Coughing up blood

It is time, I think, for a neat little bullet point list of what exactly is wrong with the Japanese game industry. I’ll cover a lot of ground that is already well trodden in previous posts, and for the sake of convenience I will ignore the few exceptions, those rare companies that seem to be doing things right. Again I remind readers that these are personal opinions and mileage may vary.

The bottom line or Retro-active scheduling
Unsurprisingly at the end of the fiscal year Japanese companies must review their ins and outs and have a decent profit or else. The way most companies seem to clutch at these straws is to do more, quicker. This translates into ridiculously tight deadlines for projects that really need the time to be developed. If last year’s returns were low because project A took too long to make, well, then let’s try Project A 2 in less time. Publishers decide on deadlines before consulting any developer, sign contracts and then present the deal to the workforce.
However, despite the tight schedule the publishers still want the normal-mapped moon on a high-poly stick, so the onus is on the developers to go the extra mile. Scheduling backwards from a release-date set in stone, unpaid overtime becomes a given; there is simply no other way to accomplish anything remotely saleable.

In for a penny
Whatever exactly the origin of the low salaries in the Japanese industry is, it isn’t helped by this ever-shifting bottom line. Whereas in other growing industries salaries seem to go up, in Japan they seem fairly static. As bonuses are part of the pre-calculated yearly salary, they aren’t really “extras” to entice developers to work for you. So you’re paying your staff peanuts and expecting them to write the collected works of Shakespeare with a finite number of typewriters in 12 months. Something’s got to give. Either everybody works themselves to an early grave or the talented people simply up and go, leaving you with a group of keen young graduates who lack the skills.

Culture of cool
So to keep the workforce replenished, companies attract whomsoever they can, but which fools wants to work eternal crunch with unpaid overtime for little money? Those people desperately keen to work in the game industry of course! As long as three keen graduates are willing to kill themselves for the chance why should management care the one experienced talent they will replace leaves? Though the “come work in games! It’s great fun!” atmosphere is less pronounced in Japan as it is in the west; there is still a steady stream of graduates willing to jump through hoops.

Skill Point -2
With all the young turks constantly replenishing the workforce and the almost total absence of in-house training skills stagnate. With the coming of this new generation of consoles this is becoming painfully obvious. Some Japanese games’ screenshots look horrendous, like PS2 games with a few more polygons. Possibly because the evolution is happening in Europe and America Japan seems to lag behind in the next-gen stakes. All the new tricks and technologies get lost in translation and Japanese developers end up sticking at what they’re best at; exactly what they’ve been doing for the last few years.

Spoiling the broth
Company presidents, CEOs, have way too much power over the minutiae of the game being developed. In stead of assigning these responsibilities to the leads and designers, he will sometimes walk the floor and hand out decisions and direction as if he were a benevolent dictator. Rather than simply outlining the direction of the company and keeping it running smoothly he will take ownership of the game but only a few times a month. This undermines confidence and creativity within the team but also sees the company shoot itself in the foot. A deadline is approaching, a desperate milestone needs to be reached and the boss decides this particular part of the game needs to change. Why? Well, because I say it does, that’s why! (More likely he was just playing a competitor’s game and liked what he saw) The fact that this will affect the schedule and hence the business of the company doesn’t seem to enter into his brain.

Consolidate Recreate
In stead of letting the badly run companies die and fade into obscurity what happens a lot in Japan is consolidation or mergers. Three badly run companies band together, form a larger company or hide under the wing of the largest, they downsize, try to get back into profitability, then almost go bankrupt, at which point they merge with some other…etc. This way bad management is protected and remains in circulation way past its use-by date. The glass-is-half-fullers may point to the fact bankruptcy is still considered a terrible stain on your honour and so people try to avoid it as much as possible, the half-emptiers will point to the fact big business in Japan is incredibly dodgy.

Cultural myopia
I have often said the Japanese market is shrinking, and it is. Certain Japanese games sell 10 times as much in America than they do at home, yet games are still made for the Japanese market only, with localization a mere afterthought. This creates some horrendous localization issues, with code having to be rewritten and GUIs redesigned because noone thought of it during development, but it is also bad business. Surely if your market is largest in America you try to increase it there by adding a few features or designs to entice more Americans to buy your game, rather than to remain focused on the smaller, shrinking home market?

Greener grass
The death knell for the “job for life” culture came quite a while back but its smells remain. Though this has definitely changed in recent times the idea of “job hopping” is still somewhat frowned upon. Employees are still expected to stick with a company for a long time, as it is the only way to truly advance in your career – longevity over qualifications. If an employer sees a resume of an applicant who has worked for, say, two or three companies over the past decade eyebrows will be raised and questions asked.
As I say, this problem has been greatly diminished of late but you can still come across it. These days employers suddenly realize that to create competitive next-gen titles actual skills are required and so are becoming more tolerant to talented job-hoppers out of necessity.

What you must remember when considering all of the points above is that these are the isolated bad points, as I see them, of the industry over here, which ignores the things it does right for convenience sake. It’s not all doom and gloom, but there certainly are some dark clouds around. I will try to compose a post at a later date listing the things I think it does right. It may possibly be a much shorter entry but forcing myself to come up with some items will hopefully be as interesting for you to read as it is important for me to regain some perspective.


  1. Do companies such as Nintendo and Square Enix that seem to have their shit together also have the poor management, low pay, and other problems you describe or are your experiences coming more from the nudie mahjong and horse racing sector?

  2. Squeenix and Nintendo are touted to have much better working conditions than the avarage developer, but their salaries are still well below the western standards.
    It is said Squeenix in particular is the last stop for developers before they leave the industry, as the pay is alright and the hours okay; any subsequent company would be a massive step down.

    I can only imagine with horror what the world of mahjongg hentai games would be like. :)

  3. Have you read neomarxisme blog? I remember reading once that he said the video game industry in japan is overworked and underpaid. I don't why but I suddenly thought of you when I read it.

  4. I've never heard of the chap nor read his blog but "overworked and underpaid" sums it up eloquently!

  5. I'm not completely sure how this post is describing Japan alone... this sounds par for the course the world over.

    ...I don't meant to sound consigned to the current climate, either. I just hope that the industry has enough growing up left to do that things can get better.

  6. Good read - it seems that there are some universal sicknesses in the game industry. :)

  7. SqueEnix contracts out most of their stuff. I looked at their listings and most are for keiyaku-sha-in or contract workers. I've done the contract job route and the lack of security associated with it is a huge soul drainer.

    If it makes you feel any better, America has each and every one of those ills you described with less US Devs shoving out a porn title for a quick buck.

    I was given a figure that game jobs in the USA pay about 20-40% below "mainstream software jobs" on average.

    Job turnover in America goes faster than flipping takoyaki at a yatai. I've been interviewing people and one guy was in the industry 12 years. He's had over 20 jobs. Sure, this includes a sizable chunk of 3-month-contract QA tester jobs(yes, they do get that short, I've had one.)

    As always, thanks for the fun read.