Do as the Hollywodians

Japan is both ideally suited to change the game development rules to follow the Hollywood example, and the last place on Earth where it’ll ever happen; a tragedy of missed opportunity. First let me explain what I mean by the “development rules!” and the “Hollywood example”.

The current system (in theory)
A publisher contracts a developer to create a title. The developer has its staff and overheads regardless of the availability of work or not. The publisher oversees and ultimately controls the project. The producer on the publisher’s side will want changes made when he or she sees fit, but the local boss does likewise, often contradicting each other. Local staff works hard, unpaid overtime and weekends and with a delay the project is finally finished and released. Publisher and developer now have a “bond” and unless really too much money was pissed up the wall it is likely these two will come together again in economic union.

The current system (in practice)
The publisher has ever-growing expectations but an ever tightening wallet. When it contracts a developer to create a title, said developer or even the publisher directly is often forced to outsource part of the development on to another company. This other company has its own overheads and staff that need paying regardless of the availability of work. Often such large chunks of development are outsourced this way that it’s sometimes hard to figure out who the primary developer is. Either way the publisher oversees and takes control over the project ultimately. Though both the publisher and the boss will demand changes the outsourced work is more difficult to control and often rework is needed (or not needed but done anyway) locally before it is accepted.
Not only the publisher and the developer now have a track record to build on but return favours from friendly companies that have helped with development may be required or at the very least continued outsource work is expected.

The system of tomorrow, or the day after, or…
The publisher pays an agency to oversee and put together the development of a title. Agency, publisher and a small core of senior developers work together closely on a prototype, design document and schedule. If these all pass muster the final go-ahead is given and the agency contracts freelance developers or teams to create assets according to the agreed design, standards and schedules. Once the work has been delivered the developers’ contract ends successfully and they are free to move on to the next project. The agency and core team assemble the assets continuously, change and adapt as they come in and so forms the final product. If late changes are required a new contract can be made with the developers, unless the changes are needed because said developers didn’t deliver to standard. The developers charge more for their work but it’s not more expensive for the publisher as there are no or litlle overheads or benefits to cough up and when there is no work there also is no team of developers sitting on their thumbs pulling a wage. With only a skeleton staff the agency, or indeed publishers themselves, have less pressure to get the next project going and can, in theory, spend more time on planning, pre-production and scheduling. Failures are easier to spot during this period so projects can be canned without too much of a loss which in turn can open the door to more original and experimental game ideas and IPs.

It’s all a little too simplistic and doesn’t cover much of the challenge faced in such a situation but you get the general idea. This is of course not a new proposal and many developers and publishers have been debating the merits and problems of such a system in private, on forums and at trade shows. Very few companies are picking up the gauntlet though, but I fully expect that to change some time in the future.

~ ~ ~

There are many reasons why this will and will not work in Japan.

Location, location, location
A development map of Japan is extremely polarized: a few spots in the West of Japan and surrounding the capital and a massive bull’s eye over the center of Tokyo. There are few places on the Earth where there are so many developers in such a small area comparatively. A freelance developer will have a huge range of options to choose from when considering his next project, and he won’t even have to relocate. If he works from home a short train-ride (for Tokyo standards) can bring him face to face with his employer or other remote team members. Likewise the employer has a huge, local pool of developers to choose from.

The last mile is the toughest
Though I sincerely think such a massive change in game development won’t happen any time soon in Japan it is in essence already halfway there. Outsourcing has become a fact of life for most developers already. Don’t have the staff to supply that portion of the game? Just outsource it! Smaller development companies or companies with a team to spare often do this kind of work-for-hire outsourcing for befriended companies. All that needs to really happen is for the employer of the outsource staff to be replaced with an agency.

Overheads is what ultimately makes traditional game development so expensive, and a large part of that is Tokyo’s premium on office space. Without a staff to house you won’t need to pay an arm and a leg for a huge office. As for personnel, if you have none you won’t have to pay their wages or benefits when there is no work to do.

