Disrupting the Game: From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo by Reggie Fils-Aimé, HarperCollins Leadership, August 3rd, 2022
As can be gathered from the many posts on the subject, my interest in video games goes beyond playing them. I have read a number of books on the history of video game development and the various people and companies behind them. These books vary in quality and depth but the majority do what they set out to do. Last year I reviewed Beyond Donkey Kong by Ken Horowitz which was an excellent history of Nintendo’s arcade games — a subject previously neglected due to their far more prominent success in the home console market. Before that was Ask Iwata, a business focused book put together after the death of Satoru Iwata, the former CEO of Nintendo Japan. The latter, as I said in the review, is more the business of video games than anything and the book being reviewed in this post by the former president of Nintendo of America is much the same — even more consciously so.
Although this will naturally appeal to video game enthusiasts, Disrupting the Game is firmly in the genre of corporate leadership and even published by such division of HarperCollins. There is no false advertising here and anyone expecting some sort of inside baseball of Nintendo operations will be largely disappointed. Each chapter of the book is a business orientated regardless of the subject with one of more sections called ‘The So What’ summarising the takeaways for each chapter. Typically for books of this sort, it is partially autobiographical and Fils-Aimé even draws lessons for business out of some childhood experiences. He also seems to exaggerate difficulties in his early life. He began life in a rough area of the Bronx but ended up living in Long Island. That sounds to me like things got better for him fairly quickly but this is just an aside. The short of it is that this book is exactly what I expected it to be but I do have more to say on it.
Almost ten years ago, I reviewed Console Wars by Blake J. Harris which was later turned into a 2020 documentary of the same name (though a feature film was originally in the works). This book was a narrative history of the so-called “console wars” period in the early 1990s between Sega and Nintendo and towards the end of my review, I wrote:
Although this was not the focus of the book, I felt there could have been more on the developers. Yuji Naka is the only one given significant prominence around the development of the Sonic the Hedgehog games. What ultimately sold Sega were the games and while I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of good marketing, I would have liked to see more on the developers.
Since writing the review, I have become increasingly skeptical of the value of corporate management though without doubting the importance of good marketing and business strategy. In reading Disrupting the Game, I had this firmly in mind. While Satoru Iwata had both great experience and success in game development and programming, Reggie’s background is all business. He worked for Procter & Gamble straight after graduating from college and then for a number of other corporations before eventually taking a job with Nintendo. Apart from initially in the first chapter, Nintendo doesn’t become the focus until nearly half way through which is further reason for those interested only in Reggie’s time at Nintendo to lower their expectations.
I remember first seeing Reggie during the GameCube era when he first joined the company. The GameCube had not been selling well but the Game Boy Advance had been very successful. The PlayStation 2 eventually outsold the Xbox and GameCube combined by more than one hundred million units. He immediately struck me as an awkward guy that was frankly kind of funny looking (I didn’t realise he was Haitian). I don’t mean to be insulting as he seems to be conscious of this and I’m certainly no Adonis myself. He became well-known from E3 2004 onwards with his line, “My name is Reggie. I’m about kicking-ass. I’m about taking names. And we’re about making games.”
The line is right at the beginning of this video
What surprised me in reading the book is how much discussion went into these lines.
Don [Varyu] pitched me on my opening lines of the conference: “My name is Reggie. I’m about kicking ass and taking names. And I’m about making games!” At the time, I didn’t know the lines would become a rallying cry among our players and a key moment in E3 history.
Reggie then goes on at length about how further discussions resulted in the “I” in the last sentence being changed to “We”. This is all written as if it had the utmost importance for the direction of the company though when watching it, you could forget the lines a few seconds after hearing them. The important parts of that conference were actually the reveal of the Nintendo DS, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and the first mention of the “Nintendo Revolution” which later became the Wii. The Nintendo DS is the best-selling handheld of all time and the Wii is one of the most successful consoles of all time. I, like many, was most excited by the new Zelda and I only recall Reggie’s cringe opening line today because it became a meme. I have frankly come up with (and delivered) better lines off the cuff when I’m occasionally called to do public speaking and I’m quite an awkward guy myself.
