J-Dev Confidential 7

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 7 - You and I

We, too, have our issues with Japanese game development, don't let's forget!

In my case, well, it turned out I am simply a bad fit for Japanese corporate culture. I do not, as they say, have what it takes. I blame my low bullshit threshold and my desire to have professional, rational work practices, the perfect passive-aggressive arrogant stance. When I see problems, of course I am not as course as to openly point them out to whomever is listening, but I will expect them to be fixed. If I am not given direction, I expect autonomy, and I simply cannot deal with having neither. Personally, I still care deeply about my work and the final product, which is why I let things get to me so easily. It's not that I always know best, which I obviously don't, but I can recognise disaster. I spend hours and hours of my spare time immersed in our output, playing, researching games, reading news, being up-to-date, knowing what's out there, learning about the business and money sides of our industry, and I stupidly expect the same dedication from all my colleagues. People should know my attitudes always come from a good place with the right intentions, and not due to some desire for power or fame; no, I want to make great games that many can enjoy.

Now the structures of Japanese businesses aren't half as inscrutable as people like to think. With a bit of effort you can move up the ranks and try to be part of the solution, as it were. In my time I did indeed see promotion and pay rises, though paltry ones, and the occasional plus alpha bonus which delivered fractionally more than the withheld salary I was expecting. However, with the way hierarchy works the director is always above you and will always dictate his decisions, so until you get to that point you are pretty much beholden to the whims of a single person, whether they are destructive or productive. And to reach such dizzying heights requires more sweat than I was prepared to give. It requires playing the politics game, but mostly, it requires longevity. Promotion to the upper echelons in Japan goes hand in hand with the number of decades of loyal service you have provided, and frankly, I was too impatient to wait.

I have no doubt though that I could have been more pro-active in trying to effect change. Yet, my Western "think of number one, at least occasionally" attitude became too much of a burden. I gave up. To be an effective developer in Japan requires a certain strength of character and refusal to give up. Either that or a whole lot of luck. It can be done. There are foreigners in Japan doing this right now. But me, no, I am going a different way, plunging into the deep end and trying to be my own boss. It's a personal decision born more from my own ambitions than my failure to be effective within the industry, and it's an attitude you find elsewhere too. Maybe veteran developers end up going indie, starting up for themselves, because they want to prove something (usually to themselves). This is me too. However frustrated I grew at work, my decision to step out relied far more on this desire to prove myself than it did with the perceived problems of Japanese game development.

As for you, my sweets, well, your problem comes down to critical failure. Japan has been getting away with too much for too long. Because Japanese games enjoy a certain adoration people have been too ready to forgive the many little issues that have been growing over the recent generations, and now things have come to a head, with even big name Japanese products being technical disasters, you people have a hard time suddenly having to come to terms with the idea that, well, Japan isn't the mecca of video games...not anymore.

I was not too surprised to get certain reactions, in comments and on other forums when people were kind enough to link to this series of posts. People think I complain too much and not focus on what is good. I thought I'd circumvent that with my long introductory post, but apparently people still get riled when something they hold dear gets some negative attention. And I can understand that, of course. But it often comes to a point when one isn't allowed to criticise at all. "How dare he," they say, "criticise the industry that brought us Final Fantasy, Biohazard, Zelda?" To those people I say, keep an open mind. Investigate what else is on offer in Japan, play the games that don't get localised, and you'll see an awful lot of shovelware too. Certainly not every game ever made in Japan is golden, as Western games too have their share of rubbish. To ignore all the fairly obvious issues the industry has simply because you are fan of a certain series of games is highly irresponsible.

And yes, people like to accuse me of racism, or my own sense of cultural myopia. "Oh, like it's so great in the West?" they ask. I'd like to think I made it lear that I acknowledge there are issues all over the world, no matter what country you work in, but that this series was focusing mostly on those problems that appear uniquely Japanese or are specifically an issue in Japan.

I get it. You don't like the negativity. You love Japanese games. You may dream of working in the Japanese industry. Good luck to you! Things are changing and getting better and you can certainly get a lot out of it if you try. No, Japan isn't uniquely fucked up, and yes, certain problems are widespread. And also, it's perfectly acceptable to strongly disagree with me, I can handle it. But what I do ask of my readers is to see some perspective, some context. However much you love Japan, Japanese things and culture and Japanese games, it doesn't mean it is beyond criticism and it behooves us all to occasionally slaughter our sacred cows in the name of potential progress.

I hope this series of critical looks at what I personally perceived to be the main issues plaguing the Japanese industry has at least given you some food for thought. Latecomers I'd advise to start from post 1, take in the disclaimer and work your way through to the end. Things are changing, things are getting better. Japanese developers see a lot of their own problems and there is a will to change, no matter how slow the process. More foreigners are breaking into the industry here and they too can help the process. And if you have the dream to work in Japan, then by all means, don't let me dissuade you! It is entirely possible and you could have a good time here, if you come at it with an open mind. All I ask is: no more sacred cows, please.


  1. A nice wrap up post to the series, and I'll agree that the notion since one line of games is excellent it means they all are is a foolish one. As for any allegations of racism that may have been leveled at you, I'm fairly certain you can dismiss them as the rantings of overzealous American fanboys, we tend to bandy that term about quite often.

    As an aside, I feel this post has much more emotion and force then the others, not that they were lacking. Part of that comes from your wording, and part from the few mistakes I saw which is far from your impeccable norm. Don't get too riled up, most of us are still here eating this stuff up!

  2. I agree with christopher. While there might be people that think anything coming from Japan is sacred and when someone criticizes that, he is evil, there are also more than enough people who actually do think this is a valuable source of information ;).

