The wisdom of counterintuitive success
Nintendo and Apple are surprisingly similar.
I’ve had the connection on my mind for a while but feared I might be overthinking it. Then I listened to a deep dive into Nintendo’s history, and the more I learned, the more I was reminded of the famous fruit-named company. I was struck by how an obsession with honouring humanity is at the heart of both companies.
I call it a human-first approach—in contrast to a product-first one.
People often feel apprehensive about technology because they assume it will be complicated, and they lack confidence that they can figure it out, which, in turn, leaves them feeling stupid. And it’s not that anyone designs anything to be complex, but that’s just the problem: you don’t need to design for complicatedness—it simply happens by default. Simplicity is the hard thing. As Steve Jobs said, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”
A key element to the success of both Apple and Nintendo is their relentless focus on creating tech for ordinary people rather than just enthusiasts. It’s why both companies have, in their respective industries, led the way in transforming the idea of who engages with technology—to great success.
So why doesn’t everyone copy it? Because the work required to make tech accessible is not only challenging but also risky. And the reason it’s risky is that it involves unorthodox trade-offs.
And that’s the lens through which we’ll explore how Apple and Nintendo are alike.
The greatest over the latest
“A delayed game is eventually good. A bad game is bad forever.”— Shigeru Miyamoto
Both companies prioritise delivering great experiences at a profit. Note those last five words: great experience at a profit. You see what’s missing there, don’t you?
The two companies are obsessed with delivering great experiences, but you know what else they take very seriously? Making money. And all the more because both have historically come close to closing shop.
You know the saying, “Fast, good, cheap—pick two”? In this case, it’s more like, “Experience, specs, profit—pick two.”
That’s not to say they will pass over great tech for a quick buck. However, it does mean they don’t mind older tech, regardless of criticism, if they feel confident they can engineer it to deliver a great experience at a good profit.
Nintendo has a well-recognised policy of figuring out creative ways to use tested and trusted (and therefore cheap) technology, from The Game Boy to the Wii to the Switch. It’s why, when colour displays were already a thing, Nintendo chose the trade-off of black and white screens that kept costs down and battery life up for the first Game Boy. But what it lacked in specs, it made up for with great experiences like Tetris and Super Mario Land.
Similarly, Apple, for decades, rejected the industry assumption of powerful chips being power-demanding. Instead, they kept innovating on custom low-power chips, pushing them to the limit, first on the iPhone and then the iPad, until they upended expectations, with Apple Silicon being incredibly powerful while demanding little power. By insisting on that unorthodox trade-off, they spared customers making one: no longer must you decide between power output and power consumption.
Both companies pride themselves on their ability to turn less into more. And both insist on making money from hardware that competitors sell at a loss or with minimal margins.
What Apple and Nintendo don’t compromise on, though, is user experience.
“An ordinary man cannot develop good games, no matter how hard he tries. A handful of people in this world can develop games that everybody wants. Those are the people we want at Nintendo.”— Yamauchi
With the first [Donkey Kong], the most complex game of its time, Nintendo not only invented what later became known as [platform games] but also introduced a never-before-seen degree of art, storytelling, and music. With the Macintosh, Apple introduced the idea of computers as tools, not just for doing work, but also for making art.
Both companies became great by creating paradigm-shifting products by focusing intensely on art in historically tech-focused industries under the guidance of unlikely people.
Hitoshi Yamauchi (Nintendo CEO from 1949-2002) neither had an engineering background nor a personal interest in video games. Apple founder Steve Jobs was known more for his ability to persuade and drive people than his coding skills. Both were renowned for their uncanny ability to understand what people want.
Little surprise, then, that both company heads not only identified people who turned out to be design superstars but (again, unlike their competitors) gave these designers unprecedented power in what were, until then, engineering-led industries. Jony Ive at Apple and Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo remain highly respected names, not just for their design chops but equally for that far more intangible thing: taste.
“Fun first”— A Nintendo motto
The thing about taste, though—you can’t measure it.
The only way to know how something tastes is to experience it yourself. And at companies like Nintendo and Apple, where taste ranks equally with spreadsheets, they know that it’s ultimately a “you know it when you see it” kind of thing.