Working hours
The tradition is to stay at the office until the boss leaves, regardless of how busy it is or how late it gets. This is not only unhealthy in the long run, it is also counter productive. Without a boss to breathe down your neck and mark you out as a troublemaker for leaving when your work is done developers can spend the actual time needed to develop assets and no more. Whether they will do this in office hours or sleep until midday and work until midnight is not really relevant, but the fact they won’t have to artificially fill in lost time by reading, napping and working incredibly slowly will speed up the whole process, lead to a healthier mind and body and help with focus.

Choices, choices
In stead of getting lumped with sequel after sequel of a successful series developers who want a change can simply do so with their next contract. Japanese teams are usually fairly specialized and if you happen to be working at a company that’s making the kind of game you don’t like working on, you’re stuffed as you can be assured your next project will be the sequel. With a per-project contract if the employer or the project isn’t to your liking you can simply avoid them in the future and choose to work with other employers you are comfortable with without the hassle of quitting and job-hopping.

No preciousness
Despite the many futile arguments whether games are Art or not (not) and the few spectacular games that sometimes come out of Japan I found that generally the mentality here is of a conveyor belt factory, which would explain the ease with which Japanese developers outsource a lot of their work. Though there are benefits to having all disciplines close together they aren’t really that precious about it and churn out projects one after another. Games are product after all. Product is made of parts. Parts just have to be produced. So if there isn’t a desire to foster a “creative melting pot” or a “creative entity” the step to have offsite, per-project contracted developers working together on a centrally overseen project isn’t really that much of a leap.

Cheap broadband
Japan is a broadband country where the internet is incredibly fast and very affordable. Offsite work should theoretically be easy as data can quickly be up- and downloaded to and from FTP servers and the whole team can have face-to-face meetings and discussions using webcams at a whim.

The work-floor hierarchy system
Bosses still rule the roost in Japan. They have their fingers in every pie and hand out commandments and decisions written on stone tablets with a lot of Tipp-Ex. The Japanese working environment relies on it. The boss sets the rules, staff obey the rules and many a meeting is called to discuss these rules. A remote-workforce would be almost unthinkable in Japan’s working environment. Set up tasks and schedule them properly? Pay people for the work done with extra budget to be spent if late changes are required? Have people work from home or away from the boss’s eyes? It would severely undermine the cushy position of today’s Japanese boss and, like politics, these kinds of things only change with bloody revolutions not natural evolutions.

The serf mentality
On the flip-side the Japanese staff need to take more responsibility, not just over their own work but their whole lives. Work may be hard, constant changes grinding but under the protection of a seishain contract you are relatively safe and assured of a monthly wage, no matter how paltry. Quality of work isn’t as much an issue in Japan’s development sphere as is your ability to pull long hours. This mentality has to change. Developers need to be made to rely on the quality of their work to get their next paycheck. Developers need to be given and readily take responsibility over their work.

Planning and focus
A subject I never tire of talking about, apparently, but Japanese development could do with some serious rethinking in the “planning” and “scheduling” departments. Indecisiveness is the main factor which translates into a “I’ll know what I want when I see it, but only maybe” approach, causing a lot of woe for the developer. A Hollywood style contract business where people will be charged by the hour and work from a design brief will possibly cause the collapse of several businesses, the Japanese Yen and world economy as directors ask for change after change and get lumbered with invoice after invoice.

~ ~ ~

For your consideration
Unionization should also be considered to set standards of quality and pay in a freelance development world. With developers free to choose their next contract there is more balance of power and in stead of employees being scared of starting a union for fear of reprisals from their employer it is the freelancer who can boycott an employer should they not adhere to standards. And as union membership is required there is less chance of keen, young and above all cheap and inexperienced amateurs picking up the slack of union members in action. Many creative industries have managed to protect their members with effective unionization and I don’t see how us game developers couldn’t benefit from a similar system.

~ ~ ~

For the benefit of its much maligned development staff, the brighter future of a more and more challenging development environment and a demanding market I truly feel this is the way to go and Japan, being by far the worst offender when it comes to development horrors, is ideally suited to be the first country to totally abandon the status quo and follow on this new track. It’s just such a damn shame that it won’t happen until it has been proven to be popular in America and the majority of Japanese publishers and developers have gone bankrupt. Colon dash open-bracket.


