2008 Japanmanship Awards Listpost

It's that time of year when all websites and blogs do a list-post regarding the most fantastic, disappointing, rubbish, sexy, stupid, numerical, pusillanimous, retarded, hyperbolic games of the year and as I've been behind my posting for a while, due to being rather busy doing other things, I thought I'd bash out a quickie listing my personal gaming highlights of 2008, combined with a little mention of what I am looking forward to most in the coming year of the cow. The awards I'm dishing out today are the "Japanmanship Nugatories", recipients of which get exactly nothing other than a mention on a middling-to-irrelevant blog.

Retail Game of the Year - Little Big Planet
I have had some fun times playing many of the astoundingly great games we've been fortunate enough to buy this and the previous year, and I have been pleasantly surprised by a lot of them. There definitely seems to have been a jump in quality, which in my estimation occurred somewhere midway 2007, after which a lot of triple-A games have been, well, fantastic. No game in recent memory, however, has given me more delight and enjoyment as Media Molecule's Little Big Planet, causing me to lay awake at night dreaming up all the contraptions I wanted to make in its excellent editor. And though it had a few teething problems at first, now the servers all seem to be running smooth and players have begun to understand and use the true power of the creation tools we are beginning to see user-generated levels that can easily match the developers' own in creativity. With a continued dripfeed of new costumes and now new content I suspect I'll be playing this game well into 2009 and possibly beyond. I urge everyone to play until the contentious level-sorting clicks in your brain after which it's smooth sailing for many many hilarious and creative months. And Stephen Fry, of course, bonus points.
Visit the official website here.

Downloadable Game of the Year - World of Goo
It has been an excellent year for download and independent games, a trend I hope and fully expect to be continued into the next year. From the excellent PixelJunk Eden, the retrogaming fanservice of MegaMan and the Bionic Commando remake to astounding development achievements like Castle Crashers my digital wallet has been under attack egregiously, which, seeing as I have a hole in my hand already when it comes to money, let alone digital magic money, has meant some months of living close to the button. One title that stands out for me, though, is 2D Boy's excellent World of Goo. It has an excellent aesthetic, a smooth yet unforgiving learning curve and offers probably the best physics-based puzzle gameplay since forever. Little touches like OCD targets and your own tower to compare to other players' are the icing on the cake. On top of that there is a lot of personal sycophancy involved too. Once employees at a large corporate game studio the 2D Boy boys went for it for themselves and, in my view, succeeded. They had a dream and went for it, and that is inspiring. The fact they created an excellent title like World of Goo in the process is both hatefully jealousy-inducing and laudable. Everybody go buy it and support their next title.
Visit the 2D Boy website here.

Timesink of the Year - Pic Pic
Counting pure hours lost on a single game 505 Games' Pic Pic for the Nintendo DS beats the rest by several man-months worth. Whenever I had some time to fill, be it loafing around listening to podcasts, battling my fiber intake issues on the toilet, waiting for the wife to get ready to go out or experimenting with not shaving to see how long it would take before the fluff gets too itchy and annoying (2 days) Pic Pic was always there. At its base a simple package it offers three different types of drawing-related puzzle games; one a simple maze game, which hasn't gotten much playtime from me yet, one a difficult to explain yet easy to understand game where you connect numbers on a grid, by far my favourite, and a third more complicated one where you draw or clear blocks in a 3 by 3 grid surrounding a number. Each puzzle type comes with an astounding 400 puzzles, ranging from the small and easy to the huge and intricate, offering the perfect five to fifteen minute play to fill the gaps in much the same way ice cream does after a particularly heavy meal. Any DS owner who claims to like puzzle games has no excuse not to own this one.
Read Eurogamer's fawning review of it here.

Free Indie Game of the Year - Dyson
Imagine an engaging, beautiful and deep strategy game for free! Well, you don't have to because there is Dyson, a procedurally generated RTS of sorts in which you, the player, tries to colonise an asteroid belt. The controls and rules are as simple as can be yet offer surprising depths of strategy and engagement. Though still in development, the title is already robust and enjoyable and I urge any broke or tight-fisted strategy gamer to check it out.
Download Dyson here.

Console of the Year - Playstation 3
Being a slightly regretful owner of all three of the current-gen systems, I base this vote entirely on which console I've spent the most time playing. With the XBox360 having died on me several times this year I have lost all confidence in it and though I occasionally buy some XBLA games, I have stopped buying retail games because I can never be sure I can play them at any given time. The Wii, though exciting, new and shiny, with perfect usability and several fun games, I found is hardly ever used anymore. I only switch it on to stop that annoying blue light flashing in my peripheral vision when watching television. My problems with it are twofold. Mostly it is the lack of games that personally interest me, with the big Nintendo titles cleared and lacking replay value. Secondly, it lacks an achievement/trophy system which I have found myself totally addicted to on the other consoles, actually playing and replaying games often just for the points. Which leaves the embattled Playstation 3. It's undeniably a decent bit of kit, especially my early release one, with its multitude of USB ports and PS2 compatibility and of course a Blu-Ray drive. It has several, though obviously not enough, excellent games on it, including my personal game of the year above. Its on-line store is slowly filling out. Which is why I am so annoyed by Sony for basically fucking up the marketing (and pricing) so badly. Every time a Sony executive opens his mouth and lets forth a stream of obvious nonsense a kitten dies somewhere, for I think the PS3 is worthy of more success than Sony has been able to muster.

Most Over-hyped Game of the Year - Metal Gear Solid 4
It's hard to think of any hyperbole not heaped upon Metal Gear Solid 4, and though it is obviously an accomplished game made by a huge team of remarkably talented people, it did turn out to be the most ridiculous, badly paced and tedious experiences of the year until Sony released Playstation Home. From the terrible writing, the badly cut cut-scenes and gameplay that tried to be a Jack of all trades but ended up nothing in particular, the weird technical choices, including lengthy installs and loading screens that required a button-press to move away from, the game just fell flat for me on every aspect. It causes me no end of annoyance when people praise the story and writing in this game as it is so obviously of the level of your average 14 year old fanboy with too much time on his hands. The secret of writing is to cut away as much as you can and still have the story make sense, yet during the development of Metal Gear Solid 4 it seems they kept every tiny scrap of paper anyone ever made a scribble on and threw it on the pile. You may think it was a great game, but, frankly, you're wrong.

