Freeware Fun

It’s usually fairly easy to compile a list of games that are homebrew/freeware. The crop is vast and growing every year and the quality is often surprisingly high. What’s more surprising is that a lot of freeware games offer a kind of fun that a lot of commercial releases are lacking. The problem I face here, however, is suggesting a list of Japanese freeware games that you may or may not have heard of, but which you should check out nonetheless.

As I lamented before in a previous post homebrew, though alive in Japan, doesn’t seem to be so pervasive. Possibly because it is mostly in Japanese and so the only market is the paltry Japanese PC users one, limiting the amount of exposure usually offered to the western scene, where freeware games often, and rightfully, gain cult status,. If you read this blog it probably means you’re interested in games, Japan and Japanese games, so you might already know some or all of the titles listed. But if you don’t, do yourself a favour and check them out!

~ ~ ~

Cave Story by Pixel
Cave Story is a fantastic little platformer hat combines elements from classic titles such as Castlevania and Metroid. It’s a fairly long game but luckily it’s been translated by a band of loyal fans. It can get quite hard a little later on, which means that a decidedly average player like myself never got to finish it. What I did play was immense fun, though, with items and power-ups to collect and a variety of bosses to battle. The story is engaging if a little mad and the execution very tight.

Playability: The game was fully translated by some fans, so no Japanese worries here.

Download: here, or with the English patch here

~ ~ ~

Ikachan by Pixel
This earlier game by the creator of Cave Story, the eponymous “Pixel” is a very much simpler experience, but a lot cuter. “Ika” means squid, and as you probably know “-chan” is the sub-nominal social title given to the young or the cute. It is at its base just a platformer but that doesn’t mean it isn’t engaging. The environment is a little samey, the whole game map being set underwater and it isn’t quite as easy as latter-day platformers. The control is reminiscent of any thrust type game and works really well. A fun diversion.

Playability: As far as I know this game has been translated but you won’t need Japanese ability to play it in the original form anyway.

Download: here or here or here or at many other locations

~ ~ ~

Guardian of Paradise by Buster Hashimoto
As a die-hard fan of the Zelda series I am always on the lookout for action RPGs or action adventures. Sadly they are fairly few but this freeware game lists amongst my favourites. As a home-made game you have to admire the quality of the graphics and execution, though the story isn’t anything particularly innovative. The game also isn’t too long but enjoyable to the very last.
As the hero you travel through various worlds battling monsters and finding the various power-ups that open up new areas and a way to defeat the boss. The specific use of the power-ups is usually limited to the area in which you find them, with a final world where they are all combined to some extent.
This game is the only one listed that I actually completed and I remember feeling sad it didn’t go on for twice as long. That is certainly not a gripe about the length of the game, more a compliment to the skill of the developer in creating such a fun and free experience.

Playability: As some later puzzles require elementary Japanese I recommend getting the English translated version.

Download: here or with the English patch here

~ ~ ~

Akuji the Daemon by Buster Hashimoto
An earlier Buster classic was this little platform adventure that was both fun and engaging. As a cute daemon you travel a series of levels in search of that blasted hero that once defeated you. Expect a lot of platforming and some cool but not too challenging bosses.

Playability: An English patch exists but I couldn’t find a link to it on my first try. However, the game is playable without any Japanese ability if you don’t mind guessing at the story.

Download: here

~ ~ ~

La Mulana by GR3Project
This action adventure deliberately mimics the look and feel of an MSX game, which has quite a charm in itself. On top of that it is long, very long and hard, quite hard. A huge world spanning many levels, a vast array of weapons, items and cartridges to collect and enemies that quickly sap your stamina make for an old-school experience; meaning frustration, retrying over and over but, surprisingly, a lot of fun. The game has been fully translated, which is good as many of the hints you are given are quite vital. I can’t imagine working your way through this epic game merely guessing at what to o and when.
Be prepared for a long session if you ever plan to complete this game. I haven’t gotten very far in it, but what I have experienced just oozes charm and enjoyment. I guess it helps if you had an MSX to play with as a kid. Ah, nostalgia.

Playability: Get the English patch. Seriously.

Download: here or with the English patch here

~ ~ ~

How come all of these games are decidedly retro? I’m stumped. It could be because those types of games are easier to create, compared to fully 3D mega-epics, or maybe it’s just that the guys making them love their retro gaming. La Mulana certainly seems to be steeped in MSX loving. But don’t let that detract you; these games are fun and worth your attention!


Every developer will tell you that ideas are the smallest current coin in the game industry. If you have a great idea for a game don’t bother sending it out to companies because nobody’s interested. More importantly most companies are filled with eager and experienced developers and I can guarantee you that each and every one of those has a game idea sloshing around in their brains. As a result hobby game development by actual developers isn’t uncommon. However, as it has been said that “everybody has at least one great novel in them, but for most people that’s where it stays”, with homebrew projects the rarity of completed products is extreme. There are many reasons for this of course.

Firstly most of us are under a contract that usually includes a “every breath you take, every move you make, we own it all” clause. The legality of these is a hotly debated subject on industry forums, and I’m sure with a good lawyer your personal copyrights can be protected but that takes time and money. As a result a lot of home hobby projects are just toys or experiments by developers that don’t end up going anywhere. If they did the boss would jump in and claim ownership.
I’m sure a similar mentality exists in Japan but my contracts have never included the clause specifically. I guess it is expected of you to spend your free time at work rather than creating your own projects, so I guess there isn’t a problem there.

Another problem is that game development is very much a team thing; no single person can code, create art, music and design a whole game to an adequate level all by himself. Then there is the test phase, for which extra people are required, and even during the design stages you’ll want an independent observer to give you feedback or to pinpoint where things aren’t working well, as you yourself will be too close to the project to see everything clearly. So, you rely on other people a lot.
But what with it being a hobby project, which suggests that no money is involved, you’ll have to rely on the goodwill and passion of others to work in their spare time on your idea. This is an extremely difficult task and even if you do get a small team together you have very little to keep it there. When other people get busy at work or have more pressing personal things to attend to they’ll drop out, maybe just briefly, but it stalls the project and eventually kills it. Without paying anybody there is little you can do to demand action.

I myself have worked on three homebrew projects that failed. One was a point and click adventure game I designed, created and scripted all by myself using he excellent Adventure Game Studio. It all went really well until the game was 90% complete; all the basics were in place and it just needed the blanks and red herrings filled in and some code cleaned up. But that never happened; partly because I got busy at work and partly because the design wasn’t good enough for me to think it worthwhile to go that last extra mile. Another project was a test case where a programmer I knew and I wanted to do a remake of an old classic arcade game, with updated graphics and some extra design slapped on. The design was finished, I made it art complete and the basic code was in place; however, the programmer, working hard on some high-profile title, just got swamped at work and couldn’t muster the energy to finish it. I can’t blame him for that, of course, but it was a bit of a waste.
As if I hadn’t learned my lesson I started another project with him which got about 70% art complete before the same thing happened again.
I doubt the world is a poorer place for the lack of these games, but it’s still a shame nonetheless.
You must remember that we do this kind of stuff for a living, so the moment a home projects becomes “not fun” or “too much like actual work” it’s all too easy to throw in the towel. Where these personal projects do pan out it usually leads to the team becoming independent (i.e. quitting their jobs and releasing themselves from the tyranny of the employment contract) to create a commercial title, their commercial title. Indie development is a topic all of itself and one I am not qualified to address. I refer you to the many indie developer blogs out there, a few are linked from the sidebar.

My Japanese colleagues don’t seem to be that bothered about home projects. They each have their hobbies of course, but none of them has expressed an interest in homebrew game development. I’m sure there must be some out there, but generally I think my colleagues are glad enough to even have spare time without pissing it away on doing what they do at work. The real geeks in the office are exactly the type that go home and finish playing their 100+ hour RPGs or build robots.

