Interface? Interferes, morelike!

Inspired by Marek Bronstring’s tirade, well, arguments against the use of comic sans and curlz in games I mulled over the problems with Japanese interfaces for a while. It’s not a terribly deep subject, mind you, and probably not worth a post, but if, like me, you have had occasion to get involved with interface or GUI design for a Japanese title you may have come across some of the problems associated with it.

Firstly, let it be said that only people who have studied or are interested in typography can get this upset about the use or misuse of fonts. I have my own favourite and much hated fonts, though I wouldn’t necessarily organize a campaign against any of them. I do feel that developers should make an effort to develop their own typography for a game, have one custom-made or at least have the decency to stay away from DaFont or 1001FreeFonts. Novelty fonts are like Photoshop filters in that they look like what they are and can only ever be used for the home-made invitation cards for an accountants’ office party; they certainly have no business being used in video games.

So why do we always see Arial and Helvetica in games? Aside from the fact these are work-horse fonts that have, in essence, nothing wrong with them, it’s usually publishers who get wet feet over weird typography and, under the blanket excuse of “readability” will hoist either of these two fonts upon the poor graphic designer tasked with having an interface design credit attached to his name.

In Japan though, especially as a foreign designer, there are plenty of other pitfalls when it comes to text in games. I, for one, have apparently no sense of what is deemed “cool” when it comes to Japanese typography. Possibly because kanji has that effect on westerners I find slightly calligraphically designed letters and square or bubble techno fonts pretty damn cool. My colleagues, however, will twist their faces and exclaim it looks old-fashioned, ugly or childish. In retaliation I am often bemused by them sprinkling texts with the occasional English, as that is considered cool, no matter if it’s erroneous. No, there is definitely a cultural barrier here and if the onerous task of graphic design falls on me I am usually not too proud to let a colleague suggest a font.

With today’s technology you really want an anti-aliased font. On old televisions a wrongly aligned bit of blurring or a single pixel line could cause flickering as it fell in between scan lines. Today’s televisions don’t really have that problem anymore but show things in their gory crispness that some smoothing is desired. If you don’t smooth properly at the very least you’ll get a long bug list with comments on how the slant in the “fu” is every so slightly pixilated. TrueType is right out, of course. Your average Japanese font is around 2 to 4 megabytes in size, compared to the 200 kilobytes of a western font. So bitmapping it is!

However, I found, from personal experience, you simply cannot go below 14 pts in size when you’re using kanji. Some of the more difficult kanji use so many horizontals and verticals hat anything smaller just reduces it to a mess of pixels, more resembling a square barcode than a letter. Even so, some hand-adjusting is often desired. I have spent days going in with the pencil and block eraser tool scanning the hundreds of kanji used in the game to just clear up the occasional anti-aliasing slip. It’s the dictionary definition of tedium.

For this reason, as well as general readability, and of course because they are free, regular Windows fonts usually end up doing the trick. A lot, if not exactly all western imported and localized games end up using one of the MS fonts, often jarring with the rest of the design or image. At least, jarring to me, but maybe not my Japanese peers. For Japanese titles a rounded font, the Japanese version of comic sans, crops up in games aimed squarely at children, and these often don’t use kanji anyway. Calligraphy fonts may be used for historic battle games (with or without giant enemy crabs). This is not a hard and fast rule. And that’s about all there is to say on the subject.

It’s a shame really. Typography is one of those hobby interests of mine; I am by no measure an expert, but I do want to learn more about these things. Kanji, though, and the cultural way the Japanese read and react to them is such a closed book to me I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve watched calligraphy masters stare at paper for minutes before quickly putting down a word, which admittedly looked beautiful but can also transmit emotion and deeper meaning to a Japanese audience while I am left to only admire the simple aesthetics.

Just beware that when you, as a non-Japanese add some kanji or kana to your designs, and we’ve all done it, fess up, the Japanese will probably just giggle and point. We think having some techno-kana in the background looks cool and DR, but to them it often simply does not. But that’s okay. You may laugh at their use of English, the way the film “Akira” was written in romaji because that’s just so damn cool. Maybe we should all just switch scripts and languages and call it a day. But whatever you do, spare a thought for that poor bastard who spent days cleaning up bitmapped font files for any Japanese release. Tighten up those graphics, proud solider!

Japanese for neologists

Language is often lacking, especially when it comes to describing situations or things that didn’t exist, say, 50 years ago. Many people have made efforts to supplement English with new definitions, most notably Douglas Adams and John Lloyd in their highly recommended “The Meaning of Liff”. Japanese is no exception; my lack in skill can attribute to my own failings in making myself understood but even my Japanese colleagues must sometimes shrug and admit defeat when asked to teach me some new words. “Sorry, JC,” they say, “There is just no need in Japanese for a word like that.” Well, I say there is and though I am a mere beginner on the long road to native Japanese speaker I am confident there is a real need for the following words to be accepted into the language as a whole.

(ge-gai) (pronounced: “gay-guy”)

n., A foreigner working in the Japanese game industry.
Derived from the Japanese for “game” and “foreigner” (“gaikokkujin”), heavily abbreviated.
Example: “JC is a gegai, the poor, stupid bastard.”

(lip-zangyou)

n., Unpaid overtime that serves no other purpose than to stroke the boss’s ego.
From the Japanese “lip service” and “service overtime” (“service zangyou”).
NOTE: When you’re offered something as “service” in restaurants, it means it’s on the house, free; hence service zangyou only means unpaid overtime (you offer the “service” to the company). It could be necessary overtime or not, but which it is isn’t clear from the word. “Lip service”, despite what images that may conjure up, simply means to say things without meaning them, sometimes, but not exclusively, used to mean “to suck up”.
Example: “Yes, sorry dear, I’ll be home late again tonight. Lip-zangyou, don’t you know.”


(ani-aka)

n., The high-pitched voice, pitched somewhere in between an anime character’s and a baby on Helium, that certain Japanese females affect in the mistaken belief it makes them more “cute”.
From the Japanese “animation” (“anime”) and “baby” (“aka-chan”).
Example: “I didn’t understand a word she said, she spoke in ani-aka. I’ve got a headache now.”


(gaichirei)

n., A small temporary slouch or bob of the head foreigners automatically instigate when passing through doorways in Japan.
From the Japanese for foreigner (“gaikokkujin”) and “bow” (“ichirei”).
NOTE: After you first move here and bash your head against several doorframes you’ll find yourself instinctively doing the gaijin bow when entering trains, passing through doorways or walking underneath suspended objects regardless of the headspace available.
Example: “Ouch, that bump looks nasty! Don’t worry, after a few more of those you’ll learn to gaichirei.”

