Tell a group of Nintendo’s lead developers that they’re “being treated like rock stars” and they laugh in disbelief. How could a group of middle-aged game developers, standing in front of a Best Buy in Culver City, California, be anything like rock stars? When I jokingly made that comment to the likes of Super Mario 3D World producer Yoshiaki Koizumi and New Super Mario Bros. series producer Takashi Tezuka, it really seemed like fame had found them. Gamers who were visiting Best Buy for the E3 2013 Nintendo Experience had crowded around the developers, asking for photos and professing their fandom. A few years ago, a scene like this would not occur unless Nintendo brought the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto. Yet now Nintendo’s developers are recognized more and more for their work, and it’s all thanks to a noticeable shift in how the company presents itself to the public. Gone are the days of Nintendo’s identity being that of a corporation shrouded in mystery. In its place is a cult of personality that is turning Nintendo’s lead developers into big names.
It’s no secret that in the past half decade, Nintendo has been more transparent than ever. Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata first lifted the curtain with his Iwata Asks interviews, in which he spoke with the software developers and hardware engineers who built the games and platforms we all love to play. Nintendo then took this concept a step further by introducing Nintendo Direct videos that let the company speak directly to fans, creating what feels like a personal connection between the game maker and its players. With these Iwata Asks interviews and Nintendo Direct presentations, Nintendo is able to provide a peek at its inner workings, be it with Wii Remote prototype photos or “on location” video shoots in various parts of Nintendo’s headquarters.
None of this, however, directly resulted in the attention that the company’s lead developers experienced in front of that Culver City Best Buy. Instead, that came from a specific public relations strategy that sprung out of Nintendo’s newfound transparency, in which the company has chosen to embrace key team members as figureheads for its franchises and developmental processes. But why now and for what reason? The answer starts all the way back at E3 2004, when current Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage as a Nintendo VP for the first time. He triumphantly declared that he was there to “kick ass and take names” and instantly a meme was born. Thousands of photos, animated GIFs, and YouTube videos flooded gaming forums and soon Fils-Aime himself, not just the games he promoted, became a way to excite the Nintendo fan base. From there, we saw the birth of many more memes. His body was ready, he felt like a purple Pikmin… Anything Fils-Aime said or did spread like wildfire through the gaming community. It became an easy way for Nintendo to ensure it was the topic of conversation among gamers.
As any company does when it finds a successful formula, Nintendo began to increase the meme-worthy moments to keep itself at the forefront of conversations among gamers. We saw Iwata randomly hold fruit in silence during a Nintendo Direct and Non-Specific Action Figure stole the spotlight in a Wii U demonstration video. Even at E3 2013 earlier this month, Nintendo’s trifecta of Iwata, Miyamoto, and Fils-Aime posed for silly photos around Nintendo’s booth and funny tweets about In-N-Out. And during E3 itself, the meme moments fell into the hands of Nintendo’s lead developers for the first time at the Wii U Software Showcase. To demonstrate Super Mario 3D World and its new Cat Suit, producer Yoshiaki Koizumi and director Koichi Hayashida donned cat ears and paw mittens, literally meowing during their presentation. For the Mario Kart 8 demonstration, producer Hideki Konno ‘drove’ himself on stage and threw plush Bob-ombs into the crowd. It was all fun, lighthearted, and gave Nintendo and its developers more personality than ever before.This boost in personality was about more than simply creating sharable moments, though. There also appears to be a strategic element in how Nintendo is trotting out lead developers. Over the past two years, the topic of the eventual retirement of Shigeru Miyamoto has come up numerous times. Miyamoto himself has said in interviews that Nintendo is now training younger employees for when he is eventually gone. And given that Miyamoto is the most public figure of Nintendo, it only makes sense to begin drawing attention to the many other lead developers within the company, thus showing that Nintendo can survive just fine without him. Apple used a similar strategy during the tail end of Steve Job’s tenure, giving press conference presentation time to a handful of executives alongside Jobs. Now Apple fans know a whole team, not just a person, that is responsible for the products they love. Nintendo is simply replicating this strategy.
The company had previous success expanding its publicly known circle of talent with Eiji Aonuma, head of the Legend of Zelda team. Nintendo transitioned him into the go-to ‘Zelda guy,’ the one who controlled the series and knew where it was heading next. Similarly, through the Smash Bros. Dojo website, Masahiro Sakurai was established as the man in charge of the Super Smash Bros series. Now they’re doing it with other core franchises in a very blatant way. Want to know what’s in store for Mario Kart? Ask series producer Hideki Konno, who just so happened to be wearing a Mario Kart shirt at E3 2013 and arrived in 3DS owners’ StreetPass Plazas with Mario Kart 7 as his most recently played game. Curious about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze? Turn your attention to producer Kensuke Tanabe, the man who wore an actual DK tie on the E3 show floor and paid a visit to StreetPass Plaza with Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D as his latest game. How about Super Mario 3D World? Director Koichi Hayashida had that covered with his cat costume, and yes, he was also delivered to StreetPass Plaza with Super Mario 3D Land, the last title he directed, as his recently played game. Oh, and don’t worry if you still can’t figure out who’s who: Nintendo posted a Facebook gallery cheat sheet of its key developers, uploaded video interviews with each of them, and granted interviews across every major publication. Nintendo clearly wants you to know who these developers are, going as far as to literally push them into people’s systems via SpotPass. This is a complete turnaround from a decade ago when Nintendo kept quiet on its development process and teams.
By definition, a cult of personality occurs when mass media is used to draw positive attention to specific individuals. In this case, Nintendo is leveraging the concept to move away from the idea of a single developer in the public eye (Miyamoto) to that of many, all of whom play a large role in Nintendo’s success. So far, the roll out of these other talents is working perfectly. Nintendo eased into it over the past few years through Iwata Asks interviews, Nintendo Directs, and Swapnote messages straight from developers to 3DS owners. It then latched on to the success of Fils-Aime as a beloved meme machine, crafting equally silly moments to give its developers a noted boost in attention among gamers. And now, those developers are getting the star treatment, appearing in photos and videos across Nintendo’s social media sites, popping up in StreetPass Plazas, and drawing attention from fans at events. They may not feel like rock stars yet, but among gamers, they’re well on their way.