Blog of the Year - Brainy Gamer
This might be a little contentious, as Michael Abbott's, the author of the Brainy Gamer blog, views and my own differ remarkably on most, if not all levels. He engages in over-analysis of games, throws around names of filmmakers and artist as if their work is comparable to video games and promotes many other bloggers with the same stances. Which is exactly why he deserves a mention. His blog posts are almost always of a high quality and well thought out, he is turning into a spokesperson, of sorts, of the gaming blogging community and spends a lot of obvious effort and time in producing sporadic podcasts. The fact I disagree with him so much makes it more interesting to read for me, as it usually engages my brain and makes me consider, sometimes, though not often, reconsider my own views. In a medium filled with bile and hatred as well as fanboyish flamboyance, The Brainy Gamer sits comfortably in an important and overlooked niche of thoughtful, well-written and optimistic navel-gazing. Usually when I strongly disagree with certain bloggers, I simply stop reading them, yet Mr. Abbott keeps me coming back. One day I might be able to break his spirit, but it's more likely he will end up breaking mine.
Brainy up your game here.

Most Anticipated of 2009 - Cletus Clay
I am a sucker for interesting visual styles. I am also a sucker for old-fashioned arcade platforming and shooting games. So when I first heard about Cletus Clay, a claymation old-fashioned arcade shooting game, well, my brain imploded. Coming from the nimble fingers of Anthony Flack of Platypus fame and a small band of co-developers I have nothing but high hopes that my personal gaming proclivities will be satisfied when the title finally makes it out. Whether that will be 2009 is still in question, but I will certainly spend the next year keeping a close eye on the game. This is exactly the kind of weird shit that publishers shy away from yet can flourish in the bustling and growing world of independent development.
Read about Cletus Clay development here.

Personal Gaming Moment of the Year
Reaching the end of level platform in Little Big Planet while playing with three of my mates and trying to obscure the winner from view by standing in front of him and generally being a dick, followed by running around his pod like a child on a sugar-rush and pulling people around and jumping, all the while tears of childish joy streaming from my face as I laughed like an idiot for five solid minutes. I have not had such simple child-like enjoyment of a game for decades and reminded me exactly what games are supposed to be: just plain fun.

After 2007 it was hard to imagine a repeat of the many great games we had, yet 2008 did a remarkable job at it. Global recession be damned, I hope 2009 will continue this upward trend of excellence in gaming in both the commercial and independent fields. I finally have the sense that gaming has "grown up", meaning it has solidified into a real, immensely diverse quality medium rather than a bedroom tits and guns distraction for single geeky teens with acne.

Not going Home

Sony, in their continued efforts to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, has just recently released their version of an on-line community for the PS3, Playstation Home, to the wider public as, possibly, the least anticipated piece of software in the history of time wasting. I was unlucky enough to have been invited to participate in the closed Beta a while back and have already had my fill of Home, to the extent that failure to connect to the servers on the day the Beta became open to everybody I deleted the application and freed up another 4 Gigabytes of "reserved space" on my harddisk.

Though I'm weary of jumping on the Home hate bandwagon now roaring out of control over many a gaming website and forum, though believe me, I hate it, I am more annoyed at Sony for making me distrust my instincts. Am I, possibly, too out of touch with the wider gaming audience? I remember Will Wright pulled this trick on me before with The Sims. Early teaser trailers had be guffawing and shaking my head in disbelief. No way, I thought, could this be anything other than a disaster. Who in their right minds would play this horseshit? And as sales figures and my own subsequent addiction to the Sims has proven, my instincts can be drastically wrong sometimes and, having learned my lesson, I vowed never to jump to conclusions on new, wacky, unproven ideas.

Home, though, isn't unproven as an idea. The massive success of other on-line virtual communities has been a floating dollar sign for many a marketing executive with especially titles as Second Life raking in piles of cash and becoming cultural phenomena. The fact Home had to happen seems almost a given. And on paper Home seems awesome. A free piece of software that will add a Mii/Avatar function to your Sony ID, a home room to decorate as you see fit, special game-related items and rooms to become available over time, it seems a fantastic little gift from Sony to its users.

"Seems" obviously being the operative word there. In reality it is a cumbersome and slow piece of software that is a barely disguised excuse to hoist micropaid contents on a strangely suspecting userbase. With plenty of quick downloads of videos and trailers already, Home's slow streaming non-full-screen movie theater seems to add several layers of uselessness to an already smooth process. Very limited avatar creation options makes Home's zombie-like characters take a distant third place after my Nintendo Mii and Microsoft's Avatars. It's strange that the most simplistic looking of the three, the Mii, turns out to be the most powerful, with my Mii being a dead ringer for my own handsome self, my Avatar looking like a Barbie version of me and my Home avatar looking like an emaciated skater-version of Marky Mark, like pretty much seventy percent of my fellow Home users.

Technical issues too make Home an embarassment rather than a showcase for PS3 power, of which I know it has a lot. From the wonky avatar to the massive tedium of load-times, which really seem inexcusable, to the static and fuzzy scenery outside my bachelor pad. Queues for games in the game center too seem ridiculous, and having to boot up the beta for Namco Museum to play two levels of Dig Dug, only to be awarded a small Dig Dug doll to decorate my home with doesn't seem worth the 10 minute wait. Original arcade games available are nothing more than sub-standard on-line Flash type games. The choice of furniture and apartments extremely limited with more available for extortionate micropayments - trust Sony to turn micropayments into extortion. And as I am not in the slightest bit interested in seeing my Marky Mark me watch a poster for an upcoming game, there simply is no reason for me to endure Home.

But am I, are all of us bitching about Home online, wrong? To me Second Life sounds like torture, yet it is immensely popular. Does Joe Public care about these technical issues, or are they simply happy to inhabit a virtual word where they can pick up fat, middle-aged guys pretending to be 14 year old girls?

