’t spend all your time just trying to convince people how good your idea is: find like-minded people, regardless of the department they’re in, people who know what they’re doing. A meeting is not the time to recruit people to your cause. You should quickly get all the work you’ve been assigned done, then in your free time, as an extracurricular activity, endeavor to realize your own ideas.
—Yes, I can see how that vitality from working outside of work is also important for creating new things. Thank you for your time today!
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