From The Signals are Talking by Amy Webb
Those who intentionally plan for what’s next—even very large, sprawl-ing organizations can more easily forecast what’s on the horizon and manifest their own preferred futures. That was certainly the case with a game company founded in Kyoto, Japan, in 1889. You know it today as Nintendo. Nintendo, which brought us Super Mario Brothers, the Game Boy, and the Wii, started out as Nintendo Koppai, a small playing card company based in Kyoto. Founded by businessman Fusajiro Yamauchi, Nintendo Koppai produced hanafuda cards, which were similar to today’s common set of fifty-two playing cards, except that rather than numbers and suits, hanafuda were printed with one of twelve sets of beautiful flowers.
By 1953, Yamauchi’s grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi, had become fascinated with an emerging trend, in fact, the same one from that iconic scene between Mr. McGuire and Benjamin in The Graduate: plastics. NIntendo’s paper card business was profitable, but it was far too limited.
Hiroshi Yamauchi had been meeting with the unusual suspects at the fringe and connecting the dots: The advent of plastics for commercial use, combined with new manufacturing capabilities, meant that the gaming space would inevitably become crowded. The price of televisions was dropping, and children’s cartoons featuring the Looney Tunes and the Mickey Mouse Club were capturing widespread attention. Walt Disney was getting ready to open his enormous theme park, Disney-land. Traditional cards, checkers, and chess games would no doubt be replaced by mass-produced board and card games with new strategies, storylines, and even characters.
As he assumed the position of Nintendo president in place of his grandfather, Yamauchi made several bold moves in planning for the future. First, he produced hanafuda cards in plastic. His contemporaries at the time no doubt questioned his logic. Plastic cards were far more durable than paper. Wouldn’t Nintendo’s sales shrink, since, unlike delicate paper cards, a plastic deck could ostensibly be used forever? With these new operations in place, he took a trip to the United States and met with Disney executives. In 1959, which was still very early on in Disney’s development, he made a deal to print Disney characters on Nintendo cards. This collaboration opened the playing-card market, which had mostly been targeted to gambling adults, up to children.
Yamauchi kept listening to the signals and connecting dots. Soon, there were books with explanations for how to play Nintendo’s new Disney card games. Millions of packs of cards had been sold. By the 1970s, Nintendo had completely saturated the playing-card market, however, and the company, which had gone public, saw its stock price plummet. Looking for new efficiencies, Yamauchi toured Nintendo’s factories and met with employees. One engineer had been tinkering with a mechanical arm of sorts—it was an expandable set of crisscrossed plastic, with scissor-like handles on one end and tongs on the other. Nintendo developed the arm into the Ultra Hand. It marked the introduction of a new kind of toy, one that was both fun and functional. It sold millions of units and paved the way for new products and more experimentation.
In the 1970s, early videocassette machines were making their Way into households. Meanwhile, computer programmers had been tinkering with electronic games, which had primarily been a simulation ion of real-world board games. Again, considering future scenarios, Nintendo asked its engineers to think through other ways in which video consoles might one day be used, both in the home and in places like restaurants and arcades. What about a television screen at eye level, where some-one could stand and play while others watched? Nintendo made another bold move and in 1973 created the Laser Clay Shooting System, a game intended for everyone to play, not just computer programmers. The following year, it developed another new technology—an image projection system—and manufactured the hardware for it. Nintendo started selling video-game machines, as well as the games to play on them, throughout Japan, the United States, and Europe. By 1979, Yamauchi’s son-in-law Minoru Arakawa had moved to New York City to create a base for what would soon become a multinational corporation.’ Nintendo was still very much a company that made games, just as it had in 1889. But it was also a company that invested in tracking emerging trends throughout gaming and adjacent industries. As a result, Nintendo developed products that set the course for the future. Soon came game titles like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and my personal favorite, The Legend of Zelda. It created advanced home console systems like the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). In 1988, Nintendo’s R&D department was at work on a number of other new projects that melded advances in personal computing and wearable technologies with games. As a result, Nintendo created a hands-free controller vest with a mouthpiece that allowed quadriplegics to play video games. The following year, Nintendo debuted the world’s first portable, handheld game system—the Game Boy—that had interchangeable game cartridges and had introduced a little game called Tetris.6 le) There were plenty of competitors along the way (Atari, for example as well as hardware and software bugs that at times proved challenging, if not potentially disastrous. And yet, the company continued to innovate. At the end of 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii, a motion-sensing game system that was accessible to everyone, regardless of age or computer experience. It was connected to the Internet, and the controller was a lightweight, wireless handheld wand. To play a game of howling, you simply held onto the wand and moved your arm, just as you would in a real bowling alley. To golf, you’d swing your arms and hips just as you would out on the course.
Nintendo survived—and, for the most part, thrived—for more than 125 years because it listened to the signals, spotted early trends, and blazed a new trail for the entire gaming industry. Many of the play control features we now take for granted not just on rival gaming platforms but also in other places, including our phones and computers—are directly attributable to Nintendo’s foresight. As of 2016, Nintendo was one of the most successful video-game companies in the world, and it was still the leading playing-card manufacturer in Japan. Nintendo is a company that might have been crushed by new technologies, changing customer tastes, and upstarts in the entertainment space, but for one simple fact: it leveraged trends. The same was not true of a company that, had it been listening to the signals and tracking trends, might still exist today. That company was the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and it completely missed the advent of personal computers.
It’s difficult to imagine it today, but two generations ago, computing was only a fringe experiment—and a rudimentary one at that. The earliest Computer engineers were total outliers tinkering on the fringe. The first machines took up the size of a large room—but if we follow the work of those early engineers up through the advent of the personal computer, we will be able to see a trend unfold. And what happened to one Of America’s most exciting companies when it refused to see how that fringe research could go mainstream.