You’re not from round ‘ere, are you? (part 3)

In this last post regarding general foreignness I will tackle the most confounding and egregious group of miscreants and mountebanks you’ll ever face in Japan: other foreigners.

It seems the largest part of the immigrant community works in the English teaching industry, and an industry it is too. I’d be the first to admit that teaching is a noble profession and I am sure there are a great many of them in Japan who take it very seriously and take great pride in their work. The sad truth is however that many foreigners with no other qualifications end up as English teachers as the only requirement seems to be to be able to speak English. Language schools, called eikaiwas, and real schools in need of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) end up hiring any old reprobate, and as skill doesn’t come into it, it attracts the most worthless in society.
Lurk on any eikaiwa forum and you’ll be drenched in a flood of vitriol and hatred that would shame our own industry’s best attempts. As such the English teacher is placed firmly at the bottom of the foreign community’s food chain. It is a perfect job for young graduates or people needing a transitory job just to get settled in Japan, but if you try to make a career out of it, well, you might as well just give up right now. If you ever meet an older English teacher the smell of failure just oozes from their pores. The professional English teachers get a bad rap in the face of all these crowds, poor souls. Be nice to any English teacher you meet, but as soon as they start talking about “banging chicks” or refer to their salaries in “dollars” rather than yen, it may be prudent to back off a little.

Discussions that seem to occupy newcomers to Japan are things like the value of “gaijin” over “gaikokkujin”, or whether or not it is impolite not to greet other foreigners in the street who feel they have an intimate connection to you because you share the same skin pigment make-up. There also seems to be a strange kind of one-upmanship related to longevity; how long you have spent in Japan directly relates to your perceived status. For the first few years you’re supposed to be very impressed if someone has been in Japan a little longer than you, until you eventually realize it really doesn’t mean anything at all.
I know, I know, I have made an issue out of it in the sidebar in what goes for a “profile” blurb. In my defense I just mentioned it to lend some credibility to my blog; to show I am not one of those newcomers who just loves everything about Japan, and so that readers can take the whiff o bitterness with a pinch of salt.

Newcomers to Japan always feel they themselves discovered the country and somehow have a sole claim to it. This is fairly natural, it’s an exotic place to most westerners. Though the foreign population is fairly big (according to some figures around 130,000 foreigners are resident in Japan, and that’s Numberwang!), because we look so different from the rather homogenous Japanese we stick out like a sore thumb. And any foreigner you spot drags you out of your little dream world and makes you realize you really aren’t that special over here either.
Those foreigners intent on pursuing their doomed ambition of total integration especially have a thing against other foreigners. They treat them with disdain and prefer to pretend their Japanese acquaintances are their new close friends. They will refuse to speak English and if forced to help out other foreigners in difficulty will make sure to make them feel like unworthy little slugs. This particular breed of foreigner is easily avoided and ignored. They seek solace and solitude amongst the Japanese and will try to avoid you at all cost.

There are several communities of specific foreigners in Japan. From parties at embassies to club meetings, as well as a group of selected foreigners all connected to the game industry; some working in it, some with only a tenuous connection, but all very passionate. Some smaller grouping of industry foreigners too meet up for a drink and a bitch on occasion. Once you move over here you should make a little bit of an effort to get in touch with these, which shouldn’t take long. Though your first instinct may be to try and integrate, eventually having connections to foreign friends and acquaintances will be very valuable, as you’ll need the mental and alcoholic support these offer.
No man is an island but the lone foreigner in Japan may get lost at sea on occasion.

You’re not from round ‘ere, are you? (part 2)

This post will be even more difficult to write than the previous one. I will attempt a short essay on the pros and cons of being a foreigner working at a Japanese games company, but it will obviously not be a definitive essay; with something so subjective, how could it be? I can only offer my insights from personal experience and observation, but remember that each foreigner, each company and each situation is very different.

Firstly, if you get hired it probably means your employer has an open-minded attitude towards foreigners. Few companies are beginning to realize the importance of the foreign markets and the slow dwindling of the Japanese one. But even fewer are making efforts to remedy that. The time of change is now, so theoretically you are in a good position, but do not be surprised if your “foreignness” is barely used constructively to this end. They may hire you with the idea that, hey, a foreign employee could help us crack that strange and difficult foreign market, but end up just using you as a regular employee as changing things is kind of difficult.

In a worst case scenario the preconception is that foreigners are brash, loud, arrogant and difficult. It will work in your favour if you make an effort to dispel this idea. Don’t walk around like you’re all that, don’t be too difficult, if there are problems deal with them diplomatically and if you’re complimented humbly brush it off. My memories of working in the UK revolve around bashed keyboards, broken mice and conversations that could be heard from the other end of the building using expletives only. The Japanese work floor is a quiet affair, and though there is some chatting and laughing I have never seen or heard a Japanese colleague lose his rag. There will be moments when your first instinct is to shout “FUCK!” and punch a few keys off your keyboard, but I’d strongly advise against it. That kind of thing is simply not done and will only give the impression you are a dangerous foreign psychopath.

When confronted with bad working practices or idiotic decisions, which you probably will be, take a breather and have a think before you act. Choose your battles carefully as riling against all such problems will only result in Pyrrhic victories at best. In the short term you may get people to listen and maybe even act, but in the long term it just solidifies your image as a troublemaker. There is an expression in Japan that goes “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. You do not want to be that nail.
Your attitude should be one of mutual education. Be open to the Japanese ways of doing things and “share” your thoughts on the Western attitudes. You won’t be able to impose them.

Sometimes, though, it is useful to be the scary foreigner. When negotiating pay, for example, which you should always do during the interview, you are in a better position. I have a feeling my Japanese colleagues don’t really get into that kind of thing. When your employment rights are being trampled upon it may also be useful, but again, choose your battles wisely. If your boss in the UK would ask you to clean the rubbish bins or move heavy equipment you are perfectly right to point to your contract and job description. In Japan be prepared to give a little. I, for example, will help moving but refuse to do any cleaning – something which is quite common in Japan. I don’t refuse by loudly protesting, I refuse by passively ignoring the cleaning rota. When asked about it I will just say I’m too busy with, you know, my job. As there will always be a looming deadline this is a very handy excuse. Eventually they’ll just give up on you, if you’re lucky.

The same method can be used for your working hours. Unless you’re incredibly young, eager, single and stupid chances are you won’t want to follow the Japanese working hours. At first, though, you may not have a choice. When you first join a company and are still under a temporary contract it may be wise to follow your colleagues in their long days. As I mentioned in a previous post, don’t work at full steam, but stretch your 8 hour day over a 14 hour period. Once you’re settled in and preferably have a full-time contract you can slowly scale down your hours to something more reasonable. Start coming in earlier and leaving earlier by half an hour a week or something. The problem with coming in early is that there will not be anyone there to see you come in, so start dropping the fact into conversation as often as possible. “Man, I’m so tired. I came in at 8 again today”. Eventually people will always see you in the office as they come in and they will have heard about your hours and slowly begin to accept it. Then start leaving earlier. In the end you can approach something similar, but not quite identical, to regular working hours. In one company this little training scheme had worked so well I even got them to not schedule meetings after 5 o’clock, and when I was at my desk at half past six people were asking me why I was staying “late”. This is a slow process and it takes time, so expect to do some mad hours when you first start work here.
But don’t forget: the quality of your work and your ability to reach deadlines are as important! Sadly, you can’t rely on those alone as being seen to work late is still important, if even just subconsciously.

When it comes to working methods, inform rather than demand. If something can be done better or more efficiently then do it yourself and show your colleagues; don’t demand changes from others. I always offer my services to proof read, give pointers of game design and localization issues when I get the opportunity, but it’s up to the boss to implement these or, as is so often the case, not. There is not much else I can do about it. Becoming aggressively insistent is certainly not going to help. And what’s more, it’s not your job. But I still show my colleagues useful tips, tutorials, programs, websites and western games when it is useful and I know it is appreciated. If anything it encourages your colleagues to do likewise which can lead to valuable learning experiences.

Your colleagues will most likely be a friendly lot and keen to chat with you. I found most people made an effort to talk slowly or use baby Japanese to communicate if things got too fast for me. I have only met one or two guys who flatly refused to make the effort and just jabbered away at me; and why shouldn’t they? It is my problem and responsibility to learn the language after all.
But your Japanese skills are a quick and easy panacea for the company if they ever have problems with you. “We’re not going to make you lead because your Japanese…”, “we’re not going to give you a seishain contract because your Japanese…”, “we’re not giving you a bonus because…” you get the message. It’s an easy excuse for them and a difficult one for you to effectively fight. I once had a long and difficult meeting regarding my seishain contract, using a lot of official terms with a man who was a notorious mumbler. During the whole meeting communication was no problem at all, yet his excuse for not giving me seishain was “your Japanese ability”. At this point I thought acting the gaijin was useful and told him I’d quit otherwise. I got the contract.
The “Japanese ability” excuse could crop up forever and sometimes you simply can’t win.

The thing to remember is to give a little and take a little. Make an effort to integrate as best you can, to follow the rules and be helpful and even obedient. When things get out of hand let a little of your foreignness slip, but never in large doses. Don’t think to yourself “well, they hired a foreigner, and a foreigner they’ll get” because that can only hurt you, in the end. On the other hand, look around you, look at your colleagues. You don’t want to end up a wage slave working 10 a.m. to midnight for a pittance. Sometimes it’s good to put your foot down and at those times it is handy you’re a foreigner because it is almost expected of you and people may be a little intimidated by you as well.