Further on “Reggieisms”, I always had the impression that people didn’t actually think of Reggie as this “cool guy”. He was amusing because of the stunted delivery of his obviously rehearsed statements which sometimes became memes. These include lines such as “My body is ready!” and “Okay, that’s all the time I’ve got. I’ve gotta get back to playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my Nintendo 3DS.” The latter indicates that he understood this and so played it up to the audience. I have never once (even since his retirement), seen him drop the corporate façade which certainly includes the pages of this book. An unintentionally funny anecdote and further example is found within where Reggie has to explain when he was joking to a colleague:
When performing the business review with the team running Nintendo Power magazine, I asked the leader a question. “In 1993, I sent in a photo of my son after he had beaten the Super Street Fighter game on the Super NES. He was only three years old at the time. Why didn’t Nintendo Power publish the photo? Or even send us a letter to celebrate this achievement?”
In the team meeting with Nintendo Power, my attempt to humanize the boss by telling the story about my son didn’t work. I was the new and unknown big boss and had asked a direct question.
The department head stammered for a moment and then said, “Reggie, I don’t know why we didn’t publish his photo. Let me go back into our archives to understand what happened and who made the decisions.”
“No, no, no,” I said, “don’t do that. I am just having fun here. We are in the entertainment business, and I was just trying to lighten up the room. Just know that I have a legacy with our content. And that I have a sense of humor.” Word spread that the new boss knew the games and was a good guy. Mission finally accomplished.
I would have loved to have witnessed this but the final line really gets to his thinking. Everything seems to be business-orientated calculation — even his attempts at jokes!
Early in the book when drawing corporate leadership lessons from his childhood experiences he writes,
“For me, the concept of backing up your beliefs and doing the right things was ingrained at a very young age. The lesson of right and wrong still applies when we’re adults.”
Right and wrong still matters in adulthood. Good to know. Though what exactly “right and wrong” means seems to be purely dictated by the zeitgeist. He actually uses the events of September 11th, 2001 as a teaching moment for marketing too. At the time he worked for VH1 in New York and organised a charity concert after the events. Though he would almost certainly deny this, there is a clear marketing angle at work even for a charity concert and it is even included in his biography on the back cover! The corporate mindset is ever dominant.
The same is true with the illness and death of Satoru Iwata which I have no doubt he was deeply saddened by. Still, I would have personally excised any business lessons from this part if it were me writing. It also shows he had some cluelessness about Japanese culture as he insisted on visiting Iwata while he was in hospital.
Mr. Iwata had not allowed any visitors from Nintendo to the hospital. Now that I was due to visit him, he had relented and during the preceding forty-eight hours he had accepted other visitors from the company.
In Japanese culture, it is generally impolite to say “no” and hearing something that roughly translates as “it’s difficult” should be accepted as a firm “no”. Of course in American culture, this comes across as an opportunity to push for a “yes” which it certainly isn’t. Reading between the lines, what Iwata had to do was upend everything and allow all visitors due to Reggie’s insistence on visiting him in hospital. The Japanese do not like to appear weak or vulnerable. They would have all been polite and not given hints of disapproval but this was actually a big faux pas from what I can read into it. Though Iwata and the other senior leadership would have been familiar enough with their American counterparts that they would have overlooked it — they still would have been displeased. This is not to be taken as a criticism as I’ve certainly made similar mistakes with the Japanese. I am just surprised he didn’t know (or wasn’t advised) better.
After finishing this book, I still have myself wondering what corporate executives actually do. I read about writing memos, having meetings and discussions and then delegating actual work to to others but I don’t see any significant impact that Reggie had on Nintendo. He was prominent and present for both the ups and downs of the last twenty years. Did he make any difference to the direction of Nintendo? On balance, I would say that he generally did but I’d bet the company would have had similar success without him too. Those years after E3 2004 I remember fondly as there was a lot of exciting things happening and ‘The Regginator’ was a positive part of that. Still, the marketer is nothing without a product to market and the products were ultimately more important.
I would give this a cautious recommendation for anyone who is really into Nintendo but I wouldn’t call it a must-read for someone interested in the video game industry. There is little within the pages that I didn’t already know but then, I must remember this is at heart (if there is one), a corporate leadership book and it will be mostly of useful to those readers.