I personally still have the dream though. I have some games in me that need making; it’s just very difficult to make them. And I’m not talking about “dude, I have this idea, like, it’s great! It’s like Final Fantasy but better!” No 60 hour game-play extravaganzas in my mind, but short simple games, two of them fully documented. All they need is a team, which I’m unwilling to gather. So I have no choice but to learn how to code. I have purchased my “C# for dummies” books, downloaded XNA Studio, all I need now is a significant amount of spare time and energy to get stuck in. And who knows? Maybe this time next decade one of my games will finally be finished. Best not mention those CG animations I want to create, those comics I plan to draw or that novel I want to write. Or that arcade cabinet I want to build, or those paintings I want to paint, or that semi-regular webcast show I dreamt up.

More inane ramblings about my wretched life

Life’s shifted into a definite low gear at the moment. The project is, theoretically, winding down. I’m always surprised how the end of a project never ends in a whiz-bang but a whimper; There is almost never a huge rush to go over the top but rather a kind of slow, boring decline into boredom until we are finally told not to piss about any further and that the disc is going into production. I’m now in that slow, boring phase.

I’m afraid to actually redo or brush up much stuff for fear of breaking something. It’s such a delicate little snowflake that the merest wrongly converted texture can lead to massive headaches. So I try to do as little as possible and only do those tasks directly allocated to me; change this texture here, just tone down the saturation of that texture there by 1%, etc. It’s mind-numbingly tedious stuff and I am more than a little bored.

I dare not do my own personal work as my monitor is broadcasting what I do to whomsoever wishes to cast a glance in my direction, and with my colleagues being as nosey as your average Japanese I fear being asked the question “oh, what’s that you’re doing there?” and having to explain, or lie about it. So I don’t and watch the clock in stead which has suddenly decided to run extremely slowly. I swear the average hour takes about half a day. I hate being bored.

Luckily my day gets filled in short bursts by the artist next to me. He’s fairly new to the industry but is showing promise. What’s more, he is actively learning new skills by himself and isn’t afraid to ask for help. He cunningly spends his weekends as a teaching assistant at a graphic design school so he can benefit from the lessons being taught, as well as earn some extra pocket money, though not much. He also has it in his mind that I’m an expert at Maya, which I certainly am not, so I can often wile away an hour or two teaching him techniques and methods.
At a previous company I made some extensive tutorials on using new technologies in Maya and games in general which were either so good that it answered everybody’s questions outright, or nobody read them at all. It’s good to see I can be helpful to at least one aspiring colleague. He is telling me I should teach but the prospect of losing my weekends is too much for me to bear, so I throw him the “but I don’t speak Japanese” line in Japanese.

I can’t take a short holiday yet, as I would like to, because I still need to be in the office every day all day in case some insidious little bug pops up that needs attention. “Oh, JC, can you re-export that model again?” Sure. That’s what I’m here for.

I’ve started surreptitiously shaving some time off my working day. I come in a little later each day but I’m still always the first one in. By my estimation I can come in as late as 9.30 and still be there when other people arrive. That’s a pretty good deal as the idea of me being there so early is a good thing to have in the mind of a boss. Unless of course he is logging my PC activity, which, to be honest, I won’t put past him. I’m also leaving a little bit earlier each day; not by much, as these things have to be introduced slowly. Soon I’ll be down to a 9 hour day without loss of reputation.

Traveling a little bit later in the morning has little noticeable effect; the trains are still too packed but at least I’m not quite as crushed as I would be on the slightly earlier train. Also, as it’s close to regular companies’ opening hours I get to watch that fantastic half-run a lot of people get into when they think they might be late. It’s a joy to watch as they show all the physical attributes that go with running without actually going any faster. I have often overtaken running people with my brisk walk. But appearances are important, I guess. Although, I can understand the art of the non-run in company time; if your boss looks over and sees you running, even if you’re not, it can only mean brownie points. But what is the use of non-running in the street on the way to work? Maybe it’s just habit.

Recently, in the morning commute I have come across this strange new smell; a kind of orange breath-mint mixed with stale sweat. It’s a little spiky and unpleasant but I have not been able to pin down who it is. I thought it may have been me, as I’m trying a new orange-minty toothpaste but after some extensive sniffing I have eliminated myself from enquiries. I suspect one middle-aged salaryman whom I’ve seen on a few occasions, but I haven’t been able to get close enough to test my theory. As you can see mobile phone Tetris isn’t really enough to occupy my brain with anymore.

Another new time-waster is DS/PSP observing; I count about 5 or 6 DSs a day in the wild. Aqua Blue seems to be the most popular colour. I have only seen one original, bulky DS recently, played by a sour-looking schoolboy. I can’t often see what people are playing, especially with the old design DS, but when I do it’s usually Pokemon. The types of people I spot with a DS is heartwarmingly varied; from school kids to young and middle-aged women to young and old salarymen; not that Japan ever had that much of an issue cracking that supposedly elusive “female market” that western PR people like to harp on about at length anyway.
In sharp contrast I only ever see about 2 PSPs a week. Usually the white version, for some reason, and more often than not it’s being used to watch video rather than play games. And it’s only ever men “of a certain age” who have them. Go figure.

You’d think with the extra time I’d finally be able to do some home hobby work, but no. Being bored all day is much more tiring than working hard. I usually do most of my hobbyist work at the start of a new project, when I’m all fired up and full of energy. The day may be long but by the time I get home I’m still full of adrenaline so I often work until late into the night doing my own thing. But these days I get massively tired by mid-afternoon and when I finally drag myself home I have little inclination to do anything but watch the telly or play some g…I mean, do competitor research. Maybe I shouldn’t have dug out Drill Land again for the post a few days ago; the addiction is renewed and I am having a hard time putting it down. And all the while some freshly downloaded Virtual Console games are still begging to be played with more coming along every week. Which reminds me: I need to buy another points card, probably with a classic controller included again so me and the wife can each have one for our Bomberman battles.

That, in short, is my life at the moment. I have some drinking engagements planned for the coming weeks which should at least give me some variation in the people I bore with the tedious stories of my boring life. It’s already the end of January. Sheez, where does the time go?

Due Process

As a developer I don’t like to focus solely on my own little corner of the industry; I try to get a view of the bigger picture, processes and business as a whole. This post is a bit of a ramble covering many obvious points and some bitterness so bear with me or ignore.

The process of creating a video game is obviously fairly complex; huge teams, complicated hardware and esoteric design issues all help make this business both interesting and frustrating. The course of a project is usually the same though; from preproduction, hopefully, through to prototype or vertical slice, milestones to the finished product. Below is my view of the perfect project, set out in a time to completion graph:

In the graph “content” means exactly that, and covers everything from art to music to front-end. In an ideal situation the code base is based on a previous project’s or an in-house engine that can be easily modified or built upon so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. A preproduction phase prepares for the content creation which ideally starts a little later, giving the content creators some time to either finish a previous project, take some time off or train, in-house, to remain competitive.

“Shippable” means that the game isn’t finished to the extent it was intended but what is there is playable and, well, shippable. “Complete” means it’s finished to the extent it was planned and “Perfect” means that the game is finalized to the satisfaction of the developers, not necessarily the publishers.
The steeper a curve is, the more chance of overtime, unpaid of course.

As you can see this graph represents the impossible: no mistakes, focused design that works the very first try, no bugs, no overtime. The programmers start with a solid code base from a previous project or in-house engine, the design starts up first and works towards a prototype which hopefully establishes all the major design points of the game. Art starts work on direction and technology and can make content to fit in with the technical specs the programmers deliver. At some point design is “finished”, leaving maybe only some low-level tweaking to do, which shouldn’t impact the content and code. QA starts early and keeps the team apprised of any bugs and issues as they crop up. The game reaches a level of perfection, on time and without overtime, and gets shipped as intended. Oh, and for bonuses everyone gets their very own moon on a stick.

