No such thing as a free launch

Ah, the end of a project. Not mine, now, of course, but generally speaking. The elation, the free holidays, the bonuses and of course the drug and alcohol-fuelled glamorous parties at top-notch locations with the press and some celebrities present, a free Maserati for everyone and a lot of ribaldry and congratulatory back-slapping.

No, hang on, those are the launch parties for the marketing departments and executives; those tireless heroes who have spent literally hours on a marketing plan and signing contracts. That is, of course, why you always see some guy the team has never even met talking to an adoring camera crew about the "fun and rewarding challenge" this game was to "create". But that's okay; I didn't join this industry for the glory and the riches. And boy, didn't I not get those! No, I have my own reasons for having become a games artist and hobnobbing with the suits and some gormless overpaid celebrity in front of a greasy-palmed press corps isn't one of them.

But what do we get? It differs from company to company, of course, but I think the average is something slightly above "bugger all". Usually some free days off to recover from crunch is thrown your way, though in Japan not always. I'd prefer it, of course, if we were actually paid the wages for the hours worked, but I won't say no to wee holiday. And then what? Bonuses? I'm sure those exist but I've never seen any. Hell, in my time I have even had to beg for a free copy of my own game, stabat mater dolorosa! The best you can hope for is a free meal at a competitively priced local joint with, if you're lucky, a limited free bar.

That seems to be the tradition in Japan too, unless I've been working for the wrong companies. The office manager will book a set of tables or a private room or area at an izakaya and the suits pick up the bill. These kinds of pre-booked parties always come with unlimited drinks for a two hour period so that saves the company some money at least. Then there is a short speech along the lines of "otsukaresamadeshita", a raising of the glasses and much eating of food. By this time we are all so overworked, brain dead and desperate that a free meal sounds like a feast for the Gods.

The best, using the term relatively, launch dinner I've had was one where the company booked a room at a famous, tasty and not all that cheap yakinikku (Korean bbq) restaurant. The sales promotion team was invited too and all throughout the dinner short speeches were held, all in the vein of "thanks to the team for delivering this product" and "we'll sell millions!" Obviously alcohol was involved. The meal was pretty good but in the end it wasn't enough. A smaller core group of team members, myself included, took the company credit card on to a nijikai (second party) of our own choosing. One of the more philandering colleagues suggested one of his favourite hostess clubs.

Now you may have heard of these. They have somehow, and totally undeservedly, become the stuff of legend. Just imagine a classy bar with overpriced drinks and a rota of cute but dim-witted girls, all dolled up beyond the point of attractiveness, who sit in the seat next to yours, pour you watery Japanese whiskey, light your cigarettes and pretend that whatever you are saying is the funniest, most charming and greatest thing they have ever heard. So we are seated on nice, white sofas and an assortment of girls is sent our way. "You sit there," a maitre d' tells the girls, "you there and, um, you, next to the gaijin." A girl sits next to me and starts pouring drinks. She is expected to keep me occupied, as I see all my colleagues suddenly knee-deep in chitchat with their own girls. "What is your country?" is the predictable first question. "England." I am tempted to ask her "And you?" but decide against it. "What do you do?" "I work in games." "Oh!" she feigns with excitement. And that's pretty much the end of the chat. Later she finds another hook with "Your Japanese is very good." to which I reply with my usual "tondemo arimasen" and a little hand wave. Delight and surprise! But again, the conversation runs dry.

As I like to do when I'm out I want to chat with my mates and just generally have fun but they are all obviously deeply engaged in superfluous chatter with their designated girls. I decide to make mine work for her money by chain smoking and drinking a lot. A little later the maitre d' comes by again and gives us fresh girls to replace these used ones. The whole saga repeats itself. I don't think I've had a more boring trip to a bar, since or ever, even with the free drinks included!

When we finally leave I ask a colleague about the attraction of a place like this. "Ah, it's fun to try and pick up the girls." "But they're paid to sit next to you and be charmed." "Yes, but sometimes you can actually pick one up." "What, really?" "I think so." Right. "Hang on," I ask, "aren't you married?" "Yes," he says, "but the wife doesn't know about this of course!" Mine does, because I tell her the moment I get home. She laughs and makes jokes about me being a perv for weeks afterward. A perv? For failing to have boring smalltalk with some vapid girl paid to sit next to me? The mind boggles.

And that was what I had to show for a year and a half's worth of work; a stomach full of kimchi and barbecued beef, beer and watery Suntory whiskey and a wasted evening trying to chat to a girl whose glossy pink fingernails were so long she had trouble lighting my cigarettes. I did get a free copy of the game, though, without begging for it. I don't own the console to play it on though, but that's okay; the sweepingly negative reviews it got were still a little too generous, if you ask me.

What can I expect after this project? My early guess is: nothing. I was told when we are finally art complete (again) I should take the opportunity to take some time off. "Great," I say, "how long do we get?" "Um, how many holiday days do you have stocked up?" Ah, right. Well, at least in Japan you don't much see marketing people slither their way into the limelight for the journos. And at least I get along with a lot of my colleagues, so the night out at the izakaya should be enjoyable enough. Ah, the glamour.

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