A case could be made that due to the PS3's high price the bulk of its users are possibly informed hardcore gamers, whom are all too enlightened to swallow this bullshit. But one could also assume that software like Home could be effectively used to market at the more casual gamer, just an extra little carrot for the "soft-core" crowd, bringing in new users and helping shift units. I'm sure the latter is already happening as, as I mentioned above, the idea of Home sounds pretty good on paper and in marketing blurbs; it's only when you get your hands on it that you realise it's not all it's cracked up to be.

However much I personally think Home is a waste of effort, time, money and opportunity, I think I'll shy away from proclaiming its failure until we have some hard figures to peruse. I have a nagging feeling that possibly Sony could surprise us. Well, maybe not Sony but PS3 users. In a sense I kind of hope they do because I am tired of all the PS3-bashing, even though Sony has, in its disastrous attempts to keep hold of its PS2 lead into the next generation, deserved every bit of scorn it has been subjected to. The Playstation 3 is an awesome piece of hardware, and more and more excellent games are being released. I want it to do better than it is, and the only things stopping that right now are Sony, its executives and their marketing. And possibly Home. One step forward, two steps back?

Not my cup of tea

I'm no great fan of games journalism but I'll admit it has been getting a little better over time. For example, the days a reviewer who openly hates a certain genre of game writing a review of a game in that genre and panning it are, generally, over. What I have noticed, though, is that it's becoming quite common for games trying something different and being criticised for it for not doing it "right", meaning the way the reviewer was expecting it. The same reviewers, mind you, who usually harp on about innovation. The reviewers who think they are part of quality control and game design and think their input is a necessary requirement to make a game good.

Three titles that have received this treatment recently in various dark corners of the internet and pod-sphere, which, I'll admit, are three titles I personally am a great fan of, are Mirror's Edge, Little Big Planet and Biohazard 5. And some of the reactions have me stumped.

In Mirror's Edge, for example, the player, through her parcour adventures, may pick up a gun or two. It was obviously a design decision to handle this a certain way, namely that it interferes with the running and jumping, which is what the game is about after all. So you can pick up a gun, yes, you can use it, yes, but really you should be thinking on your feet, literally. Grab, fire, drop and run. Aside from the fact this is a refreshing approach in the usually gun-porn heavy FPS genre, I like it for forcing the player to stick to the game's main control scheme. Yet, if some reviewers are to be believed, if you show a gun in a game, the game has to function as a full-blown FPS in the Call of Duty sense of the word. They moan that the intentional gimping of the controls is a tease, a broken design. Every game with guns, they imply, has to work as a perfect FPS shooting game, or else!

Biohazard too suffers from this reviewers' myopia. The game makes it impossible to run and shoot at the same time, which, as it did in Biohazard 4, causes some tense, intense moments where you sweat it out, cornered by a horde of zombies all coming at you with pickaxes and chainsaws. Every bullet you fire requires you to stand still and aim carefully, much like you would in real life incidentally. Yet people seem to complain you can't run and shoot at the same time, that when aiming the camera moves slower and that you can't strafe. In short, they complain it isn't Call of Duty or any other fast-action run-and-gun FPS.

Little Big Planet too has seen some controversy over their Z-jumping where, in an essentially 2D game the player is automatically put into one of three levels of depth. Now to be honest I too was a little disoriented by this. But a few levels in it just clicks and it doesn't become a problem anymore (except in a few badly designed levels floating out there). There are certain rules for the level-sorting and they make perfect sense, and once you wrap your head around it and don't fight it it works beautifully. But as it is essentially a 2D game experience people complain it isn't 2D enough and that this weird 3rd dimension to the levels with its automatic jumping around is a total game-breaker.

Of course there are plenty of people who, like me, love the games above and click nicely with the control schemes. But a small, often vocal minority seems to think doing something different it a bad thing. What is the harm in thinking something just is not your cup of tea? Personally I hated the early entries in the Biohazard series, mostly because of the controls. I didn't criticise them for doing it wrong, I didn't expect them to do it differently, I just didn't like it and hence didn't play the games. Only when Biohazard 4 came around did I give the series another go and I was hooked. (For non-Japanese Xbox360 users, by the way, the demo for Biohazard 5 is utterly awesome; it's Biohazard 4, basically, with a little plus alpha.)

The way Mirror's Edge designed its weapons use, Biohazard its limited moving and firing capabilities and Little Big Planet its 2.5 level sorting are uncommon, yes, and they might need some time to get used to. Some people might just plain not like it. But so what? It works for some. Don't demand a game to be more like what it isn't, open your mind or simply don't play it; just play the shooters and 2D platformers that conform to your expectations and leave the rest of us to enjoy something different.

J-Dev Confidential 7

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 7 - You and I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J-Dev Confidential 6

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 6 - Staffing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J-Dev Confidential 5

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 5 - Cultural myopia

Most countries, to be fair, have a level of nationalism and ignorance of anything outside their borders. In Japan, though, this seems to be true to the extreme. Despite a tenuous love affair with anything (Western) foreign and years of schooling your average Japanese knows nothing of any foreign culture or language. It really isn't for lack of trying or desire, but really, Japan is isolated, mentally.

And there is nothing particularly wrong with this. Some researchers have even pointed out that Japan's isolation has some good side effects in terms of social control and safety. The problem in this context, however, is that the video game market is a global one, with North America being the biggest, and Japan's continuously shrinking into insignificance. In a Gamasutra interview Nippon Ichi producer Souhei Niikawa is quoted as saying:

"My goal is to make a game that will sell in Japan, and hope that if it sells in Japan it will sell in America too."

This sentiment is so common, in fact, that I would have thought it was a government mandated strategy if it wasn't for companies like Capcom and a handful of others who have recently aimed their sights at North America first and foremost.

Most companies set at work creating a Japanese game for Japanese audiences, with a vague idea it might get localised and released in the West once it's finished. This gives rise to bad planning when it comes to localisation, with no automatic systems in place once translations start to be made, which in turn is responsible, mostly, for the long delays Japanese games see for Western releases. You can also see this kind of lack of planning in bad GUI design, where in Japanese there is enough space for a single kanji but not the multisyllabilic German equivalent. Then there are those name input sections with space for only 4 or 5 characters, enough in Japan but nowhere else, and those weird text input screen layouts where an alphabet is retroactively fit into the usual kana chart layouts. Extra delays are seen when programmers, with absolutely no language skill other than Japanese are copy/pasting foreign texts into the code from translated spreadsheets, giving rise to bugs like mistranslations, bad copying, missing special characters and problematic sentence breaking. On top of that there are numerous stories of creatively arrogant producers who demand literal translations, thinking a rewrite is not true to the spirit of the original, instead of realising a literal translation is simply ugly or makes no sense whatsoever. In short, for most Japanese games localisation isn't even an afterthought, it's never even thought at all until localisation projects start up after completion of the Japanese version. It's an expensive mess.