Another important message is to get involved with the local expatriate community. With all the frustration you feel you simply need to get drunk sometimes and have a good old bitching session about everything and nothing. You can’t keep it bottled up; the rage or the beer.

In summary, don’t fret. Being a foreigner working in games is no big deal. As long as you do your job well you’ll be fine. Remain diplomatic and make an effort. Don’t take shit but occasionally swallow your pride and accept things for what they are.

You’re not from round ‘ere, are you? (part 1)

Discrimination and being a foreigner in Japan are extremely difficult to write about as so much depends on personality, personal experience and situations. No two foreigners experience Japan in the same way; nonetheless I will try to give some indications of the difficulties you may face when working here.

Though total integration into Japanese society is impossible, simply because you will always look different, acceptance is fairly easy. Japan isn’t such a closed book as you may believe: many of its citizens are open-minded and accepting of other cultures, often eager to learn more about the world. There are however two kinds of discrimination you’ll face when you move over here.

The first is a kind of benign “positive” discrimination. You will often be seen as ultra-cool and handsome as well as extremely clever because you are not Japanese-looking and speak more than one language respectively. Such is the social status of white or black people that when they move back home they often return to Japan eventually, as they can’t deal with being decidedly ordinary and plain looking in their own societies anymore. Keeping your feet firmly on terra firma and brushing off such compliments should stop your head from inflating too much.

The second type is actual “negative” discrimination. When dealing with older people or official institutions you can sometimes be confronted with the ugly side of Japan. From being denied an apartment or a loan to people being scared of you, these things happen. They do not happen often, mind you, but they happen. Another problem is your official status in Japan which, until you become a nationalized citizen or permanent resident, remains hazy. E.g. you will pay your residence taxes but will be denied residence papers. If you marry a Japanese national they will have a family register, but you won’t, and what’s more, you’ll be delegated to the footnotes rather than be entered in the appropriate “spouse” boxes.

The problem is much worse if you are of Asian decent. When Japan really puts its racist hat on, it’s usually aimed at its immediate neighbours. China and Korea specifically get the sharp end of the stick, with 3rd or 4th generation Japanese Koreans still being denied citizenship, and the Chinese having such a bad reputation when it comes to housing, for example, that they will have a much harder time finding somewhere to live. In fact when I was first confronted with the “no foreigners” option on realtor information sheets I was supposedly assured with the line “oh, no, that’s just aimed at the Chinese”.

To be honest I have no idea what your status would be if you’re of middle-eastern origin, but I have seen very little of the hysteric xenophobia that seems so popular in Europe and America these days.

Having said all that, you have to remember that this discrimination is only a very small part of daily life. When you’re dealing with government or banking institutions things are a bit more odious but I personally can’t remember the last time I met with discrimination, positive or negative, in any shape or form. Because of this it is important to remember, when being discriminated against, not to explode in rage. The best attitude is to let it slide. As mentioned before, the vast majority of Japanese people are open-minded and if they discriminate it will usually be genuine ignorance; something they’ll gladly be educated about if you just take the time. Some people go so far as to insist being referred to as “gaikokkujin”, literally “outside country person” rather than “gajin”, literally meaning “outside person” or “outsider”. Personally I can’t be bothered with all that. Though I do object to the automatic assumption I am American, little niggles like these aren’t really worth getting upset about.

Like each country, though, there are a bunch of right-wing nutters too. They distinguish themselves by driving around in black busses or white vans with loud nationalistic music vomited out from their speakers. They often park in front of Shibuja or Shinjuku station, dressed in their slightly militaristic uniforms, and give loud speeches about how the foreigners are corrupting Japan’s beautiful culture and language. These are best ignored, though I do like to scare their leafletters by creeping up behind them.

The police also often need a lesson in race relations. If you are ever in an accident or fight it will probably be your fault, even if it blatantly is not. Though these things are often solved with a groveling public apology, you really want to avoid getting into fights. Even if a Japanese person throws the first punch and you are merely defending yourself, you will be seen as the aggressor.
Random stop and searches are also not unheard of. I was once approached while waiting near some shops, but it ended with a friendly chat and no harm done. I guess it was my fault for hanging out in an area where dope peddlers are often seen. Alternatively, near my office my colleagues have been subject to possibly illegal bag checks by police recently. One colleague now takes a different route home after having been searched here times in quick succession. I, on the other hand, have not had this yet, but if I ever do get stopped for no reason I fully intent to have sudden language amnesia and force the offending officers to speak English.

When it comes to work and official matters, a little foreign gusto may be called for. You may or may not have heard of a certain Debito, a former American and now fully nationalized Japanese citizen, who demands some public attention for his legal fights against racism. Though his website offers some objectionable and tiresome essays on how he wishes life in Japan was a little more American, he also has some interesting and valuable information on legal matters. For example, where the Japanese saw a mole hill he tried to make a mountain out of a public onsen (bath house) refusing entry to foreigners. By law this is illegal but there are no powers to enforce this. So he went through a lengthy court case with resulted in, well, not much. He also protested when Yama-chan, the cute seal from the Bearing Straights who made his way to Yokohama river, was issued citizenship papers as a publicity stunt. The protest revolved around how happy the expat community was that a foreigner got citizenship papers and that hopefully soon all the other cute foreigners in Japan could expect likewise. We didn’t, of course, but an interesting side-effect was that many of my acquaintances were surprised and a little shocked of our plight as few were aware of it. Check out his site, but take his personal rantings with a pinch of salt.

There is discrimination in Japan. On the whole it doesn’t have any real bearing on my day to day life, and I usually don’t let it get to me on the rare occasions I am confronted with it. I enjoy the fact people think I am much more handsome than I am, and that some people are on occasion a little intimidated, but generally it is no big deal. As a milky white Caucasian westerner any discrimination I do suffer pales in comparison to that perpetrated on my non-Japanese Asian brethren.

Soon I’ll try to write a post about the specific pitfalls and perks of being a foreigner working in game development and how you may want to carry yourself.

The cast - 4. The programmer

Another popular career for foreigners in the industry in Japan seems to be programming. As an artist who is mostly busy with his own tasks I must confess I am not quite in the know; not enough to write an authoritative post on the subject anyway. I sincerely hope anybody with a deeper knowledge of the subject will leave a comment to point out the inevitable glaring mistakes and omissions. My apologies in advance.

Firstly the software seems to be the same as in the west, but localised in Japanese. As a tools programmer you'll most likely be working in or from Maya, with a few exceptions here and there when 3DSMax is used. Proprietary in-house tools seem a bit rarer than back home, but they do exist.

Things tend to be hard-coded, making changes very laborious. Be prepared to work closely with the artists and planners assigned to your little corner of the game.

As programming requires more esoteric and abstract ideas, which are often communicated in meetings, your Japanese needs to be up to scratch. I'd hazard a guess that your reading and writing skills can be lower, as you'll have time to pore over documents with your dictionary, but spoken Japanese and knowledge of the terms would seem a minimum requirement.

As for pay, I don’t think you can expect the royal treatment you do in the west. From what I gather artists and programmers are fairly equal on the pay scale; with both earning much less than back home. Be prepared for a pay cut if you move to Japan!

The quality bar is maybe not as high as for artists though. As with every discipline there are good and terrible programmers, which should come as no surprise. If you’re the kind of anally retentive, obsessive compulsive programmer, who likes to work with documentation, specs and schedules, in other words, my kind of programmer, you may be making a mistake working in Japan. From what little experience I have things seem to flow a little more impulsively here, often with little or no source control and documentation. Whereas previous games I’ve worked on reached an acceptable stage fairly early on, with the rest of the time spent on adding features or optimization and balancing, I found the games I’ve worked on over here only really came together in, what you might say, the nick of time. This may explain why playable demos are fewer in Japan; there is hardly a game there until just before it’s time to ship it. Balancing usually happens during development with the director requesting changes to features as they go in.

So, in summery, you probably have a good chance of landing a programming job if you’re willing to take a pay cut and have some previous experience; but you will need a higher level of Japanese than us artists. Of course, if we’re going to get prissy, if you’re moving to Japan you really should make the effort to master the language, let’s be honest. But if you want to make the move soon, before you’ve reached native level (say, within the next few decades) as a programmer you’ll have a harder time. It is obviously not impossible, and I know of a few gaijin programmers, but, you know, us artists don’t like to mix with that lot.

Time for a change

If you judge Japan by its love for its cultural heritage and the glacial speed at which the government updates its policies to fit with 20th century standards (yes, 20th century, you heard me), you may get the impression Japan is averse to change. But you’d be wrong.

Last Saturday was the autumn equinox, and that means it is now officially winter time in Japan, no matter what the weather says. Shops change their layout and stock, and staff change their light cotton uniforms for the warmer woolen variety. Television channels juggle around their schedules and programs, so we can expect a whole new series of talk shows and food tasting scenes at brand new times during the day. Restaurants change their menus to include seasonal dishes.
This will all be repeated at the next equinox when it will be officially summer time.

