The cast - 4. The programmer

Another popular career for foreigners in the industry in Japan seems to be programming. As an artist who is mostly busy with his own tasks I must confess I am not quite in the know; not enough to write an authoritative post on the subject anyway. I sincerely hope anybody with a deeper knowledge of the subject will leave a comment to point out the inevitable glaring mistakes and omissions. My apologies in advance.

Firstly the software seems to be the same as in the west, but localised in Japanese. As a tools programmer you'll most likely be working in or from Maya, with a few exceptions here and there when 3DSMax is used. Proprietary in-house tools seem a bit rarer than back home, but they do exist.

Things tend to be hard-coded, making changes very laborious. Be prepared to work closely with the artists and planners assigned to your little corner of the game.

As programming requires more esoteric and abstract ideas, which are often communicated in meetings, your Japanese needs to be up to scratch. I'd hazard a guess that your reading and writing skills can be lower, as you'll have time to pore over documents with your dictionary, but spoken Japanese and knowledge of the terms would seem a minimum requirement.

As for pay, I don’t think you can expect the royal treatment you do in the west. From what I gather artists and programmers are fairly equal on the pay scale; with both earning much less than back home. Be prepared for a pay cut if you move to Japan!

The quality bar is maybe not as high as for artists though. As with every discipline there are good and terrible programmers, which should come as no surprise. If you’re the kind of anally retentive, obsessive compulsive programmer, who likes to work with documentation, specs and schedules, in other words, my kind of programmer, you may be making a mistake working in Japan. From what little experience I have things seem to flow a little more impulsively here, often with little or no source control and documentation. Whereas previous games I’ve worked on reached an acceptable stage fairly early on, with the rest of the time spent on adding features or optimization and balancing, I found the games I’ve worked on over here only really came together in, what you might say, the nick of time. This may explain why playable demos are fewer in Japan; there is hardly a game there until just before it’s time to ship it. Balancing usually happens during development with the director requesting changes to features as they go in.

So, in summery, you probably have a good chance of landing a programming job if you’re willing to take a pay cut and have some previous experience; but you will need a higher level of Japanese than us artists. Of course, if we’re going to get prissy, if you’re moving to Japan you really should make the effort to master the language, let’s be honest. But if you want to make the move soon, before you’ve reached native level (say, within the next few decades) as a programmer you’ll have a harder time. It is obviously not impossible, and I know of a few gaijin programmers, but, you know, us artists don’t like to mix with that lot.


  1. It's hard to believe good games can come out of a mostly hard-coded environment. After working with automated build and test systems, source control integrated into all of our proprietary tools, etc. going to that kind of environment would feel like the stone age.

    I'm currently making just over 11 million yen a year as a programmer in the US. How much of a pay cut are we talking here? What kind of salary could one expect as a mid level programmer?

    It just seems so strange - I've had it hammered into me so many times that Tokyo is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Yet, the pay for our industry is significantly less than in the West. How does it add up?

  2. It doesn't add up. Tokyo is expensive but once you live here you'll find you won't spend so much money on luxuries and gadgets as you would as a tourist. If you're profligate, you'll have a hard time, if you watch your pennies, you'll be alright.

    As for paycuts? From 11m? Hmmm, more than 50% probably. Like I say, I'm not quite 100% sure of programmer salaries, but they are much much lower than in the west.
    You'll be horrified if you learn what some of the juniors are on!

  3. Sorry to be off topic, but do you know why the The Chaos Engine is offline? If they have hosting trouble I might be able to help them out. Let the Prof know if that is the case.

  4. Marcel: I think they're in the middle of switching over to new hosting, so things will be buggered for a few days. I remember TCE mentioning it a couple of months ago.

  5. I'm seriously cold turkey! In my more paranoid delusions I imagine some manager somewhere is being a bastard because someone said something nasty about him, and is shutting down the whole shebang.

  6. I hope it hasn't got anything to do with the remake of The Chaos Engine:!Frogster_spielt_Speedball_2_und_The_Chaos_Engine.html

  7. This interview had an interesting insight on recruiting programmers in Japan:

    Finally, our interview touched on the issues around recruitment in Japan, and he shared an issue we've heard elsewhere for the Japanese market: "Finding programmers is very difficult." This, he said, is "...why we hire from abroad more often than other companies", citing a "lack of basic training in programming" for many entry-level game development staff.

    Cuthbert expressed concern that 2-year courses at many Japanese specialty game schools don't train wannabe developers such as programmers in enough detail, musing that, in the worst cases: "After 2 years they haven't learnt anything." He did note that "we get a lot of resumes" for 'planners', somewhat of a game designer equivalent, and artists are somewhat easier to find: "If you search hard, you can find a lot."

  8. Very true; where I work now had an incredably hard time finding new programmers, and in the end the solution wasn't all it was cracked up to be either (sorry - specifically vague for a reason, I'm afraid).

    So programmers can get hired here, but that quote sort of shows the programming environment you'll be entering.