Inside the Growing Discontent Behind Nintendo’s Fun Facade
In 2010, Nintendo of America opened its brand-new headquarters in Redmond, Washington on a 10-acre plot owned by the company since the early 1980s. The late Satoru Iwata cut the ribbon on the state-of-the-art facility alongside then-Washington State governor Chris Gregoire on a “gleaming 300,000 square foot facility” with “cushioned benches shaped like d-pads” and a “Mario Kart-themed parking garage.” It was everything a Nintendo fan could imagine, right down to the main boardroom being known as “The Master Sword.”
Across the way, past a soccer pitch of the sort one often sees on West Coast tech campuses, is a much older building that isn’t nearly as well-known. A former warehouse that houses a hodge-podge of departments ranging from data science to Product Testing and Development (PDT), it in some ways hearkens back to the days when NOA was simply an arcade distributor operating out of New Jersey. The warehouse doors are still visible, and the freight elevator near the greeting desk will sometimes get stuck open and make loud grinding noises. While Nintendo has spruced up the decoration with some Mario-themed diagrams, it’s otherwise a nondescript work area with an atmosphere akin to a library.
In contrast to the ultra-modern facilities nearby, many of the workers are toiling away on outdated equipment and software, with software that looks like it’s running on Windows XP and a database that dates back to the 90s. Until just a few years ago, it was still possible to find bins of old VHS tapes filled with bug recordings in the PTD area. Secrecy, constant software crashes, and the ever-present need for translation of messages from the Japanese headquarters frequently slows work to a crawl.
A large percentage of the workers inhabiting this building are contractors, many of whom increasingly see themselves as second-class citizens with no hope of earning one of the coveted red badges that can grant them unfettered access to the building just across the way (or even just the soccer pitch, which is also off-limits). That building doesn’t just represent more comfort; it stands for job security, career progression, and even a basic professional respect that many contractors don’t feel in their day-to day life at the company.
The contrast between the two buildings reflects the difference in how Nintendo likes to present itself – a technological imaginarium that puts “smiles on people’s faces” – and the less glamorous reality. Outside of carefully controlled marketing moments, NOA has rarely afforded a glimpse of what it’s actually like to work for one of the most famous video game companies in the real world. But recent reports have former employees and especially contractors finally opening up, and their stories reveal a Nintendo that can be very different from its cheery marketing.
Red Badgers and Blue Badgers
On the face of it, Nintendo of America isn’t so different from other Seattle area tech concerns like Microsoft, which surrounds it on all sides. For full-time employees, at least, NOA offers plenty of amenities, participating in various community events while touting its headquarters as being environmentally friendly. Founded in 1980 by Minoru Arakawa, son-in-law of Hiroshi Yamauchi, NOA is at heart a very large marketing department. Probably its greatest achievement is the Nintendo Power magazine, which convinced hundreds of thousands of kids to buy what amounted to advertisements for Nintendo games.
Nintendo of America started as something of a shoestring operation. It was exemplified by employees like Howard Phillips, who joined NOA at 24 and was soon responsible for “the largest shipping volume in the Port of Seattle.” He went on to serve as a tester, market research analyst, and magazine editor, in the process developing into something like a mascot for Nintendo thanks to his familiar bowtie.
At least some of that DNA still remains in NOA’s culture. When full-time employees praise Nintendo, they usually talk about how much they like their coworkers, and how it offers enviable job security compared with the typically volatile games industry. But Nintendo is also a very old and traditional company, and that can make it seem restrictive, old-fashioned, and demanding. Adding to that is Nintendo Co. Ltd’s (NCL) influence over the company, which has been described in conversations over the years with sources familiar with Nintendo’s inner workings as frequently distant and heavy-handed.
Talking about what it was like to work at NOA, one former contractor describes the culture in their department as “stilted” and oddly formal, with employees apologizing profusely if they left even 15 minutes early.
“At first I attributed it to being a Japanese company and the expectations that came with it, but it was very much reinforced by the full-time staffers… It seemed like you had to be connected all the time,” they tell IGN.
They talk about the bureaucracy involved with being a contractor at NOA, describing how they would have to account for virtually every minute of their day on a timesheet, breeding paranoia about leaving their desk for even a minute lest Microsoft Teams mark them as idle. At one point, tired and ill amid a strict schedule, they attempted a tried-and-true trick from The Simpsons — using a household item to depress the insert key to keep the idle message from appearing.
“It was like Homer with the bird, except I didn’t cause any problems at the Nuclear Plant… You couldn’t even really go to the bathroom without someone noticing you were away from your desk,” they remember.
