Monday, September 23, 2013

Hiroshi Yamauchi

Last week the video games business lost a legend. But Hiroshi Yamauchi shouldn’t only be highly regarded within electronic entertainment circles; he should be applauded for what he enabled others to do.

When I watch Dragons' Den (the original UK version) I’m nearly always astounded by what a complete lack of vision some of the so-called dragons have. Anecdotally, based on my own sporadic viewings, it seems that Duncan Bannatyne is the key offender.

Hiroshi Yamauchi - I bet he's not really playing anything at all...

He is from the insidious “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” school of thinking, it would appear, a form of thinking that caused British manufacturing to crumble under old practices while the Japanese decided that even unbroken things can be better.

I propose we introduce a new verb to the English language – Bannatyning. To Bannatyne is to put down an idea simply because something else that sort of does the job already exists. 

For example, if the elevator didn’t exist and you went on Dragons' Den to pitch the idea to them you would be Bannatyned in the following way: 

You’ve pitched your idea and mentioned all its virtues and Duncan starts, “Hello, I’m Duncan.”

To which you reply, “Hello Duncan,” for this is Dragons' Den etiquette, rather than saying, “No shit, I have watched the show!”

Duncan would then proceed, “In my offices I already have something that does this job. They’re called stairs, and they don’t need any electricity to make them work, I just move my legs up and down and I change floors. I don’t have to wait for them to come to me either, and for that reason, I’m out!” 

You’ve been Bannatyned!

As a kid that grew up playing games on computers, rather than consoles, and I looked down on Nintendo. After reading David Sheff’s excellent “Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World” 20 years ago my general point of view wasn’t altered much. I was left thinking it was a damn good read, and that Yamauchi was a dick whose company dictated what games should be, even demanding significant design changes of games that companies wanted to release on their console. To me they diminished the artistry of video games. 

I was only just an adult at that point in time and although I still agree with that original takeaway I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of the man and the company. Yamauchi created an environment where he believed in the power of invention. Not only that but he trusted other people with his money, his family legacy in fact, despite the fact that it didn’t always pay off. 

Okay, so his initial inspiration was the fact that the bottom was falling out of Nintendo’s core business of hanafuda playing cards and he didn’t regard himself as a creative person, but many have simply watched their company die in the same position. 

He believed in innovation, or did after fate coerced him, the real kind of innovation where you create something new and offer it to the world; not the more prevalent runt of innovation, where you just make things cheaper, which normally involves exploiting people. (Sadly these two forms of innovation aren’t mutually exclusive).

If Yamauchi was on Dragons' Den the other dragons would laugh at him and all his investments. But by my reckoning he was worth more than all the dragons put together, despite his Nintendo shares being far less valuable than they once had.

Even more impressively, with Nintendo starting life as a maker of playing cards, Yamauchi explored many angles on where to go and grow in the years after he took the reins. The company even owned a few Love Hotels at one point. But it generally chose “play” of a different kind to pursue its fortunes, and dance with bankruptcy. Imagine if Yamauchi had been cut from the same cloth as Duncan – “I already have a thing I can play games on, it’s called a card table! Because of that… Sayonara!”

Actually, he probably said that to lots of ideas, but he accepted plenty of crazy stuff too. The success of Pokémon is only obvious after the success of Pokémon, there’s nothing about it that fundamentally screams, “infinitely rich vein of cold hard cash!” We only think that in hindsight.

So, if you want to be great, get yourself some innovators, and then trust them, or at least pit them against each other in a dog fight for supremacy, as Yamauchi did. 

No one will remember the dragons ten years after the show ends, unless I do manage to get bannatype into the popular conscience, but Yamauchi will forever be a legend. 

If you want that kind of mighty reward, you have to take the same mighty risks.