Aside from this we also see cultural gaffes, like the notorious but predictable outcry over Biohazard 5 (Resident Evil 5), where early footage showed us a Caucasian protagonist mowing down hordes of zombies, who just happened to be African, set in Africa. In Japan there seems to be the belief that without intent there simply is no insult. In an interview regarding a disgustingly racist and xenophoic magazine a while back (not related to gaming nor Capcom!) the writer defended his use of the word "nigger" by saying it wasn't a bad word in Japan, so don't get upset. The inclusion of the takbir as a throwaway sound effect in Zak & Wiki caused uproar amongst Muslim crowds, much to the surprise of the developers. In many cases of such cultural misunderstandings all it would have taken was for a foreign employee to tap the producer on the shoulder and say "ahem, you know some people will take issue with this, right?" But Japan, bless their hearts, are so unaware of other cultures and how they perceive things, the fact such issues could arise is simply unthinkable. Especially in these sensitive times this can be a real issue, as Sony showed us with the recent Little Big Planet disaster.

It's funny that two of the above examples revolve around Capcom, one of the few corporations that have publicly stated their intent of focusing on Western markets and working systems. The fact they courted controversy, entirely by accident and ignorance I am sure, just goes to show the baby steps this industry is still taking and just some of the many obstacles it has yet to surmount. Just imagine how many deeply insulting gaffes are hidden away in titles that will never see a Western release? Imagine the uproar if these were to be localised.

Now I am not advocating an overly political correctness onto the Japanese as a whole. I'm merely pointing out that they should be aware where problems could arise and then decide if they think it's worth it or not to continue along that path. I'm sure in the end the Biohazard 5 hooplah did give Capcom some extra publicity, so it's not all bad. But claiming ignorance is simply not going to cut it. One of these days a Japanese developer will innocently create a clownish in-game character called Allah who runs a pork shop and plunge Japan into a diplomatic crisis. To do business globally requires a global awareness. Japan lacks this entirely, and though it's only causing minor controversies now, it is another hurdle they need to overcome in efforts to modernise the industry.

With this also should come a greater understanding of Western markets. A lot of people claim Japanese games are better, more fun because they have a certain je ne sais quoi , but these arguments usually revolve around just a handful of games. The few games that get localised and released in the West and are successful are a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the wider market in Japan. There is a lot of sub-par shovelware here (as there is in the West to, it must be said) and many games that will simply not appeal to a Western gamer. You may claim hentai mahjongg games or homosexual boys' love story and rub-down games could sell in the West, but my contention is it'll sell only to a tiny niche market, so outside of the wider market reality. As little as Western publishers understand Japanese audiences, the Japanese understand even less of Western audiences. This explains the "develop for Japan, pray for success in the West" mentality of today, but that won't cut it with the increasing budgets and risks of the current generation hardware.

I'll conclude this rant with a personal experience. In my career in Japan I have worked on a series of games that traditionally sold better in the West, in sheer numbers, than it ever did in Japan. At no point was this ever taken into consideration during development; we were still always creating a game for Japan, ignoring future localisation issues until the game was finished. In content too, when I was feeling bored or ambitious, I'd sometimes create something that might appeal more to Western audiences, or suggest game ideas in the same vein, only to have them uniformly scrapped because they never really meant anything to my Japanese colleagues. Similarly, content was included that was typically Japanese but meant nothing to Western audiences. "How would you translate this, JC?", I'd be asked and I'd tell them a literal translation with the caveat that even that would mean absolutely nothing in the West where we simply didn't have or understand such things. These would of course still be included and later cause headaches for the translators. And though initially I tried to make my views heard and understood on these matters, in the end I was met with the usual "but this is Japan" response and it's not my job to streamline business or development, but simply to do my art job and play nice. And yet it still annoys me that such simple opportunities were ignored due to lack of interest in or understanding of the audiences.

NOTE: Japanophiles may claim it's exactly that quirky, untranslatable Japanese-ness that forms the charm that gives the appeal, but, even if that is the case, which is arguable, you need not lose that by including extra content to appeal to a wider audience. But that is just my personal opinion.

Change is afoot. The hard realities of Japan's failing market and the unstoppable rise, credit crunch notwithstanding, of both the quantity and quality of Western games is too much to ignore. More and more Western games are being published in Japan and the market too will soon enough realise their home-grown output is rather lacking. In order to survive the bigger Japanese companies must necessarily consider North America and Europe as their main market, and this requires an understanding of those cultures, an understanding currently lacking. One thing that would help is more foreign employees to mix in with their Japanese counterparts to create a healthy mix of diversity on the work floor. This, I think, is the first actual change we'll see and is already occurring to an extent, which I'll discuss more in my next post in this series detailing "staffing".

J-Dev Confidential 4

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 4 - Decision making

Once, a few years ago, the company I was working for moved the entire operation to new premises. Obviously, the staff were all needed to help move and set up the new offices. Three of my colleagues were charged with setting up a large metal bookcase. They moved it to the designated location and proceeded to unpack all the books and manuals from the cardboard boxes and put them on the shelves. Not one hour later it was made clear somehow, for some reason, the location just wasn't acceptable. So my colleagues proceeded to take all the books off the shelves again and manhandled the bookcase to its new location, where they eventually refurnished the shelves with all the books. Later that day it became necessary to delve under the floorboards to reroute some cables, except, of course, that particular bookcase was in the way. So again, my colleagues took all the books off the shelves, this time depositing them on nearby desks and moved the bookcase out of the way so the programmers could spend the afternoon on their knees laying out the cables. After which, of course, the bookcase was again placed in its location and the books put back on the selves. The whole scenes could have been filmed in time-lapse to the backing of "Yakety Sax".