Who’s a pretty boy then?

The idea of “metrosexuality”, if not the word, must have been developed in Tokyo. There is no end to the throngs of young men who obviously spend an obscene amount of money of clothes, cosmetics, hair products and brand goods. Shops and advertising often target these kinds of guys and like their female counterparts they have swallowed the whole thing hook, line and fragrant hair-gel.

There is nothing particularly wrong with wanting to look presentable. I personally draw the line at paying good money for Luis Vuitton briefcases and Prada telephone straps, but some nice clothes, a shave and styling wax never hurt anymore, apart from, possibly, laboratory mice. But in the same vein you see women using every available reflecting surface to adjust their face, with train windows especially a favourite, you’ll see guys picking at their hair to make sure it’s spiky enough, polishing their shoes and adjusting their foundation.

Sales promotion teams have to go out to other companies to sell goods and these guys seem to be heavily populated with those of the metrosexual persuasion. I often share the lift with sales boys from neighbouring companies. I call them “boys” because they all look so very young to me, but to be fair I am notoriously bad at guessing the age of Japanese people, with a margin of error in excess of a decade either way. If I was single and playing the field this would probably get me in trouble. These boys, to get back to the subject, are dressed to the hilt in razor-sharp suits, shiny shoes, carefully sculpted hair and an improbable amount of male cosmetics. The lift can sometimes become a deathtrap of noxious l’eau de stink vapors or back-of-the-head-butting as the guy in front of you Beatle-shakes his hair to get that perfect coiffure.

Cosmetics, style magazines and fashion for men can never rival the onslaught of the female variety with Japanese women having a head-start for being obsessively fashion conscious, but the market is growing. Drugstores will have sections stuffed full of men’s products, from aftershaves to a bewildering variety of hair products, face masks and the like. Famously female-centric high-fashion shops are turning unisex with ever expanding guys’ sections. All-male health spa chain “Dandy House” caters to the metrosexual with too much money on his manicured hands. Their adverts, by the way, hilariously wheel out a dusty and creaking Richard Gere, loafing around an American countryside doing vaguely countrysidey things, his bones audibly groaning with every movement.

On the usage of the word “dandy” I like to educate my Japanese peers. Not dressing like the usual game developer, i.e. washing my clothes, I have been, on occasion, referred to as “dandy” I am greeted with shock when I tell them “dandy” is often used in the pejorative, followed closely by surprise after I’ve explained what “pejorative” means, all this aside from the fact the word hasn’t been used since 1932 when it was belaboured with foppish and slight limp-wristed undertones. Not so in Japan, apparently, where the purer, original meaning remains: someone who takes a lot of care of his looks and clothes. I do advise my colleagues never to refer to someone in Britain as a dandy, though, no matter how well intended the compliment.

The very best thing about all this is, though, that Tokyo is a fashion free-for-all. Nobody, and I mean, nobody will take much issue with your clothes, no matter what fashion you do or do not follow. You can wear anything you damn well like, be it the stinking rags of a boozed-up tramp (see also “Game Developers”), a sharp, pin-stripe suit, even if Italian or an outrageously elaborate Goth outfit, nobody will openly laugh at you, aside from the lesser informed tourist. This is a commendable attitude; I applaud it! I have my own standards and don’t mind telling people around me you shouldn’t wear flip-flops unless you’re walking on sand or that on the matter of shoes brown is for business, black for the club but the populace at large doesn’t care, and probably rightly so. Of course, if you do follow the current, short-lived trends people will think you a God amongst men, but if you don’t, well, so what?

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, why, I ask you, with all that unisex compulsion for health, fashion and cosmetics, is it still impossible to find a good deodorant in Japan? They only seem to sell the power-spray variety that wears off after 10 minutes and can leave marks seeping through the elbow areas of dark shirts or T-shirts if used with enough tenacity. Bah humbug!


Yes, that image is the hilariously named Gackt, who doesn’t necessarily represent the metrosexual persuasion but it was the first and easiest photo I could find of an androgynously obsessive pretty-boy Japanese to illustrate this post with.

Do as the Hollywodians

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”.

The current system (in theory)
A publisher contracts a developer to create a title. The developer has its staff and overheads regardless of the availability of work or not. The publisher oversees and ultimately controls the project. The producer on the publisher’s side will want changes made when he or she sees fit, but the local boss does likewise, often contradicting each other. Local staff works hard, unpaid overtime and weekends and with a delay the project is finally finished and released. Publisher and developer now have a “bond” and unless really too much money was pissed up the wall it is likely these two will come together again in economic union.

The current system (in practice)
The publisher has ever-growing expectations but an ever tightening wallet. When it contracts a developer to create a title, said developer or even the publisher directly is often forced to outsource part of the development on to another company. This other company has its own overheads and staff that need paying regardless of the availability of work. Often such large chunks of development are outsourced this way that it’s sometimes hard to figure out who the primary developer is. Either way the publisher oversees and takes control over the project ultimately. Though both the publisher and the boss will demand changes the outsourced work is more difficult to control and often rework is needed (or not needed but done anyway) locally before it is accepted.
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.

The system of tomorrow, or the day after, or…
The publisher pays an agency to oversee and put together the development of a title. Agency, publisher and a small core of senior developers work together closely on a prototype, design document and schedule. If these all pass muster the final go-ahead is given and the agency contracts freelance developers or teams to create assets according to the agreed design, standards and schedules. Once the work has been delivered the developers’ contract ends successfully and they are free to move on to the next project. The agency and core team assemble the assets continuously, change and adapt as they come in and so forms the final product. If late changes are required a new contract can be made with the developers, unless the changes are needed because said developers didn’t deliver to standard. The developers charge more for their work but it’s not more expensive for the publisher as there are no or litlle overheads or benefits to cough up and when there is no work there also is no team of developers sitting on their thumbs pulling a wage. With only a skeleton staff the agency, or indeed publishers themselves, have less pressure to get the next project going and can, in theory, spend more time on planning, pre-production and scheduling. Failures are easier to spot during this period so projects can be canned without too much of a loss which in turn can open the door to more original and experimental game ideas and IPs.

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.

Pros
Location, location, location
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
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.

