It is a truth universally acknowledged, or at least that one time by Howie Day and Kevin Griffin, that even the best fall down sometimes. What businesspeople are still trying to wrap their heads around is how a perennial blockbuster like Nintendo can fall down regularly for more than a century, innovate continuously from that prone position, and rise up, as if on cue, to master the art of fairytale comebacks.
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Felix Gillette tries to crack the code behind the gaming giant’s success, which remains as mysterious and unlikely as lucking into a banana bunch in the depths of an abandoned mineshaft.
Kimishima took a sip of tea. Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play.
Miyamoto has offered some clues. He’s often told a story about how, when he was young, he discovered a cave in a bamboo forest outside his village of Sonobe, northwest of Kyoto. Initially afraid, he pushed deeper into the subterranean world, marveling at the feelings of mystery and soulfulness that washed over him. That sense of astonishment and animism persisted, helping to inspire hit games such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda. Miyamoto’s cave tale is to Nintendo acolytes as Plato’s cave allegory is to students of Greek philosophy: a way of framing the inherent challenge of perceiving reality. How to create a naturalistic gaming environment that opens a player’s mind to the transcendent elements within?
When it was Furukawa’s turn to speak, he noted that Nintendo makes “playthings, not necessities” and that if consumers stop finding its products compelling, the company could be swiftly forgotten. “It is a high-risk business,” he added. “So there will be times when business is good and times when business is bad. But I want to manage the company in a way that keeps us from shifting between joy and despair.”
If Nintendo, as a company, has long benefited from its artistic temperament, it suffers, too, from an artist’s restless insecurity. No matter how many times outsiders marvel at its work, its game designers must wake up each day, bike into the ivory cocoon of the R&D building, face the blank screen, and make something for the world.