That’s risky, and it’s why many companies prefer to focus on and highlight specs: it’s easy to measure things like processor speed and RAM size, but how do you capture something like how nice it feels to use a product?
But that’s precisely what both companies focus on. It’s also why it’s often hard for fans of their products to explain why. There’s a real sense in which the best things about products from Nintendo and Apple are inevitably subjective—to an outside observer, they can appear objectively worse. (Which is why Apple customers, in particular, get called sheep.)
Take the Samsung S23, which on paper, has an incredible camera that out-specs the iPhone 14’s in some aspects. And yet, in actual use, as people like YouTuber Mark Ellis have observed, it’s slow at capturing moving children and pets - the two things that represent the majority of photos for people with either.
Similarly, despite their historically smaller RAM, iPhones have always been as fast as Androids (or faster) in daily use. And where other manufacturers increased battery size so phones could last longer, Apple prolonged battery life by improving software to keep phones slimmer and lighter for daily use. Similarly, Nintendo has always obsessed over gameplay, inventing new ways to play (from the motion-sensing Wii controllers to detachable ones on the Switch) that enable new gaming experiences.
For both companies, technological innovation is only helpful to the degree that it enables innovation in experience. And so, in the face of criticism, both companies have stubbornly focused on the immeasurable, trusting customers to know the difference. In return, they earn that most priceless reward: customer trust and loyalty.
Controlling the whole widget
“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”— Steve Jobs, quoting Alan Kay
This intense focus on experience at Apple and Nintendo leads both companies to pursue tight control of their products, which tends to be perceived as merely profit-driven. But what often gets lost in these discussions is that control has often meant leaving money on the table, to much criticism. And even more important, it was a focus for both long before it proved profitable.
People readily forget the years when Apple caught flak for not being more like Microsoft and licensing their OS on PCs or for losing market share to Android despite their initial lead with iOS. And Nintendo, for their part, resisted suggestions to put games on iOS when pundits insisted that mobile would destroy their longstanding foothold in the portable gaming market.
No, the desire for control seems less for profit and more on principle—with profit as a happy by-product.
The principle? You guessed it: delivering great experiences at a profit.
The obsession with designing great experiences drives both companies to optimise everything to the eyeballs. That has often meant creating hardware that pushes experience further and designing software to make the most of it. Steve Jobs initially pushed back on the idea of having third-party developers for just this reason. He finally agreed, of course, and the App Store was crucial to the iPhone taking off, but Apple, then and now, insisted on carefully curating apps allowed on the store.
For Nintendo, hardware is a way to innovate new gaming experiences, as we have repeatedly seen with the Game Boy, Wii, 3DS and now Switch. In fact, not until Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run in 2016 did Nintendo ever ship a game on any hardware where they didn’t design the controller. And, of course, Apple’s tight control of the iPhone and App Store continues to be challenged, most recently by Epic and Spotify. And both companies have historically been considered prudes: Apple famously refused to allow porn on the App Store, and Nintendo’s first-party games don’t depict blood or significant violence.
But Apple takes the ethos of control further with Apple Stores, the first of which opened May 2001—over two decades ago. And, of course, they were panned as a bad idea, opening when retail stores were considered a relic of a waning age.
Everything seems inevitable when it works out, doesn’t it?
Interestingly, both companies often attribute their need for control to a concern for the user, which, understandably, must sound like a joke to cynical industry watchers. Except, I think they mean it. Not sentimentally, but in a sense any event planner knows: if you care deeply about engineering an experience, you can’t leave variables running around the place.
But that’s not to say they don’t take risks.
Embracing risk, creating markets
“Courage.”— Phil Schiller
Apple and Nintendo are often described as companies that play safe. But that’s only partly true. Sure, delivering great experiences means keeping a tight hold on variables, but that doesn’t translate to being risk-free.
Nobody cares how tightly you design an experience if it turns out to suck anyway.
Apple and Nintendo are in the business of making hits. Like film studios, book publishers, musicians and authors, they’re as good as their last hit.