Working hours
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.

Choices, choices
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.

No preciousness
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.

Cheap broadband
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.


Cons:
The work-floor hierarchy system
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.

Gaijin Eye for the Japanese Guy

I like to watch western views on Japanese culture. Why, you may ask, would I do that when I myself am surrounded by it? It’s probably because I like shouting at televisions. Of course my own experience of Japan is the only correct one and any differing view is false, idiotic, misinformed. I think you’ll find that with most people, actually.

The western media and Hollywood alike seem to want to portray Japan as a mystic, polite, sexually deviant and utterly confounding place. And though it is these things and more the Devil on the outside looking in sees things differently from the Devil on the inside looking in the same direction. Here is a little summary of Western media’s views on Japan and exactly what I think of it.

Adam & Joe Go Tokyo
Your enjoyment of this excellent television series depends largely on how much you enjoy Adam & Joe’s brand of humour. The shows are fairly typical of your average geek looking at the “weird and wonderful” world of Tokyo, but the way they deliver it makes it a fun experience. Often bemused but never overawed they tackle the usual subjects in their own inimitable ways. Especially hilarious was their bid for fame where they walked around Tokyo and had some actors disguised as public treat them as if they were celebrity royals, just to see how other people would react. Sure enough everybody started snapping photos and asking for autographs. If they were being cheered on and photographed they must be famous, right? Their quest also brought them on a date with the hideous Kana sisters and a musical performance in Yoyogi Park. The show always balances between benign piss-take and honest geeky interest.

Japanorama
It’s programs like this what cause unrest. It ticks all the boxes I hate. Trendy, semi-Designers’ Republic intro graphics, check. Reference to vague 70s robot television shows that only thirty year old virgin bachelors have ever heard of, check. A rather slanted view at all the wackiness that surrounds Japan, check.
It’s the kind of show that seeks out specifically weird phenomena and extrapolates them as a general view of Japan, as if everybody in Japan is a rich, horny deviant who goes to maid cafes every day for hand massages and video games. It’s a little like filming in Soho and claiming all Englishmen live like Peter Stringfellow. It’s pure sensationalist claptrap, or “Japcrap” if you will.
If you watch this series and think you know what Japan is going to be like when you visit here you’ll be in for a shock.

Lost in Translation
This cult classic is a little troublesome. At the heart of it lies a great story with great actors and as such it deserves the love it gets. On the other hand, though, the Japan they portray is fairly stereotypical and shows the experience from a tourist point of view. The overly polite businessmen, the karaoke, Hatchiko square, the rape-play prostitute, it’s all a little clich├ęd and doesn’t really show Japan how it truly is, at least not when you live here.
But Sofia Coppola obviously knows her stuff. When the protagonist is talking to his wife on the phone he tells her Japan “is not better, just different”, and that hits the nail pretty much on the head. What this film seems to portray really well is the effect such a vastly different culture as Japan’s can have on a visiting westerner. Lost in a world they don’t understand two people find each other, a timeless story that could have been told in any foreign country where English is hardly spoken and the culture is vastly different from America’s. Ironically it is set in the most wannabe-American country in then world.
It’s a great film and if you haven’t yet you should watch it. But only if you come as a tourist, scratch the surface and deliberately seek out the special experiences will the portrayal of Japan resemble yours. If you end up living here it’s all a little…flat, though it may make you yearn for the wide-eyed first weeks of your arrival when things were still special.

Fear and Trembling
This little probable-gem had completely passed me by until a reader emailed me about it, and I am very glad he did! I’m going to have to pull a little game journalist trick here by writing a review of something I have not seen yet, as I can’t find this film anywhere in Japan. But judging by the trailer it will show Japanese office life from a foreign perspective in an exaggerated way, yet closer to the truth than you’d probably imagine. Screaming, insecure bosses, backstabbing colleagues and bullying are par for the course as poor foreign girl tries her damnest to survive her one year contract, come what may.
It looks to be a humdinger, so expect a full review when I finally manage to see it. For now, though, it seems to be a film which shies away from the usual “oh, Lordy, isn’t Japan a wonderfully weird place!” malarkey and focuses in stead on office life, which, let’s face it, will encompass roughly 90% of your life in Japan.

Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese
Whether the makers are aware “turning Japanese” is slang for masturbation or not, it’s a fitting title. Though the program makes the usual stereotypical mistakes, like “the strangest country on Earth” and “polite society” and focusing on love hotels and maid cafes a little too much, strangely this series perfectly encapsulates the gaijin experience in Japan.
Exhibit A: Fat brat with an inflated sense of worth (“By being an intolerable fat brat I am giving hope to fat slappers everywhere”, is Kelly’s philosophy) says she “loves Japan” though she clearly has no clue what Japan is all about. Totally unprepared she moves over here and immediately gets lost. Having no discernable skill, talent or charisma she hops from crappy, low-wage job to crappy, low-wage job, is repulsed, confused and ends up alone in her apartment crying. Meanwhile the people around her tolerate with bemusement and irritation the presence and utterances of this sociopath. She thinks her life and actions are important enough to show to a wider audience (in this case by making a television show, but it could also have been, say, a blog) and that the world owes her its rapt attention. Friendless and depressed this spoiled westerner stumbles through life in Japan in a meaningless succession of failures.
Apart from the lush apartment this is the gaijin experience in Japan, and I’m shocked it was left up to someone like Kelly Osbourne to portray it on screen so succinctly. Shocked, I tell you!

Exit Strategies

As the late Pat Morita explains in the 1984 philosophical treatise “The Karate Kid”, life, like karate, is all about balance. In this case he was referring to Ralph Macchio getting his leg over with Elizabeth Shue, but in a general sense the theory holds up: life is all about balance. And that balance is a very hard thing to achieve working in the game industry, especially in Japan.

Your life is taken up by office hours. You wake up tired, work long days and come home tired. There is little time, let alone energy, to focus on your private life and hobbies. Game development isn’t half as visually creative as you’d think; all your energy is spent being technically creative trying to make the best art possible within the strict and often changing technical development environment. When visual creativity arises it is taken over by the boss or art lead. For any creative person hobby work is essential to satisfy the Muse. I’m not saying everybody’s creativity should be given free reign at work, but being the way it is you’d want to do your own thing too, and for that you’ll need spare time, something which comes at a premium, especially in Japan.