Strangely though, this year the weather has been slightly ahead of policy. Wet and cold days all through the summer have been in sharp contrast to the stiflingly humid and scorching days I remember from when I first moved here. In previous years the poor shop clerks had to endure about a month of sweat as their warm uniforms didn’t quite match up with the still warm weather (or vise versa).

Soon the leaves will change colour, forming such a staggering range of bright hues it has become an actual tourist attraction. Japanese people can travel halfway across the country just to watch the bright red and yellows of the trees. Like their love for the cherry blossoms that bloom for a mere two weeks in spring, it is hard to understand the beauty of and affection for the autumn leaves until you witness them. Japan’s landscape is fairly unsaturated, with a lot of browns and grays, so an event like the cherry blossom or autumn leaves really has a huge impact on the scenery.

Personally I can’t wait for the winter. However much I, and most Japanese, hate the hot and humid summers, the winters are bright and crisp. Whereas in England you’d be lucky to experience a few hours of overcast daylight, in Tokyo the winter days start early and are usually sunny and bright, though the air is dry and brisk. If we’re lucky we may even get to see some snow. Last year certain areas in the north were stricken with massive snow storms, but Tokyo usually only endures a week orso of a white, elegant blanket covering the otherwise gray metropolis. Again unlike England, the trains usually manage fine under these weather conditions too.

Halloween paraphernalia are already appearing in the shops and October won’t reach its conclusion before we’ll see Christmas trees and little fat Santa dolls here and there.

And all of that anticipation was suddenly rife last Saturday when the rules dictated the summer is over. So, Japan loves change so much it has institutionalised it to occur twice yearly at the equinox, and that will always be so, thus and never otherwise.

Holidays and sickies

In the Japanese holiday system there are two types of days off: the paid holiday (yuukyuu) and the free day in lieu (daikyuu). When starting at a company you will not have any yuukyuu days at all. I fact, until you get a full time contract this will remain the case. If you want a day off you’ll have to forfeit some pay; this is a little sneaky as they try to avoid hourly rates to circumvent overtime payment laws, but when it comes to withholding pay they’ll be very happy to think in hourly rates. You should think of an unpaid holiday taking roughly 1/20th of your monthly wage.

Once you get your full-time contract you will probably not be allocated any yuukuu for the first 6 months orso of your new contract, regardless of how long you have been working there on a per-contract basis previously. The number you get eventually is usually 10 days per year but again, each company has its own rules. After a specified period of service the number may increase by an extra 2 or 3 days a year, probably with a cap to stop the holiday-shy workers stockpiling months and months of yuukuu.

Daikyuu is a free day you get for working on national holidays or weekends. At most companies you’ll have to get permission first before working when you’re supposed to be off. This, together with other possible limitations to daikyuu use, say, an expiry date, all depends on your company. The process and paperwork you need to go through to get and use daikyuu also differs from company to company but can sometimes be very laborious, going up and down hierarchical chains of command with approvals at every step.
On occasion a team that has worked nights and weekend may be given some daikyuu as a “thank you”. Breaks in the interim between projects are not standard but can occur.

There are no allocated “sick days”. If you’re too ill to work you’re forced to use yuukyuu or daikyuu or, if you’re under contract, forfeit some pay. For this reason, probably, sick people often drag themselves into work, infecting all his colleagues and aggravating the whole situation. Rather than send these people home to recover quickly and come back to work healthy it is accepted that they sit miserably at their desk, freely distributing snot and germs and moaning like a bison pulling its leg out of a swamp.
You may have seen images of face masks supposedly worn by the ill to protect others around them; well, not quite. Maybe it is the social skills of game developers but I found only 1% of people use them. I have often resorted to wearing them to protect myself from colleagues with the sniffles.

To complement your meager yuukuu there are plenty of national holidays in Japan though. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the Japanese government organized research into alleviating stress and tiredness in its hard-working citizenry, which was duly cancelled when the researches got overworked themselves. But it definitely is true that a set of historic national holidays was complemented with a few more to get the Japanese people to rest up a little.

A list of national holidays in Japan:
January 1st – New year, though often you’ll get off until the first Monday of the year.
2nd Monday in January – A national holiday for all, but a special day for the 20 year olds as they become adult.
February 11th – A holiday to celebrate the crowning of Japan’s very first emperor.
March 21st – Spring equinox.
Golden Week – A few national holidays at the end of April, often, but not always, turned into a week’s holiday. Bad time to travel as all travel agencies and hotels hike up their prices to cash in on the sudden demand.
3rd Monday of July – A day to celebrate the ocean, or rather, to just do nothing and then fail to teach your gaijin colleagues what you’re suppose to do to the ocean on this day anyway.
Some time in August – Obon is a season for festivals and paying your respects to your ancestors. Usually you’ll get a few days to a week off around this time. A lot of companies use this as their “official summer holidays”. If a recruitment advert tells you a company has “summer holidays” it is more than likely this that they are referring to.
3rd Monday of September – Old fogies day.
September 23rd – Autumn equinox.
2nd Monday of October – Health and sports day. Another day to waste in front of the television, drinking beer and eating crap.
November 3rd – Culture day. Probably something to do with Japanese culture rather than Petri dishes.
November 23rd – Labour day, a day off to thank all the hard-working people of Japan for being such bricks!
December 23rd – (the current) Emperor’s birthday.

If a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday after is usually a free day too. Though some official institutions may close their doors on holidays most shops and venues will follow regular opening hours, so it need not be a wasted day.
As you can see there is no Easter or Christmas in Japan. The latter is, in a sense, celebrated in is own unique and expensive ways, but you will not be given an automatic holiday. I found that most employers are aware of its importance to foreigners and usually make it easy for you to take time off around this time.
To be honest, I have no idea about other non-Japanese holidays. If you’re deeply Christian, Jewish or Moslem you may need certain times off for religious reasons and though there are usually no provisions for this I recon most bosses are so scared and confounded by multiculturalism you’ll probably won’t have too many troubles convincing them; though you may need to use your own daikyuu or yuukuu for those.

If you’re very lucky your company may have a set of its own holidays. I have heard, for example, of one company that gives its employees the day off on the anniversary of its founding. Others may have “early closing Fridays” on occasion or distribute daikyuu liberally after the completion of a project. On the whole it is not something you can count on, so take it gladly when offered but don’t expect or demand any more than the usual.

Enjoy each and every national holiday and paid holiday as best you can; you’ll be working hard all through the year and though the temptation may be to just pig out, stay at home in your dressing gown and do bugger all, you won’t get many other opportunities to travel and see a bit of Japan. For my time here I have seen disgustingly little of the rest of the country, but I have had my fair share of wasted lazy days. In retrospect it is probably a bad trade-off that newcomers to Japan may wish to avoid regretting.

Tokyo Game Show 2006

Hopefully with this post I can offer a little editorial on this year’s game show from a perspective you’re guaranteed not to find on any of the gaming websites: that of a slightly tired and grumpy video games artist who is less than impressed.

For those of you that don’t know the TGS is held over three days, September 22nd, 23rd and 24th, in Chiba’s Makuhari Messe, a 40 minute train ride away from civilisaion. The first day is reserved for game industry professionals and journalists, with the weekend being open to all the public wishing to queue and pay for the honour of experiencing the noise and crush of people and PR and oversized laminated bags with single A4 marketing sheets in them..

When I first went to a TGS it occupied all four of the Messe’s giant halls but in recent years it has dwindled somewhat and now too only two of the halls were occupied with a third reserved for keynote speeches. I am also witness to a slight ECTS-ification of the show, with fewer developers and publishers in Japan making the effort and more peripheral makers, network solution companies and Korean publishers taking up more space. The latter, of course, are worthy contributors and though their games are often a little rough, their presentations were usually top-notch. The show was packed, more busy than usual, probably because of the vague hint of a full-blown console war. In stead Microsoft had a respectable sized booth, focusing a lot on Blue Dragon, and Sony had a larger booth divided into PSP, PS2 and PS3 sections, as well as a cinema area showing more prerendered PR movies. The best thing about the PSP section was that the demo machines were all themed to the games running them, making the Parappa PSP look especially cute, even though the game is a mere straight port. A lot of attention was given to Eye of Judgment with live battles being hosted by a loud duo of MCs. Several rows of PS3s also allowed for some playable demos but to be honest none of the games were actually that exciting. Sure, some looked very very pretty indeed, like Heavenly Sword and Motorstorm, but if you were looking for innovation in gameplay and ideas, Eye of Judgment was it. Other demos on display were, amongst others, the embarrassingly bland and last-gen looking F1 Championship, Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms (or “Harry Potter, the Cappuccino Years”), some Mahjongg game and Coded Arms, which showed us frame rate isn’t high priority for PS3 developers. Still no in-game footage for Metal Gear Solid 4, but a repeat of some of the movies we’ve all seen before, as well as a hilariously ostentatious PR sheet, complete with photo of Mr. Kojima in studded designer jean looking sullen and pensive. KDDI has a surprisingly huge booth dedicated to mobile games, none of which looked particularly exciting. And apart from a few video presentations, mostly at the SEGA booth, Wii was remarkably absent from the show. There were no playable demos to be seen anywhere. They either wheel them out this weekend for the public, which is doubtful, or Nintendo have their own special event planned soon; something akin to Spaceworld to bolster enthusiasm, as if that were necessary, before the launch. Another sign the industry is tightening its belt was the absence of freebies. There were times when playing a demo was rewarded with plastic blow-up Aiai dolls, or Castlevania handkerchiefs; a lot of tat with high eBayability. This year it seems only the Korean companies made the effort. A Chun-Li handkerchief if you played through some mobile games, a headdress in the shape of two lit-up hearts, an inflatable float if you played a silly little punching game on a stage. And that was about it.

