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The Story of Score Studios: Westerners Move East

The story behind two Westerners who moved to work at Japanese game studios and then set up their own indie, Score Studios -- and why they've chosen to set up shop in the country widely assumed to be struggling hardest when it comes to development.

I'm standing in front of Tokyo's Shibuya Station, in the middle of a cheering crowd of radical right-wing nationalists. A man in a black van is shouting about the evil of foreign influence on Japan. I roll my eyes as the speaker spews out a racist stream of historical revisionism and slurs, while never meeting my gaze.

I don't make a habit of attending anti-foreigner rallies; I simply agreed to meet someone in this popular Tokyo neighborhood, and the screaming nationalists just happened to be there too.

It's a little ironic, since the man I'm meeting is James Kay, a Dutch-born British citizen who calls Tokyo home. For all the anti-foreigner hate being screamed, Japan needs more foreigners -- especially those like Kay -- if it wants to fight the double threat of an aging population and declining birth rate. It will take foreign entrepreneurs and workers to save Japan.

Kay and his business partner Paul Caristino are the founders and sole members of Score Studios, a new game development studio.

Both are industry veterans, having both worked as game makers in their native countries and Japan -- Kay at Criterion and Marvelous, Caristino at EA and tri-Ace. Score focuses mostly on iPhone development, though it plans to branch out into PC, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network.

Why Japan?

Despite the allure that Japan holds for many in the games industry, Kay has no such romantic notions. "If after three years you're taking photos of Shibuya Crossing, there's something going wrong. I'm not here for the Japanese angle. I live in Japan for my own reasons. I work in Japan for my own reasons."

Kay lives in Tokyo not because of any passionate love for Japanese pop culture, video games, or manga, but for more pragmatic reasons. "Every place has its positives and negative. Tokyo comes out on the plus side."

Caristino, who lives in Fukushima Prefecture, chose to stay in Japan for similar reasons. After working as an English teacher in rural Miyagi prefecture, he found himself in Australia once again. "Not much had changed, and I found myself wanting to go back to Japan more and more. I ended up in Tokyo 10 months later at tri-Ace, working as a programmer in their R&D department," he says.


Paul Caristino

The choice to live in Japan is not, in itself, a particularly exotic or novel one in 2010. While Japan does not have nearly as many foreigners per capita as other major industrialized democracies around the world, expatriates in Tokyo quickly find that they are just one among many.

However, most of the foreigners living legally in Japan are working for someone else. And though many expatriates -- who are willing to leave their home country and make a life elsewhere, are on the whole more adventurous and daring than your average individual -- seem willing or able to brave the Byzantine legal system of Japan and form their own company.

To Kay, there didn't seem to be much of a choice. "I wanted to start a company. I just happened to live in Japan. I live here permanently." The fact that his company was in Japan was inconsequential.

For Caristino, the decision came about as a matter of circumstance. "James was talking about it for a while, and after leaving Tokyo, the prospect of working from home was one I jumped at. It came from long talks about the direction of the company and our own ideas towards game development, and had it been anyone else I doubt I would have done it. You could probably say it was one of those 'right place, right people, right time' things."

Though the fact that Score is based in Japan is almost incidental, Kay did mention that there is at least one added perk to managing a company in Japan. "Once you start a company, you're supporting the welfare state. Employing Japanese, etc. So they won't help you set up a company, but they will prevent you from going bankrupt. The tax office will let you delay payment."


The Joys of Bureaucracy and Paperwork

Making the decision was the easy part. Actually forming the company and making sure it was operating within the law proved to be far more difficult. There are many areas of the law in Japan that are vague and governed by multiple executive bodies within the government, which offer conflicting interpretations of the same regulations.

"It seems there are rules, but rules are often just guidelines," says Kay. "By law, you need to enroll in insurance through the company. When we asked what happens if we don't do it, we were just told 'you should'. There's no penalty if you don't. We want to do it aboveboard. So we paid our accountant to do it."

There are many aspects of the law that can only be handled by specialist lawyers -- which is exactly what Score did. "A friend of Paul's put us in touch with a Japanese lawyer who spoke English. When it was time, we called him to set us up," says Kay.

This was Kay's first step into the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of Japanese business. In just a single meeting, "there were 30 pieces of paper I had to stamp." What all that paperwork was for wasn't clear even to Kay and Caristino. "We let him [the lawyer] do everything. He asked for information, we gave it to him."

"It was 60,000 or 80,000 yen (about $675 to $900) to incorporate. We only needed of one yen of capital. All together, with a lawyer fee, it was less than 200,000 yen ($2,250.)" The company enters a legal grey zone at this point. According to some laws, it doesn't exist, and according to others it does.

"Incorporation was active from the moment we submitted our application," explains Kay. This activation starts a ticking clock, however. From that point, Kay and Caristino had 60 days to register with multiple other government offices. However, their company wouldn't officially exist, according to other governmental bodies, until their application was approved several weeks later.

