lateral thinking with withered technology

lateral thinking with withered technology
Gunpei Yokoi's WonderSwan

I've been thinking about Gunpei Yokoi a lot lately. Before his tragic death in 1997, Yokoi was a game designer at Nintendo — one of the first, in fact. For them, he created the Game & Watch, the Virtual Boy, and the original Game Boy; over in games, he produced games like Kid Icarus and Metroid. He even trained up Shigeru Miyamoto in game design, when they worked together on Donkey Kong.

The thing Yokoi was known for, his design philosophy, was both simple and — I think — radical, generally translated as "lateral thinking with withered technology." Which means: innovate using mature technology.

The canonical example of this is the Game Boy, which famously bundled a bunch of cheap parts into the most popular handheld console ever made. The lesson, of course, is that it's not necessarily cutting-edge, expensive tech that drives innovation; it's what you do with what you've got. The Switch is just the latest example of Nintendo sticking with Yokoi's philosophy; it's not the most cutting-edge console you can buy, but it is the most innovative console on the market. And that's one of the reasons why it's the 3rd best selling console of all time.

Yokoi's work has been on my mind, of late, because of the slow motion catastrophe that's been games and media over the last year. There's been a constant drumbeat of layoffs, and consequently a widespread feeling that things are darker than ever. And maybe they are; I was reading Matthew Ball's latest dispatch about the state of gaming in 2024, and it seems like the story — at least from an executive level — is that growth is stagnant while costs are rising. Print and digital media, on the other hand, have been in freefall for a while. One way to stanch the bleeding is to cut costs, which are by and large people.

To return to Yokoi for a minute: one of the biggest games (and indeed, biggest success stories) of the last year was Nintendo's latest 2D Mario game, Super Mario Bros. Wonder. It was both a breath of fresh air for the franchise and, on its own terms, a revelation. They managed to change the definition of what a Mario game is while staying absolutely faithful to his 1981 roots. It is, ahem, a wonder. But the thing I found most fascinating about Wonder wasn't the gameplay (stellar, inventive) or the visuals (gorgeous); it was buried in the list of designers.

All of the designers of the original Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System are credited designers on Super Mario Bros. Wonder.

Let me repeat that: the people who created the first Super Mario Bros. game are still at Nintendo 38 years later. That kind of tenure is almost unheard of. And — not to undercut the contributions of the many other talented people who helped bring the game to life — it shows in how good the game actually is. Tenure helps. Because — and I think this is crucial — you need to feel safe to innovate. To do the lateral thinking in the first place, you know?

This appears to be another one of Nintendo's philosophies. Back in 2013, the late Satoru Iwata — the former president of Nintendo — said this at a shareholder meeting:

"If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease, and I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world."

And I think he's right. One thing that's been a little lost in the discussions of growth and cost-cutting is the idea that employees produce better work if they're not fearing for their livelihoods. It's intuitive! And yet it feels like so many industries have lost sight of the idea. I'm not sure if it's trickle-down wisdom from management consultants, or just the idea that workers are interchangeable cogs in a product assembly line, but the idea that you might have a job you keep for a while is starting to feel archaic. Anachronistic. It's hard to imagine a place you might be able to stay for a while.

I think what I'm trying to say is that we've lost the idea that an employer has any obligation to their employees. (And no, I don't mean office pizza parties. Let's ban those.) Worker morale is low across the board because there's not really a sense that everyone is in the shit together. I of course understand that occasionally layoffs are necessary — but why don't we ever see executives taking pay cuts or losing their jobs when they happen? It seems like the people who are in charge largely get to keep making poor business decisions, and the people who work for them end up paying the price. It's a frustrating system.

In any case, I had a job interview recently and one of the questions threw me for a loop. The person asked looked at my CV and asked: do you see yourself here for 2 years, or more like 5? And I was taken aback. Because like many people my résumé is a patchwork of quitting bad jobs and getting laid off of good ones. I paused for a second and told him: it would be a dream to be able to stay somewhere for 5 years. And that was the truth.


things i'm consuming

Delicious in Dungeon, Netflix

"Are Black People Cooler Than White People?" Donnell Alexander, Might (July/Aug. 1997)