J-Dev Confidential 6

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.

Part 6 - Staffing

As game technology advances apace, so do the demands on game development staff. Though tools and engines are becoming cheaper and more widely available even to the interested amateur, expectations, possibilities and standards also rise. Looking at the required skillset for a developer around the time I entered into this industry over a decade ago and nowadays, you can see a remarkable difference. Basically, you need to be good at what you do.

Now Japan has, from casual observation, roughly the same percentage of skilled, talented people as anywhere else. How they got a reputation of being a hotbed of creative talent is a little beyond me, as there seem to be as many super-star developers as useless space-wasters as pretty much anywhere else. Japan's population, though, is a lot smaller than, say, America and due to the cultural and language issues explained in previous posts in this series, they are pretty much limited, to a certain extent, to Japanese talent when it comes to staffing a studio. As a result, it's hard work trying to find suitable candidates to fill any development position.

Pretty much any company in any other part of the world, save maybe some other Asian areas, seem to have a very diverse influx of nationalities when it comes to staff, so obviously the choice is a lot larger, the available pool of talent to choose from global. Larger corporations that are serious about their staff can help with Visas, relocation and integration. English is pretty much the lingua franca of video game development, and is a minimum requirement no matter where you end up working. Check any studio around the world and you'll find a diverse mix of nationalities, sexes, races, creeds and, judging by some of the coders I've worked with, species. Not so in Japan. With little knowledge of visa procedures and legalities and little inclination to shell out for flight tickets to ferry people over for interviews, let alone the whole language issue, Japanese companies are almost exclusively staffed by Japanese employees with the occasional gaijin here and there, though it must be said, with a healthy mix of sexes (sexual inequalities notwithstanding). It's starting to be a real problem.

A lot of companies also still cling to the old ways of hiring a bunch of graduates and educating them in-house, with eyes set on long-term employment and salaries barely in the minimum wage ranges. Every March we see a massive graduate hiring season at which time it's useless to try and switch jobs, as every company's focus is vetting the hundreds of newcomers. This still happens to this day. However, with the higher demands on developers' skills and increasing budgetary and scheduling risks, fewer companies can afford this cheap way of staffing a studio and reliance on experienced workers off the bat is growing. Studios need someone to come in right now and do the work without any hassle or delay. There simply don't seem to be enough of those around in Japan to staff all the many studios. You may notice a lot of today's games feature many developer logos on start-up, a natural consequence of studios having to work together to make larger projects come to fruition, as few studios are large enough to tackle current-gen development on their own, with little available talent to hire. On top of this Japan's society is graying tremendously, with more and more old-age pensioners with fewer and fewer young to take their place. The situation is heading for disaster. They will need to import.

Experienced foreign developers, though, will be put off by Japan's working standards, conditions and, mostly, wages, which are lower than in pretty much any other area of the developed world. The moment a developer is experienced enough for a Japanese employee to be interested, they are too experienced and too accustomed to the Western standards of development to be interested.

This leaves the foreign inexperienced crowd, of which there are many. However, most people are lured to Japan by geekery and end up doing any kind of work, usually teaching English, simply for the visa and the income and the joy of living in Japan. Game development is rather obviously the geek's dream job so naturally there are a lot of foreigners in Japan looking to break into the industry. The main problem is that a deep and abiding love of video games is simply not enough of a skill to bring to the table. Without applicable skills and experience these people find it very hard to land any jobs in actual development, which gives rise to rumours of the inscrutability of the Japanese industry. No, the industry here is quite easy to get into, as long as you have the skills, experience, language capabilities and visa, and above all, very low standards and expectations when it comes to pay and working conditions. So this leaves a very small selection of masochistic nerds like, well, me.

For Japanese companies to get their quota of skilled staff they would need to make many changes; raise wages, increase the quality of life, streamline development practices and be ready to make heavy up-front investments in potential candidates in the form of relocation packages and visa sponsorships, as well as offer integration help once they arrive. The bottom line, however, is still the most important deciding factor for most Japanese companies and the potential monetary costs of such a program quickly overshadows the potential of decent, skilled development staff from abroad, so they stick to what they know: cheap graduates. They simply cannot compete in the global job market; skilled, experienced staff would be insane to relocate to Japan under the current conditions.

Small changes are occurring though. It seems that companies are becoming much more open to the idea of hiring foreigners. Even between when I first moved to Japan and now I notice an immense difference, a shift away from "foreigners are difficult, we don't need the stress" to "we need foreigners if we are ever to compete". Several companies I know of have an increasing number of foreign development staff, others seem to be following suit. And I guess when you have more foreigners being uppity and demanding better wages and working conditions, management might actually be inclined to give in and change.

Despite the language barrier the real hurdle is actually the Japanese government who should be promoting Japan to potential immigrants but are in fact shying away from that. Even outside of the video game development industry the graying of society would seem to indicate a need for importing skills, yet the government continues apace with its vaguely xenophobic and racist policies, keeping foreigners on an uneven footing and even discussing making Visa eligibility more difficult - diametrically opposed to what they should be doing. All of it is dressed up nicely, of course. Proposed minimum entry requirements of level 2 Japanese Language Proficiency, for example, is dressed up as "making it easier for immigrants to integrate" but does in actuality raise the bar to entry immensely. Not being seen as a citizen, too, is off-putting to any self-respecting whitey. Only generational, pure-bred Japanese can benefit from all the rights of a citizen, anyone else merely a visitor or potential criminal.