The reality in the west, as I experienced it however, is more like so:

The code base to build on isn’t quite as solid as it should have been because the previous project was rushed. But there is something there, at least. Design continues throughout and results in a feature creep, Content and code are constantly effected by design changes and require some overtime to get fixed. QA starts at some point and delivers stacks of bug sheets. The publisher eagerly waits until the game reaches “shippable” level and then immediately ships it.
This is not too bad a process. It’s become the standard and though it could do with some tightening up it has produced some great game in the past.

In Japan, however, the situation would seem to be more like this:

Once the idea for the project is dreamt up everyone shoots off the starting line. Due to the hard-coded nature of most Japanese games there is little or no real reusable code-base so essentially a complete reset is required. Though design has hardly had a chance to get going, content needs to be created unless you are left with half a team bored out of their minds. So the art department shoots off and gets roped back down when the inevitable design changes occur. QA starts late and the bugs brought up by it cause further design changes and masses of overtime for all concerned. Once the game reaches “shippable” level people are too tired and don't care much about getting to “complete” and the game gets stuffed in a box and released.
For the higher quality games just imagine this graph continuing on in the same manner until the converging points meet up at the “complete” line. Those great Japanese games people love have the distinction for taking a lot of time to develop, compared to most Japanese games in general.
~ ~ ~
So what lies behind this mess? There are a few problems inherent in Japanese game development that I have noticed, and commented on before:
1. No scheduling.
Scheduling consists mainly of telling the team what needs to be done by when. It is not a two way street. The team is not consulted in the matter but is expected to deliver. And if your boss says that you have two weeks to build a level, he doesn’t expect a level of “two week” quality either, he wants a playable, good looking masterpiece.
2. Reliance on the "Japanese work ethic"
The staff won’t complain, at least not openly. They may grumble about not being able to see their kids during the week or the unhealthy lifestyle of MacDonarudo meals and overnight work sessions, but they’ll still do it. As a result nobody is ever punished for bad scheduling or decision making. And so the next project will be run in pretty much the same way.
3. Japanese planners
Here I must admit a bias; Japanese planners are almost entirely responsible for my embittered state, my growing discontent with the industry. It has often been said that the Japanese avoid decision making, and this is a BAD thing when it comes to planning. Pretty much all of the planners I have personally worked with have been utterly useless; the kind that doesn’t know what he wants until he sees it, and then still changes it. This causes a LOT of rework and changes, which leads to tighter deadlines, more overwork, etc.
4. Vague and undue direction
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles the boss has way too much direct influence on the minutiae of the game. He can go weeks or months without watching development closely and then call a meeting to demand changes in art styles, play mechanics, etc. Also with the lack of focused design content creators are often relied upon to use their initiative but are then not given the responsibility over the final product. So you’ll be asked to come up with an asset of sorts but when it’s finished you’ll be told to change this and that and redo such and such.
So you may be asked to “change those textures to make them more, you know, colourful.” And when you do they’ll say “no, I meant different colours than those.” Unless you know exactly what you are changing, what to and why there will be a lot of back and forth, a lot of redoing and, eventually, a lot of overtime.
~ ~ ~

What can be done to fix this?
1. Learn to schedule
Well, duh! Check with the people making the game what is and isn’t possible by what dates before signing that contract. That’s all there really is to say on the subject.
2. Get with the times!
Jobs for life are gone. Both the employees and employers must realize this and get in line with the times. Employers must learn to not blindly rely on the respect, loyalty and private time of their employees and employees in turn must not blindly give their respect, loyalty and private time to the employer. A little bit of looking after “number 1” is called for here. Why complain that you never see your kids but still work through the night? Why not stand up for yourself and tell the boss “no, it can’t be done on time with this schedule. I’m off home now.” Otherwise he’ll come to expect it and rely on it and not try to change things for the better.
3. Educate staff better
The reliance on cheap graduates may be a money-saver on paper but in reality it slows down the whole process. Spend money and time on properly training your staff and don’t be afraid to get rid of the chaff. Find or start a proper game design school in Japan where planners are taught how to make decisions and the fact that their many changes have far reaching consequences for the rest of the team.
5. Delegate responsibilities to the relevant parties
Bosses should not be afraid to trust the judgment of their staff. If you hire a coder or artist you presume a certain level of skill and quality. If you then take responsibility away from them and make all decisions yourself you degrade your employees to work horses causing a lack of interest, loss of motivation and a personal distance from the project. The best way to create a team is to have people with personal creative investment in the title, which, in my view, brings out the best in people.

These things will be hard to change though, if not impossible. Japan has a deep-routed cultural way of doing things in an indirect and roundabout way. It’s simply the way things are done around here, so naturally that seeps into the working practices of any company. I can sit back and just accept it as is, of course, and being an outsider there is some way of defending this point of view. But on the other hand with my outsider view it’s easier to spot where things could be improved, except that in cases like these it would require retraining for the entire populace, which, let’s face it, isn’t going to happen. Still, I can think about these things and write them up on my blog. You’re not required to agree with me.

~ ~ ~

To avoid comments like “well, it’s different here” I’ll add, as per usual, the caveat that of course not all companies are run like this and some actually do a pretty good job. Also I’d like to add that I’m not claiming this to be Truth or my solutions to be written with a capital “S”, but one thing is certain: Japanese companies aren’t very efficient and could do with some streamlining. Just because there is a modicum of creativity involved doesn’t mean we can’t have fixed hours, focused design and rigid scheduling. Or so I think, anyway.

Where’s Wally?

My boss has got his knickers in a twist. Apparently too often people aren’t at their desks and that is causing real problems with, for example, colleagues needing immediate attention to be paid to a particular problem or, probably, the boss not being able to call meetings on a whim.

The other day all the company’s smokers, yours truly included, were roped into a meeting to discuss this crippling issue. “We never know where people are!” was the complaint. “If you’re out having a cigarette and someone needs you he’s lost!”
Various solutions were thrown into the open but it quickly became obvious this wasn’t a smokers’ problem. “What about using the toilet?” someone asked. “Or if you pop out to the convenience store?” asks another. At this point the colleague charged with chairing the discussion realizes that maybe there is a deeper problem here.

A whiteboard is suggested where you can make notes if you leave the work-floor. “What, every time you go to the toilet?” Well, no, that’d be a bit silly. “But that never takes too long,” is the retort. “Neither does having a fag.” More reluctant head nodding. A board where you can move magnets with icons on next to your name for when you…
Look,” I say, “I have a very simple solution for this.” Heads turn expectantly, probably to see what the crazy gaijin will say next. “If someone isn’t at their desk it means they’re not at their desk! If you need someone for a meeting,” I pause for effect, “schedule the meeting in advance so people can be there on time.” The crowd nods in agreement and the chair person realizes this is probably too simple a solution. “But what if someone needs you to fix a problem?” “Tell them to wait 10 minutes.”

The audacity of asking meetings to be scheduled in advance…what was I thinking? At least my reputation is still fairly in tact as my Japanese wasn’t good enough to sarcastically suggest tracking chip implants. But the problem, and the meeting, was, as is the tradition, unresolved.

The very next day we have the same meeting. Apart from my input it was identical. It felt like I had been in a time warp. This time, though, the boss himself was present only to reiterate the outlining of the problem as it had been the day before. Again the meeting eventually ends unresolved.

For a while my smoking colleagues and I make exaggerated proclamations when we go out for a cigarette. “I AM GOING OUT FOR A CIGGIE NOW!” “OK, how long will you be?” “FIVE POINT SEVEN MINUTES!” “ALRIGHT!” “If anyone asks for me…” et cetera. Sometimes it’s surprisingly fun to see my colleagues go along with playing silly buggers.