As such, Apple is unlike the other tech companies it tends to get lumped with, like Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. Samsung looks similar, but they have a wide-enough range of products that are more like Amazon. And while Nintendo’s biggest competitors, Sony and Microsoft, are also in the hits business, for them, it’s just one of many businesses, which means they can survive non-hits in a way Nintendo can’t.
The big risk for Nintendo and Apple is their very business model.
Despite the growth of its services business, Apple’s success depends on the hit status of its slim product line: iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, desktop Macs, Watch, AirPods. These few products drive everything else: services, software and accessories. Similarly, although Nintendo has been diversifying into theme parks and a now-successful billion-dollar-revenue movie, their growth remains dependent on products being hits.
So how do both have such longevity? By opening up entirely new markets in which they attract customers with whom they can nurture lifelong relationships.
Doing that repeatedly has helped tide both companies over the inevitable bad decisions between hits. With the Game Boy, Nintendo found a new market for video games in adults, including business people on flights. The Wii, launched when Sony and Microsoft were taking over the “serious gaming” market in the early 2000s, opened up two vast new markets in children and casual gamers, which the Switch built on to become the third bestselling game ever.
And, of course, it’s well known by now how Apple has repeatedly opened up new markets. The early Macs opened up a market for computers among creatives, the iPhone and iPad made computing even more accessible and portable to everyone, and the Watch took fitness monitoring beyond athletes and fitness buffs.
That’s how Nintendo has owned the portable console market (Game Boy, DS, Switch), and Apple owns the smartwatch and tablet markets—and not for lack of competitors.
They don’t just make hits. They make fans.
But there’s one last way both are alike.
The end is near—for real this time
“We’ve all thought Nintendo was going to go out of business for the last 20 years.”— Anonymous video game exec quoted on the Acquired podcast
One of the paradoxes about Apple and Nintendo is that both companies get talked about like their success is inevitable.
People like people who don’t follow the rules—up to a point.
You’re an object of interest when you don’t follow the rules once or twice. You’re the underdog, the outlier, the maverick—everyone roots for you. Deep down, though, they assume you’ll adjust soon enough and be “normal”. But if you persist on your unusual path, the dynamic changes. You suddenly find that they’re hoping you falter and fall and fail. You’ve gone from interesting to annoying, and your insistence on acting differently, previously seen as creative, starts to be viewed as stubborn and stupid.
That’s what it’s been like for Apple and Nintendo.
It’s not hard to see why this is. We engage with the world through our models of how things work, and the occasional surprise keeps things intriguing. But a surprise, by definition, is something you don’t expect: something that goes against whatever mental models you have. And every surprise offers you a chance to update your map of reality to account for this unexpected finding.
Too often, though, we see surprises as no more than a blip—an oddity we assume won’t repeat. So we keep our maps as they are and dismiss the “anomaly.”
Once you see this, you understand why “Apple is doomed” headlines have never gone out of fashion. Apple and Nintendo are so contrary to industry assumptions that observers keep expecting their approach to fail. And yet, paradoxically, these same observers have frequently described their success after the fact as only to be expected. (Interestingly, their biggest failures have been on the heels of abandoning their unique approaches.)
One day, both companies will come to an end, as all things must. But when it happens, observers like these will only be right in the same way as a broken clock.
Until then, both companies just continue to confound observers.
What counts versus what’s countable
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
— Not Einstein!
The most surprising about Apple and Nintendo seeming so counterintuitive is that they’re really about being human at heart. They are two companies that have thrived off prioritising the subjective as much as the objective, being the greatest rather than the latest, and valuing taste as much as spreadsheets.
It’s not that we don’t know this. It’s just that we somehow forget when we want to measure things. Most people intuitively understand, for instance, that being at a concert or watching a football match live simply isn’t the same experience as watching a recording of the same concert or match. But we also have an unfortunate tendency to undervalue these things when faced with things we can count.
We act like our ability to count things makes them count more.
We do it when we hyper-focus on numbers and specs, and overlook the well-designed and carefully curated experience that’s more than the sum of its parts. In contrast, by obsessing about delivering great experiences, which in turn leads them to prioritise intangibles like design and taste, Nintendo and Apple put being human at the forefront of their vision of business success.
Turns out, these intangible things produce a very tangible success.