One more odious aspect of the game show, which has become more prevalent over the years, is the idiotic idea you are not allowed to take photographs. What, I ask you, is the point of a public game show, with huge screens showing off your latest products, if you are then going to employ a shower of bastards to go round and cover people’s lenses? Even from outside booths I was often asked to please not take any photos. It got to the point I could smell people approaching me for this as soon as I whipped out my little camera, at which point I just gave them a look and turned away. It is pathetic and idiotic and only annoys the fuck out of people. If someone can explain the thinking behind this, please do so because I am flummoxed.

So all in all another noisy let-down. The games I really wanted to see weren’t there. The games that were there were singularly unimpressive, often pretty, but unexciting. One or two titles may have sprung out from this flood of mediocrity but they never quite reached dry land.
I fear for the show. Next year there won’t be any new hardware announcements so the show should be quite dull. The show in Germany might be the one to take over the torch from E3, because I don’t think TGS can muster the energy and enthusiasm it once might have had.

Like every year I tell myself “that was the last one. No show for me next year!” but I’ll probably go anyway. Like I mentioned in a previous post, I find it important for developers to see what is going on, but the experience is always draining, tiring and slightly depressing.

Gamesmanship - part 7

The Urban Ninja

If there is no one in front of you, it is you who is holding up the traffic."
- Auberon K.

The historical and traditional martial art of Urban Ninjaism has been with us since the closing years of the last millennium, so it is hard to imagine there are still people out there who have never heard of it. Though it originated as a hobby to see who could maneuver his way from one end of Oxford Street to the other in the fastest possible time without touching any of the crowds, it was solidified into a sport by the writing of “The Urban Ninja Handbook” (Harpie Cullings) by my close friend, fellow gamesman and philosopher Auberon K. It has since dominated the world of global competitive sportsmanship surpassing even that of three-fingered chess and the controversial espresso croquet sessions.

As was pointed out at a recent expatriate gamesman appreciation evening at the club, with our genetically longer legs and massively more important lives we obviously move much faster than the natives and a such the art should find natural expression in Tokyo. And so I set out to rewrite the rulebook to include specific offensive and defensive techniques and moves that can be utilized with great success on the busy streets of Tokyo.

These following extracts must be preceded by a reminder of the very basics of the sport; the combatants must never touch, physically, though props may be used as defensive weapons though never directly against another person. The opponent must not become aware he is embroiled in a bout of Urban Ninjaim. No one talks about Urban Ninjaism.

The striking cobra

This first offensive technique has proven very popular in the motherland and loses nothing of its effect when transposed to the surroundings of Tokyo inner-city street life. When confronted by an oncoming wall of at least two opponents the Urban Ninja must create an opening to pass through. The combatant braces himself by turning his right shoulder (or left for the sinister) towards one of the oncoming targets. This aggressive move heralds an inevitable clash for which the Urban Ninja has prepared himself, alerting the opponent and forcing a defensive pose; he will turn away his right shoulder to deflect the blow. This creates a gap in the wall which the combatant should be able to slip through with a quick turn of the left shoulder and a rapid right-left sidestep before the opponent realises he will not be harmed.
If anything this move is slightly more effective over here as it plays on the stereotype that all foreigners are aggressive and rude.

The empty-handed Samurai
The sound of umbrellas opening is like the cocking of a thousand muskets, each aimed squarely at my eyes." – Auberon .K.

This defensive move saves face, and your eyes. With our naturally tall and noble stature we stick head and shoulders above most crowds and so navigating a busy street in the rain can be a dangerous pursuit as the metal tips of umbrellas are at eye-level.

For this technique we utilize a common piece of Japanese body language. When wanting to pass through a group of people a Japanese person conveys the whole of “Excuse me, old chap, but if you wouldn’t mind so terribly I’d like to pass and as you can see I am totally unarmed and pose no threat to you” with a simple karate-chop pose; holding the flat hand out in front of you, fingers pointing upwards; this apparently shows you are indeed not carrying your sword. To this day it is used by anyone wanting to squeeze through a narrow gap or break apart a duologue. (see figure 9)
It is utterly shameful to use such easy tactics as an Urban Ninja of course, but it does serve a purpose. When in imminent danger of having your eyes poked out by the sharp umbrella of an unsuspecting opponent, moving it away with your flat hand provides safety. The opponent will be surprised but when checking to see what he commotion is about will spot your open hand and interpret it as the common, polite hand gesture.

The deflecting sword

When the season is wet many people carry around their umbrellas, but some do so with less care than others, swinging it about freely and without hesitation. Though initially a danger it can be used as a diversionary tactic if the person is to be passed by quickly. Remembering never to touch an opponent, simply tap the umbrella from the inside. Thinking he may have harmed someone the opponent will turn around to check what has happened giving you the opportunity to slip past, taking care to avoid the offending umbrella. Tapping the umbrella from the outside will cause your opponent to turn in your direction instantly giving away your position and strategems; this is to be avoided!

As you can see the art of Urban Ninjaism enjoys a rich and diverse series of tactics and techniques. Though most are universally applicable, some are particularly useful in Japan. The next time you traverse a busy street in a hurry, why not practice some of these maneuvers always taking care not to make bodily contact or to alert the opponent he is involved in one of the richest, most historic martial arts ever to enjoy such wide popularity.

The cast - 3. The game designer

In the beginning there was Word, and Word and Excel. As a game designer in Japan your job title would be “planner" and your toolbox would be Microsoft Office, more likely than not the Japanese version. Powerpoint and/or Word for initial design and pitch-documents and after that Excel for everything else. Bear in mind that I’m generalising here.

Don't expect to be the God of the game design, though. You will answer directly to the producer and, if he feels like a managerial decision is called for, the boss. In fact, you may have certain things dictated to you, and you'll just write them down in Excel sheets. If you're working on, say, a racing game or RPG be prepared to write page after page of specs, test them out, rewrite them, etc.

Other tasks often include asset control; creating naming conventions and asset lists, running between programmers and artists constantly adapting the list and annoying everyone by making them redo and re-export stuff as slight changes are called for. Even, if the task hasn't been assigned to the leads, as it should be, you may find yourself writing schedules.
Of course you will also be working on level designs, but as mentioned above you will play second fiddle to the producer but it will be you who does most of the hard work.

Because of the software and the lists you need to create for the rest of the team your Japanese should be pretty advanced, with very competent reading and writing abilities. You'll also need to discuss and check with other team members as they do their work and follow your designs, so good speaking skills are also a must. You will also be in meeting after meeting getting game designs dictated to you by your superiors, followed by meetings where you dictate those designs to the rest of the team.

There doesn't seem to be the same kind of career structure for planners as in the west; as there are no real QA departments to promote aspiring designers from. I'm not sure where these planners come from or what background they usually have, but it isn't in code or art. As such the naming conventions and asset lists are usually very rough and full of mistakes and oversights and require constant reworking. If you want to actually be the auteur you’ll have to work your way up to producer. But being a planner isn't necessarily the career path to producerdom. These seem to spring up from all disciplines, from art to code, and are often chosen for longevity and not necessarily skill.

What with the high levels of Japanese required, as well as the many obscure differences in tastes becoming a planner in Japan may be one of the more difficult careers for the aspiring foreigner. Indeed, I have not met any yet. I wouldn't say it's impossible but be prepared for a lot of hard, underpaid work and many dead-ends.


I’ll be honest with you: I hate game shows. The events themselves are noisy, tiring places and the run-up to them busy. The information you want can be found on-line within hours anyway, it all seems a massively expensive waste of time.
But it’s not, of course. As a developer I think it is incredibly valuable to see what else is out there. Often when you are focused on getting a product finished nothing else seems to exist, and no developer is an island. We need to be constantly aware of what the competitor is up to, what products we’ll be competing with and what their code and graphical standards are. And no heavily compressed streamed movie can fully convey the intricacies of a game as a little hands-on experience does; the animation, the frame rate, the controls, these you really have to try for yourself.

Later this week is the Tokyo Gameshow, and I am again confronted by the Japanese attitude towards these events: apathy. When I tell my colleagues what I told you in the paragraph above they always vehemently agree with me. Yes, they nod, it is very important. No designer can work in a vacuum. You need to go out there occasionally and see the bigger picture. But when I ask if they’re going, they mostly grumble and say, nah, I’m too busy. Occasionally the hardcore geek will venture on the weekend, open to the whole public, but few seem intent to go on business day, a day reserved for industry professionals and journalists. Even the recent CEDEC was a bit of a let down, as few of my colleagues made the effort.

But it is not just the local shows that fail to whip up enthusiasm: the former E3, GDC, the late ECTS, the recent new shows in Germany and China, no company really seems to care enough about them to send over any developers. The reasons for this are many.