In the end I stumble upon a solution of sorts. I quickly whip up a JPEG with a massive black “smoking” icon on it. When I go out I hide all my apps and open up this image in Windows image viewer. It nearly fills my massive screen so anyone who walks by can see it signaling to them that I am out having a fag. It’s hard to imagine how a simple image can scream sarcasm but somehow it does.

After a single use the guy that sits next to me taps me on the shoulder and asks me for a copy. He adds a little colour, a red and yellow to indicate a burning tip, and the Japanese text equivalent of “I’m ‘aving a fag!”. He starts using it. A girl from the other side of the office comes round and asks him for a copy. And before you know it I have created a new tradition. It’s a fairly passive aggressive one, but now the smokers in my office just show a burning cigarette on their screen when they’re out. And if that doesn’t answer the onerous “where are they?” question, well, nothing will.

Now, to make a “toilet” one.

Forgotten gems

Despite all my moaning and sulking about the general state of Japanese games and the, in my view, overblown view many westerners have, there are some absolute classics that many people should play but that have never made it across the language barrier. Usually these games were criminally unsuccessful but given the chance most people would enjoy them. At the very least people should give them a whirl. So far only the importing hard-core crowd has been able to play these but hopefully a few more people will look around for these woefully forgotten classics.

Guru Logic Champ (Gameboy Advance) Compile
This is, by far, the best puzzle game I have ever played. Created by the sadly deceased Compile this game never saw a western release.

The premise is deceptively simple: a board consists of a grid with blocks on it and can be rotated in 90 degree increments. At the bottom is your cannon which you move left and right. You can shoot blocks, if there are any spare, or suck up blocks from the play field. The aim is to fill the predetermined empty squares to complete a little picture.
Indeed, the first hundred orso puzzles you’ll have no trouble with this fun little game except for the occasional head scratching. But then there are another 200 odd puzzles to go and with the introduction of new elements, like holes, rubber blocks that bounce back your shots and heavy blocks that topple over an extra square when hit things will get immensely complicated. Soon you’ll be placing temporary blocks to block your shots and creating snaking walls to reach that one lonely empty spot.

Interspersed are useless but utterly charming little vignettes where the two duck-like heroes help some citizens with their problems, being a lost tap, dandruff problems that are causing traffic jams or fixing the dentist’s mecha-robot's drill-bit. You’ll find yourself playing just one more puzzle just to see what crazy thing they get up to next.
There is little replayability, apart from a fastest time ranking, but with over 300 puzzles you’ll get your money’s worth for sure. This is by far The Best Puzzle Game Ever Created.

The game has been, um, hommaged recently by Nuclide/Popcap as Pixelus, and though it’s a fun game in itself it doesn’t have the many obstacle blocks the original has and its art design, though cute, doesn’t live up to the utter insanity of Guru Logic Champ. A must for anyone with a brain that desires flexing!

Playability: The biggest problem will be getting hold of a copy but after that it’s Easy Street. The GBA and its younger brethren are not region locked and you can easily get by without Japanese ability. The menus are very simple and you’ll soon figure out which option means “restart”. The game saves automatically between puzzles and the tutorial is an easy follow-my-example type affair. Infinitely enjoyable!

Try it! There is a 10 level PC demo available here, as well as a review. There were about three separate demos at one point but I cannot track the other two down. It was the same demo but with 10 different puzzles in each.

Kururin Squash! (GameCube) Eighting
Kururin was a special little GBA game that not enough people played. Kururin Squash is the home console version and though not noticeably different in essence it’s still a worthy purchase, especially as it was released at the mid-price range in Japan. The gameplay is as twitchy as the handheld original, where you move a rotating sick through increasingly elaborate mazes while avoiding the walls and other obstacles. An incredibly simple premise that leads to addictive twitchy and compulsive play

Though there is no multiplayer mode here, the game is a great single player experience with extra extended levels for those who want to dare try for the hidden key which in turn leads to special unlockable levels. There are boss levels, rail levels, upgrades for your vehicle, etc.
The graphics are as cute as you’d expect and the presentation fits perfectly. More peo;ple should play this as I am personally dying for a Wii version. I can just imagine how much frustrating fun that would be!

Playability: You’ll need a modded Gamecube or Datel’s Freeloader to be able to play it. The game itself is simple enough and none of the menus should be too difficult to figure out without Japanese ability.

Drill Land (GameCube) Namco
Though Mr. Driller isn’t unknown to western audiences this particular outing never made it to foreign shores. I once had a chat with a Namco localiser who told me he had begged his boss to let him translate this game; he would even do it in his spare time, such was his righteous love for the product. The boss, however, declined; as, with all things great and misunderstood, the game never sold well enough to even consider starting a localised version. This is too bad because this version is by far the very best Mr. Driller game of all.

One thing you need to know before I continue though is that this game is HARD, as in proper hard-core, hair-tearingly hard. But in a good way. Each game mode has four play levels, which I have termed “Difficult”, “Impossible”, “KILL ME!” and “Special”. As you can’t progress to the next level until you’ve cleared all modes of the preceding difficulty this “Special” mode has remained elusive to me so far. I think it’s simply an “unlimited depth, instant death” mode for all the different types of game.

The different play modes are as follows:
1. World Drill Tour: Your usual Mr. Driller type affair, except that you can use several different characters, each with their own very slightly differing stats which strangely leads to wildly varying play styles.
2. Star Driller: This is basically Mr. Driller Plus Alpha. The premise remains the same apart from some extra blocks that unleash special events or bonuses during play.
3. Drindy Adventure: The similarity to Indy doesn’t end with the name. In fact, there is a distinct flavour of the good old Rick Dangerous about this mode. You need to collect golden statuettes and make your way to the bottom while avoiding spikes and rolling boulders. This is probably my favourite mode.
4. Horror Night House: Another excellent variation on the theme. Ghosts fly around and towards you. You need to collect a bottle of holy water with which to freeze the ghosts in place. If you then drill the block they are in they will die and drop crystals. You need to collect a certain number of crystals to clear the level.
5. Hole of Druaga: This is possibly the most inventive re-imagining of the game. There are several connected pits to which you warp via doors. Your energy drops steadily so you must hurry and pick up items that are revealed when popping blocks. There are a whole host of items, some that give you energy, some that destroy a certain colour of blocks, etc. At the bottom of one pit is a dragon boss (BOSS!) which you must drill to death for the key to the final pit where the final boss awaits. This one can be defeated by destroying a large enough number of bricks at once, which is where the iems come in handy. All in all a difficult but fun mode.

When playing and invariably failing play modes you get given points which you can collect and trade in for extras, like extra lives or shields. Except that these only count for the level of difficulty you are playing. Once you progress to the next difficulty level you need to start from scratch, requiring a lot of replay if you need extra help to survive the increasingly impossible challenges. On top of that there are unlockable but useless items and trophies and a multiplayer mode.

Though there have been some excellent handheld versions of the game, this home console version simply shines out as the best. It even let’s you link up with one of the GBA games for extra unlockable fun.

Playability: You’ll need a modded Gamecube or Datel’s Freeloader to be able to play it. Though there are quite a few menus they aren’t hard to navigate and all but one of the game modes require no Japanese ability. Where it does, in “Hole of Druaga”, you’re stuffed, though, as the inventory list of items to use is in Japanese only. Still, with a little experimenting you’ll be able to find out what does what, eventually.It’s worth it for the overall experience.

~ ~ ~

With all the dross that does get localised and released in the west it’s almost criminal that these little gems were overlooked. That said, if it didn’t make financial sense to release it in the Americas and Europe all my fanboy gushing can’t really change the situation. These games weren’t bought by droves of people and I guess that is where the real crime lies. I supposed you can’t please all of the people etc. Do yourself a favour and try to find and play these games.

If I find a cheap second hand copy of, say, Guru Logic Champ I might organize a Japanmanship giveaway contest of sorts, but don’t hold your breath as I don’t really enjoy going to all the way to Akihabara.