Extremely rare is the developer who at one or more points in his or her career hasn’t considered packing it in. This industry has a pretty bad retention rate and if you’re honest with yourself how many people can imagine still working under possibly similar conditions in 20 years time? Bad hours, bad pay, bad management and little job security means that sooner or later you’ll think to yourself “what else could I be doing?”

I’ll make no bones about it; I’m at that crossroads, once again. Will my next job be an industry one or do I throw in the towel? The latter option has never looked so enticing. The supposed “kudos” of working in the game industry is an artifice, partly perpetuated by management who rely on keen,, young idiots to work mandatory unpaid overtime and partly by the hype that surrounds our whole industry and the massive fan-culture around it. This can’t really be helped, and to be fair, it helps our market tremendously. But once you’ve been through one or two projects there is little joy or pride in telling your friends that you “work in games”, especially if those friends all have their own jobs, mortgages and kids and still have enough money left for twice-yearly holidays. No, the idea of it being “cool” to work in games went out my particular window quite some time ago.

But why did I stick with it? Well, the one thing I, as an artist, really enjoy about the work is the ability to create worlds and experiences, usually from scratch. There are few professions where you build a fantasy environment for other people to play in, and in truth that is a massively exciting thing to be doing. Do you know any other jobs that do this? Quite.

So what could I be doing and what would be important to me in finding a non-industry job?

Balance
I need to find my work/life balance again. At the moment I’m only working and recovering from working. I have weekly headaches that lay me low for at least one day of the weekend, the rest being taken up with household tasks and correspondence, as well as a little relaxing. All my hobbies have perished and I need them back. I want to relearn origami, start learning how to knit (seriously), experience some more Japanese pastimes, learn the language better. A well-scheduled job with strict hours is required for this to happen.

Filthy Lucre.
I hate to say it but being underpaid for so long has really made the need for a good salary priority number one for my next job. I doubt other industries don’t suffer from some of the same issues as our industry, like long hours, bad management, etc., but at least these obstacles are much easier to live with if you’re not counting your yen at the end of the month. Hell, I could even bare to stay in games if my salary was double (yes, double*) of what it is now. I’d still be frustrated but at least I’d be adequately compensated for my time. If a boss wants to take over my every waking hour he can damn well pay for it.

Fun
Not the job itself but the goal of the project. I like to bring a smile on the faces of children and childish adults. I like people to enjoy what I’m doing. Games obviously do this very well, but what else? Corporate jobs would probably pay very well but they burn out the soul in no time. Something aimed at children, maybe?

Creativity
90% of game art is technical, hacking, fixing and not much artistically creative. I would like a job where my sense of the visual is challenged, where communication means something, and not just how I can hack a piece of work so it will work in an ever-changing code and design environment. With this also I would like a sense of personal creativity, responsibility and achievement. Games seem to offer this but really they don’t. You are always a slave to the whims of your superiors, whether they have any artistic sense or not (usually not).

So these things are important to me. On the top of my head I can think of maybe design companies, advertising, multimedia, interweb, video or film. I’d probably like to work in interactive media aimed at kids; something worthy and educational but fun and exciting. My best bet is probably a design company. There is a chance of a lot of corporate work, but also of the occasional fun challenge. The biggest problem is, I have no idea what they usually pay.

I have about a decade of game experience. I have connections and contacts, friends and enemies, I know how to do my work blindfolded, I know what is going on. The biggest, scariest obstacle is having to throw that all out and start again from scratch. But in Japan they say your mid-thirties is the perfect time for a career change, and it seems to happen quite a lot.

But there is a distinct possibility the outside world will be too scary for me, so I’ll cop out, get another game job and bitch and moan for another few years. Maybe it’s about time I grew that backbone. Game industry Stockholm syndrome, sigh.

* If you think asking for a 200% pay rise is terribly cheeky, keep in mind that that would bring me in line with the lower-end average of a US game artist’s wage!

We have rules but no solutions

The other day I was witness to an analogy in action.

Two people from neighbouring companies had parked their scooters in our company’s parking area. This is, apparently, not cricket. It’s not that there wasn’t space for them, nor were they obstructing anything or prone to cause a problem later when that space would be needed, as it wouldn’t be. No, there are rules about this. They were parked where they shouldn’t be parked so a solution had to be found.

Two colleagues, as ordered by the boss, started dragging the smaller scooter out of the parking area. It was obviously quite heavy so they were both straining a little. They parked it at a 90 degree angle in front of the parking area. They then proceeded to push the larger scooter away too before realizing the first scooter was now forming an obstacle. So two other colleagues moved the first offending article out of the way a bit, but then it became clear that the space they pushed it too was also in the way of the second scooter’s intended location.

When the intended location was pointed out an impromptu discussion erupted between the four colleagues as to what exactly would be the best location. Some fingers were pointed and arguments put forth. The small scooter was placed in area A, but it soon became clear the bigger scooter was too heavy to carry that far so was put in area B. Then the first scooter was repositioned from area A to near area B. Standing back and admiring their handiwork it was decided it wasn’t good enough. The first scooter was repositioned again to actually be in area B, next to the bigger vehicle but first the latter had to be repositioned, yet again, to make space.

The situation wasn’t ideal, but it’d have to do. The vehicles were simply too heavy to shove them about anymore. The matter was concluded, hands wiped clean and actual work resumed. It only took twice as many people three times as long as I would have had they thought it through from the start.

A more perfect analogy of Japanese game development cannot be found.

Better ways to have dealt with the situation:
Market research
Is there really a problem here? Are people waiting for a solution, a gap to be filled? In this case the boss had commanded action, so there was a presumption a problem existed that needed fixing. In reality, though, there wasn’t one and to avoid it ever becoming one in the future small notes could be circulated to neighbouring companies asking them to avoid parking in our area in the future.
Outsourcing
If the problem needed fixing a single person could be sent round to neighbouring companies to find out who the offending motorists were and ask them to remove their vehicles themselves. It may take a little longer but requires only one worker to go around making enquiries and to check afterwards if the outsourced work was completed satisfactorily.
Proper planning
If we decide to take action ourselves we should have looked at the situation and envision a solution; in this case figuring out where the offending scooters should go and how to best get them there. It would take two persons a fraction of the time had all this been decided in advance. Decide the final location, drag one of the scooters there, then the other. Planned, focused and executed. No need for retakes.

The only real difference with actual game development was the fact the boss didn’t come round afterwards to demand minute, labour intensive and unnecessary changes in the scooters’ positioning. “I want scooter A to be rotated 180 degrees, switched with scooter B, which I want blue, not red.” You know the kind of stuff.