Money; Japanese companies are tight. It costs a bit of money to fly employees out and put them up in hotels. And this I can sympathise with. I do not expect my employer to be my patron. I do work for him, he pays me a salary, and that is that. But surely good management realizes that if you invest in your team it will pay off?

English; too many Japanese have either no English speaking abilities or are too shy to use them. This is a wider problem as Japan’s economic competitors are surely getting the edge. But it doesn’t really make sense, as things stand now, to send a group of programmers over to GDC if they won’t understand a word of it.

Underestimating Gaijinland; I often get a sense that even if companies are aware there is a market and development community outside of Japan they underestimate it. The English speaking development community is many times larger than that of Japan so a free exchange of ideas as you often see there is wasted here; they are missing out. The market too is many times larger, especially in North-America. Japanese titles can sell up to 10 times as many units in the Americas than they do back home and still companies make games for the Japanese market alone, with localization as a mere afterthought. So why send people to E3 or GDC? We’re Japanese. The Japanese market is the important one!

It is all slightly baffling and more than a little frustrating. If they ever do send you abroad don’t be surprised if your main ask is to be the babysitter, to lead a pack of colleagues through a strange and foreign land where people speak funny.
I have made many efforts to be allowed to visit the Tokyo Gameshow this Friday, and it seems I have succeeded. Strangely, though, it is not yet certain if they’ll “allow” me to go. Even back home it was understood that everybody went to ECTS, even as it was plummeting in importance. You could opt out, but if you wanted to go, well, you went; it made sense to go. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Japan.

Sure, I am very busy and deadlines need to be met, but this is one event, once a year that I think as many developers as possible need to attend, just to catch a glimpse of the competition. I think I am the only one in my team to go.

No smoke without a cigarette

If you are one of those people that explode in a disproportionate, frothing moral outrage at the mere mention of cigarettes and are planning a move to Japan you should either cancel those flight tickets or bring a lifetime’s supply of blood pressure medication. Though very slight steps have been taken to remedy this recently Japan is still very much a smokers’ paradise.

So far one major area in Tokyo has outlawed smoking on the streets, with a few others placing “no smoking please” street tiles and signs here and there. Though they usually have a small army of geriatrics in uniform patrolling those streets and tapping smokers on the shoulder they don’t yet have the legal right to make you pay fines as has happened in the one government district. My initial thoughts were that this was just another of those job creation schemes for old people; do we really need an old biddy standing next to an escalator all day saying “please take care as you step on the escalator!” or have a small band of them waving miniature light sabers to direct traffic around traffic cones?

Restaurants where the smoking section is in any real measure separate from the non-smoking section are very rare. Places where no smoking is allowed at all only exist in legend and myth. I think only Starbucks refuses outright to let people smoke inside, which is exactly why Tully’s and Excelsior are such superior coffee shops.

Standing ashtrays, kiosks and vending machines are a dime a dozen and tobacco is cheap in Japan. Even after the recent tax “hike” of 20 to 30 yen per packet it is still only an average of 300 Yen (2.5USD, 2 Euro), half that if you buy them duty-free at the airport. The range of choice is staggering too; there are many curiously named brands, all trying to exude class and style with English words as only the Japanese can, and strengths range from the usual 12mg of nicotine to a staggeringly low 1mg. Some designers even won a prize (or was it a mention) for their fabulous series of cigarette packets, in plain colour with simply a letter on the box and a very neat opening mechanism.

So non-smokers had better be the tolerant kind as even I, as a tolerant smoker, am sometimes shocked at the attitude of some in Tokyo. I have often been burned by the cigarette tips of people smoking and freely swinging their arms about. I am still shocked when I see a gaggle of young mothers wheel their babies into the glassed-off smoking section at my favourite coffee shop..
A recent hilarious ad campaign by Japan Tobacco didn’t do its job in teach smoking manners, I’m afraid.

Smokers have an added advantage too, which is the same as back home: it is much easier to bond and befriend your colleagues in the smoking room than at their desks. You’ll integrate easily and maybe even learn some vernacular, something which schools usually don’t teach. The best company gossip is also heard around the ashtray,!
Many parents, government health organizations and rabid anti-smokers will hate me for this, but smoking has definitely eased my stay in Japan.

The Great Japanese Housing Rip-Off

If you decide to move to and work in Japan it is not unlikely you’ll need a place to stay. Though this is always a rigmarole, in Japan there are certain issues you’ll need to be aware of.
Housing comes in several shapes and forms; from an actual house to the more likely apartments, called either “apaato” or laughably “mansions”, or dorms and gaijin houses. The latter two I’ll discuss a little later on, but first let’s look at getting your own place.

Flats are smaller than in the west, yes, but they needn’t be the 1 room tatami boxes you may have seen on television. Sure, they exist and are cheap, but you can also splash out on a semi-affordable places with a kitchen and bathroom.
The size is usually denoted with a series of letters. “K” meaning kitchen, “”D” meaning dining area, though these are usually part of the kitchen, “L” meaning living room and preceded by a number which indicates the number of rooms. So, e.g., a 2LDK is an apartment with two rooms, a dining/kitchen area and a living room. A 1K is one of those 1 room studio flats with, what in the UK would be called a “kitchenette”.
Rental places are more often than not unfurnished, not even including a fridge or washing machine.
Sizes are either mentioned in square meters (Japan is metric) or tatami sizes. (1 tatami = roughly 1.8 square meters).

If you are going to use a realtor you may get your first glimpse of outright racism. On information sheets about the apartments there may be certain restrictions like “no pianos” or "no pets”, but sometimes even “no foreigners”.
If you find a nice place you face the titular rip-off: advance, key and gift moneys. Unremarkably you’ll need to pay some rent in advance, usually around two months’ worth. On top of that there is a thing called “key money”, which is basically a deposit, again usually two months’ worth. In an ideal world you’ll get some of this back, but don’t be surprised if it all goes down some drain. But you also have to pay “gift money”, a token amount you give to the landlord as a thank you for letting you rent his apartment; again usually two months’ worth – this you will not get back!
So before you can move in you are likely to have to slap down 6 months’ worth of rent. Say your monthly rent is 100,000 Yen (850USD, 670 Euro) you’ll need to slap down 600,000 Yen (5000USD, 4000 Euro) before you even get the key. This can be quite a chunk of money, as you can see.

You’ll also need a guarantor, someone who will vouch for you and who will cough up the dough should you be unable or unwilling to pay the rent. Don’t worry, this part is not a racist thing; the Japanese have to contend with it too.
Ideally the guarantor is a professional Japanese male. Pretty much nothing else will do. There are companies hat will be your guarantor for a fee, which is throwing bad money after worse, or you can ask your boss to be your guarantor, but that would tie you to the company and makes changing jobs very difficult.

There are realtors that cater specifically to foreigners, ones that dispense with key and gift money and ones that don’t require guarantors, but they are few and I have no idea what their prices or the quality of their apartments are.

Some things you need to think of:

1. What is the age of the apartment building? Older mansions can be a bit dirty and cold. Newer ones are better but there was a scam uncovered recently of builders cutting costs and building under spec.
2. Location is important. The further out of Tokyo you go, the cheaper the nicer places will be. Be sure you don’t live too far from your local train station as that can easily had half an hour to your commute.
3. Does it have all mod cons? Make sure the bathroom and kitchen are up to scratch and if it isn’t included buy yourself an air conditioner as soon as you can afford it; Tokyo summers can be unbearable without one – seriously, a fan won’t do. Also make sure there is a connection for a washing machine inside; some older apartments still have them next to the front door or on the balcony.
4. Are there no hidden costs like building upkeep fees?
5. Do you want parking? Occasionally apartment buildings do offer parking spaces but only if available, and it will not be cheap!
6. Do you really want tatami? Sure, it’s nice and comfortable to loaf on, especially in the summers, but they require a bit of maintenance and if dirty can harbour creepy crawlies.
7. Check which cable company supplies your area or apartment block; this is especially useful if you want to get a fast cable internet connection.

I am going to assume you’ll be renting apartments, as houses, though possible, are in far shorter supply and could be more expensive.

But are there alternative? Sure, you could stay in a gaijin house. These are usually dorm style affairs with a private room but shared toilets and kitchen. The real plus is that you won’t have to worry about guarantors and gift money, but on the other hand, it is a dorm, usually inhabited by other foreigners. I’ve heard some real horror stories about these places but they can also be nice. Best to shop around first if you plan to use these.

Then there are company dorms. Some of the more traditional corporations have dorms where new hires are sometimes required to live, even if they already have a house and family. It may be a good deal for any incoming foreigners, but it all depends on how institutionalised you are willing to get.

So what can you expect to pay for a place of your own? Well, prices vary enormously. Obviously the further out of the center you go the more affordable it gets but even then there are “popular” areas where prices can still be high. I think it’s safe to say if you’re paying 100,000 Yen per month for a small apartment in central Tokyo you’re probably getting ripped off. But you could pay 100,000 to 150,000 Yen per month for a nice family apartment further out. Or you could be cheap and pay as little as 50,000 Yen a month for a cardboard box-sized apartment in central Tokyo, or a whopping 3 million yen a month for one of those swanky places in the new Roppongi Hills area. The latter is, of course, reserved for the rich and profligate.
The key is to shop around and try several realtors before you make a final decision. By the time you have moved to Japan things may have changed and it differs from area to area so I can’t really be more specific than this I‘m afraid.

