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".