Though this serves as a wonderful example of planning and decision making, it would be unfair, not to mention untrue, to paint this as a uniquely Japanese problem; spurious decision making, or lack of any kind of solid decisions, retroactive planning and foreseeable last-minute changes leading to the ever irksome "feature creep" are commonplace in our industry, worldwide. However, due to cultural circumstances the problems seem, on the surface at least, somewhat exacerbated over here, despite the fact the Japanese work hierarchy would appear to be more protected from this due to their "auteur" approach. The boss generally has the last say, in everything, but the director is basically in charge. On paper this sounds great; a single vision to drive the design would seem a great way to work compared to, say, design by committee. However, in Japan, hard decisions are a bad thing, culturally. So in the end you have an auteur who directs but makes no real decisions, sometimes only implying them, sometimes just hoping things will fall into place - or to make them fall into place with long stretches of crunch.

I don't quite yet have a grasp of the cultural angle of decisions in Japan, even after these many years here. A simple "yes" or "no" are shunned in favour of implied understanding, usually. People in positions of responsibility never act on that responsibility. Decisions are pushed as high up the hierarchical chain as possible, passing the buck again and again until someone high up puts a stamp on it, to everybody's relief. Finding a consensus is usually much more important than making a decision, which is one reason why meetings in Japan take so long. It is also a reason why decisions are never set in stone.

I must add at this point there is a school of thought in video game development that shuns decisions too, not just in Japan but globally. Some people seem to be under the impression game development is a kind of unstable alchemy, a special unknowable magic that can only be harmed by sticking to early decisions. Though I agree there should be a certain flexibility in development, this abhorrence to decision making usually does more harm than good. Certain elements of development can and should be set in stone and areas of change should be anticipated and prepared for. Instead we hear horror stories of massive delays when someone somewhere decides at a very late juncture that the whole focus of a game should shift dramatically. I don't think that is good business. In Japan however, even the little things seem to work this way.

In short, my rant, my biggest personal complaint about the Japanese system, is that there is a total lack of planning on every aspect of development. Sure, there are so called "planners" here, that take on the role of a designer in the West, creating long asset lists, documents, stories, ideas, and whatnot, it's just that, well, they're not very good and are prone to change continuously over the course of a project, either due to lack of oversight, which appears the most common, or random changes mandated by management.

In an ideal world, any part of development, in this example asset creation, should follow the following graph:
The yellow line, design, starts well ahead of the creation part, blue. Once the design is strong enough, only then does the artist start the creation process, which will naturally fluctuate somewhat due to creative and technical issues. Once the creation part is done, the implementation, red, should be fairly easy, depending on the tools, and may cause some more changes when the final picture is more complete, as seeing your work in-game will pretty much always cough up some unforeseen issues. The main point is, however, that the main decisions regarding this work have been made before the work is started. Any extra time is spent on polish, making things just that little bit better than required.

In Japan however, I found the following graph to be much more common:
Everybody starts off, go, go, GO! Pre-production is usually a formality where a very slim design document is created before production detailing the story, mostly, and some major points of play, but not much else. The details and hammered out during actual development. So without planning, the creation part just starts, well, creating. While planning catches up, changes have to be made to conform to the plan. Even after implementation, changes to the plan will cause massive set backs. Random changes of direction cause further setbacks until eventually you just have to ship because you've run out of time.

Pretty much uniformly, all the work I have ever done in Japan could have easily been done in half the time it actually took, if only people had planned things ahead a little more. I got a bad reputation for bothering the planners with my questions; "How do you need this to work?", "Have you considered that this here will fuck up that other part of the design?" or "Are you sure? I mean, sure sure?" No, you just do and when changes come, as they invariably do, you just work harder to make it fit. This partly leads to the "work ethic" approach I wrote about last time.

As a side note, I have often heard people marvel at the level of detail of Japanese games. "Individual breakable pots are individually textured, and artists spent a lot of time agonising over such details" people gush. Not to bust that dream too, but from my experience the "detail obsession" is just a way to fill the work day. Either a boss needs people to work but hasn't made any decisions yet, so just tells them there is this one pixel out of place in that one background object, or artists are so bored waiting for decisions to be made they spend their days texturing pots. All this usually to the detriment of the bigger picture. With time running out, I've been in situations where we had a wonderful set of beautifully textured props, but hardly any environment yet to speak of.

What Japan really needs is simple: change control.

Now change control is a little contentious, even in the West. What this at its most basic means is that any change has to be justified. How this is done depends on the system you use, but the most important thing is that when a change is requested people sit down and discuss its merits or demerits first before just going "ok!" and working weekends to get it done. For example, "make it more red" seems like an easy change, but with one particular set of tools, and the fact this particular red was spread over many levels, even a simple colour change would have taken a few days of work and testing and heartache. The main question is of course, "if you wanted it this red, why didn't you say so before we made it?", but the current system of "make it as I see it in my head" doesn't allow for such searching questions. The next best question then is "is it worth the extra work to change this red, respective of the benefits we could potentially achieve?" Again, in Japan the answer would be "just come in weekends and make it happen", but as soon as you start calling people on their decisions, they will actually realise those decisions have consequences and those consequences must be dealt with, not by the pit ponies, but by the people responsible for making the decisions.

Change control could help to an extent in development, but like previous posts, there is a huge underlying cultural force at work, which will be very hard to shift. Being decisive is rude, being rude is bad. Forcing people to consider their decisions can lead to embarrassment, and embarrassment must be avoided at all costs. It's a shame, though, because taken at face value, Japan's hierarchy of development, the "auteur" approach, seems to be a pretty good one. But with that one puzzle piece missing, "decision making", the whole system just flounders.

In Japan you neither have autonomy nor direction over your work. And though I may sound like a prima donna occasionally, I actually prefer to have solid direction. I have worked in this industry long enough to know if I want to do my own thing, I should do it on my own, at home, outside of work. Game development is a team effort and great direction is a Godsend. I would assume. When I started interviewing when I first came to Japan I was often asked, presumably because I was foreign and suspected of being opinionated, "how do you deal with direction?". These days my honest answer would be "I dont know, I've never really had any."

