Japan is both ideally suited to change the game development rules to follow the Hollywood example, and the last place on Earth where it’ll ever happen; a tragedy of missed opportunity. First let me explain what I mean by the “development rules!” and the “Hollywood example”.
Not only the publisher and the developer now have a track record to build on but return favours from friendly companies that have helped with development may be required or at the very least continued outsource work is expected.
It’s all a little too simplistic and doesn’t cover much of the challenge faced in such a situation but you get the general idea. This is of course not a new proposal and many developers and publishers have been debating the merits and problems of such a system in private, on forums and at trade shows. Very few companies are picking up the gauntlet though, but I fully expect that to change some time in the future.
There are many reasons why this will and will not work in Japan.
A development map of Japan is extremely polarized: a few spots in the West of Japan and surrounding the capital and a massive bull’s eye over the center of Tokyo. There are few places on the Earth where there are so many developers in such a small area comparatively. A freelance developer will have a huge range of options to choose from when considering his next project, and he won’t even have to relocate. If he works from home a short train-ride (for Tokyo standards) can bring him face to face with his employer or other remote team members. Likewise the employer has a huge, local pool of developers to choose from.
The last mile is the toughest
Though I sincerely think such a massive change in game development won’t happen any time soon in Japan it is in essence already halfway there. Outsourcing has become a fact of life for most developers already. Don’t have the staff to supply that portion of the game? Just outsource it! Smaller development companies or companies with a team to spare often do this kind of work-for-hire outsourcing for befriended companies. All that needs to really happen is for the employer of the outsource staff to be replaced with an agency.
Overheads is what ultimately makes traditional game development so expensive, and a large part of that is Tokyo’s premium on office space. Without a staff to house you won’t need to pay an arm and a leg for a huge office. As for personnel, if you have none you won’t have to pay their wages or benefits when there is no work to do.
The tradition is to stay at the office until the boss leaves, regardless of how busy it is or how late it gets. This is not only unhealthy in the long run, it is also counter productive. Without a boss to breathe down your neck and mark you out as a troublemaker for leaving when your work is done developers can spend the actual time needed to develop assets and no more. Whether they will do this in office hours or sleep until midday and work until midnight is not really relevant, but the fact they won’t have to artificially fill in lost time by reading, napping and working incredibly slowly will speed up the whole process, lead to a healthier mind and body and help with focus.
In stead of getting lumped with sequel after sequel of a successful series developers who want a change can simply do so with their next contract. Japanese teams are usually fairly specialized and if you happen to be working at a company that’s making the kind of game you don’t like working on, you’re stuffed as you can be assured your next project will be the sequel. With a per-project contract if the employer or the project isn’t to your liking you can simply avoid them in the future and choose to work with other employers you are comfortable with without the hassle of quitting and job-hopping.
Despite the many futile arguments whether games are Art or not (not) and the few spectacular games that sometimes come out of Japan I found that generally the mentality here is of a conveyor belt factory, which would explain the ease with which Japanese developers outsource a lot of their work. Though there are benefits to having all disciplines close together they aren’t really that precious about it and churn out projects one after another. Games are product after all. Product is made of parts. Parts just have to be produced. So if there isn’t a desire to foster a “creative melting pot” or a “creative entity” the step to have offsite, per-project contracted developers working together on a centrally overseen project isn’t really that much of a leap.
Japan is a broadband country where the internet is incredibly fast and very affordable. Offsite work should theoretically be easy as data can quickly be up- and downloaded to and from FTP servers and the whole team can have face-to-face meetings and discussions using webcams at a whim.
Bosses still rule the roost in Japan. They have their fingers in every pie and hand out commandments and decisions written on stone tablets with a lot of Tipp-Ex. The Japanese working environment relies on it. The boss sets the rules, staff obey the rules and many a meeting is called to discuss these rules. A remote-workforce would be almost unthinkable in Japan’s working environment. Set up tasks and schedule them properly? Pay people for the work done with extra budget to be spent if late changes are required? Have people work from home or away from the boss’s eyes? It would severely undermine the cushy position of today’s Japanese boss and, like politics, these kinds of things only change with bloody revolutions not natural evolutions.
The serf mentality
On the flip-side the Japanese staff need to take more responsibility, not just over their own work but their whole lives. Work may be hard, constant changes grinding but under the protection of a seishain contract you are relatively safe and assured of a monthly wage, no matter how paltry. Quality of work isn’t as much an issue in Japan’s development sphere as is your ability to pull long hours. This mentality has to change. Developers need to be made to rely on the quality of their work to get their next paycheck. Developers need to be given and readily take responsibility over their work.
Planning and focus
A subject I never tire of talking about, apparently, but Japanese development could do with some serious rethinking in the “planning” and “scheduling” departments. Indecisiveness is the main factor which translates into a “I’ll know what I want when I see it, but only maybe” approach, causing a lot of woe for the developer. A Hollywood style contract business where people will be charged by the hour and work from a design brief will possibly cause the collapse of several businesses, the Japanese Yen and world economy as directors ask for change after change and get lumbered with invoice after invoice.
For your consideration
Unionization should also be considered to set standards of quality and pay in a freelance development world. With developers free to choose their next contract there is more balance of power and in stead of employees being scared of starting a union for fear of reprisals from their employer it is the freelancer who can boycott an employer should they not adhere to standards. And as union membership is required there is less chance of keen, young and above all cheap and inexperienced amateurs picking up the slack of union members in action. Many creative industries have managed to protect their members with effective unionization and I don’t see how us game developers couldn’t benefit from a similar system.
For the benefit of its much maligned development staff, the brighter future of a more and more challenging development environment and a demanding market I truly feel this is the way to go and Japan, being by far the worst offender when it comes to development horrors, is ideally suited to be the first country to totally abandon the status quo and follow on this new track. It’s just such a damn shame that it won’t happen until it has been proven to be popular in America and the majority of Japanese publishers and developers have gone bankrupt. Colon dash open-bracket.