At Nintendo of America, many employees are paranoid about posting on social media lest they be reprimanded or even fired. Translators are a constant feature of life as messages are translated and re-translated. Taking time off can be frowned upon and viewed as putting more of a burden on your teammates. Sick days include fervent apologies and promises to be in touch.
It contrasts with the sometimes overbearing positivity of employees constantly talking about how lucky they are to be at Nintendo, especially in areas like the marketing and localization department.
“It was to the point that I was very surprised to see [threads criticizing Nintendo] because I didn’t think there were that many people who would be willing to talk about it,” IGN’s source remembers.
The threads they’re referring to stemmed from an April 15 National Labor Relations Board complaint, first reported by Axios, which quickly drew notice both inside and outside Nintendo. It alleged that Nintendo of America and recruiting firm Aston Carter violated an employee’s legally protected right to organize, sparking multiple threads from aggrieved former contractors and employees who shared their own stories.
Working for nintendo (contract for 3+ years) was one of the most stressful and awful experiences of my life. Coworkers were great, but I was constantly under pressure of being let go for little things like going to the bathroom or being stuck in traffic an extra 2 min b4 work. https://t.co/gbxqNfynmf
— Boyks (@the_boyks) April 19, 2022
A few days later, Kotaku published a story shining a light on Nintendo of America’s treatment of contractors. In the lengthy report, former NOA contractors talked about being discouraged from using facilities like Cafe Mario, strict attendance schedules that could lead to them being fired if they missed three days of work, and other restrictions. The report made waves throughout Nintendo of America as employees reflected on the treatment of contractors and the company’s seeming refusal to offer a path to full-time.
“Right now the mood is really tense,” says a longtime contractor within Nintendo who declined to be named. “Worst case scenario, because Nintendo of America is a marketing company, any article like Kotaku’s is marketing. And you really worry that Japan is going to see this and say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do about it?’”
IGN’s own reporting corroborates these stories, the harshest of them mostly coming from contractors in areas like customer support and testing. Speaking with a dozen current and former full-time employees and contractors at Nintendo of America across several departments, the picture that emerges is of a company that has steadily become more heavy-handed and restrictive despite the ongoing success of the Switch, particularly in matters like the recent closure of the Redwood City office. Nintendo was contacted for comment on these reports but did not respond by press time.
It has made the perceived reluctance to hire new full-time employees a flashpoint within NOA. Despite the careers site currently listing more than 100 jobs, the perception is that there’s no path for contractors to become a full-time employee. Instead, NOA is seen to be relying more and more on an army of perma-temps who are treated as second-class citizens despite being full-time employees in all but name.
“Nintendo is a very big and complicated and secretive company. And that’s what kind of causes the problem,” the current contractor says. “Each contractor starts with the hope they will become a regular employee, and very, very, very few people do.”
Changing Times for Nintendo
Most employees IGN spoke with agree that NOA culture started to shift around 2015. It was a particularly tumultuous period in Nintendo’s history, noted for the struggles of the Wii U and the sudden death of CEO Satoru Iwata. It was a sharp contrast to the opening of the new NOA headquarters just five years before, when the company was still enjoying the double success of the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii — two of the biggest bets in Nintendo history.
Jenn, a former contractor who was at Nintendo for 10 years, remembers both of these eras. Speaking with IGN over Zoom, she talks about how there were many more opportunities to become a full-time employee at NOA when she first started, even for support specialists working in areas like the call center.
“When I was there, contractors actually had a path to employment. [In 2009] you could be a phone rep and an NOA red-badger. And I started aiming for that. And I aimed pretty high trying to get as many cases as possible,” Jenn says.
Business was booming for Nintendo in 2009. In December alone, Nintendo sold some 3 million Wii consoles, fueled by a price cut earlier that year. Nintendo’s big bet on motion controls and the “blue ocean” had paid off spectacularly. But the good times would soon be coming to an end for Nintendo.
The Nintendo 3DS was released in 2011 and immediately stalled, burdened by the lack of a compelling launch line-up, the rise of smartphones, and a $249.99 price point. Nintendo was forced to move aggressively, slashing the system’s price and rolling out special benefits for existing owners. A year later, Nintendo released the Wii U, which fared even worse.
Despite the downturn, no one at NOA worried too much about layoffs. Nintendo was not that kind of company. In fact, Iwata famously took a 50 percent pay-cut following the 3DS’ sluggish launch, with other board members also taking smaller pay decreases.
“I know that some employers publicize their restructuring plan to improve their financial performance by letting a number of their employees go, but at Nintendo, employees make valuable contributions in their respective fields, so I believe that laying off a group of employees will not help to strengthen Nintendo’s business in the long run,” Iwata told investors in 2013.