Trials of the Mudbloods

There is a great moment in the Irish comedy Father Ted where a nun is talking to a black priest about Africa and missionary work to which the priest, in a deliciously thick Irish accent replies "I wouldn't know. I'm from Donegall"

Whether we are aware of it or not most of us make assumptions about people based on their looks. It's fairly obvious that the Japanese see me and think to themselves "ah, an American!”. My physical self sort of gives the game away somewhat, looking, as I do, so different from the natives. And this is fine with me; I have no desire to totally integrate, even if that was possible, and the extra attention I do get is more often the kind of benign, positive discrimination than not. I do wish they didn’t assume I am American, though.

Stories of discrimination, benign and malignant, in Japan are rife, of course, and apart from the one instance I was accosted and publications like Gaijin Crime File I can’t really complain. It’s usually the Koreans and Chinese, even if they’re third generation Japanese inhabitants, who get the worst of the xenophobia. Japan isn’t a racist country per se, but it is a country where racists, that exist everywhere in the world, can go about their business unchecked and unpunished.

But one group of people is often overlooked in these discussions: the Japanese foreigner. These are the Japanese people born and raised abroad or those of mixed parentage. For them life isn’t easy either! If you look Japanese you are expected to act Japanese and anything else will be seen as odd, corrupted or uncouth.

I knew of one guy, an American born and raised Japanese, who came to Japan and was asked something by a Japanese guy while waiting in line at the airport bus stop. Speaking very little Japanese he was a little dumbfounded and asked, in English and faltering Japanese, what the guy had said. But looking 100% Japanese the guy expected him to act and talk like one and so was taken aback and just looked at him as if he was mentally deficient.
Or there was the case of the Japanese woman who spent a fair number of years living and being educated in the US. When she came back she could not find herself a husband because all the guys were put off by her “Western ways”. Being abroad for too long corrupts the Japanese, apparently.
If you look Japanese and smell Japanese you had better act Japanese or you’re an outsider, as much as people like me, only worse because you really should have been Japanese.

People of mixed race, or “ha-fu” (“half”) as the Japanese call them, are something else altogether. As children they may be a little bit outside of the group at school, simply because they look different, but generally Japan thinks they are cute, beautiful, nice. There are quite a few “ha-fu” talentos on the television and music industry. A lot of Japanese friends (and, to be fair, Western friends too) are terribly excited by the possibility of my siring a half-Caucasian, half-Japanese baby. People have already sketched out career plans in the modeling industry for my, as yet non-existent, offspring.
As a “ha-fu”, of course, you won’t look 100% Japanese and as such you could get by without adhering to the strict social rules and etiquette required of Japanese citizens.

As an aside, I’m a “ha-fu” myself, though being half one kind of Caucasian and half another kind of Caucasian you can’t really tell. And I’ve never even been to the Caucasus! When people call me a “ha-fu” I always delight in telling them, ”No, I’m a DOUBLE!” ; a joke that works much better now I've lost some weight.

It is really quite mind-boggling to consider just how homogenous Japan is. Having lived in very culturally mixed countries myself the difference couldn’t be more extreme. Part of this is probably because Japan was a closed country for so long while the West was mixing and matching cultures with their empires. Partly it may be due to a kind of cultural closed-mindedness aggravated by a lack of skill in a lingua franca. Or maybe it’s the still strict immigration laws; whichever it is, Japan is very very Japanese. Though it is hard to pinpoint a universal “Britishness”, it seems it’s quite easy to find a universal “Japaneseness” and if you looks like you fit in that category but don’t act as if you do, you’ll face the same xenophobia, misunderstandings and problems as a ‘real’ outsider.

So if you’re white and living in Japan, count your blessings. You are one of the cool, ‘good’ foreigners. Sure, you’ll face some discrimination, which is bad and inexcusable, but compared to the Koreans, Chinese and often overlooked “Japanese foreigners” we still live on easy street.

Japanese for game geeks

If you’re really a hardcore game fanatic you should already know where the big Japanese companies get their names from. If not, it’s still an interesting insight into some corporate Japanese thinking. In Europe and America game companies, especially recently, like to go for, what I call, the “double-barrel comedy misfire”; i.e. vaguely naughty or silly names that mean nothing and are often instantly forgotten; things like “Mollusk Pants” or “Simian Nuts”. The Japanese, with a few notable exceptions, take their naming a little more seriously, and though there can be occasions for hilarious Engrish and more recently pretentious and sometimes misused Latin, their motives are often pure.

Though even the Japanese releases show the famous oblong Nintendo logo when you boot them up, their office signs, corporate details and stock-market listing all use the kanji version ; “nin” (charge, responsibility), “ten” (Heaven, sky) and “do-“ (temple, shrine or magnificent). This is often translated as “leave luck to the heavens”, which seems a bit of a liberal translation but one that sums up their business acumen pretty well.

Capsule Computers, another good example of the Japanese desire to cut words short. Of note is the fact in Japanese there is no “-m”. There are syllables beginning with “m-“ but not ending with one. For this the Japanese use the “-m”, which is the universal soft-stop. So in katakana you actually write “kappu-conn”.

The shortening of the name “Service Games”, which was previously “Standard Games”. Though it is possibly the most Japanese company you’ll encounter, with all the Japanese corporate culture you’d expect, and it has, bafflingly, a slew of rabid fans it was in actuality founded by American, David Rosen, and was only taken over by Mr. Nakayama in 1979.

Previously Sega’s AM7 team they took on the name “Overworks” after their boss Mr. Oba, which sounds pretty much identical to the Japanese pronunciation of “over”. I wonder if he intended to advertise the working conditions so openly.

Shin Nihon Kikaku (“New Japan(ese) Project” or “New Japan(ese) Design”)

Big (“oo”, “dai”) East (“higashi”, “to-“)

“Genki” means, literally “happy”, “healthy” or “fine”. I think it is best translated as the French “cava”, encompassing all that is good and happy about someone or something. If you think the logo looks like it’s been drawn by a six-year old that’s probably because it was.

The old “splice two names together” trick perpetrated by Kou Shibusawa and Eiji Fukuzawa; except, of course, these people don’t exist and the name is simply a joke anagram of Keio University where husband and wife founders Yoichi and Keiko Erikawa studied.