Once the company was started, management presented the next challenge. Thankfully, experts in Japanese tax law are plentiful. Kay says, "a friend of Paul's recommended an accountant who had started her own company." They entrusted most tax matters to her. "She takes care of the paper work, I just get a stamp it and hand it to the bank," explains Kay.

With the legal work taken care of, Kay and Caristino were able to focus on actually making games. Both were frustrated by the studio system that they had worked under in Japan. According to Caristino, "Japanese people seem to put work above their home life, and as such everybody comes in late and stays late. Everyone seems to work longer, not smarter, and I ended up always thinking there is a great lack of communication, not just between departments, but between people inside the teams."

The Real Work

Kay was even more frustrated. During his time as a studio worker, he created the blog Japanmanship in order to voice his frustrations under the pen name JC Barnett. The blog had quite a following for a period of time, though Kay, busier and happier with running his own studio, has abandoned it. However, those that who enjoyed his writing can still find it at the Score Studios blog.

With the problems of the Japanese studio system fresh in their minds, Kay and Caristino decided to run Score in such a way that they would never encounter similar issues. Aside from the working conditions, the way code and content were handled in Japanese studios seemed outdated to both of them. "There's still a lot of hard coding that goes on," explains Kay.

Kay says that this desire to work on tools shaped the business' founding principles. "We didn't seek for investors; we wanted to be our own bosses. If you get an investor someone else has a say." Though he admits that this "might not be the most-business minded way right now," that's intentional. "Investors want quick returns. They won't let you spend months on the tools."

Says Caristino, "One of the discussions about game development that James and I had was about the creation of a toolset that we could use to build our games on. Being a two man team meant having a well-defined art and asset creation pipeline, so one of the first things I did was to create a tool for James to use, which is basically where he puts all his art, creates all the 2D animation, handles multiple languages, multiple platforms, sounds, scripts and other data. It is the one-stop-shop for all our games. It solved a lot of the problems we could foresee having, and then some."

"Rather than create everything and then put it in the game, I create one aspect, or part of it, say the front-end or some particular in-game assets, load up the tool and see how they work immediately. Nothing is worse than creating a folder full of art only to find out it doesn't quite fit, or is too big or generally needs redoing. The way Paul developed our tool it's very easy to drop my work in the game, press a button and see it running immediately," says Kay, on the Score Studios blog.


Those tools are at the heart of what Score is trying to do as a company. Says Caristino, "Prototypes are done up in script inside the tool and everything is exported to game data files which can be run on whichever platform our engine runs on (currently PC and iPhone). It continues to evolve with every project making the game creation process for each game that much simpler."

This stands in stark contrast to Japanese development, where the tools are made concurrently with the game. This system is one of the major reasons that many Japanese developers were unable to cope with HD development early on. Even high profile titles will use ad hoc development tools from conception to final product.

Despite their frustrations, the pair have taken the positive aspects of the Japanese system and applied it to their work. With each title, one person takes lead in design, while the other supports them. It is the Lennon/McCartney school of game making.

"We have two games in development right now. One is Paul's baby and one is mine. That doesn't mean Paul doesn't have any input. But we do try to keep that auteur system going. It's always better if one person is making the decisions. That's something I picked up from Japan," says Kay. "I do like the auteur system of Japan. It's frustrating, but it does give a unified vision. We picked that up in Score."

The Studio's sheep herding arcade game Flock It, for example, was headed by Caristino because the original idea was his. Whereas their title Togglights, "is an example of a game where James had a clear idea of what he wanted it to look like, I made up some gameplay prototypes of what he wanted and a few of my own and together we decided on how it was to be included in the game, but there was no mistaking that it was James making the major decisions." says Caristino.

The company is "not going to bank on one title making us rich. focus on a lot of titles on a lot of platforms," says Kay. Its goal, instead, is to produce "solid, well-presented games that people will enjoy, but maybe big websites will ignore -- but it will all add up."


James Kay

The bright, clean and visually appealing look that Score's games have owe something to the time Kay and Caristino spent slaving away in a studio. "We like to add Japanese veneer. Not like manga anime style, I mean -- more than photorealistic. It's more design-based," Kay says.

This Japanese attention to design shows through in their games. In the studio's Game & Watch-inspired title, Bail-Out, putting pressure on the screen will cause the image to warp and bend as if it was a real LCD game.

The fusion of elements of Japanese design and Western flexibility and pragmatism is something few studios could replicate. It comes directly from the duo's experiences. This allows them to bring a level of polish and design to a casual market that is sometimes in desperate need of it.

"We're hardcore gamers ourselves, to an extent. We know that to supply that market takes a lot of money, effort, and time. We don't have the resources. Using our professional level development skills, we supply a different market," says Kay.

When asked about his goals for the studio going forward, Caristino says, "James and I have very similar ideas when it comes to what kinds of games we wanted to make and how they should be developed. Our goals were basically to do just that, have fun while doing it, and hopefully make some money in the process. I don't think our goals have changed much, we both enjoy what we are doing now and that was really what we were striving for."

[Photos by Joy Fajardo]

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