Iwata’s words were lauded within the gaming community, but NOA was seemingly compensating in other ways.
“When I first got there, they were trying to get rid of people. You could tell because they wanted people to retire, they were getting lots of benefits, so they could get new people in. They kind of gave up on that. Now they’re just terrified to hire people,” says the current contractor.
Jenn, who also rejoined the company after an extended break in 2015, echoes these sentiments.
“Just before I came back, I actually got a call from a manager who said, ‘Listen, we want you back’… But she was like, ‘Things have changed here. Things have changed a lot. And you need to know we’re evolving into a new kind of call center.’ And I was kind of worried about that, because when I worked there it was a very family atmosphere, it was a lot of fun. Some of the managers from then are my personal friends today,” she says.
What she discovered was that the opportunities to gain full-time employment had largely dried up, and that she herself was taking on more and more responsibility. Meanwhile, she says, NOA continued to dangle the possibility of finally earning an elusive red badge.
“Toward the end I was managing a team of 13 people during a product launch, acting as a chat lead, publishing knowledge base articles on WiFi for not just Wii but Wii U and Switch,” she says. “I was doing forum moderation and was a forum lead at that point and had written documentation for it. On top of that I was still expected to take chats and take calls. And I was looking around wondering, ‘Why am I not a red badge?’”
Nintendo’s public nadir was in 2016 — a year that saw its earnings plunge a dizzying 60 percent. Nintendo scrambled to release the Nintendo Switch, which would in effect combine its home console and handheld businesses into one device. As has happened so many times throughout Nintendo’s history, the gamble paid off. But NOA did not expand in kind, even as demand increased across the board.
One source estimates that demand for localization writers and editors has nearly doubled over the past three years – particularly as Nintendo has forged its way into areas like the mobile space – but that there have reportedly been no full-time hires within Nintendo’s localization team in that period. Instead, NOA has relied more and more on contractors, known internally as “associates,” who make up nearly half the English localization staff.
It has put a strain on not just contractors, but on full-time employees as well. With associates required to take a two month break between 11 month contracts, project managers have to scramble to organize and reorganize workloads in order to account for the varying resources and bandwidth.
Another hidden cost of relying on contractors is a higher rate of turnover. At just 4.7 percent, Nintendo of America has notably lower turnover than other tech companies, which average closer to 13 percent. NOA employees are known for staying for years or even decades at a time – many of the people that IGN spoke with know at least one person who had been around since the NES era. By comparison, contractors are far more likely to leave after less than a year with the company, leaving full-time employees to start from scratch in terms of experience and training.
It contrasts sharply with The Pokémon Company, a company with financial ties to Nintendo, but which operates separately as far as hiring and labor practices go. While Nintendo of America continues to defer converting many contractors to full-time, or hiring new employees, The Pokémon Company has worked to bring its own localization team onboard full-time, with all the benefits that come with it.
“It’s just like throwing bodies at things,” our source says. “It just seemed like the full-time staff was almost drowning all the time. They didn’t hire enough full-time people, so full-time people just ended up managing more and more contractors, getting more and more bogged down, and there was this bottleneck… That’s how contractors end up training each other, because the full-time staff is just buried.”
‘The Depression Mode’
One of Nintendo of America’s chief modern architects is former NOA president Reggie Fils-Aimé. Known to fans as the affable pitch man who appeared in videos like “The Regginator,” he was an influential figure from his arrival at NOA in 2004 to his eventual retirement in 2019.
In an interview with IGN intended to promote his new memoir, Disrupting the Game, Fils-Aimé talks about his first encounter with NOA’s work culture and his subsequent role in defining what it would look like going forward.
“When I was being recruited, I’m at lunch with the head of human resources for Nintendo of America. No job offer in hand, first visit to NOA headquarters, meeting with the head of HR, and I’m asking about people-oriented initiatives. What do you do from a learning and development perspective? What do you do from the perspective of enabling people to get exposure to new and different thinking and other ways of upskilling the organization? And his answer to me was, ‘Reggie, we don’t do that here.’ I’m taken aback and he continues, ‘Japanese parent, our parent doesn’t believe in this, therefore we don’t implement it.” And I literally said, ‘This is not consistent with my beliefs. It is not consistent with what I believe a leader needs to do to develop an organization and to enable it long-term to be successful,” Fils-Aimé remembered.
According to Fils-Aimé, former NOA president Howard Lincoln subsequently approached him and promised that he would have the chance to implement his own cultural initiatives within the company, which Fils-Aimé says he did as both head of sales and marketing and later as president. Over the next 15 years, Fils-Aimé says he worked to create a culture focused on developing “the next group of leaders” while “generating new and different ideas.”