If you’re planning on buying a place, well, that’s a whole different Hell. Bank loans, mortgages, paperwork, your undesirable status as a foreigner, that requires a post all to itself, but sadly I am not the one to write that, so you may have to check elsewhere.

Blog rejigging

Now I have a few posts up and a slowly growing number of returning visitors I though it was about time to make this blog look and act a little better.
I have switched to Blogger Beta and plan to add categories for the serial posts and maybe a bit of eye candy here and there. Blogger Beta is, as the name hints, still in beta so my apologies if things go a bit awry occasionally as I rejiggle and hack away at it over the next week orso.

Response has been very good so far, and I'll endeavour to keep standards up and post as regularly as I can, but with a looming crunch you may encounter the occasional, shall we say, lag.
Remember to post comments if you have specific questions or suggestions for future post subjects. I may add an email contact address at some point to be used as a suggestion box.

- JC

Gamesmanship - part 6

S is for Japanese

The amateur gamesman, new to Japan and its language, has little problem coaxing compliments out of the natives by virtue of his low-level Japanese abilities. Merely saying “hello” or “thank you” in Japanese is enough to illicit gasps of awe and much back slapping. Once your Japanese ability increases however, so does the level of criticism to the extent that you won’t receive any compliments until you are a native level speaker.

For the gamesman with a mid level grasp of the language there are some techniques to exude an image of being “pera pera”, which means “fluent”, without actually being so.
Many of the traditional exclamations and greetings used on a daily basis end with the syllable “su”; like “ohayou gozaimasu”, “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, “shitsurei itashimasu”, etc.You will find however that the Japanese focus all the emphasis on the last syllable while skimming over the rest of the word. So by mumbling incoherently and ending with a sharp “S” sound you can pretend you are offering the correct greeting or response to any situation even if you’re not sure which it is.

See for example:
“Excuse me, Mr. Gaijin-san, can I pass?”

"Ah, Mr. Gaijin-san. I have some important work I need you to do by tomorrow!"
"Oh well, maybe someone else can..."

The added bonus is that mumbling like this is slightly haughty and will thus dissuade the recipient from engaging you in further conversation, leaving in stead with the impression of having talked to a master of the Japanese language. They will talk about how good your Japanese is behind your back simply by accentuating the "S” and not much else besides.

The cast – 2. The artist

The very first thing you need to know is that artists are called differently in Japan. They’re either “designers”, “cg designers” or occasionally “graphicers”; it differs from company to company. Video game designers should browse the recruit pages for “planners” but more on their discipline in a later post.

Of all the different jobs in video games art is probably the easiest for a foreigner to get into. It being largely visual a lot can be communicated with sketches and simply pointing at the screen combined with some elementary body language. That said, a complete non-speaker won’t do at all. You still need to communicate with your leads, read design documents and attend meetings. It is just that you can get a lot further with crappy baby Japanese, as I have.

Your day to day tasks won’t differ tremendously from what you did back in the west, with maybe a little more emphasis on the detail often at the cost of larger looming issues. You may find yourself redoing assets a little more as someone higher up changes their mind about something seemingly trivial.

You will probably also need to have a personal relationship with the programmer who is coding that part of the game you’re creating assets for as they tend to hard-code things over here. Slight changes may have to go through a bit of a process before they can be implemented or checked. This is a little tedious and very wasteful but it’s just one of those things.

You’ll be using the same software as you always have. Maya is the norm at most companies, with a few using 3DSMax or even XSI. Maya’s menu is all English and 3DSMax comes with the English version so you can choose which to install. XSI I’m not quite sure of, but that may be in English too.
Adobe’s programs are all localized though and with ever so slightly rejigged menus this can be a bit of a pain. You’ll get used to it quickly enough though, but knowing the kanji for “saturation” and “blur” may be useful if memorizing their positions in the pull-down menus is impossible.
I had never used Optpix before I came to Japan, and really I’m not using it now, but occasionally you may have to learn some new software which will be in Japanese only. If you’re lucky some friendly colleague can walk you through the basic steps, but you might have to hunker down and plough through the manual at some point.
Tools will be in Japanese only. Exporters and converters, all that, are made in-house usually, but will often come with some explanatory emails or text files so figuring these out won’t be that much of a problem, though it may take some time.

Scheduling seems to be an arcane magic used irresponsibly over here. Often the lead or producer will dictate some date based on release and submission and not on what the team is capable of. At the same time, of course, they expect high standards. You may find yourself grinding into a crunch a little earlier than you did back home. It is avoidable if you use, what I call, “pre-emptive designing”. With a little experience you’ll learn which things will change, usually, so building assets with those inevitable changes in mind will save a lot of time. Or when you know the design will change at some point, don’t waste your time creating something perfect. Create something “good enough” and reserve some time for later to make it “perfect”; chances are that time won’t come as it’ll be trashed or completely overhauled before then.

As for quality, no the Japanese are not naturally better at creating art. You’ll probably work with some inspiringly great artists but you’ll also find yourself covering for some terrible no-hopers. Incompetence is a global problem. So be confident! If you feel you’re a good enough artist don’t put yourself down; you’ll probably be good enough for Japan too.

(I notice I sometimes repeat myself in these posts, but for completion’s sake I think I should mention salient points again where necessary)

My favourite archetype

There is one particular type of Japanese person that is universally reviled and despised; the old geezer, the “oyaji” salaryman. Usually well into their 50s, they wear ill-fitting thread-worn suits, have appalling manners and bodily odours and move along the streets with all the grace of a cheese-wheel made of toads. Hated by their estranged wife and children, bullied by their bosses they go through life from one day to the next with nothing to occupy themselves with other than getting drunk and letching at young girls.

This post is, in a sense, an ode to these warriors of the urban jungle.

Why sympathise with these odious monsters? Imagine their lives for just a moment: married when still a young and virile man to a surrogate mother-figure, once they propagated their genes their only remaining task for the rest of their lives is to provide. Every month they hand their entire paycheck over to the wife who organizes the household. They work long and tedious hours and climb up the career ladder, if they’re lucky, as high as super-vice assistant under manager, and shuffle paper while a younger and more successful boss breathes down their necks.
Because of their work they never see their children until they are old enough to stay up late enough to catch a glimpse of him as he stumbles home from a mandatory night out with the boss. They don’t know him and are embarrassed by his bad jokes and dress sense.

Never having learned etiquette and now finding there is no need to, they smack their lips while eating, open mouthed. They dispense with showers, deodorant or any other method that combats the effects of body rot. Their waistlines spread out like a grease stain, and they take up golf, often practicing their swings in public with pretend clubs.

In a recent trend older women, just after all the kids have married and left the home, have divorced their husbands, leaving them alone and totally incapable of looking after themselves. Home-ec schools for the mature man have enjoyed a bit of a surge in popularity, as many suddenly single old geezers realise they don’t know how to boil an egg, wear a suit, operate the washing machine or how to make water appear out of a tap.

So the next time you see one of these Gods amongst men hanging from the straps in he train by both arms, looking around him with a bored, dead look in his eyes like a former alpha-male gorilla surveying the band and all the younger females he’ll never get to mate with, think to yourself “there but for the grace of God” and enjoy your youth while you have it; for this valuable lesson we must be grateful and respectful to these empty husks.

Wholly Writ

What, exactly, is Famitsu? You may have heard of it referred to by Western magazines and websites, often with gushing, reverend tones and its reviews etched on stone tablets and spread to the masses.

Famitsu is Japan’s most read gaming magazine. It purportedly has a circulation of 800,000 but that is an unconfirmed figure on the hardly reliable Wikipedia website. But a Hell of a lot of people read it.

Its breakdown roughly goes like this: a handful of pages in the front deal with actual industry news; game shows, interviews about new consoles, etc. Then there are but a few pages with reviews. These you have probably heard of. Four separate reviewers each give a 1 to 10 score to a game, which is then totaled to give a final score, with extra “awards” for the higher scoring titles. Then there is a tiny column where there are opposing views on recently reviewed games. A few pages on upcoming games, with a half-page to two page spread for each, depending on its importance. Next follows a whole lot of pages with adverts and the occasional comic strip. A few more pages on upcoming games. Maybe some play guides for the first parts of recently released games. On occasion a little booklet stapled in the center, with a more detailed play guide for a very popular game. More adverts. Some pages dedicated to more niche games (though never overtly adult stuff). Some fan-art. More adverts. And that’s about it.
So it’s a fairly big pill to be released each week, but the actual reviews only take up a tiny fraction of that.

So why is it so popular? Well, in Japan it has somehow established itself as the main source for gaming news. It may be due to the fact Japan hasn’t got an on-line community as vibrant and loud as the west has. There are plenty of magazines out that that copy Famitsu’s style, and even layout, but none of them seem to make quite the same impact.
Indeed, at work everybody reads Famitsu. The company usually gets a few copies in before it’s released and they are read by most. Getting a “gold” or better review can even result in the producer (not the development team of course) receiving a small cash bonus from his employer.