Through the keyhole

The project is not quite done yet. There is ample time for more “last minute” changes and retakes, followed by a few weeks of boring little tasks, like re-exporting a few bit and bobs, testing and twiddling my thumbs. But it’s close enough to have a look at my Holiest of Holiest, my private area, my “never touch or mess about with”: my D: drive. As usual, and preferred by me, my harddisk is partitioned off into your regular C: drive, where I keep all the applications, plug-ins and whatnot, and a larger D; drive where I keep all the work. Part of this is for organizational matters, part for safety. If your system dies at least your work is relatively safe. I’ve also added a few other statistics, all compiled in retrospect from memory.

Space used: 21.1 GB in 4,223 files
This is work stuff only: textures, Photoshop files, models, exported data. It excludes texture libraries and reference materials. I save work in iterations as you never know when you have to take a few steps back and redo something. Or actually, no, you do know, it’s “at any given time”. Plus the fact that high-end 3D software can be terribly temperamental and you never know when a file refuses to load or a model just suddenly looses all of its attributes. Often when cleaning up models I like to start with a clean directory, just to have everything relevant together. So I have many copies of previous work in this state.

Oldest surviving asset: 3 months
Surprisingly some work I did 3 months ago avoided the whims of the designers and leads and remains in tact, as is. So you may ask what happened to the work I did in the months before that. Well, it’s all been reworked, some of it from scratch, some just heavily modified. It isn’t all a waste of time as naturally one model leads to another and certain textures are reused, making each iteration quicker to make than the last. Some of the work done in that time simply wasn’t good enough but mostly it became obsolete when the planner changed his mind about something.

Highest number of iterations: unknown
When I’m all fresh-faced and rested at the start of a project I keep close tabs on my work. I name the directories and files with version numbers. This lasts for a few months after which is just becomes too onerous. “map_v01” becomes “map_v02” up to “map_v09”, then “map_final” followed by a “map_final_v2” and a “map_final2_retake1”. Eventually the inner child in me gets the upper hand and directories get named “map_finalretake_v8_ourplannersucks” or “map_fuckthisshit_v8”. As such it becomes a little difficult to count iterations at the end. My guess is that one particularly troublesome asset has gone through at least 20 orso iterations and changes from the initial layout (based, I may add, on the planner’s design).

Average mouse movement/day: 3000 m
Average mouse clicks/day: 17500
Average keystrokes/day: 12500
According to Workrave, which I eventually had to switch off as its pleas for the health of my limbs became just too intrusive, the above is the average activity. It may not seem that much for the hours worked but it doesn’t count the time spent waiting for exports, testing my assets on the converter and fag breaks.

Average working day: 10 hours +
I say average, but this is the norm, really. In the busy periods it would creep up to maybe 14 or 15 hours but I always put my foot down at a certain point. I’ve posted about this before but I just become less functional after so much work and it’s a waste of everybody’s time, especially mine, if I work longer. During this project I have managed to limit my “overtime” somewhat. I worked weekends and a minimum of 12 hour days during November and December but when the promised end never arrived I gave up and reverted to my “mere” 10 hours a day, weekdays only.

Average number of cigarettes a day: 40
Yeah, I know, I know. But when you have long days you also have more time to smoke. And besides, I smoke the gayest, lightest cigarettes a dandy can buy: Mild Seven One, with a staggering 1 mg of tar and 0.1 of nicotine. It’s like breathing air but much much better of course.

Average crashes: undeterminable
I haven’t really kept count of this. Actual hardware crashes have been very rare, thankfully. Maya crashes about once a day and 3DSMax four orso times. I don’t really get on with Max, and it hates me too. That said, over the last year orso I’ve had to delete my Maya prefs about 5 times due to general strangeness happening, especially in the area of occlusion lighting. Sometimes it just gets confused and needs its mind wiped, pretty much like myself.

There you have it, a quick peek into my little world. One day soon this D: drive will be wiped and there will be nothing left but a few dozen megabytes on a production disc.

For the love of it

ACHIEVEMENT, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.
- Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Dictionary

If you ask me, and I strongly advise you don’t, I’d say a love for playing games is the worst reason you can have for joining the game industry as a developer. Similarly, a love for playing Japanese games is probably the worst reason to relocate to Japan to do the same. If you’re anything like me, poor thing, it will ruin your enjoyment of games, any games, possibly for the rest of your life. Okay, maybe that’s a bit too strong, but it will certainly change your perception.

When I was at college and developed my first photograph the sudden appearance of the image on paper as it floated in a bath of chemicals was a kick. Seeing other photographs became a study in technique. When I was taught filmmaking and editing things became a little more complicated. I started seeing the cuts and edits in other productions. Whenever an action line was crossed or a continuity error occurred it became poison in my eye. But when I entered the game industry I became privy to the Belly of the Beast, cut open and sprawled out in front of me; a sight I am unable to unsee ever again. Games were never the same. It’s a little bit like meeting a hero of yours and finding out he’s a prick, or loving sausages and visiting a sausage factory. Some things are better left unknown.

Since I have known the effort, politics and struggle that goes behind every game production playing games, though not quite torture, has been spoiled somewhat. Only a handful of games ever fulfill their potential; the majority never reaches that level it could have been if the harsh reality of economics and time weren’t an issue. Development shortcuts, asset recycling, gameplay padding all jump out at me with every game I play. As an artist I pay particular attention to those errors that relate to my skills; texture warping, bad UV layouts, tiled textures with seams, I see them all. And I know in the back of my mind some poor artist had to throw this particular asset together in a matter of hours as a deadline loomed or a last-minute change was required. In stead of playing and enjoying the game I am constantly on the lookout for these little slips.

And it spills over into real life too. Walking the streets I am constantly looking out for modeling issues. Ah, that building, I could do that in a 100 polys and a single 128 texture. Oh, I wouldn’t have put that wall there; a meter or two to the left and it would block out that expansive view behind it. Man, that little corner there is a collision model nightmare! How would I fudge that interior if I wasn’t able to use alpha maps for the window?

In my career I have been lucky enough to not really have worked on any games I like playing myself. Working on a title I would never buy means I won’t be confronted by all the mistakes and errors and shortcuts. I see the art asset and know it isn’t as clean as I would have liked, that it wasn’t the well crafted and organized piece of geometry I set out to make but that it turned into this Frankenstein’s monster of a hacked together piece of garbage because of the many changes that had to be implemented at the last minute. I know the original Maya file was obfuscated and slow, with unnamed texture nodes referring to files all over my hard disk. This doesn’t matter to the consumer, but dammit, it matters to me!
I thank whatever Deity there is that I have never worked for Nintendo, so I can still enjoy their games as I do. Luckily for me Nintendo feels the same way about me, as their rejection letter proves. In my nightmares I would stop playing Zelda because I am privy to and part of the inevitable development Hell that created it.

Another aspect of this is that I hate whatever I create. The moment something I do is finished it’s already not good enough anymore. This makes it very difficult for me to create a personal portfolio, as you can imagine. It goes with everything I do, including this blog. The moment I press that “publish” button I think “Oh flip, why did I do that? What a horrible, whiny waste of text. People are going to hate it.” Given an unlimited amount of time I would never finish anything. At work too I often find myself scrapping a few days’ work to start again from scratch, simply because I feel I have to. I work fast enough for this not to be too problematic in terms of scheduling.

Don’t think me a miserable old coot. I think it stems from an obsessive compulsive need for perfection, which, of course, is unattainable. The worst thing that can happen to a person is for him or her to realise his dream because that puts an end to the drive for it. I always set my sights too high and when it looks like I am close to achieving my goals I reset them; I move the goalposts just a little further, otherwise I become complacent and bored. A friend once told me I do my best work when times are hard, when I absolutely must do, and not when I have the time to pore over it with leisure. And she was right.