“In the end, I judge my legacy by that when I retired, as well as the head of HR who I had that initial lunch with… he and I retired the same day. And as we retired, we promoted people internally into a variety of different roles versus bringing people in from the outside. To me that was a testament that we had done a great job of improving and growing the culture at Nintendo of America,” Fils-Aimé says, referring to the promotion of now-president Doug Bowser.
Asked for his reaction to the controversy surrounding NOA’s handling of contractors, Fils-Aimé says they had a path to full-time employment during his time at the company.
“At this point I’m three years retired from Nintendo of America, and I can’t comment on what’s going on today within the company. What I can say is that while I was there, we routinely hired [contract employees] in as permanent employees. We did it repeatedly,” Fils-Aimé said. “And interestingly, if you look at a number of well-known personalities within Nintendo of America, a lot of them started as contract employees 10, 15, or 20 years ago. So it’s always been a positive part of the culture to recruit in the very best of the contract employees into the company. So I’ve read the same stories, this division between contract and full-time employee. All I can say is that is not at all the culture that I left as I retired from Nintendo.”
One way or another, though, contractors seem increasingly convinced that they have no future at NOA.
“You can see the stages of depression and loss in each different person in different ways,” says the source within Nintendo. “I always told myself that I was a baby, and that was my rationalization for why it was okay to be in this situation. I enjoyed my time. I was new and it wasn’t a big deal, and I still considered myself young… but I wasn’t that young.
“As I was there longer, and I got more responsibilities, I realized how much the difference between what a contractor does and what an employee does is meaningless. One of the things I was really disappointed by was seeing them hire no more project managers. A project manager is the direct liaison between NCL and PTD for a single project usually… only now because we’re jamming more and more work onto single individuals, I think you tend to have two projects now.”
These feelings are exacerbated by a mix of restrictions that employment experts tell IGN are often commonplace among contractors, but are described as demoralizing by those who experience them. Contractors are excluded from everything from the company holiday party (though they can be invited by a full-time employee) to the company’s various diversity groups. The words “second-class citizens” are regularly used to describe employees who carry a blue badge instead of a red or gold badge, and they frequently feel unwelcome even setting foot in Nintendo’s glittering headquarters to travel in groups through the main lobby, or staying too long in Cafe Mario.
“[I] really started to feel a lot of resentment because of the huge disparity between us associates and the actual NOA employees. We were excluded from pretty much every activity or event. There was a news section of the internal webpage we were encouraged to look at that showed all of these events and activities and benefits (like a sizable Christmas bonus) that we simply weren’t allowed to participate in. It was extremely demoralizing to me,” says Melissa, a former chat consumer services rep who ultimately decided not to continue at NOA after becoming discouraged about her future there.
Jenn remembers the battle to allow contractors to march with Nintendo of America in the annual Pride parade.
“Here I am — transgender, bi, and on top of that, Mexican…I’m sitting there with a straight white woman and a straight white man discussing the Pride parade, and yet I was the only one there who was qualified to be in it,” she says. “My manager at the time actually asked about it and took it to a fight with upper management, and that is the only time I’ve ever seen where the associates were allowed to mingle with the NOAs [a colloquial term for full-time employees] was the Pride parade. Because he had fought for it, and he had fought for that hard apparently. And even then as far as I know it was only the one time…and several of my gay, and bi, and lesbian friends were amazed that happened at all… and so was I, honestly.”
In areas like customer support, the attendance policy is so strict that it’s possible to be fired for missing three days of work. Jenn describes an incident in late 2019 in which a sick employee came to work so they wouldn’t be fired, sending their illness sweeping through the call center.
It’s not just contractors, either. It also goes for anyone working on an initiative that has lost its luster, like Nintendo’s mobile games, which have been steadily shuttered as the company has moved in other directions. Even successful mobile games like Fire Emblem Heroes suffer from this, with writers being expected to research characters via fan wikis due to an overall lack of documentation. While there are copy editors on hand to enforce style and consistency, the process is often disorganized, making the feeling of being relegated to the B-team that much more acute.
“I really do like the people there,” says the source within Nintendo in a comment corroborated by conversations with other employees. “There are very few who are difficult to work with. Most of them are in the depression mode. Learned helplessness. Even the NOAs. They see what happens to the contractors, and they can’t help but be guilty.”
Nintendo of America’s situation is common in the tech industry. A 2018 CNBC article refers to contractor labor as “Silicon Valley’s dirty secret”, and a New York Times report describes Google’s “shadow work force” of temps and contractors, which reportedly outnumbers the company’s full-time employees.