Why it is so popular a reference in the west is a bit more of a mystery. It may be the number one source for Japanese gaming news for some, though some websites and forums would do that job better. It must be said, though, that many publishers still use Famitsu as the first place to announce new titles and show screenshots and concept art.
But why their reviews are considered so authoritative is a little silly. It’s like the Japanese considering the EGM scores as Holy Writ; it’s just some people offering their opinions, is all.
It has even been alleged there is a strange correlation between review scores and the amount of advertising space a publisher buys in the magazine, though I wouldn’t make such a suggestion as that could be libelous. It would certainly explain some of the scores my games have received in the past.
It could simply be the old stereotype of the Japanese being better at anything to do with games, and therefore their reviewers must be a cut above the rest too. It’s ludicrous, of course. And even then, gaming tastes in Japan are so mind-bogglingly different that the actual scores are pretty much worthless to your average Western gamer.

Still, I’ve had some of my work appear in the magazine a few times and it is always a bit of a thrill; partly because you know so many people will be seeing it, but to be honest, it’s the same kind of thrill I always get once the game moves from the secretive to the public domain; it somehow solidifies it and makes all the hard work just a little more worthwhile.

I’ve got nothing against the magazine at all; it’s a pretty good read. I am just baffled by the fact so many people in the west hold it in such disproportionately high regard.

Pokemon 10th Anniversary Concert

According to a Club Nintendo newsletter and this website Nintendo are celebrating Pokemon's 10th anniversary with a lavish concert at the end of this year. Tickets are distributed by lottery to those Club Nintendo members who register any of the Pokemon series of games by Monday the 25th.
Club Nintendo often has campaigns that offer free gifts above and beyond the regular points system and are usually quite fun or useful; from a fluffy toy cow for the Harvest Moon series to a two-cart DS case specifically for those that registered the Kanji dictionary and Eigo zuke games. But a concert of Pokemon music? Hmm.

The cast – 1. The studio boss

In a new series of posts I hope to highlight a few of the differences between developer roles in the West and Japan. Now obviously I can’t tell you how to be a boss, though having more money than sense seems to be a minimum requirement, I can hopefully shed some light on the role your boss will play in your everyday working life.

There are, of course, as many different types of boss as there are bosses and each studio head will have a different approach and relationship with his staff.

One noticeable thing is that there is a gap between the staff and the boss, which can sometimes be less noticeable at smaller UK development houses. He is always referred to as “(name)-sacho”, never “(name)-san”. Even when out drinking the boss can act like one of the lads, get drunk and embarrass himself at karaoke, but there will always be a palpable sense that he is your superior, no matter how pally he gets.

When it comes to the projects I found the bosses back home were a little more distant. Aside from publisher and producer interference, it was left up to the leads and designers, with the occasional nudge to keep the project in line with company direction. In Japan the boss will often decree changes over the heads of the team leads, art director and designers. To ask for “more cowbell” is one thing but to demand drastic changes on a whim can seriously affect the schedule and game design. Often these decisions seem arbitrary or obtuse, but it’s something you’ll have to get used to.

Though I don’t have any hard figures to back this up with it is said bosses in Japan make a lot less money than their Western counterparts. They do, however, have access to the company funds, so they’ll still turn up in expensive cars and clothes. How this all works is a bit of a mystery to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some suspect tax maneuvering is going on.

If you’re lucky you’ll get one of those bosses who worked his way up; who created some classic titles and runs his studio like an auteur. That can be a very inspiring work situation. If you’re unlucky you’ll get a boss who is backed by old money and runs the company like his personal vanity project with seemingly little regard for long-term business plans.
Also, the previous role of the boss can have a serious impact on how the company is run. If the boss worked his way up from being an artist you’ll find the artists in his company rule the roost. If he was a programmer, than his programmers are his darlings.

All in all, what kind of boss you’ll end up with is always a bit of a gamble. Just be prepared to deal with his influence on the project in manners you aren’t used to in the West, for better or for worse.

Gamesmanship - part 5

Sarcastic? Moi?!

Considering their long-lasting love affair with all things American it is rather appropriate that the Japanese do not grasp the concepts of irony and sarcasm. Both being mainstays of British social intercourse in Japan they merely confuse and confound and hence are powerful weapons in the gamesman's arsenal.

When confronted with obvious or rhetorical questions be sure to answer sarcastically or ironically. E.g. if you’ve been to the hairdresser’s and a colleague asks “Oh, you’ve been to the hairdressers” simply answer “no, I haven’t!” Your colleague will be honestly confused with your answer as it is obvious to him you have had your hair cut.
Let the matter rest for a while and bring up the subject a little later. “I read in a magazine, while I was at the hairdresser’s yesterday, that…” Your colleague will probably not take you up on this but you can rest assured you have portrayed yourself as a mysterious and unfathomable foreigner who stands had and shoulders above the cross-cultural incompetence of your target.

A giant leap for one man - part 7

Interviews are unnerving at the best of times, let alone when you’re also facing a culture and language barrier. I’ve only had a few Japanese interviews so far and given a few but they all seem to follow the same basic principles. It’s nothing shocking or different but armed with a few pointers it should make the whole process a little easier, hopefully.

Firstly, Japan is a country where business is still conducted in a suit. Developers luckily don’t have a dress code, but the sales and marketing sections usually do, as do the financial and HR divisions. When going for interviews it is not unusual for developers to don the old whistle. This isn’t strictly necessary these days, because, as I mentioned before, developers don’t seem to stand on ceremony so much and also because you’re foreign. Unless you have some particular aversion to looking presentable, why not wear a suit? It’s one of those little things that show your potential employer you understand and are willing to play by their rules.

Be confident! It is not uncommon for an interview to be conducted by a small group of people. The very first interview I had in Japan was scary as Hell, as I was on one side of the table facing 4 suited businessmen and 3 development staff simultaneously. This was a little extreme but expect three, four or even five people to interview you. It may be a little more as people may want to join in to have a look at the foreigner.
If the boss cares to make the time he’ll be there, as well as the producer, team lead and maybe one or two of the members of the team you would join.

Unless you’re extremely confident or fluent I’d start the meeting off with an apology for not being too good at “keigo”. This is the higher level of polite Japanese which is so archaic and difficult that even Japanese people don’t know it well until they get to a management position and will have to start using it to clients. I remember laughing at a recently promoted colleague studying a book on “keigo”. No one probably expects you to be fluent at this point, but you don’t want to embarrass or insult anyone. A quick warning of our incompetence in this field at the start will elicit a response along the lines of “don’t worry about it!” which should put everyone, not least yourself, at ease.

They will ask you to give a “self introduction”. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been semi-formally introduced to anyone without the need for self introduction arising. So practice this at home and it’ll be useful for many occasions, as well as giving an impression that you’re better at Japanese than you really may be.
Things covered by this introduction are very basic: name, age, country of origin, job description, where you worked before. That’ll probably suffice. You could add a little more about previous projects, when and why you came to Japan, but don’t make it a long monologue; that’ll be boring and arrogant.

Another question they’ll sheepishly ask is, um, you know, how you feel, like, um, you know, overtime. The correct answer to this is, of course “Oh, well, if you pay what the Japanese Labour Laws dictate I’m fine with it” This of course butters no bread. The best answer you can probably give in this situation is “well, all part of the game, innit?” and keep your fingers crossed behind your back.

Your salary discussions usually don’t happen at the interview, or at least not in front of the staff. You may have a private chat with the boss about this. I would recommend you fight tooth and nail at this point to get a salary you’re happy with because it’ll be almost impossible to get a pay rise at a later date. Keep in mind the bonus scam I wrote about earlier when calculating your desired income. Also, if it becomes a bartering session expect it to take some time. Decisions, if made at all, are glacial at best. Don’t let that deter you though; the time for this is now.

If you’re very lucky the company will provide a translator; usually someone at the office who speaks English pretty well. Though this is handy if you want to discuss the finer details of your contract but for the main part of the interview you should really be able to speak Japanese only. At the very least it should be a test for you; if you manage an interview in Japanese your ability is sufficient, more than, to do your daily tasks.

If you want a promissory note before you quit your current job, if you are in such a position, be sure to ask for one. I don’t think these are sent out automatically.

Keep in mind that if you get to the interview stage you have already come very far. There are many things that can put an employer off hiring foreigners but they decided to bring you in for a chat; that is promising. You probably have a lot of good experience or a great portfolio, so try to be relaxed and confident; don’t stress too much.

Good luck!

Behind the curtain

Japan is obsessed. As a Brit I respect whatever people get up to in the privacy of their own basements, but the Japanese like women’s naughty bits. And what is more, they love to talk about it, endlessly. It can be an uncomfortable time when at a drinking party your boss launches into his, what is known as “ero talk”. And without a doubt at one point in your stay in Japan the subject of your member, its size and shape will be broached、or, if you’re a woman, your chest, but that is usually observable and doesn’t require a grope for confirmation (tthough that never stops them trying anyway).
The Japanese are a proud nation and often like to tell you about the veracity and vicissitude of their own parts. “Us Japanese,” I was once told with a little too much gusto, “are always hard!”, accompanied by a fist thrust in the air. One wonders how they ever sit down. On television the camera often zooms in, entirely without shame or hesitation, on the bosom of some female “talent”. Many love hotels and soaplands line the streets of the major city areas. Old men browse their dirty magazines in public or on the train.
If you are of a delicate nature, Japan can be a very embarrassing place to be sometimes.