From Nakamura Manufacturing, who created coin-operated machines to Namco. How’s that for shortening a name?

The long bad Friday

Argh, will this project never end? Working days are becoming longer and longer, mentally speaking. Lots of things to clean up but I’ve decided not to fix anything unless it’s specifically asked or listed in our bug database. Partly this is due to the obfuscated and long process from Maya asset to in-game check, a journey of a million steps where something can break at any moment, but mostly because every time I show initiative someone else takes ownership over it and asks me to change something about it. “Can you build some kind of blocking object here?” So I do, I build a nice new model of something or other. “Oh, that’s nice. Can you make it a little fatter and with different colours?” Why don’t you just do it yourself in stead? No, I’m counting the hours and doing only those tasks specifically requested. At face value this may sound a little unprofessional but in fact it is a devious ploy to save my sanity.

At lunch disaster strikes. I have brought a home-made lunch but the microwave decides to weld one of the lids to the Tupperware making it impossible to open. This has never happened before so I’m puzzled as to why this should happen now. I spend a good quarter of an hour trying to break open the dish to make my way to the lovely food hidden within but despite a bent teaspoon and some nasty scratches the lid stays in place. To console myself I go out for a coffee at a local coffee shop. A Japanese guy next to me, probably my age or slightly older, is knitting. Knitting! I have often thought of trying that myself. It seems a good way to switch off your mind and do repetitive boring tasks, something I have become very adept at in my decade of game industry experience. It must be nice to sit back, switch off your mind, listen to La Triviata and suddenly find yourself with a sweater or scarf. I always thought it’d look ridiculous, and judging by the guy next to me, it does; but still…I think it’d be an interesting hobby for a guy.

When I later tell the wife of my knitting ambitions and the guy in the coffee shop she informs me that knitting is kind of “in”. Apparently an ex-baseball star started supplementing his meager pension by knitting and has become quite popular doing so. He teaches it, sells his works and appears on NHK occasionally. “The Knitting Prince” he is called. That would suggest a vacancy for a “Knitting King”. I think I have found a calling…

The colleague next to me wants some more tutoring. I move over to his desk but I hate his setup. Not just his mouse and monitors but his custom Maya UI, so I drag him over to my desk so he can watch me doing what he wants to learn. Because he gets in fairly late he also eats lunch late. Around 3 o’clock this nasty smell suddenly drifts around the work floor. It’s a fishy, oily smell that goes straight up my nostrils and stays there for the rest of the day, until well into the evening. It’s his bento lunch. From the corner of my eye I try to figure out what it is; rice, some veggies, some kind of slab of stinky fish. Horrendous! The cigarettes I smoke after and the water I drink all taste of this funk.

I am bored again. I have XNA Studio installed now and am tinkering with it surreptitiously. So far programming is proving to be piss easy. Soon I’ll be a coder’s worst nightmare: an artist who programs. Ha! I have a long way to go yet, but I’m buoyed by the success of these early baby steps.
Of course around one hour before my planned leaving time some bugs get passed my way; I don’t blame the lead, he’s been roped into meetings all day, the poor bastard. With a heroic effort I drag myself out of my bored slumber and whiz through the bugs. I check them on the converter, which still takes longer than the actual fixes and upload them to the server.

As I have to find creative ways to fill up my working day I spend a lot of time writing my "update" emails that get sent round the office whenever anyone updates his or her work. Rather than my usual baby-Japanese kana emails I look up in dictionaries and on-line translation websites the perfect kanji and make sure my grammar is correct. One colleague comes over and exclaims with delighted surprise that I've been sending kanji round in emails! As I feel awkward taking credit where it isn't due, a reason for my continued lack of progression in this industry, I show him the Excite translation site I used, which causes great hilarity all round. "Oi," he shouts at a colleague, "that kanji we talked about? Translation site!" Other colleague laughs, the one sitting next to him exclaims an "oh, that’s why!" and several others giggle behind their hands. I'm not doing a good job teaching the Japanese that gaijin can learn Japanese quite easily if they put their minds to it.

I’m off home. More train stories. I had actually dreamed of train agro the previous night, so leaving the house in the morning I had a mindset looking for trouble. “Some annoying bastard is going to get the brunt of my frustration today”, I promise myself. And I strike gold! An old guy, trying to look respectable is reading a paper in a packed train. I am right next to him. He turns his back to me and leans closer and closer to me to make space for his paper. I grab the metal bar to the right of me with my left arm, thus forming an elbow-shaped barrier between him and me; we have contact. I’m not letting him move out further, but he’s not really pushing anymore. At one stop he turns to me and gives me the eye. I put on my scariest Joker face, sans demonic smile, and hold his gaze for a good 10 seconds before he turns away. His face tells of his disgust at this uncouth foreigner. So you’re wearing a long coat, suit, gloves and slick your hair back; if you really were a well to-do businessman you’d be traveling to work in your own black Mercedes with little white curtains in the window, you mountebank! But he worms himself into the corner and tries to read his paper in the empty space above the seats he is facing. Win!

On the way back a bullish, fat, flat-capped oaf is trying to read a book. I am surprised he can read, and judging by the way he turns the book this way and that with his head cocked back, as if trying to make out a Magic Eye image through nasty light glares, he probably can’t. But he is pushing. I have no space and this sour-faced gorilla is pushing at me to make space for his book. I can feel him pushing with his toes, lifting his heels off the ground for extra leverage but I use the opportunity for an extra little shove which unbalances him and forces him to take a step forward. A few stops down he moves to a different position altogether. Win again!

The rest of the journey I look over the shoulder of a rather plain looking woman playing Animal Forest on her white DS. She’s just running around her village, not doing much.

Valentine’s Day

It's that time of the year again where, massively pressured by the commercial interests of greeting card, chocolate and flower companies, we are forced to declare or re declare our love for our significant others whether we feel like it or not. Not for me, though. Japan has cunningly changed the supposed tradition. Possibly to maximise profits the idea behind Valentine's Day has been split into a girls' and boys' version, the former on the usual day, the latter a month later, March 14th, which has been dubbed White Day.

So I can sit back and receive chocolates and gifts from all the women in my life, which includes my female colleagues who must treat their much-hated colleagues to what is known as "giri-choco", or obligatory chocolate. They usually don't splash out on this though and a lot of shops offer cheap bags of tiny, low-quality chocolates or candy for exactly this purpose. Also, I found that game companies generally don't really honour this excellent tradition allowing its female staff some respite from the expected behaviour of Japanese society. Either way there are no romantic connotations to giri-choco. It's simply one of those "done things", women give their male colleagues some cheap chocolate on Valentine's day, the end. Don't get any ideas!