The problems with sudden freedom

Daytime Tokyo is a strange place and one I have experienced surprisingly little until now. My days used to be spent at work and the 500 meter bubble around it, and the long commute to and fro, with occasional weekends here and there, which doesn't count. No, the Tokyo of weekday daytime is something altogether different. It's less crowded for sure, but it's also strangely noisy with workmen doing this and that and builders building as well as garbage men garbaging.

The biggest shock, though, comes from the old people, who are literally everywhere. Not just old, but ancient they are and have earned the nickname "obatarian" from the more daring young folks. The word is derived from "obaba", or granny, and "batarian", zombie. And they are. They float around town in their own little bubble, not caring a jot for others. They cut queues, push you around the supermarket if you happen to stand in their way and take over tables in coffeeshops previously reserved by others by use of a coat or bag. They simply don't care. When they do care, they are worse still. They take the role of citizen Stasi, vocally forcing people to adhere to rules, either real or imagined.

I was standing in a train, minding my own business, thumbing an email on my mobile phone, when one of these obatarian approached me. "Is that a mobile phone?" she asked me, in Japanese obviously. Slightly surprised by the question I smiled and said yes; possibly she had never seen one before? Or was surprised to find a dirty foreigner with his hands on such amazing Japanese technology? But no, "Switch it off!" she said. My smile dissipated and I told her I was just emailing, knowing full well it's very bad etiquette to talk in your phone on the train. Japanese trains are very quiet due to this little rule and I personally quite like that. She wasn't impressed, "off!" she demanded. Not quite knowing what to make of all this, as the obatarian returned to her seat, I noticed an older woman standing next to me shooting daggers at the granny. This gave me the impression that yes, this obatarian was just a busybody, insane maybe even. I ignore her and continued my email. A few seconds later she approached me again with the same demand. I flipped my phone shut and turned away from her with, I was hoping, obvious disrespect. At the next stop a young Japanese girl came in holding her phone open. No sooner had she boarded or the old witch approached her too with the demand, much to the girl's shock. At least the woman was just insane, not racist.

Later I found out what she harping on about. They recently changed the rules somewhat; phones are asked to be switched off near the elderly priority seats, indicated now by yellow hand grips, rather than the white ones. This amounts to about 2 square meters at the end of every other carriage. A ridiculous concept, like a smoking section next to a non-smoking section, even if phones were to be proven to be harmful, which they haven't. I was still miffed at the woman though, for she wasn't actually sitting in a priority seat, and had I taken a small step to the left I'd have been out of the "zone", something I wish I had known and rubbed into her face. Either way, who appointed her police of Tokyo railway's manner rules? Next time 'll be better prepared. Mind you, I was already in a bad mood because earlier that day another obatarian ignored the queue in the supermarket and just went straight through as if she was the only 120 year old on the planet.

Another small problem I found with my sudden freedom from work is an acute caffeine withdrawal. Now usually these come as headaches, occasionally on the weekends, as I used to drink an awful lot of coffee at work. I'd have, say, 1 on the way to work, 1 when I arrived, one or two every hour until lunchtime, one during lunch and the last one of the day just after lunch. A good 10 orso cups a day, if not more. When I quat I didn't drink any at all and my body revolted. No headaches this time, but pure nausea. I spent one whole day in bed, my head swimming sickeningly. No fever, no runny nose, so no cold, but I couldn't do a thing. I have since upped my coffee intake enormously, with the plan to cut down little by little over the next few weeks. I think one or two cups a day should be my eventual goal.

Then, of course, there is Little Big Planet...oh boy. I knew from the Beta I would like this game, but I had no clue it would grab me so entirely. Hours and hours I've spent on it, playing the game, collecting the bubbles, creating my on "masterpieces"... the game is an absolute wonder, the game of the decade, beyond any shadow of a doubt. Sure, it still has some issues, and the servers seem to go up and down a lot, but generally, it's pure awesome. I recommend it to anyone. If you want to check out my first level, one I spent a disgraceful amount of time on, as well as many sleepless nights as my imagination pondered the many things I wanted to create, search for "Count Sackula's Castle". Even if you hate the level, which you might, you'd do me a tremendous favour if you "heart" it, and me, as the "author". Apparently Sony's derivative trophy system has also got its hooks in me! This game will be the first for which I shall unlock all trophies, one way or another.

As you can see...a productive start to my creative freedom. To be fair, I haven't had a holiday in quite a while, so a little downtime is deserved, I recon. But maybe I should try thinking of spending it on something other than Little Big Planet.

J-Dev Confidential 3

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 3 - Work ethic

One of the most persistent Great Lies of video game development is that overtime, unpaid naturally, is an unavoidable necessity. So ingrained is this fallacy that even non-management developers sometimes defend this position. The reasoning is fairly easily debunked, though, as it usually follows the line of "Game X took a lot of overtime to finish. Game X was a success. Therefore game X could not have been made without a lot of overtime". If "Game X" is a big hit it is sometimes even extrapolated to "successful games cannot be made without a lot of unpaid overtime". Only recently has this trend been brought to the limelight and is actually, in the US mostly, being addressed in baby steps. Japan is no different. I don't think I've ever had a job interview, neither here nor back home, where I wasn't posed the question "so, how do you feel about overtime?" And though the correct answer would be "You pay overtime? Great!", if you want the position you are pretty much forced to say "well, it's all part of the process, isn't it?"

On top of the usual crunch madness, Japan also suffers from the lingering remains of a more hierarchical past, where it was, and to an extent still somewhat is, bad form to be seen to leave work before your boss does. Though this rule is on its way out, it is still felt, possibly subconsciously, by the majority, who will refuse to leave work at a decent hour.

Now, your average Japanese is no idiot. With crunch and the unspoken rule of working late, they know for a fact they won't be coming home at a decent hour, so why kill yourself? Obviously, you come in as late as possible too, and spread your work out to fill a longer work day, rather than try to get more work done in more hours. The periods in between are filled with procrastination; reading, eating, chatting and even sleeping at your desk. Paradoxically, procrastinating at work is actually quite tiring, so in the end the sum total of this attitude leads to late starts to the day, not much actual work being done, leaving work late and still feeling increasingly tired as the days drag on.