But reflecting back on her time at Nintendo, Melissa pushes back against the idea that contractors working in areas like call centers must inevitably be treated as disposable.
“Since I left I’ve had very mixed feelings about my time there, wondering if maybe I was just expecting too much. I’ve seen a number of people commenting on these stories saying that this is just how contracting is and you can’t expect more from it,” she says. “But the bottom line is that employees, contract or not, want to be treated like actual human beings and not easily replaced machines. And I think that applies to nearly every labor conversation that has been happening lately. Is it really too much to ask for?”
In October 2021, Nintendo of America suddenly closed its satellite offices in California and Toronto. Employees in California were told that they needed to rally around one office and relocate to Washington.
Nintendo’s office in Redwood City had housed much of NOA’s marketing and sales core, including Nintendo Minute hosts Kit Ellis and Krysta Yang, who were some of the office’s first employees. The closure was widely seen as arbitrary and not particularly empathetic, and many employees struggled with suddenly uncertain futures.
“The sense that I got was that a lot of people were working from home successfully, then Nintendo closed the Redwood City office and said none of you can stay in California, you have to move here or leave,” a source says. “And that was just another nail in the coffin of the backward, antiquated way of thinking about a company.”
Perhaps aware of the discontent within NOA, employees found cards and balloons at their desks earlier today with cards featuring the following message signed by the “Executive Leadership Team:”
“Over the past two years we have been through experiences none of us could have imagined — both personally and professionally. But it all we, as a team, never lost focus on what is important to us — creating smiles. For those who have been on-site, you continued to deliver with excellence, and we so appreciate your commitment. For those working offsite, you found ways to come together virtually to support one another, and to drive results. And together we were able to continue to surprise and delight our fans across the Americas at a time when smiles were needed most. As we now transition to our new work environments, please take a moment to reflect, with pride, on everything you have accomplished as individuals, as teams, and a Nintendo of America family. Also know, the best is yet to come. We missed you and welcome you back.”
For Ellis and Yang’s part, they would depart together a few months after the office’s closure. They would later praise NOA for giving them the freedom to build out projects like Nintendo Minute, but also spoke frankly about not wanting to relocate. (Ellis and Yang declined to be interviewed for this article).
After over 14 years, I’ve decided to leave Nintendo. To be able to work at my dream job for so long and be part of some of the most memorable moments in gaming has truly been incredible. But the best part was all the people that I’ve had the privilege to work with. pic.twitter.com/E4SPjjLLJ0
— Krysta Yang (@breath0air) January 14, 2022
In a bittersweet farewell to the company they had each worked at for more than a decade, they posted photos from past E3s, trips to Japan, and other memories. Viewed as lifers by some within NOA, their departure was almost as much of a shock as the closure of the Redwood City office.
Jenn, meanwhile, left for very different reasons, though it was no less bittersweet. After years of pursuing a full-time position at NOA, she finally gave up after being declined a position. Jenn had been earlier forced to return home in the midst of the interview process due to the death of her sister, leading the interviewer to tell her that she had “attendance issues.”
Demoralizing as that moment was – Jenn says she more or less checked out after that point – it was only after departing Nintendo and finding a job that offered her what she describes as “three times as much money for much less work” that she was able to properly reflect on her time at Nintendo.
“You don’t know that you live on the death planet until you leave the death planet,” she says. “[After] my 10 years there, I was very disappointed at the end. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get the dream job…I would have worked for Nintendo forever if I could. I loved it there. I loved the job. I was a Nintendo fan, I’ve finished every single Legend of Zelda game.”
She relays the story of awarding an employee “Burst of Brilliance” points that could be used to buy items like a Wii U at the company store for going out of their way to find a Zelda map for a struggling customer, and how it was worth it because the customer “walked away happy.”
“We loved working there, we were just being so exploited. We didn’t really realize it until we left…At Nintendo I did it out of passion and a love of the product, and they know that there’s a line out the door of people who will do exactly that for dog food. And that’s the sad part. They know that if you complain and you don’t want to be there, they can let you go and hire the next Jenn.
“And that’s what frustrated me in the end,” she says. “I didn’t know I was on death planet until I left death planet.”
Correction: Jenn was forced to return home due to the death of her sister, not her mother. IGN regrets the error.
Update: Additional clarification was added to the writing process for Fire Emblem Heroes.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.
https://www.ign.com/articles/nintendo-america-contractors-full-time-complaints-report Inside the Growing Discontent Behind Nintendo’s Fun Facade