Coughing up daisies

Following up from yesterday’s rant about all the dog bites and bee stings of the Japanese game industry I really should post about the flipside of the coin, those things that do work. This is not only to offer as balanced and objective a view as I possibly can but also to remind myself that it’s not always as bad as it seems. It often is, but not always.
So what does the industry do right?

Cultural favouritism
Two of the three major players in the console world are Japanese and though all three have offices dotted around the globe, these two in particular have their HQs in Japan. This inevitably leads to much better communication between them and the publishers and developers, but also either due to cultural favouritism or the dodgy goings on in the upper echelons of business it leads to certain perks that foreign companies don’t enjoy to the same degree. Mostly, though, it is the communication which flows much easier and that helps enormously when it comes to support.
It would even appear that submissions are easier to pass in Japan, but if that is due to tighter rules abroad or actual favouritism is unclear to me.

Dirt cheap
Though the low wages are annoying to the developers they do facilitate the creation of more original titles. If your game doesn’t cost $10 million to produce there is some leeway to try out new things without breaking the bank. This leads to the phenomenon of westerners assuming all Japanese games are better and more original, which I’ve explained before they are not. It does lead to a less severe allergic reaction to original ideas and proposals which seems to plague the west so much.
Vanity projects also seem a little rarer here. There are no real “Heart of Darkness” or “Duke Nukem Forever” projects going on. Even if a game is developed to satisfy the boss’s muse it still has to adhere to the terror of the fiscal year, so few projects overrun so dramatically.
Also, the marketing department does not have the power it has assumed in the west. Which is extremely satisfying.

Super-dense proto-sphere
A vast majority of Japanese development companies are located in the greater Tokyo area. This means that theoretically it is much easier for employees to shop around and job-hop here and there. Though Tokyo is massive and if your company moves from one end to the other it can easily add an extra hour or hour and a half to your commute, but at least the chances of having to relocate for every new job are very slight. This also is good news for the employers who don’t have to worry about relocation packages and time delays when hiring new staff.
If the game industry anywhere is ideally located for a change to a Hollywood-style contract-basis working system it’s probably Tokyo.

Abundance of IPs
When America looks outside of its industry to buy up IP it is limited pretty much to film and comics, with most of the comics falling under the “superhero” banner. Japan has a much wider choice. Often they’ll ignore film completely and focus on characters taken from television, manga, anime, toys, goods, etc. As most popular characters seem to spread out over every available medium anyway, the transition to videogame isn’t so extreme. If a character is a beloved one it’s fairly easy to quickly ship mediocre games featuring them – the continued commercial success of Gundam games is a good example. And as these kinds of characters permeate the whole culture it’s less of a hard-sell than, say, a “Reservoir Dogs” game which can only really be marketed at “Reservoir Dogs” fans.

Suffer in silence
Though Japanese workers do complain they never openly revolt. On the work-floor it is work and occasionally a chat, so you’ll never hear shouts of anger, the bashing of keyboards or loud cursing, as is usually the case with British developers. In all my time in Japan I have only witnessed one incident, and that was the poor junior one desk along from mine who lost three hours work due to a series of unfortunate crashes, which resulted in a quiet “yaaaa----!” and him clasping his head with both hands. That is pretty good going on the whole. As a result the work-floor is quieter and it’s easier to concentrate on your work (if it wasn’t for all those damn meetings).
Another aspect is that probably due to stricter hierarchy there seems to be less of the developer arrogance that plagues so many western employees, i.e. the idea that “I know it better” or “they should listen to me!” which eventually leads to disgruntlement. Though there is room for contributing ideas and techniques on the whole nobody in he trenches thinks they are wearing boots a few sizes too small.

Relative job security
Though downsizing and redundancies do occur, they do so far less frequently than in the west, especially the UK. As I mentioned in my previous rant, companies on the verge of collapse seek solace with likeminded developers and band together to form a new corporation. The upshot of this is that your job usually transfers with it.
Also it is much harder to get rid of someone if they’re “seishain”, full-time. Until recently the tactic was to put unwanted employees in a room with nothing but a desk and a phone and bore them into voluntary resignation, but since the successful lawsuit by 12 former SEGA employees subjected to this treatment it is pretty much unheard of. If you are “seishain” you are relatively safe but foreigners may have a bit more of a battle to get one, even though it’s far from impossible.

As an extremely rough guess I’d say the percentage of true talent versus hopeless waste of skin is pretty much equal to that in the west. There definitely is some excellent talent at work in the Japanese industry and if you’re lucky you’ll be working with a few of those. If you’re a likable chap and manage to form some kind of acquaintanceship with these people you’ll find there is a free flow of ideas and knowledge from which everybody can benefit. As mentioned it is not a bigger issue over here than back home, but it’s worth mentioning lest you think my outlook on the Japanese industry is entirely bleak.


  1. how about SLACKING OFF?? do japanese employees sit around a coffee for three hours talking about the latest news or what was on TV yesterday? how many times have I seen that around here...

  2. Read the archives, he already covered how the Japanese work twelve hour days but only get six hours of work done.

  3. Like you said, most of it was a re-tread, but I found this bit
    "If the game industry anywhere is ideally located for a change to a Hollywood-style contract-basis working system it’s probably Tokyo."
    particularly interesting. Thanks for the insight.

    I was going to say that I'd still put low-odds on it happening, given the amount of in-house, undocumented knowledge engrained in developers. However, from what I've heard of the Japanese developers, they take a slightly more compartmentalised view of development, which might be more amenable to contractual work.

  4. Indeed, it seems Japanese companies are readily outsourcing any old task which their poor overworked staff (cough) simply can't handle anymore without some serious karoshi.
    The main reason I think a Hollywood style system could work here is mostly location though. Theoretically a freelancer would just need to be within travel distance of Tokyo central to have a wealth of companies to easily work with; no silly moving counties or anything.
    It's not going to happen though. Not any time soon anyway. If employers have to start paying by the hour they'll...well, they'll go bankrupt.