So if you are thinking of working in the Japanese game industry simply because you love playing Japanese games, beware! Think twice about it before you pack your suitcase. Knowing how things work on the inside may ruin your appetite, the very same drive that brought you here in the first place! Maybe, just maybe, it’s best to leave your view on the matter on that high pedestal and enjoy it from afar as much as you can. Or you could choose to not be such a preening ninny like me and enjoy your achievements as a sane person would, I’d imagine.

I guess this malaise was brought on by the looming end of the current project; apparently this time it’s real. The game is complete enough for me to look at it and see all the missed opportunities and the things I’ve created that really should and could have been better. And I know I’ll never play it once it’s finished. Familiarity breeds contempt, it is said, and I have spent a large enough chunk of my life in the company of this project to never want to see it again. Soon there will be the inevitable journalistic exposure where people either agree with me or have some strange, positive reaction. I found general gaming forums a pretty decent place to gauge public opinion amongst the so-called hard-core crowd. They all speak in hyperbole so you have to even out the responses a little. And there will be outright lovers and bitter haters of your game, which is a given. But in the end if even just a few people think it’s fun, or looks good, it’ll be somehow worth it. Not in a financial sense, of course, but in a personal sense.


Look, I’m no prude… Okay, maybe I am a prude, but I am certainly no homophobe. I just have personal space issues, okay? I don’t like being touched or people standing too close to me. I don’t like brushing up against people or squeezing through a crowd. I love bowing because it dispenses with the handshake and that, Lord forbid, cheek kissing some continentals like to get busy with. Obviously it is understandable that my commute on Tokyo’s packed train system makes me very nervous, but at least you’d expect me to be safe from all this at work, no? Well, no.

Colleagues in Japan can get very familiar on occasion. Possibly because of our bad postures, hunched forward peering at monitors all day, neck pains and stiff shoulders are quite common amongst developers. So if a Japanese worker spots a colleague in obvious distress he’ll saunter on over and give him a neck/shoulder massage. He’ll stand behind him and kneed his muscles while uttering phrases of support.

I know, I know, it’s a sign of collegial friendliness but whenever they try that with me I have to brush it off and end it with a “seku-hara!” joke comment. Just. Don’t. Touch. Me. Obviously these impromptu massages are not unisex; each gender sticks to their own, possibly for fear of real sexual harassment. It doesn’t help that I have also been keeping tabs on which colleagues don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, and who just rinses them in water for two seconds as if that would accomplish anything. I don’t like most people touching my keyboard for this reason, let alone my actual physical self! Needless to say I don’t go around massaging colleagues myself so I think they have slowly, and thankfully, worked me out of the loop in this tradition. Now if I can only stop them back- or thigh-slapping me.

Massages are quite popular in Japan anyway. I’m not talking about the kinds of “massages” I was offered on a daily basis on my way home by the Chinese and Russian girls lining the streets to the station, the ones the government has put a stop to over the last few years. No, the actual therapeutic massage. These places are easy to find as they always have signs outside with a roadmap of a foot’s sensitive areas, or a hand or back. For a 10 minute massage you can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand yen. It’s usually not expensive.
That said, even professional massages are a little too tactile for me.

Japanese for texters

The emoticon first made its appearance in the late 12th century and has since ruled the internet with its lopsided smiles, winks and tongue-waggery. Though it has successfully lent nuance to the typed message it still, to this day, requires the physical effort of turning one’s head to correctly see the resemblance to anything remotely facial. The Japanese, on the other hand, lazy rotters that they are, have developed their own version of the emoticon which both lends itself to a wide range of creative variations as well as removing the onerous head-turning aspects that have plagued our Western emails for so long. People who regularly visit Japanese sites will be familiar with these already, but it’s worth it to see a few of them listed.

Some of the more popular ones are fairly easy to use, even in regular ASCII and my mobile phone has, amongst a wide variety of graphical icons and emoticons a range of pre-made Japanese smileys. Some of the more elaborate ones require kanji or extended characters for the full effect. There is, however, no true rule book for the use and creation of these, apart from the use of the brackets to create the shape of the head. Anything else is pretty much do-as-you-please, as long as the end result graphically illustrates the emotion you are incapable of putting into words.
The basic shape, as you can see, is the open and close brackets forming the sides of the head. An underbar forms the mouth and a variety of symbols can be used for the eyes. Though not strictly necessary you can offset the face a little to give a 3/4th perspective, rather than a full-on head.

To add extra emotion just copy the little symbols you see in manga. Here, for example

we see two smiley faces, eyes closed but raised, happy eyebrows and a typical blush of happiness. The usual big drop of sweat, which denotes embarrassment or anxiety in comics can be applied too, like thus:

As you can see with the downcast eyes this emoticon is humbly bowing, sweating and saying “sorry!” Sometimes, of course, the face alone isn’t enough, so you can add characters for hands. If you are so deeply sorry that you need to prostrate yourself, show the hands on either side of the head resting on the floor.

To show support or general happiness there are a variety of cheering smileys. I think you’ll notice the forward and backward slash as upraised arms motif here.

I think that pretty much covers the basics. A few more examples:


Heh heh.


A bit miffed


Oh noes!



But my all time personal favourite is this:

I often have to stop myself putting this one in my emails’ signature file. The kanji forming the bird is “deko” which means bump, more or less. It’s one of the simpler kanji out there and it wonderfully illustrative.

As mentioned above, the Japanese emoticon is open to a lot of creativity, so experiment away!

Gym’ll fix it

My body is bi-polar. I have been fat and thin in almost regularly alternating periods throughout my life. Sometimes it has been imperceptible; suddenly finding it took a lot more effort to tie my shoe laces than it used to be, sometimes extreme, like the time I lost 25 kilos in 3 months because I was working myself too hard on my graduation projects. These days I am of the size where my pelvic bones are clearly visible again but when I first came to Japan I was, as my so-called “friends” like to point out, a porker. I have a good excuse though; I had quit smoking back in England as a successful money-saving measure and used food as substitute cigarettes. As tobacco is much more affordable here I have started again, but my recent weight loss has more to do with my patent-pending “don’t eat so much crap, you disgusting pig” diet than any appetite suppressant addictions I have.

But how, you may ask, is it possible to be fat in Japan, with its notoriously healthy diet and outrageous life expectancy? This may have been the case for the current crop of old fogies and their predecessors, but I fear for today’s young. More and more do you see processed foods, American fast “food” chains, changing diets, etc. Though morbid obesity is usually only found in isolated cases amongst programmers, fat ankles, belt awnings and general wobbliness are slowly becoming the norm. It has a long way to go yet but it seems Japan has entered the race for obesity that America and England are spearheading. Changing diets may also be responsible for the sudden appearance of incredibly tall Japanese people that have quite literally popped up around Tokyo, often towering over me, a supposedly tall gaijin.

My own blobby shape for the first few years of my life in Japan is less of a mystery. Apart from the sedentary lifestyle that comes with being a developer and lazy bastard it was mostly my indiscriminate appetite for snacks and my new-found love for Japanese beers, which are delicious on the whole. The latter, combined with the hot and humid summers, lead to a habit of drinking a few cans a day (!). Drinking sugary fruit and vegetable juices for lunch and breakfast didn’t help, nor did the fact my office at the time was near a bakery where I’d often buy some rolls for breakfast.