This is in my humble opinion, by far, the single most destructive and inefficient, not to say unhealthy, both physically and economically, problem of the Japanese game development industry today! It also gives rise to the false image of the "great Japanese work ethic"; coming in late, staying late and not doing much work during the day is in fact a very bad work ethic. The people I worked with were in a perpetual state of drowsiness at all times.

I have always tried to set myself very strict working hours; I come in early, on the dot, every single day. If I'm tired I'll just drink more coffee and make a mental note to go to bed earlier that evening. As a result I also always make sure I leave at exactly the same time every evening. Sometimes, of course, if I'm close to finishing something I'll hang around a little longer, but only ever in fractions of an hour, not multiples. This, I have found, made me unique at the companies I've worked for. Also, by filling my days (mostly) with focused, hard work, rather than loafing around filling my time, I usually got the reputation of being an extremely fast worker, surprised, as my colleagues were, that I could finish a task that would take 1 hour in, well, 1 hour.

It was always a little painful to watch colleagues get more scruffy and tired and bug-prone as projects lingered on; coming in in the morning to a sight of sleeping bags and snoring (and nasty, sweaty funks). I'd get my coffee and start work. Hours later my colleagues would finally be roused and sleepily start their work, not being able to concentrate well, taking naps at their desks during the day. Then I'd leave on time, leaving them all behind to eat their instant ramen suppers to greet them in the exact same fashion the following morning. I honestly do not think I possess any amazing technical skills, so the fact I usually end up finishing my stuff quickest and with the least number of bugs at the end of the projects I've worked on would suggest my attitude was, in the end, much more constructive and productive, and at the very least, I kept my health and sanity in tact (arguably).

Now forcing unpaid overtime is actually illegal in Japan, but as with most laws, it's difficult for the government to actually make it stick. Every year however the labour standards committee sends out research parties to investigate larger companies' working practices and has a tradition of penalising a whole load of them for inevitably failing to adhere to the legal minimum standards. There are actually a few game development studios that have stricter working hours and some kind of overtime pay scale; you can bet you bottom dollar these were victim of the labour standards committee's random checks; that's the only way things seem to change for the better in these cases.

As a foreign employee in Japan my advice is to make sure you do your work on time and try to stick to contracted hours as much as possible, or you will work yourself to an early grave or mental institution. Also familiarise yourself with the labour standards law. The mere mention of these laws will make any employer back down from unreasonable demands. Though this will keep your health in check, it will make you opt out of the political game at work. For promotion you must still be seen to be a team player, which in turn means always staying late, no matter what the workload, the deadline, personal situations or how late you start your actual workday.

Soon, part 4, "decision making".

J-Dev Confidential 2

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 2 - Serfdom

A few decades back, when Japan was riding high in their economic boom and the world was looking at Japanese businesses and management to copy their techniques, there was such a thing called "job for life", where anybody entering into employment within a corporation was pretty much guaranteed to be able to earn a wage within that company in one form or another for the rest of his life. When Japan's economic bubble burst, this admirable situation obviously died with it. "Job for life" hasn't existed in Japan for a while now, yet the attitudes still linger, from both the employers' and employees' sides.

In Japan the average employee works for the good of the company and not so much his own benefit. This may not sound too bad, and honestly, it probably isn't. In the West, especially the UK, I have found people have a bit of a bloated sense of entitlement, which often leads to unhappiness, complaints and bitterness, lacking a strong sense of responsibility. Japan seems the opposite, where people have a strong sense of responsibility yet almost none of entitlement. Neither situation is ideal, but I personally think your average Japanese employee could do with a little self preservation.

There seems to be a blind adherence to do whatever one is asked to do, whether it fits the job description or not, not that I've ever actually seen a job description formalised in Japan. At smaller companies employees can be tasked with cleaning duties, emptying bins, hoovering or wiping down common area surfaces, above and beyond the usual working hours and tasks. A the end of projects everybody chips in with testing and debugging, no matter what group of development is lagging behind or whether or not an employee's skills are better used elsewhere on other projects. When companies move or rearrange desks, the latter happening all too frequently, it is the employees who have to lug around equipment and furniture or relay cables. When schedules are overstretched, as they often are, employees can be asked at a day's notice to come in on holidays or weekends, or stay late, regardless of their private situations or plans. Employees can be lent out to friendly companies for short periods. In short, as an employee you simply belong to a company and do whatever the company wants you to. All of this happens without complaint or questioning.

Now I'm not saying this attitude doesn't have its good sides. Staff turnover seems to, generally, be much lower than in the West, with employees staying at companies for long periods of times, rather than just a few projects. This helps bond teams and collegial familiarity and it helps companies plan their future better without having to worry so much about staffing levels from project to project. The attitude also seems refreshingly devoid of bitching, a favourite pastime in the UK, where everything and everybody about management always sucked and that had to be vocally expressed, even on the workfloor. It is actually quite nice to work in an atmosphere where people try their best in the face of bad odds and punishing schedules rather than complain like a prima-donna the moment something extra is asked of them.

It has gone too far though, and I don't really like to use the term "exploitation" but often it can seem that that is exactly what management does with its employees. Employees don't complain or move jobs so much, so it's pretty safe to ask them to do anything, at any time, at whatever cost. And they do. When a director drastically changes his mind on some design issue but doesn't change the schedule or budget, it's up to the team to catch up an make it happen; if or when it doesn't happen, it is obviously also the team's fault. When a product is miraculously shoved out the door and onto the shelves, the employee may get a few drinks at a cheap izakaya at the company's cost, but completion bonuses are reserved for management, All in all, the employee is a chunk of man-month to deploy as the company sees fit.

None of this is particularly unique to Japan, it just seems to be driven to extremes here. In an ideal world employees keep their sense of responsibility but learn to stand up for themselves a little. By making management take responsibility for their mistakes or decisions management can be streamlined and, well, educated better, which in turn leads to better working systems and attitudes. It's a difficult balance, of course, as too much of a sense of entitlement leaves everybody dissatisfied, yet too little leaves employees open to abuse. I don't have any solutions for this, which is a little useless, as it would require a huge cultural change over the entire Japanese mindset, which, frankly, seems unlikely.

