Two slightly different peas in separate but very similar pods

Seeing as Japanese games are so crazy, well-produced and numerous there must be one Hell of a difference in the development cultures between East and West, right? Well, surprisingly no, not that much.

For a start, not all games produced in Japan are of the visual quality of Final Fantasy or the crazy madness of Katamari Damacy. People who play Japanese games in the West usually only access a pre-filtered pool of acceptable games. Aside from those there are an awful lot of games that are plain bad, cheaply made, too niche, pornographic, that most people just don't get to see. And someone has to make those games too! So working in Japan doesn't automatically mean you'll be working on a massive title the whole world wants to play; you could just as easily be working on a mediocre little cash-maker in imminent danger of being cancelled.

On the actual work floor I found very little difference between the work I do here on a daily basis and the work I did back home. Pretty much all the parallels with the West hold up and each company has their own problems and attractive points.

The main differences from my own personal experiences boil down to these:

Salaries tend to be lower in Japan than in the West, especially the US. You have to get pretty high up the food chain to earn a decent wage and even then it's a lot lower than someone in the same position back home. Graduates and the young usually get a pretty rough deal, with salaries so shockingly low it's no surprise they live with their parents for so long. Foreigners are in a slightly better position as we have the guts to negotiate salaries, which seems not to be the case for Japanese workers (though I may be wrong).

With a few notable exceptions development budgets are also much lower than in the West. This probably has something to do with the previous and following points.

These seem to be tighter, or rather: shorter. Sometimes they are so spectacularly short that overrun is inevitable. At these times it seems the focus is to get everything in rather than cut features, but that also happens on occasion. Where in the West you may sometimes hear "what can we cut to make the milestone?" in Japan you'll just hear "good luck, guys!".

It isn't half as bad as you'd expect. As mentioned in a previous post the game industry isn't quite as old-fashioned as other institutions, but some remnants remain. What the boss says is final. What the lead says is final, if approved by the boss. etc. Not that much different than in the West until you start dealing with official bureaucracy. HR, holiday days, salary details, etc. That said, there are a few older corporations where things are still done the old-fashioned way. These dinosaurs are best avoided.

Decision making
I guess this is part of Japanese culture. Decisions aren't made, they're implied. Three hour long meetings often seem very unproductive because at the end of it there still won't be a hard yes or no answer to something. And there never will be. This is something you, as a foreigner, will have to learn to adapt to, to interpret correctly; not just in work but in daily life too.Meetings seem to be popular too. Once you get into a lead position you'll find most of your hours are wasted on meeting after meeting; some necessary, some not. Either way, none end on time or with a solid resolution.

Attention to detail
Yes, Japanese developers love their little details, but often a bit too much. Expect to be working on iteration after iteration of a very inconsequential detail despite the fact here are bigger, pressing problems to be solved. I seem to be reworking things a lot more than I did back home, not because of the quality but simply because a lead thought of a new little detail to try out or simply because he says "try it again". This can be a little frustrating especially when the milestone approaches and that other big problem hasn't even been addressed yet.This whole issue is somewhat aggravated by fact that most things seem to be hard-coded. The implementation of a new version of an asset is usually work for the artist as well as the designated coder, wasting two people's time for the price of one.

The hours
Ah, the Myth of the Japanese work attitude. Yes, hours are long, as in, a lot of people stay late. But they also start late and spread their work out over a longer period. Timekeeping seems to be something the Japanese industry is terrible at. I'll definitely broach this subject a few more times in future posts.

The thing to take out of all this is that you shouldn't worry too much about entering a wild and strange world different to your own. If you have development experience back home those skills of yours are easily applicable in Japan without having to learn special pipelines or approaches. Any real differences shouldn't impact your work too much.

In future posts I hope to look into the differences between specific Western development roles and their Japanese counterparts and maybe offer some more detailed information on the above mentioned points.

1 comment:

  1. Hey,

    First off it's great to get this kind of insight you're providing for someone like me who's looking at entering this world, coming like you from a development background back home. Great stuff (and brilliant images). Can't find your email on the blog though, so commenting it is... it would be great to have the chance to maybe ask you some things, if you'd be willing.

    Anyway, I think I've read pretty much everything so far, and what about holidays? Is that as painfully meager as I expect?