With the launch of the 3DS, do Osamu Inoue's insights into the secretive Nintendo still have a magic touch?
Writer: Osamu Inoue
Translation: Paul Tuttle Star
What They Say:
In 2006, Nintendo released Wii at the same time the highly-anticipated and much-vaunted Playstation III was introduced. Wii's David defeated PlayStation's Goliath, inversely echoing the NES/PlayStation II outcome of a decade previous. Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars is the story of what went right, discussing the business strategies and marketing savvy that took on the mighty Song and won.Topics Include: How where you put your company is just as important as how you run it From work force to policies, why Nintendo's "just enough" attitude succeeds Why the ability to read a balance sheet is overrated Enlarging the pie: going after casual gamers (The art of mainstreaming) The Pokemon Phenomenon
Nintendo Magic is hardbound with a stylish white and blue design. The cover is spare and understated, with the title printed to the side, and the subtitle "Winning the Videogame Wars" in red. The back is done up to look like a Wii remote, with a cross-pad and speaker. The summation of the book is found on the dust jacket flaps rather than the back cover. It's a nice clean look, which makes it kind of a shame that the dust jacket gets dirty rather easily. It's not a pronounced problem, but it will show shelf-wear rather quickly.
The translation is very well done, flowing naturally, and with no detectable errors. It's a somewhat technical book, with a lot of facts and figures, but it's a fairly easy read. The book contains charts, graphs, and some greyscale photographs to complement the text.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Nintendo Magic is a book that grew out of a series of articles Osamu Inoue wrote for the weekly Nikkei Business journal in Japan. Nintendo has been a largely secretive company, so these articles, and the book, had an unprecedented amount of access to major figures within the company. However, it must be said that Nintendo granted this access, so the book paints a largely positive picture of the company. This is not a daring expose of the practices of the company: It's easy to imagine that this is the book Nintendo wanted to have written about itself. Inoue is positive and complimentary throughout, but praise is never laid on too thickly. However, readers will want to be aware of the bias and limitations of the book going in.
That said, the book is an informative and fun read on the philosophy and history of Nintendo. Nintendo Magic begins with a rundown on the state of the economy in September 2008 and early 2009, badly shaken by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Japanese companies Toyota, Nissan, Sony, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Panasonic all forecasted losses, but Nintendo did not. "Unshaken by the storm of the century," Inoue argues, Nintendo has something valuable to tell us about the video game industry and business in general.
The first two chapters detail Nintendo's strategy to succeed. With the Nintendo 64, Nintendo aimed to be at the forefront of graphical and technological advance. However, the system may have been too complex for its time, as the difficulty of programming games for the system prevented it from having a diverse and robust software library. For the first time, Nintendo lost its first place in the console war to competitor Sony, whose Playstation was less powerful, but more inviting to developers.
The heads of Nintendo began to suspect that fighting on the ground of improved graphics and hardware was a losing battle that would drive up development costs and keep profits low. Therefore, they decided to cede this ground to Microsoft and Sony. Their new plan was to grow the gaming base by appealing to gamers who'd given up playing games, or those who may have never been gamers at all. Hardcore gamers may have suspected that the DS and Wii were created with Mom in mind, but Inoue details the lengths to which Nintendo's research and development teams went in order to please Mom.
The rest of the chapters tell the story of Nintendo in reverse chronology, starting with Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's new CEO and Nintendo's creative mastermind respectively. We then go back to learn of Gunpei Yokoi, who first set Nintendo on the path to video games, and who gave Miyamoto his first designing role. We go further and further back, learning how Hiroshi Yamauchi inherited the role of CEO and transformed Nintendo from a playing card company into its current form, and end with a look at how Nintendo fit in the world of playing card artisans in the pre-war period. This reverse genealogy is an interesting way to see how the "spirit" of Nintendo was passed down from person to person, and how the core philosophies of the company have remained largely unchanged.
The simplicity of this argument does leave a lot of unanswered questions, however. The creator of the NES, Masayuki Uemura, is mentioned, but his role is never fully described. Why leave out such an important figure? The Pikachu in the room, however, is Pokemon. While Pokemon is also mentioned, there's no history of its long development, which Nintendo funded for many years. It turned out to be an incredibly worthwhile investment for the company, so it's odd there's no description of the lessons learned from the experience.
Nintendo Magic was published when Nintendo was at the top of the world, but does it remain relevant now? I would argue yes. Inoue does draw some prescient conclusions. For instance, he argues that Nintendo's true competitor with the Wii and DS is not Microsoft or Sony, but Apple. Furthermore, although the book was released before the 3DS was even announced, it's easy to see how the device fits into the framework and strategy that Nintendo has constructed. The 3D effect seems to be the successor to Yokoi's failed Virtual Boy, and its Street Pass and Augmented Reality games fit in with Nintendo's guidelines of creating intuitive surprises that grab attention and keep players engaged with Nintendo's products, but also with other gamers.
It's easy to see Nintendo Magic's shortcomings: Using Nintendo itself as a primary source puts its objectivity in doubt, and it glosses over some of Nintendo's successes, such as Pokemon. That said, it's an informative and fun history of a company that's been known for keeping secrets. Researchers and fans should find something of interest here.