What usually happens is that Japanese employees with a sense of individuality and a drive to excellence for themselves personally, rather than collectively, end up leaving the country and going somewhere where their skills are appreciated for what they are. Within our industry this usually means moving to the US or starting your own company - not a unique Japanese thing, actually. This leaves the employers falling back on the usual practice of hiring inexperienced and dirt-cheap graduates.

All this is changing, slightly, at a snail's pace. Job-hopping is slowly losing its stigma. The days that having more than a couple of companies on your cv being viewed as a bad sign of unemployability are coming to a close. With employees free to switch jobs easier, companies that offer the best package and working conditions will win out over those that rely on employees' sense of responsibility alone. This in turn will lead to a competition between companies to create the best working environment to lure the best employees. This, I think, is a healthy thing.

It might have been a bad idea to start this series of posts with this particular subject as management types will obviously not see this as a problem at all, but those that do are faced with Japan's cultural mindset, which is not something that can be changed so easily. Personally I have managed to keep my own interests protected while working at Japanese companies, calling my leads out when they made unreasonable demands, like asking me to come in on a bank holiday weekend when I had already planned a trip, or telling them I wasn't going to attend this late night meeting and they should reschedule it for tomorrow morning. It didn't make me very popular, but at least in one company it did help solidify the otherwise meaningless core-hour rules that were already in place; they started to only schedule meetings within those hours and not after. Of course, it's all a matter of give and take. Had I taken the purely Western approach of "look after nr. 1" I could never meet them halfway; I had to occasionally do my overtime and weekends, or stay at a late night meeting once in a while, even do some cleaning duties occasionally, always letting them know it was a special circumstance, something I did for the company but not something they can always rely on. This seemed to work well, as they had trouble thinking of me as arrogant and entitled, as I did sometimes give more than I was required to, yet at the same time letting them know it wasn't cricket. Colleagues who saw me "get away" with such behaviour were inclined to follow my example. One of the companies I worked for was actually going in the right direction with this, in some small part, I'd like to think, to my insistence that I wasn't going to stay at work late to help a programmer I worked with if he came in after lunch.

Soon, part 3, "work ethic".

J-Dev Confidential 1

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 1 - Preface, "This is Japan!"

As someone who has recently decided he couldn't handle it anymore, any direct criticism from my part would and should be taken with a grain of salt. It could easily come across as sour grapes and, if I'm brutally honest with myself, some of it probably is. I had high hopes of my career, none of which came to fruition, mostly due to decisions on my own part, but some of it due to how things are done round here. Though I will focus mostly on the latter, readers should not forget that I am not so arrogant as to assume I myself am without blame, and that I am making a scapegoat of an industry I have failed to make an impact on. Instead remember that these posts are an honest attempt at looking at what I, in my humble opinion, consider to be the major failings of the Japanese video game development industry in the hope these things can be addressed, for the greater good, as it were. I may sound like I'm bitching, but I am trying my hardest to be constructively critical. My apologies in advance if I seem to stumble occasionally.

Also let me preempt some critical feedback. I am fully aware Japanese games enjoy a certain status with a certain group of people who will gleefully point to all the industry's successes as proof that my observations are academic at best. It is certainly true that some excellent, amazing titles have come from these shores, but my contention is that these titles have been made despite the way the industry works, and not because of it. Though the industry in Japan has a few kinks that allows, nay forces more creativity in certain areas, as a whole it is still a lumbering beast with many flaws and coughing up blood. The fact a team of developers managed to create masterpieces like Zelda, Super Mario Galaxy or Ico goes more to show the great talent of these teams than prove the Japanese way of doing things actually works. If anything it is as inefficient as a solar-powered sunbed, and I can only imagine, excitedly, what these teams could accomplish had they a better working system.

There is of course a growing awareness of Japan's status in the global video game market. More and more similar reports are cropping up of industry high-rollers such as Yoichi Wada, president of Square-Enix, and Kenzo Tsujimoto, of Capcom, incidentally one of the first high-profile companies to make it an active goal to pursue the Western markets over the local ones in both product and development practices and Hideo Kojima Some consumers are even getting a little irked by all this negativity; but I don't see it as pessimism. The fact major Japanese corporations can stand up and publicly admit Japan is fading fast in the shadow of Western technology and development is the kind of acceptance that leads to improvement and a better industry (and market) for all. Once big corporations like Square and Capcom successfully change their businesses others will follow too, or be faced with imminent bankruptcy.

As you can see, I already speak in hyperbole and from a position of false authority, putting forth my theories as facts. In the posts to follow I am sure this tone will continue, so I must humbly ask the readers to remember these are all conjectures, based on personal observations and musings. And it takes a big man to admit he is wrong. I am not a big man.

Now you may ask what the point is of this series. Why didn't I discuss this with my colleagues and employers at the time? Well, I did, sort of. The many problems I'll discuss in later posts I have talked about with colleagues, even my boss. The end result was always the same: sympathetic nods, agreement, acceptance of the futility of the situation, understanding the need for change, all rendered moot with that single, ever-present line "but this is Japan", as if to say, "you're right, of course, but this is simply how things are done round here, old chap." This is an argument you cannot fight against. Whenever people see the correct way to solve a destructive issue but decline to act because it's not the done thing, you might as well, as I did, give up. In certain areas I have tried to lead by example, with some limited successes, but in the end Japan's immovable object was too immovable and my irresistible force of change all too resistible.

Also, don't be too discouraged if you are one of those who is working towards or dreaming of a career in video game development in Japan. As a series focusing on the negatives it will naturally come across as all doom and gloom. Also, I believe if you are aware of the problems you won't get wrong-footed or short-changed when you finally get here. You'll know what is going on and be more informed before making any decisions. If you really want to work here, don't let these articles dissuade you. Let them help you have realistic expectations. And who knows, maybe you will be the one to bring the winds of positive change at your future company.

Finally, no, I have no intention of lifting my veil of anonymity and openly discussing the companies I have worked for; many issues are wide-spread but not omnipresent, some issues I know exist even though the places I have worked at didn't actually suffer from them. I am trying to paint a rather broad picture here and it would be unfair, not to mention unprofessional, to assign all these ills to a few particular companies. However frustrated I grew as an employee I don't actually harbour any bad feelings towards my former employers and I do not wish to harm their business. So don't ask.

The series will kick off in earnest some time soon with part 2.