Though there is a tradition of guys giving giri-choco on White Day it is generally accepted if you don't. You're a guy, after all. You're too busy or scatterbrained to remember such frivolous stuff. But the girlfriend or wife had better get something!

I don't think these two days are used to declare your intentions to a secret love, though I may be wrong. It's not so much cards as chocolate, candy, cakes and biscuits that get the sales boost around this time of year. All shops jump in on the action with supermarkets offering two for one deals on goods and coffee shops repackaging their regular foods in red, cute wrappings so they can up the price somewhat. Romantic dinners for two can also be on the cards, but like Christmas you can expect prices to be a little iffy and tables to be fully booked. Though this year it's on a Wednesday, so it may not be convenient for everybody.

For me the day has special significance, tough, as it's the last day my monthly train ticket is valid, which means I'll have to shell out another chunk of cash (about US$100 or EUR 80) for a new one. If I buy another month-long card (as opposed to a three or six month one) it means I'll have a handy reminder come White Day that I shouldn't try to come home without some cookies and a bunch of flowers. Hell hath no fury, especially when it comes to Japanese women, I think.

Wither Wii Weather?

There is an island in the Pacific, south of Port Vila, called Erromango; it's the southern-most province of Vanuatu and formerly known as Martyr's Island due to a delicious mix of missionaries and cannibalism. It is probably a delightful place with friendly inhabitants; I don't have a clue, I've never been there.

The Japanese translation of this place name is probably "iromanngoto" using katakana to translate "erromango" to "i-ro-ma-n-go" followed by the kanji for island or "shima", read here as "to-"

Nintendo's excellent and strangely addictive Wii Weather Channel, however, uses the older and increasingly unfashionable Japanese spelling. You'll have a job finding it, though, as it only pops up at the maximum level of magnification. So find Port Vila, zoom in as far as you can and scroll south a little. And there it is...
"Ero-manga island". For the benefit of those who don't speak Japanese "ero manga" is the term used for "erotic manga", those pervy comic books depicting big-eyed characters in a variety of sinful, lewd and obscene acts sportng fallusses and chests that defy genetics. Of course the discovery of this island on the Weather Channel caused great hilarity amongst my colleagues.
"Ero Manga island? So that is where they make them!", "I want to move there!" and "Imagine the stockpiles. We've found the mother lode! Hurray!"

So if you're the kind of person, like me, who finds funny place names hilarious, well, then you'd probably enjoy this too. Well, I thought it was funny.

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.

Foundations

I am constantly surprised at how few people in our industry take an active interest in advances and developments in areas outside of their own little sphere of interest. In fact, so few developers look at competitors' games it's little wonder we keep reinventing the wheel. Part of me can understand it though; you work 10 hours a day doing graphics, the last thing you wan to do when you get home is turn on a computer or play some games for research purposes. And to be fair you can get by in this industry pretty well as a journeyman nine-to-five kind of guy, no matter what some people say. Personally, though, I like to spend a fair amount of time, usually outside of work, checking out what is going on in the field of graphic design and video games. I often end up playing games I don't enjoy just to see what they did or to put the graphics under the microscope.

In England this was much less the case, but in Japan it is often I who points colleagues into certain directions if they're stuck or need some inspiration. "You should check out how they did hat in Quake 4" or "See the Titan Quest editor if you need some tips on how to make a good tool." The reply is usually "huh?" or "what game?" and "never heard of it." I end up bringing my copy into work, show a crowd of gathered colleagues what I meant and then watch as the company buys their own copy for reference purposes. I really don't mind this at all, except I expect others to do likewise, which doesn't happen often, and people jokingly call me "otaku" simply because I make the effort. Okay, I do play too many games for fun so I guess I am a geek in that respect, but sill, it's a little unfair. How can you expect to be a good game artist i you don't keep up to date on new technologies and competitors?

The history of video games is much more of a lost tome of knowledge these days. True, it is far less important to know about Space War! or Pong in the current climate of awesome technological power but I find that kind of thing terribly interesting. Some of the younger entrants to our industry had a PlayStaion 1 as their first inspiration. These kids never had to get up to change channels on their televisions or recorded music on little plastic squares with magnetic tape in them. Ah, those were the days. Still, for them to know who Nolan Bushell was or where Mario got his name are trivial and unimportant matters; it certainly won't make them do their job better If you are interested though there are a few books I can heartily recommend. Notably these books all favour massively long subtitles; a strange quirk.

The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon--The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World by Steven L. Kent (link)
This is an incredibly comprehensive book with a truly awfully designed cover. But don't let that put you off, this is a great book that covers the whole gamut. As a result, though, it can never go into too much detail as it has a lot to get through, but it serves as a good introduction to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of our craft.

Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children by David Sheff (link)
This is by far the best, most engaging book with a game history background. Written in a documentary style this work looks at the beginnings of Nintendo of America mostly, with some more sparse background on the mother company. And it's quite a ride! From the humble beginnings, the sudden explosion onto the scene of Donkey Kong and the problems that spawned it, the delicious lawsuit regarding King Kong and the absolutely edge-of-seat chapter on the troubled routeTetris took to the Gameboy. This last story is worth a book in itself and was also recorded as a television documentary called "Tetris: from Russia with love" and constitutes probably this industry's most memorably tense moment.The way it's written and the detail it uses to draw out the characters involved makes this a must-read for anyone interested in Nintendo and the game business in general.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner (link)
Focusing on two of this industry's most, um, peculiar characters, John Carmack and John Romero, this documentary book takes some liberties with reality, often quoting conversations that probably never happened exactly as they are presented but tells, nonetheless, a very engaging story of genius, politics, late night programming sessions and an acrimonious split.Unsurprisingly the bulk of the story revolves around Wolfenstein and Doom and the scene that grew around it. A very interesting and compelling read for anyone regardless of their affinity to first-person shooters.

Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby (link)
Written in 8 section this book jumps around in time a little to tell the story of the emerging game scene, some of its characters and games. Covering people like Cliffy B. and, it wouldn't be a game book otherwise, Shigeru Miyamoto. Though it's less structured that 'The Ultimate History of Video Games' which takes a far more linear approach, it is a good read. As this industry is still fairly young you'll find a lot of old ground being covered here but that doesn't mean this book isn't worthwhile.