  1. *cracks open case of AK's*

    incidentally I just read this:

  2. A really interesting read as always.

    With all these ideas about how companies should be run, and how much better it would be if a company in Japan ran like this, maybe you should start up your own company? I'd definitely come and work for you :D

    It seems a lot more efficient so you could employ less people, charge slightly less, and still pay people a really good wage. I haven't had all that much experience of it, but I think younger Japanese people who aren't indoctrinated into the current system would be keen on working in this kind of environment. Gaishi companies seem pretty popular in any sector.

    It seems from your diagrams and the way you explain it that the publishers wouldn't have to know how you get the job done, so there wouldn't be a problem that end.

  3. That part of the diagram may be misleading, sorry. Publishers are often (usually?) totally into the game, as they are the ones who start the ball rolling, push over that first domino, by outsourcing development a lot while keeping design in-house. Or the publisher directly involves itself with the choice of outsource companies.

    The only problem with Japanmanship Co. Ltd. Outsource Agency would be that the freelancers I would work with would, at first, have only me to work with. It's catch-22. Without enough companies working this way freelancers wouldn't be able to eke out a living and without the freelancers around companies wouldn't be able to switch to this system.
    I've got a headache.

  4. Good read.

    Quite off topic but the quality of writing and unusual (compared to usual dev blogs) subject matter is quite enjoyable. Have you thought of writing a Japanmanship book?

  5. I think this is what Wideload games tried with their game "Stubb the zombie".
    The post-mortem is there:

  6. The day any of you game developers find a good manager or project manager, he or she doesn't need to be fricking good, just good, let me know because I would very much like to meet that person. I've already spent a few years working for Japanese developers and in my experience Japanese managers' work sourly lacks quality and professionalism. They are way too used to count on designers, artists and programmers 24-7 availability every time they rise a finger to point out a problem, which it probably was their mistake in the first place for lack of proper planning. But since nobody complains, all mistakes get passed onto the lowest ranking staff of the office pyramid. Oh dear, dear...

  7. I knew of Wideload's attempt and postmortem; good show! It's good to see steps being taken towards this, in my opinion, better future. But then you see new studios, like the guys doing RoboBlitz, charging headlong into the fray and following all the bad, established rules.

    "Have you thought of writing a Japanmanship book?"

    Who'd read that??! Seriously, it's on my Hemmingway List Of Things To Do, along with raising a son and fighting a bull, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Just in case, though, I've stopped posting gamesmanship articles...

  8. JC,

    I'm not sure if I completely agree with the vision of tomorrow though it's probably more accurate than it is wrong. I think you also see, now, if you look at your 2cd diagram of the developers of today, a lot of the outsourced and friendly developers, along with the core developer using freelance, currently. Especially to fill gaps when they are having problem getting assets created before a deadline or if they are lacking in staff.

    There is also a good amount of employee swapping between developers too. Companies with too few projects loaning out staff for a project or borrowing the friends staff. That is probably one of the good benefits to having a shacho who has a lot of friends in the development community who are shachos.

    Salaries are going to take years to get to a reasonable level. They are pathetic. As an recruiting agency here in Japan, it's very difficult to get programmers outside of the game industry to move to Japanese game companies, nobody wants to do it because the salaries are a joke. In addition, the talented Japanese people in the industry are leaving the industry for sexy jobs outside of gaming in Japan.

    Developers have only a few options in the tough situation they are faced with now that is only going to get worse.

    One is to try to hire cheap foreigner programmers by setting up a studio abroad or bring them in from abroad. That's one option I see companies doing already.

    The second option is to outsource programming to other companies in Japan or outside for certain parts.

    Third, they can buy pre-made engines and use existing tools and work with very few staff, though I'm not familiar or certain of this, I admit.

    As a recruiting company in the industry, the hiring situation is naturally changing because of this shift in development. I can't see that as possibly being a bad thing only because the situation is so tough now.