    I have read a lot of your posts, even though this is my first reply. I think this blog is excellent and has given me a much better view on the industry than anything else. For a long time I have wanted to try it as well (and maybe within a little more than a year I am able to), but the reasons for wanting the try the Japanese industry first are not based on "Japan is the shit" kind of feelings.

    Anyways, keep it up, I enjoy your blog posts quite a bit!

  3. After reading the "preview" in your last post about "talking about you and I", I honestly expected you to talk about UI (user interface) issues in this post. I thought I was clever; like I had deciphered your clue.

    Still, nice post (as always) and a fitting conclusion.

    I have also recently discovered that I probably don't have "what it takes" to survive for much longer here (conversely, I think I figured out that I DO have it, which is what scares me - I don't want to go down that road) and am making plans to head back to the States to make twice as much money with an actual chance for real advancement.

    Good luck with everything! I'm sure you'll go on to do big things.

  4. It's interesting to me how many people I met that came to Japan hoping to find a job in games. They came on vacation, visited some companies and then got the big shock, they'd have to take a 50% to 70% cut in pay from their western jobs.

    And that was that. After a few hours or days of trying to convince themselves to go for it they eventually gave up on one of their long time dreams.

    I don't really know what my point is. Maybe that one, I was also disappointed even thought I stuck it out for a while.

    The other is that if it is your dream, get your skills down as young as possible and come over before you have the experience of getting paid a decent western salary because it's very hard to go back.

  5. For us young n dumb(or just fine with ANYTHING to get off the unemployment dole) Japan is certainly an opportunity.

    A great opportunity? Only if you decide it's gonna be one. Working in Japan is a lot like going to a Japanese university or college; you're basically thrown in, left to make what you will of it with minimal guidance.

    The SNES and PS1/Saturn felt like Japan's golden era which shined pretty well into the PS2, but the luster is wearing off faster than an executive runs off with his annual bonus to Guam.

    Probably the most "vicious" thing one could do is to go to Japan, take advantage of the high talents at low salaries(at least for art, audio, maybe game design) then apply the most intelligent of Western-style tech and rapid prototyping techniques.

  6. The bit about starting out for yourself rings true with me, I'm sort of in the same situation right now so I hear you. On the one hand, you've been in the business long enough to know the ropes, see the good and the bad, and you can pretty much imagine what the next N years would look like.

    However, if you keep the job, you'll never know if all the bitching and complaining and the there-must-be-a-better-way-to-do-this nausea is because you're right, and there is a better way... or if you're merely a prima donna, a delusional clown who just doesn't grasp the complexities of it all.

    If you don't try your better way, you'll never know. And so you start your own thing, right all the wrongs you saw in the past, and see where it goes...

    I hope you keep writing about how that turns out. Does the dream work and are you being ten times more productive? Or does the process collapse on itself once it leaves prototyping and goes into production for real...

  7. Great series and a good read, thanks for the hard work. Your right in the dip in quality, Square Enix's Last Remnant was a big surprise, showing poor techinical quality and unusual design decisions. Let's all hope that change is coming sooner than later.

    Even though you're no longer under full time employment and doing freelance, if your client is a Japanese company won't you run into many of the issues you had before the switch or do you intend to target western devs for getting work?

  8. @christopher: DAMN, I usually try to avoid errors but to be honest, this one was rushed out a little as I was distracted with other things at the time. I sincerely apologise and will try harder!

    @anon: Yeah, at the moment I'm working with some foreign devs but I will try to get some Japanese contracts, which will be interesting. Once protected by short-term, detailed work contracts I wonder how they'll deal with being forced to renegotiate for the many irrelevant changes they'll want. I doubt they're going to take it well. We'll see.

    @gman et all: Yeah, working in Japan certainly is a challenge which may not deliver for everyone. The way I see it it's a move you can do early on in your career, but the more experienced you are (and the more attractive you are for Japanese employers) the least likely you'll be interested anymore. The working standards and pay are two things that desperately need to be addressed.

  9. I've enjoyed your posts & a lot about what you said about Japanese games & the industry as a whole makes sense. There has been a lot of media coverage lately about how Japan's game industry has fallen behind. To a certain extent I can agree with that viewpoint.

    However having played the majority of big hitters this year...& yeah most of them were western games-i feel that the western games industry seriously needs to look at it's quality control. As grand and beautiful looking that the latest titles have been, they've also been terrible glitch-fests. Fallout 3 in particular is a prime example. A game I was enjoying almost as much as Dragon Quest VIII & Persona 3 but was let down by all the bugs.

    Then we get to Mirror's Edge, a game I really want to love but I have too many issues with it. Frame rate, level design & flow problems have ruined the experience for me. Most triple-A Japanese titles seem to be a lot more polished & gameplay in particular a lot tighter. Western developers have made great strides over the years but i'm not quite seeing the magic of a Miyamoto or Kojima game quite yet.

    Japan isn't releasing quite as many big games this generation as their western counterparts & thus the West is looking a lot healthier. Yet I often wonder, are we really getting a superior product from Western studios or is this just a perception that has been created over the last 5 years? Is God of War really a better action game than say Ninja Gaiden? The short answer to that is the former offers better spectacle but the other offer a more satisfying combat system.

    I feel Japan's strength lies in the feel of their games, the tight control, usually more polished, better balance & more attention to detail. These are areas that most western developers still need to improve on, some have been getting it right but most are still too focused on their engines & not so much on these fundamentals.

  10. To the Anon who thinks that JP games are more polished;

    In a sense you are right. With every new release, a bit more spit n polish gets added. A lot of bugs not fixed for JP versions will be fixed for US and EU releases.

    The Japanese certainly iterate, which is good. But they way they iterate, as JC outlines, is terrible. Japan will have to make their iteration process more efficient if they're going to be able to make games AND money.

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