On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall (link)
This is not a game book per se, but it charts the history of the company that brought us the Commodore 64 and its insane founder. I am reading this right now and so far it is proving to be a gripping tale.

For people who can read Japanese and want to learn more about individual games I can recommend the Japanese version of the guide book. These cover not only the ins and outs needed to master a game or learn about all the little details you've missed but also come with production reports, concept artwork and interviews with the team or, usually, the director. I know of no particular books on Japanese game companies but the above mentioned books include stories of Sega, Capcom, Nintendo and the like.

Gaijin Hanzai File

Speechless. I'll let Debito retell the story here.
Sometimes Japan feels like a first-world country and then sometimes it really doesn't.

A pain in the ring finger

I know it is difficult to not judge the Japanese by my Western standards; it’s unfair and pretty useless to do so. Nevertheless I can’t help but look with bemusement at their ideas regarding marriage. On paper the institution is pretty ridiculous to start with but supposedly the one thing that makes it worthwhile, that “L” word the ladies demand to hear on occasion, seems to be the one thing the Japanese have worked out of the equation.

Apparently finding suitable partners is a real issue for most Japanese. What with spending the largest part of your life at work I am not surprised and office romances are more often than not what lead to actual marriage. I have worked with quite a few people who ended up marrying a colleague. Otherwise there are the “gokon” parties, or “wedding parties” where someone tries to get a load of single men and single women together for a night out and hopes a few of them click. Usually it ends up being two acquaintances who work at separate companies inviting a load of colleagues over each, but if your social skills are lacking that much you can always sign up for the on-line gokon services. For an exorbitant fee you can attend the parties they organize; a kind of DIY dating service, as it were; we’ll provide the bodies but you’ll have to do the matching up. Of course not all Japanese rely on these parties, but they are fairly popular, which says something.

But what makes a suitable partner? Our silly western standard of “finding someone you love and/or get along with really well” just doesn’t seem to cut it here. From what I gather the men are particularly on the look-out for a surrogate mother; someone to do the cooking and cleaning and raise the kids, someone to lay out their clothes in the morning, tell them what to eat and when and how to do their hair. They will hand their entire pay cheque over to her every month and expect these kinds of things to just get sorted out somehow.And, as long as they’re expected to procreate, someone who looks “cute” or “hot” wouldn’t go amiss, if at all possible. Someone who will turn a blind eye to his inevitable extra-martial philandering is also welcome. A wife is for the housework and raising the kids, a mistress or prostitute is for the sex.

Women, in their turn, want to be financially secure, preferably with a husband who works long hours and isn’t home much to cause a nuisance. A walking sperm-filled wallet would be the ideal candidate. Because why, after all, do women want to get married? Well, I did ask some female acquaintances on several occasions and the answers were, well, predictable. To the question “why are you so desperate for your boyfriend to propose?” the answer was “because I’m tried of working”. Or when asking some friends what kind of boyfriend they were looking for the answers were uniformly one dimensional; “foreign”, “tall” or “rich”, but never a combination of those, always just the one. “Don’t you want them to be kind, funny, interesting, handsome?” “No, foreign will do.”

There was a poll quite a while back in which Japanese housewives tried to convince the rest of the world they spent about 8 hours a day doing housework. That kind of raises questions as to why I see so many of them in town, shopping, chatting with their girlfriends, wasting afternoons away in coffee shops. One funny result of this whole marriage attitude is that recently OAP divorces boomed. After the kids were finally out of the house and the guy retired, spending all his day at home, a lot of women suddenly realized they couldn ’t stand the sight of their husbands and promptly filed for divorce. This caused a sudden rise in old geezer cooking schools, as these guys had never even boiled an egg, let alone done the dishes or turned on a washing machine. The women, on the other hand, could happily live their lives without their husbands present and did so wih gusto.

For the young, meanwhile, the race to get married is sill on. Girls nearing the age of 30 get extremely distressed and manically try to find themselves a husband before they become “unmarryable”. Working conditions and the overall economy continue to deteriorate making coupling and creating offspring more and more difficult, causing a massive drop in Japan’s birthrate, to such an extent that the pension time-bomb is more of an issue here than probably anywhere else in the world, especially with the longevity of the average Japanese. Soon there will be a 100 million centenarians with only a few dozen youngsters to support them. They’ll be too busy working and paying taxes to find marriage partners by then. Oh dear.

Even though I refer to my wife as “my first wife”, just to keep her on her toes, see, I have only ever been and continue to be married once, so I have no idea how much the process differs from that in the west. First I needed a certificate to prove I am legally allowed to marry. This required a visit to the British embassy where I had to swear, either on the bible or, in my case as an atheist, a signed affidavit, that “honest, guv, I’m not already married!” A notice then went up on a board somewhere in the embassy declaring my intentions to wed, so any previous wives I had forgotten to divorce or spiteful girlfriends could lodge complaints, if they so wished. Two weeks later and without any objections lodged, I got a piece of paper to show the Japanese government that I am above board. The wife, on her part, needed a completed form, signed (stamped) by witnesses in her family approving and suchlike of the union. We took these to the local ward office, which was an experience in itself.

As we had some other business to attend to at the ward office we were shuffled from desk to desk until, at one point, we were handed a form of sorts. “What’s this?” I asked the clerk. “It’s a certificate saying you’re married.” “We’re married?” “Yes, please move along. It’s very busy. NEXT!” And that was that. Of course we had our ceremonies later, but it all felt a little too bureaucratic.

Luckily I was spared the trials of tradition Japanese process, which includes the two families meeting up, asking for permission to take the daughter away from her family and offering a lot of gifts. A Shinto wedding, which we also avoided, requires many costume changes, all of them restrictive and uncomfortable for the female, even though on the outside it looks fantastic. Then there are the wedding parties where invited guests have to pay substantial amounts of money to attend and give gifts thataren’t easily divided by two, as that is unlucky.

Marriage in Japan is, on the surface, the same as in the west, but behind it lies a whole different culture of thought. That is not to say you can’t find someone here who just likes you for who you are, or a wife who really wants to have a career rather than become a home-maker. Those people obviously exist, but to be honest it’s much more fun focusing on those mismatched couples that get married because it’s the “done thing” and end up in the type of typical relationship you often see on the television. And now divorce is slowly, ever so slowly, losing its social stigma I wonder what the future holds for Japan's young couples.