In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.
As someone who has recently decided he couldn't handle it anymore, any direct criticism from my part would and should be taken with a grain of salt. It could easily come across as sour grapes and, if I'm brutally honest with myself, some of it probably is. I had high hopes of my career, none of which came to fruition, mostly due to decisions on my own part, but some of it due to how things are done round here. Though I will focus mostly on the latter, readers should not forget that I am not so arrogant as to assume I myself am without blame, and that I am making a scapegoat of an industry I have failed to make an impact on. Instead remember that these posts are an honest attempt at looking at what I, in my humble opinion, consider to be the major failings of the Japanese video game development industry in the hope these things can be addressed, for the greater good, as it were. I may sound like I'm bitching, but I am trying my hardest to be constructively critical. My apologies in advance if I seem to stumble occasionally.
Also let me preempt some critical feedback. I am fully aware Japanese games enjoy a certain status with a certain group of people who will gleefully point to all the industry's successes as proof that my observations are academic at best. It is certainly true that some excellent, amazing titles have come from these shores, but my contention is that these titles have been made despite the way the industry works, and not because of it. Though the industry in Japan has a few kinks that allows, nay forces more creativity in certain areas, as a whole it is still a lumbering beast with many flaws and coughing up blood. The fact a team of developers managed to create masterpieces like Zelda, Super Mario Galaxy or Ico goes more to show the great talent of these teams than prove the Japanese way of doing things actually works. If anything it is as inefficient as a solar-powered sunbed, and I can only imagine, excitedly, what these teams could accomplish had they a better working system.
There is of course a growing awareness of Japan's status in the global video game market. More and more similar reports are cropping up of industry high-rollers such as Yoichi Wada, president of Square-Enix, and Kenzo Tsujimoto, of Capcom, incidentally one of the first high-profile companies to make it an active goal to pursue the Western markets over the local ones in both product and development practices and Hideo Kojima Some consumers are even getting a little irked by all this negativity; but I don't see it as pessimism. The fact major Japanese corporations can stand up and publicly admit Japan is fading fast in the shadow of Western technology and development is the kind of acceptance that leads to improvement and a better industry (and market) for all. Once big corporations like Square and Capcom successfully change their businesses others will follow too, or be faced with imminent bankruptcy.
As you can see, I already speak in hyperbole and from a position of false authority, putting forth my theories as facts. In the posts to follow I am sure this tone will continue, so I must humbly ask the readers to remember these are all conjectures, based on personal observations and musings. And it takes a big man to admit he is wrong. I am not a big man.
Now you may ask what the point is of this series. Why didn't I discuss this with my colleagues and employers at the time? Well, I did, sort of. The many problems I'll discuss in later posts I have talked about with colleagues, even my boss. The end result was always the same: sympathetic nods, agreement, acceptance of the futility of the situation, understanding the need for change, all rendered moot with that single, ever-present line "but this is Japan", as if to say, "you're right, of course, but this is simply how things are done round here, old chap." This is an argument you cannot fight against. Whenever people see the correct way to solve a destructive issue but decline to act because it's not the done thing, you might as well, as I did, give up. In certain areas I have tried to lead by example, with some limited successes, but in the end Japan's immovable object was too immovable and my irresistible force of change all too resistible.
Also, don't be too discouraged if you are one of those who is working towards or dreaming of a career in video game development in Japan. As a series focusing on the negatives it will naturally come across as all doom and gloom. Also, I believe if you are aware of the problems you won't get wrong-footed or short-changed when you finally get here. You'll know what is going on and be more informed before making any decisions. If you really want to work here, don't let these articles dissuade you. Let them help you have realistic expectations. And who knows, maybe you will be the one to bring the winds of positive change at your future company.
Finally, no, I have no intention of lifting my veil of anonymity and openly discussing the companies I have worked for; many issues are wide-spread but not omnipresent, some issues I know exist even though the places I have worked at didn't actually suffer from them. I am trying to paint a rather broad picture here and it would be unfair, not to mention unprofessional, to assign all these ills to a few particular companies. However frustrated I grew as an employee I don't actually harbour any bad feelings towards my former employers and I do not wish to harm their business. So don't ask.
The series will kick off in earnest some time soon with part 2.