Japanese video game development, in short, needs more qualified staff. In the meantime, we'll see more and more companies merging, but that will only go so far. It's a sellers' market here, as long as you have something to sell and can sell it cheap. For now.

In the next post, let's talk about us, darling, you and I.

18 comments:

  1. Hi. I've been following your blog for a bit and it's been extremely interesting. I just joined the industry as a localizer a few months ago, and I've seen that a lot of what you describe is true at my company too.

    You said:

    "Proposed minimum entry requirements of level 2 Japanese Language Proficiency,"

    I remember reading in the newspaper about special consideration being offered for language competency, like described here. It's not a "requirement" or barrier to entry. Do you have a source that says otherwise?

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  2. Hi Aaron,
    I remember reading about the language proficiency in various news sources a while back, but at the time it was a proposal to make it mandatory. As far as I know that proposal hasn't been made into law or some such, so you're right to say it's not a requirement right now.

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  3. Hi JC,
    I'm just wondering if you were full-fledged 正社員 at the company you were at. I am also in the video game industry and even though I work full-time, I am classified アルバイト. While the fact of this impenetrable ceiling gets me down sometimes, I'm usually comforted by the fact I make more money than the salaried workers who have been here for years. In your experience are non-Japanese developers usually hired as salaried employees or as "part-timers"?

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  4. I think the main difference between 正社員 and アルバイト, which makes me want work as the first, not the latter, is the benefits and bonus, although it may seem that your salary working as アルバイト is higher.

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  5. I don't really want to get into the details of my salary, but I also get bonuses and some benefits are available to me. While they are not as large as those of the salaried employees, I am still fairly certain that in total I still edge them out.

    Anyway, other than the "prestige" of being 正社員, for someone like me, a single person who will return to their home country in a couple years, it probably makes more sense for both me and the company to keep me as arubaito. But at the same time, there is still this kind of tension between salaried workers vs. part-time/haken, and as part of the latter group you never feel like you're "part of the company" in the way that the former "belongs to the company." Of course, this problem is not limited to the video game industry or even Japan. But I'm just wondering how willing the industry is to *fully* accept hiring non-Japanese not just by giving them jobs but by giving them salaried positions with possibility of upward mobility.

    While I don't want to speak for JC, I think this is an issue particularly relevant for those like him who have their lives and families here and plan to be here forever or so. The problem is that many Japanese companies either assume that we don't plan to settle down here, or, more ominously, make it so that we can't or end up not wanting to.

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  6. @pamu:
    The problem with "arbeit" is two-fold in that employers really don't take it that seriously, as you said not really seeing you as part of the firm and such, and secondly the security for the employee.
    Going seishain is useful for the long-term immigrant, in that it solidifies your position in Japan, which helps getting loans, apartments, bank accounts and all that. Also, it is much harder for an employer to let you go if you're seishain.
    I have been both; as a part-timer I really felt there was no way to be taken seriously. In one instance I had to have a word with my boss about something I thought was a little uncomfortable, and when my boss told this to the offender in question (it really wasn't a big deal though), the response was, "so what? He's only a part-timer".
    At another company I had to fight for my seishain. I had to tell them, give it to me now or I quit, and they did. At a subsequent company I was offered seishain even before my probation period was over. So I think times are changing and it's much easier these days to become a full employee. My problem with seishain is the hated "bonus" system, so I did eventually elect to go keiyakku instead.

    The security of a seishain can be a very important factor for your average gaijin. I don't think companies are against offering those to foreigners anymore but it'd probably help if, during the interview, you make clear it's your intention to become seishain in the near future, so they know that's what they have to offer to keep you.
    I'd say "part timer" is best avoided as it comes with many restrictions (glass ceilings, being part of the company, security, etc.) It also shows how serious the company is towards you as an employee. Your situation, pamu, sounds iffy to me, sorry. Without the details I'll of course reserve judgment, but there is simply no reason for them to not make you a full-time employee if you are already doing that work and you request it.

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  7. I know of one company (my own, in fact, which I will refrain from revealing) that has no problem with making foreign employees 正社員 and has actually been very progressive in their opportunities for upward mobility. I started in localization back when there were only a couple of us. Before long, we had a half dozen or so people working together. At that point, we all became 正社員 together (the bonus system changed my lifestyle completely). Since then, two of us from that original group have gone on to become full fledged producers (or - in my case, at least - assistant producer).

    My company is quite large, though, and has a reputation for being on the international side of the spectrum in terms of the way they think. I hardly think that they represent the norm.

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  8. It was my understanding that Japanese proficiency (as demonstrated by passing the JLPT 1 or 2 I would imagine) would simply lower the amount of work exp. one needs to get a work visa - not be any sort of requirement to get one. I think this is a great idea, and it's similar to the points-based system used in Canada for English and French.

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  9. "I know that proposal hasn't been made into law or some such, so you're right to say it's not a requirement right now."

    But as I and Y. Datura seem to understand it, it was never proposed as a requirement to begin with.

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  10. I know, what a conundrum. The mystery deepens.

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