Being a fat gaijin in Japan is not really an issue. You’re still considered cool by a lot of people and young girls will want to hang you off their arm as a fashion accessory. Any trip into town of a weekend is a good opportunity to gaze at hideous and fat foreigners with vapid but cute Japanese girlfriends. And of course the married man has little impetus to keep in shape as he is no longer required to participate in mating rituals.
But when I finally became tired of my whole body moving when brushing my teeth and gasping for air after a short jog, and not in the good “smoke too much” way, something had to be done. There are plenty of gyms around Tokyo, all of varying costs. I have it on good authority that employees of Konami or Konami owned businesses get discounts at Konami gyms. For the rest of us there are the local gymnasiums and the occasional brand one. Quite near our house was a Tipness, a fairly large and hilariously Engrish named chain of gyms that seems to be fairly popular, though it isn’t that cheap. It was only a 3 minute walk from our home but I had never made the effort because it was mostly uphill. When the die was cast though I got an unlimited membership for a whopping 14,000 Yen a month (US$ 116, EUR 90) which allowed me unlimited access to the facilities, save for the few afternoons set aside for granny yoga or elementary school swimming.

On my first visit a hatefully chipper trainer girl put me on the electronic scales and guffawed in mirth at the little “bodyfat” bar on the display which just kept on inching upwards for several humiliating minutes. She then felt it necessary to give a reproachful look and a tut. This always struck me as silly, as who else would go through the torture of physical exercise if not the people that needed it? No, apparently only the incredibly fit and muscular are allowed to train without fear of castigation. And indeed, the gym was filled with such people. Nothing quite as annoying as waiting on machines while some muscular Adonis with a neck the girth of a tree trunk is toning his body for half an hour. But eventually I got to work on the machines.

And boy, did I hate it. Exercising is the most boring activity one can imagine. It wasn’t helped that all the televisions on the walls, meant to keep us occupied as we burned the calories, were all showing Japanese television channels. Not only is this boring but as you may have gathered from previous posts, Japanese television is obsessed with food. So you’re on the treadmill watching some talentos eating gyoza and telling us how delicious it is. I found it all rather tortuous.
I kept it up for a few weeks but in the end let it slip. There are better ways to numb the brain and lose weight. Ideally I would have liked to swim, as that is the one thing I really did enjoy in my more physical years. Sadly I was plagued by the British prudish streak, not wanting to use the dressing room where Japanese men walk around naked with childish abandon waving their prudentia around for all to see, and the fact pools in Japan are tiny. By the time you’re in the swing of a good crawl you’re already on dry land on the other side of the pool. It’s made worse by the fact half of the pool is always cordoned off for the aquayoga classes. In all my searches I have not found a decent sized pool yet. That is, at least, my excuse for not exercising.

So there was nothing else for it. I had to change my diet. No more snacks, healthy lunches, preferably home-cooked and beer only when I go out. At home my drink of choice is sparkling water and though I do occasionally partake in a bar of chocolate, because after all I don’t hate myself quite enough to deprive myself of chocolate, I hardly ever eat snacks anymore. No more cheap and nasty dinners outside the house but home-cooked healthy meals of the Japanese variety; rice, miso soup, vegetables. And it all tastes great; why the Japanese flock to places like McDonalds, KFC or their own First Kitchen while they have all this gorgeous food at home is beyond me.

Though my stomach still resembles the rolling hills of rural England more than the ubiquitous six-pack at least I’m not a porker anymore. Not for the moment, at least. I’d still like to shave off a few pounds, preferably a kilo or 5, but the fact I’m fairly stable right now is heartening. Most noticeably I can now fit into Japanese clothes of the M or L variety, giving me much more choice to shop at home, here in Japan, rather than having to do bulk shopping on my trips abroad. If only my arms were shorter. As for exercise, until Japan builds some decent sized pools I doubt it will ever happen Unless, of course, you count Wii sports. But let's not go there again.

The fall and fall of the gaijin dev

For such a homogenous society it is a little surprising how many foreigners end up in the game industry. A fair amount of these are from neighbouring Asian countries and another percentage is on the production side, usually as an international liaison or external producer to foreign development houses, or localization, usually as translators, often just proof readers. When it comes to the number of Western development staff, artists, planners, coders, musicians, etc. there are no exact figures but from experience I’d say we are few, very few. I’m not terribly well connected, but I have a few ears spread around the industry. There are a few companies with their own foreign worker, some even have more. But what’s worse is that every so often a few of us just raise our hands, admit defeat and move back home or onwards to another country. We’re maybe not a dying breed, but we’re certainly coughing up blood.

What’s more, Japan really needs more of us! This isn’t so much gaijin arrogance but actual fact. It’s terribly hard these days to find experienced staff, especially programmers, so this industry, as well as many others, will soon be forced to look outside its borders for employees. Part of this is the gray society time-bomb, part of it has to do with the lack of decent education to prepare youngsters for a career as a development pit-pony. But what are the problems? What is going wrong?

Why Japan has trouble getting gaijin dev staff

Though the games made in Japan seem to have this exotic aura of excellence, the reality of working here is, thanks to scaremongering blogs like mine and others, not a secret anymore. Or rather, most of the interested people already had a pretty good idea about it, but it’s always a little daunting to have it confirmed from the inside. Bad pay, bad hours, bad working practices; the Japanese industry has an image problem. You can’t attract good staff if you aren’t offering an attractive deal.

Probably the largest part of the above concerns salary. You cannot poach outside talent with low wages like they have here. The “honour” of working in the Japanese industry simply doesn’t cut it anymore, if indeed it ever did. It would seem a lot of Koreans and Chinese sill come over here for that exact purpose but maybe wages compare more favourably to their local salaries. There are certainly a lot of “otaku” that move over here simply for the games. This doesn’t help the overall statistics. Why should an employer pay double for a gaijin when he knows other foreigners expect wages similar to or lower than the Japanese average?

Another issue is ignorance; a lot of companies aren’t even thinking about the possibility, let alone need, for hiring gaijin staff. They’re having problems hiring good programmers. They’ll work it out, or rather; it will work itself out eventually; that’s the Japanese way. If you’re not actively headhunting gaijin staff you are relying on the luck of one suddenly appearing on your doorstep, desperate for a job. This is indeed how most gaijin staff in Japan got here.

When companies are actively making an effort they lack the experience. Hiring gaijin staff isn’t just a matter of signing mutual agreements. You need to relocate, help settle into the company and society, organize Visas and other legal issues, etc. Most companies have never done this and have no idea what is required. When they do some research some of them may be scared off. All this hullabaloo! We’re better off hiring in some cheap Japanese graduates! So they do. They renew their interest when a gaijin appears magically at their reception desk, fully settled with Visa in hand, but they are not interested or equipped to help people immigrate.

Why Japan has trouble keeping gaijin dev staff

The stories of bad pay and long hours are all over the internet. Even if your drive for working in Japan is so deep that you’ll ignore this at first, eventually you’ll be forced to reexamine your situation. If you are in your early to mid twenties and earning a Japanese average wage you know you’re being underpaid, especially for the hours you work. For far fewer hours a day you can earn at least 250,000 Yen a month as an English teacher for which you require no other skill than being able to speak English at an acceptable level. When your monthly bills need to be paid, when you have a family to support or simply when you start getting older the salary will become a major point of contention. This gets worse when you hear stories of your peers earning much more back home. Aside from all the other difficulties you may have living and working in Japan this will be the one to tip you over the edge. You’ll leave the industry or the country.

Other frustrations also add to the stress. The Japanese inability to make decisions often leads to very frustrating projects with little regard for scheduling or design. When you get asked for the umpteenth time to redo something because a planner changed his mind your blood will boil. When a producer or lead asks you to work the weekend because delays in their decision making has put the deadline in jeopardy, or when you are forced to sit on your thumbs for a while as they sort out some design issues while the deadline ticks closer and closer. These are not problems unique to the Japanese industry, but with the attitude of hierarchy, overwork and, especially, indecision they do seem to wreak far more havoc over here. Culturally you’ll have a much harder time coping with this. Whereas your Japanese colleagues will unquestioningly jump over the cliff, you may see the futility of it all.

