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.
One of the most persistent Great Lies of video game development is that overtime, unpaid naturally, is an unavoidable necessity. So ingrained is this fallacy that even non-management developers sometimes defend this position. The reasoning is fairly easily debunked, though, as it usually follows the line of "Game X took a lot of overtime to finish. Game X was a success. Therefore game X could not have been made without a lot of overtime". If "Game X" is a big hit it is sometimes even extrapolated to "successful games cannot be made without a lot of unpaid overtime". Only recently has this trend been brought to the limelight and is actually, in the US mostly, being addressed in baby steps. Japan is no different. I don't think I've ever had a job interview, neither here nor back home, where I wasn't posed the question "so, how do you feel about overtime?" And though the correct answer would be "You pay overtime? Great!", if you want the position you are pretty much forced to say "well, it's all part of the process, isn't it?"
On top of the usual crunch madness, Japan also suffers from the lingering remains of a more hierarchical past, where it was, and to an extent still somewhat is, bad form to be seen to leave work before your boss does. Though this rule is on its way out, it is still felt, possibly subconsciously, by the majority, who will refuse to leave work at a decent hour.
Now, your average Japanese is no idiot. With crunch and the unspoken rule of working late, they know for a fact they won't be coming home at a decent hour, so why kill yourself? Obviously, you come in as late as possible too, and spread your work out to fill a longer work day, rather than try to get more work done in more hours. The periods in between are filled with procrastination; reading, eating, chatting and even sleeping at your desk. Paradoxically, procrastinating at work is actually quite tiring, so in the end the sum total of this attitude leads to late starts to the day, not much actual work being done, leaving work late and still feeling increasingly tired as the days drag on.
This is in my humble opinion, by far, the single most destructive and inefficient, not to say unhealthy, both physically and economically, problem of the Japanese game development industry today! It also gives rise to the false image of the "great Japanese work ethic"; coming in late, staying late and not doing much work during the day is in fact a very bad work ethic. The people I worked with were in a perpetual state of drowsiness at all times.
I have always tried to set myself very strict working hours; I come in early, on the dot, every single day. If I'm tired I'll just drink more coffee and make a mental note to go to bed earlier that evening. As a result I also always make sure I leave at exactly the same time every evening. Sometimes, of course, if I'm close to finishing something I'll hang around a little longer, but only ever in fractions of an hour, not multiples. This, I have found, made me unique at the companies I've worked for. Also, by filling my days (mostly) with focused, hard work, rather than loafing around filling my time, I usually got the reputation of being an extremely fast worker, surprised, as my colleagues were, that I could finish a task that would take 1 hour in, well, 1 hour.
It was always a little painful to watch colleagues get more scruffy and tired and bug-prone as projects lingered on; coming in in the morning to a sight of sleeping bags and snoring (and nasty, sweaty funks). I'd get my coffee and start work. Hours later my colleagues would finally be roused and sleepily start their work, not being able to concentrate well, taking naps at their desks during the day. Then I'd leave on time, leaving them all behind to eat their instant ramen suppers to greet them in the exact same fashion the following morning. I honestly do not think I possess any amazing technical skills, so the fact I usually end up finishing my stuff quickest and with the least number of bugs at the end of the projects I've worked on would suggest my attitude was, in the end, much more constructive and productive, and at the very least, I kept my health and sanity in tact (arguably).
Now forcing unpaid overtime is actually illegal in Japan, but as with most laws, it's difficult for the government to actually make it stick. Every year however the labour standards committee sends out research parties to investigate larger companies' working practices and has a tradition of penalising a whole load of them for inevitably failing to adhere to the legal minimum standards. There are actually a few game development studios that have stricter working hours and some kind of overtime pay scale; you can bet you bottom dollar these were victim of the labour standards committee's random checks; that's the only way things seem to change for the better in these cases.
As a foreign employee in Japan my advice is to make sure you do your work on time and try to stick to contracted hours as much as possible, or you will work yourself to an early grave or mental institution. Also familiarise yourself with the labour standards law. The mere mention of these laws will make any employer back down from unreasonable demands. Though this will keep your health in check, it will make you opt out of the political game at work. For promotion you must still be seen to be a team player, which in turn means always staying late, no matter what the workload, the deadline, personal situations or how late you start your actual workday.
Soon, part 4, "decision making".