So it comes as no surprise that there are many adult game and DVD shops around. Even in regular shops there will often be an adult section separated from the rest by the impenetrable moral barrier of a small half-length curtain. Whereas Thursdays are usually the day of the week new games are released, Wednesday is the day for new adult games. These usually fall under the “board game” or “dating sim” categories; basically, any excuse to show pictures of naked manga.

One of the better kept secrets of the Japanese game industry is that many companies have at some point or other released a hentai game, usually under the guise of a shadow company. I can guarantee you have played regular games by a large company that have under a different banner cashed in on the easy hentai market, or the “sticky yen” as I call it.
And why not? It is very easy money. I was once shown, by a lamenting boss, a new release of a hentai mahjongg game. Imagine it: a simple mahjongg structure would require one or two programmers at most. Get one artist to draw and scan a lot of dirty pictures. Get one cheap intern to draw the GUI. One producer to claim all the credit. Once the basic game is done you can just recycle it with different dirty pictures. I am obviously guessing at the number of team members but it can't be many.
One such game, for PC, retails for as much as 8,000 Yen (approx. US$70, 55EU). Considering handheld games are about 3 to 4 thousand (US$25-35, 20-25EU) and console games 5 to 6 thousand (US$45-50, 35-40EU)that is a pretty decent profit margin considering the vastly lower budgets and shorter schedules compared to “real” games.
Show these figures to any company president and he'll be sure to consider creating hentai games to tie the company over in lean times. But so as not to sully the name of the company, they create a different company name to publish it under. Everybody happy!
Discretion forbids me to release some of the names of these companies and the real corporations behind them.

For those of you who wish to study these fringes of polite society I can heartily recommend a trip to Akihabara, where you’ll find an abundance of dodgy game and DVD stores, figurines, “hug pillows” and vending machines that spit out plastic capsules with tiny plastic hardcore bondage figures in them.
Either that or get a Japanese person drunk and you’ll be guaranteed a frank and shameless discussion on anything from size to preference, veracity to longevity. Be sure to memorise the name of at least one Japanese “talent” as you will be asked who you’d like to shag most. Don't worry about making a careful or truthful selection; they won't agree with you anyway.

Happy hunting!

A giant leap for one man - part 6

Writing a resume is a painful, difficult and necessary process for any job application, be it at home or in Japan. However, the Japanese have found a way to make it even more cumbersome.

The Japanese resume, called a "rirekisho", is usually a two page form, purchased at your local corner shop. You fill these in by hand, as apparently handwriting offers a window to the soul and personality of the appliciant. The information on these resumes is fairly basic, covering your personal information, educational background and work experience. Education is still held in high regard in Japan, so any formal degree you have will help impress your future employer.
A photo is attached to the first page, but these too have their own little rules. Preferably you'll be wearing a suit and tie (or similar formal clothes for women), you stare straight ahead into the lens and you do not smile. A mug shot is what it is, really.

Apart from the photo this information will be asked for frequently, on forms and those pre-application application forms on recruit websites mentioned in the previous "Giant leap" post. It would be a time saving device to write this all down in Japanese in a separate document so you can cut/paste it whenever needed.

The good news is that, as I've mentioned before, that Japanese development companies are usually a little more modern minded than your usual institutes and corporations. Especially as a foreigner you can get away with sending out US or European style resumes, typed or digital.
There are some preformatted Word documents out there that follow the Japanese resume design. You could, as I do, have separate English and Japanese resume documents you send out together for each application.

When it comes to content of resumes and cover letters follow the same rules as back home: keep it simple, short and to the point. Artists: do not "design" your resume. At this point your employer just wants to learn about your background and not be wowed by your DTP skills!

There is a reason to send in a "rirekisho" though. You should imagine your potential employer is still a little nervous about hiring a foreigner; you are an unknown and, well, we all know how all foreigners are bash troublemakers and such. Sending in a traditional "rirekisho", even though you may need the help of a wife or girlfriend to write one, at least shows the employer you are trying to understand and fit in with Japanese standards; you are not expecting special treatment.
Though I often think there is a lot wrong with Japanese game development and working practices you are not going to help fix things by being aggressively Western. You will need to compromise some and play their game to an extent. You will be in a much better position to change things for the better if your employer likes and trusts you, and one way of doing that is to respect and follow the Japanese rules as much as you can.
Writing "rirekisho" by hand for every application may be too much of a chore, but at the very least you could write a digital version of it to attach to emails. Every little helps.

Some digital "rirekisho" formats can be found here.

Gamesmanship - part 4

The smell of the new

It is sometimes remarked upon by foreigners traveling in Japan that the seat either side of them on crowded trains remain unoccupied. It is often mistakenly believed to be due to racism. It is in fact due to the morbid fear by the Japanese to be confronted with a situation in which they may be forced to speak English and thus embarrass themselves. The gamesman exploits this fear at all times to be assured comfortable transportation.

When traveling on trains the professional gamesman will exude an air of trourism by wearing the right apparel, shorts, T-shirt, sandals, sunglasses, and by appropriate actions, staring at the rail map above the doors, craning around at each stop to see which station he is at, by reading tourist guides and maps. At all times the gamesman must hide his mobile phone or act with standard Japanese commuter manners: sleeping, ignoring others, reading manga.
By showing the unlikelihood of Japanese speaking ability no Japanese person will dare sit next to you thus making sure you will have a spacious, comfortable ride.

A warning to the amateur gamesman: if you play this part too well you run in danger of being approached by a helpful commuter offering his services and help. At this point it may be useful to have studied some non-English sentences for "I'm sorry, I don't understand", be it Dutch, French, German or preferably Italian. This is no guarantee that the person won't try his damnest to help you out though, and thus this technique is only recommended for professional gamesmen or those with a lot of spare time on their hands.

Sony vs. Nintendo (feat. Microsoft)

If you look at this week's top 10 software sales chart, as reported on Gamasutra, you might be shocked to find all positions taken by DS games. Especially the much anticipated Final Fantasy III remake sold a staggering half a million units in its first week. Indeed, on its launch day there were queues at many stores reminiscent of new hardware releases.

So it would seem, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Nintendo has the Japanese market in its pocket. But does that mean the assured success of the Wii when it is released? Well, no. The proposed price point of the PS3 does that.

The Japanese market is notoriously difficult to fathom for us Western observers, so all the insight I can offer here is from personal observation and conversations with my colleagues and friends. This is not by any means a representative sample of the population, but could offer some insights nonetheless.

The PS3 is simply too expensive. Japan does have its fair share of gadgets and new technology, but at the same time it isn't a very cheap place to live. The bubble burst quite a while back and the economy remains in a slump. No one with kids, who are expensive to feed, clothe and school, and a wife and possibly older relatives to support, a mortgage and insurance to pay is going to be happy to slap down 60,000 Yen for a games console, even if it is supposed to turn into a media center. Ok, so they release is roundabout the time when Japanese companies pay their end of year bonuses, which will mean a lot of people will have some spare cash in their pockets. They may pull off a few sales in that period, but it looks a bit bleaker for the months after that when 60k is a big lump of any family's monthly income.

Nintendo, on the other hand, appears to be successful in its approach of offering novelty and innovation, rather than power. Japanese games sell well with a particular graphical style, rather than by being able to push a billion polys a second. Normalmaps, HDR, high definition don't really mean hat much to the local markets as they may do in the West.

The main reason the DS has triumphed over here is due o the fact Nintendo are offering the kinds of games the consumers actually want. I am reminded of the new year period earlier this year. In stead of Christmas Japanese kids get some money to spend in the new year, so this is an important period for retailers. Around that time Nintendo had the still new DS, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs and many more games. Sony was pushing its PSP with its new title: Talkman. It was a sorry sight to see the PSP stand empty and forlorn as hundreds of kids were clambering over themselves to get their DS kicks at our nearest Toys'r'us.

You may think everyone in Japan plays games all the time; this is a popular misconception. I only see a DS whipped out on the train about twice a week, usually by middle-aged salary-men. PSPs, on the other hand, I only spot about once a month.

So, Nintendo has "won" the mobile market. I'm loathe to make predictions on the next generation consoles, but if I have to hazard a guess, my money is firmly on the Wii. I don't think the PS3 will be an outright failure though; I'm sure it'll still have respectable sales in Japan but probably not as many to make Sony an undisputed victor.

And what about Microsoft in all of this? Ah, bless, poor old Microsoft. They are trying, really trying. They have made a much better effort with the XBox360 in Japan than they ever did with the XBox, and still it is right at the bottom of the sales charts there. To date I know of one colleague who bought one, only recently. When I ask others if they plan to buy one they don't say "it's too expensive" or "God no", they just sort of shrug and go "nah..."
Currently Microsoft are working closely with some Japanese developers to create some titles that will hopefully lure a few more consumers to its admittedly worthy console. Seeing as most of its library consists of Western games the XBox360 is losing out on a lot of draw due to the lack of interest in Western games in Japan at the moment. Should this ever change in the short term Microsoft will probably find themselves in a better position than Sony does right now. At the very least they seem to have a healthier attitude towards fixing the problems as opposed to Sony's tactic of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "it will sell, it will sell!".

Only time will tell. I do predict that the end of the year will be a very interesting period for all three major players, as well as the consumers.