When you do find yourself as an employee at a Japanese studio you’d think, for the money they are paying, they want to get the most out of you. Often they don’t. They’ll lump you into the pool of workers and crack the whip. This is not a plea for special attention but rather a serious question about not using the staff’s talents properly. Often I see English texts in my projects rife with errors and comedic mistranslations while all the time noone had the idea to say “Hang on, JC is British. Why can’t he quickly look this over; it should only take him 5 minutes.” This is how in localized games you’ll have 4 character name entries or Engrish on textured text. Or there will be a meeting about how to focus the design to maximize sales in, say, Europe and the only person not present is the company’s only European.
I don’t particularly mind not being troubled with these tasks but it’s obviously such a stupid waste.

So what can be done?

Knowing how the Japanese system and mind works I would say “pretty much nothing”. Things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. Problems aren’t avoided, they are dealt with when they arise, even if they are clearly visible and looming on the horizon approaching with deadly speed.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I recon the pro-active gaijin can carve himself into a pretty good situation in Japan if he is willing to risk it and fight the good fight. Here the balance between being aggressive and assertive should be extremely closely observed. It’s no use if you get the reputation for being a scary foreigner, but some sense of persuasion needs to be involved. The my first few years in Japan I was very actively promoting myself and my skills at work, but when they kept going unnoticed and I was still sitting in the trenches carving my own name onto bullets I gave up. What Japan needs is foreigners who can stick with it, unlike me, and can actually teach the developers what needs to be done, what needs to change if they have any chance of survival during the reign of this and the next generation of consoles.

~ ~ ~

My proposed checklist for the gaijin developer:
  • Do it for the money! Don’t accept lower salaries because that keeps setting the precedent. This will make your job search much more difficult but someone needs to get the ball rolling.
  • Don’t become Japanese! Stick with your regime of hours and work and don’t fall pray to the procrastination and eventual overtime of your colleagues. If someone higher up muddles the schedule don’t cover for him. This is difficult but if you slowly ease your employee into this state of things it is do-able.
  • Teach your boss and colleagues despite their protestations! Send round documents about new technologies, tutorials, tricks and tips. Point colleagues towards Western games that do something specific relevant to your tasks. Offer yourself as a consultant on matters foreign. They won’t listen, mostly, but eventually they must.
  • Force decisions to be made! Don’t let your leads and bosses wallow in their own putrid swamp of indecision. Ease hard answers out of them. When you ask something keep asking until you have an answer. Have them e-mail you confirmations. Eventually they’ll learn that they need to take responsibilities for their actions and that you don’t mind being directed as long as you’re directed properly.
  • Work hard! Show the Japanese that we Westerners do know our stuff. We’re not all arrogant, scary and antisocial arses, we are damn good developers! They need our skill and experience and the best way to show that is to let them bask in the full glory of your work. If you show them you are indeed a marvelous asset they may start looking abroad for more of us.
I’ll end with the slight but important footnote that of course not all companies are in this situation. A few are actively looking outside and others are changing their systems. At the moment they are the minority but if they succeed they may become the tend-setters. There are good companies to work for in Japan, you just need to know where to find them.

Go to coffeeshopping

The great vaguely similar coffee shops showdown

Without coffee there’d be no mornings, no games industry, no Japanmanship and, let’s face it, no civilisation. Though Japan has a great and tasty tradition in a variety of teas they don’t do black teas very well. Luckily the same cannot be said for coffee, of which there is an enormous variety available for home consumption and an excess of coffee shops dotted around the country. I’ll be looking at some of the more famous brand shops and cast my opinion on them as a pro-am coffee consumer. Keep in mind that there are many more than the few mentioned below, but these are the most common in my experience.

Garish décor and limited, microwaved food makes Doutor (pronounced “Do’h-tor”) sit happily at the lower end of the market. Their coffee is passable and comes in a variety of sizes. Some shops have smoking sections separate from the non-smoking, some have it on separate floors, others have a glass wall. Regular coffee costs from 180 Yen for a small cup, to 280 for a larger mug, no refills. The cakes and muffins are all slightly too prepackaged and cheap to be really tasty but they do the job.

Though this place is slightly cheaper than any of the others, not offering specialty coffees, and its décor is pleasantly mock-European, with its small tables and barstool-high chairs, the whole experience feels a little unsatisfying. With the tiny tables it isn’t a good place to park yourself for longer periods to study, for example, but the seats are comfortable enough. The food on offer is the usual microwaved toasties and some cakes or muffins. The coffee is passable but more importantly it’s cheap.

This Italian chain tries the more trendy approach in décor and some shops have fairly decent and comfortable seats too. They offer a little more variety in foods and also serve alcohol. The larger shops have separate smoking floors but the smaller ones lump it all together. The coffee is pretty good here and though not quite the cheapest, it’s not that expensive. Small and medium coffees come in cups but the large is served in a paper mug like the expensive coffee chains, so this is a fair amount of black gold. The food is edible but really, with coffee and cigarettes who needs food?

This coffee shop, part of the Doutor Group, has a logo which bears more than a striking resemblance to that of Starbucks’, especially noticable on their shop signs. It’s a little cheeky but I’m sure it has lured some unsuspecting customers their way. It has a rather cavalier attitude towards smoking with the different sections often separated by no more than a bench, plant-pot or little sign. Some branches make more of an effort but generally the non-smokers will have to occupy the same space as us smokers. Obviously, for me this is hardly a problem but it does allow for the possibility of whiny non-smokers tutting and casting hurtful glances, which can really spoil your enjoyment of a good coffee and cigarette combo. Their Mocca has more cream on it than any of its competitors’.

Coming from the same city as Starbucks the resemblances are uncanny, from the logo to the silly naming conventions for the cup sizes and the wide variety of specialty coffee on offer. The biggest difference is that Tully’s doesn’t have that hoity-doity attitude towards smoking and usually offers separate, glassed off areas with nice leather chairs for us smokers. Usually, in fact, the smokers sit more comfortably than the non-smokers, as it should be. They also offer a variety of foods, from the usual cookies, which are very good, and muffins to sandwiches and some plate meals. It’s a little pricey but the coffee is great and the food tasty. On busy days the smoking fishbowls can become a little too dense but usually it’s a comfortable sit. They also offer a variety of coffees to brew at home; the beans are ground for you while you wait. Their one-shot Espresso Shake, though pricey at 450 Yen, is the best summertime pick-me-up I have yet come across and can give you both an ice-cream and caffeine headache at the same time. Great stuff!!

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this little mom’n’pop chain of coffee shops but there are a few of them in Japan too. Originally the chain that kicked off all its competition it is also the one with most hubris. Recently in a press announcement they told us of their plans to increase the prices a little. This was to keep the staff in good wages, which is fine, but also as a little payback for them investing so much in Japanese real estate, which is just taking the mickey. On top of that greed they also flatly refuse to allow smoking on their premises, a tactic that is bound to enrage people, well, like me. They are also the one chain store that has started putting up signs telling people not to hang around too long on weekends. So no studying or loafing around reading a book, just consume, pay and go away. Not very welcoming. And to cap it all off they have the silliest names for the various cup sizes their coffee comes in. No, Starbucks can go ingest itself, its competition in Japan has much better on offer.

Honourable mention: Dunkin’ Donuts is one of the few places where they do coffee refills. For those on a budget not concerned about greasy tables this is a passable alternative.

~ ~ ~

In the end it’s a close run thing between Tully’s and Excelsior. Tully’s décor is a little less garish and I appreciate the separate, glassed off smoking sections with their comfortable seats, but Excelsior has wisely stayed away from the silly naming conventions for their differing sizes of cups and offers ceramic mugs for use to those who plan to utilize the shop’s many seats. Excelsior also has a stamp-card system where every 10 purchases gives you a free S sized drink or takes the price of one off of your larger drink purchase. Tully’s only has these kinds of special offers at selected periods, even though they do offer better freebies, like a free Tully’s mug or coffee beans for a full stamp card. But then again, Tully’s is about 20 yards closer to our office so I find myself drinking their coffee a little more often.