    What do you guys think?

    IPPO Y.K.

  9. Hi Sam,
    You make some good points, and definitely a system like I am suggesting won't be good for you as a recruitment company; you'd need to reposition yourself as an agency, a bit like Creek & River, maybe. But being able to have remote freelancers from abroad connect with Japanese companies would put you in a good position.
    Traditional recruiment I think is just not going to be good in the long run. As a developer I hate the employee-loan system; it takes away my power to choose the type of company I work for and reduces me to a commodity. That's not the position I want in working life.

    On the matter of engines, yes, theoretically this is happening, but in reality I still see a lot of (typical Japanese) hesitation. A few companies are picking up on Unreal now, Capcom is working on its own toolset (which looks ace), but smaller companies can't afford heavy engines like that, nor have the manpower to create their own. I think we'll see Western games getting quite a headstart in this generation. The language barrier is another problem with most of these engines and their support being in English primarily.

    We live in interesting times.

  10. I like the concept, but I disagree that adopting a Hollywood model would make new IPs more prevalent. In fact, Hollywood exibits exactly the oposite where every "new" movie is either a sequel, a formula rehash, or a complete rip off of another movie ("remakes" included). The only thing that allows for new IP, is when the creators have control rather than being beholden to a publisher. the only new concepts in movies come from Indie's not from Hollywood. The same thing is true with game devs.

  11. Very interesting summary...

    As someone working for a Japanese company who switched to tele-commuting, I agree that the concept of remote-working is very hard to swallow for them. In my experience the work environment is a 'family' like environment for them and to not want to be in the environment is therefore difficult to grasp. Since I switched I am facing much more distrust.

    Anyway, kudos for the thoughts...
    And may I ask which program and cipart did you use for those amazing figures? They are just perfect looking.

  12. Jules, you're telecommuting? In Japan? Wow, how did you manage that? I'd be interested to hear about your situation and how you got there.

    The graphics were all hurridly done in Maya, Illustrator and Photoshop. If you like them I guess it proves my theory that *any* art looks good with ambient occlusion slapped on it. :)

  13. JC,

    Since there are only a few skilled people used to working with unreal, it's a real problem for companies trying to use it now. We had a client or two looking for people who worked on the Unreal engine and well.. we didn't find a alot of people. :)

    I don't know, our agency does fine and I know the guys at Creek and River are doing well, too. Working with Freelance developers hasn't really had too big of an impact, other than having to reword our agreements and change a few points.

    In fact, when companies come to us, it's because they need someone they can't get through creek and river or e-career. That's really our core competency, finding and introducing people who are a bit on the rare side in terms of talent. So, even in the last few years, during a lot of change in the industry, I'm still in business.

    My biggest change was to hire someone who could really work with Japanese developers more effectively than myself. My language ability was a barrier so I hired someone with skills and knowledge to develop the non-English speaking people. That's really kicked the business up a notch. My next goal is to branch off into the US because, if you can make money off recruiting Japanese game people, I'm fairly certain I can do the same in the US.

    Peace out and nice blog.


  14. Hey JC, I'm sure you know, but there is a reference to your post there:


  15. That link didn't take me anywhere significant...

    I di see this though

    which mirrors my post almost point for point but takes a little more professional approach (less faffing about). A recommended read.

  16. Great post. I really enjoyed it. Nice use if graphics with it.

  17. Great post. Large US publishers such as EA with their own sizable internal development studios actually have the opposite model - inhouse as much as possible. Given the economy of scale a big publisher has and the number of sequels, having big standing teams to cover off even the esoteric stuff like mocap and localization actually makes great financial sense. What's more, given that these teams are persistent, they can be pegged to metrics and made more efficient. This is quite an advantage over contracted, ad-hoc organizations that need to find their way when working with one another each time. That said however, I've noticed that the big development studios breed complacency and tunnel-vision in their employees as one needs to excel at "the system" as opposed to the actual industry. Still, compared to the brutal management inefficiency of smaller studios (especially Japanese ones), at least one can trust that things will be well run.

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