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Made In Japan: Western Perspectives On Japanese Game Development

How do best practices in the Japanese game industry differ from the West? Expatriates Gregg Tavares (LocoRoco), Dylan Cuthbert (StarFox), and the pseudonymous JC Barnett discuss what they've learned - and what we can all learn - about game development in Japan.

Ryan Winterhalter, Blogger

April 25, 2007

19 Min Read

The structure and design methods of Japanese developers are radically different than in North America and Europe. Moreover, in most Japanese game studios, there are only a handful of non-Japanese workers.

In addition to the already legendary hours and demands of the game industry, these workers must deal with cultural and language differences, and the demands of their Japanese bosses and peers. While foreign workers make up only a small percentage of the workforce, their experience with Japanese business culture, work habits, and game development give them a different perspective than their Western counterparts. In addition to basic cultural and language difficulties, differences in team formation, office hierarchy, and design philosophy make the experiences of these developers unique.

To a fair number of people Japan is synonymous with games. “…without the Japanese contribution, the games industry might not be around today...” wrote Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights in his foreword on the Chris Kohler’s treatise of the Japanese games industry, “Power Up”. Perhaps no one has a better perspective on Japanese game development than those who come from outside of Japan to work in the Japanese side of the industry. We recently interviewed three such “gaikokujin (foreigner) developers.”

JC Barnett is a pseudonym for an anonymous British national working in Tokyo at an unspecified company. His blog, Japanmanship, covers his perspective on the Japanese game industry as well as cultural observations about Japan. His insight into life, Japanese attitudes towards foreigners, and his strategies for dealing with them (a practice he refers to as “Gamesmanship”) have made him a hit amongst other expatriates in Japan, and his concise and thoughtful evaluations of Japanese work practices in the industry and elsewhere have caught the eye of developers and gaming enthusiasts outside of Japan.

Greg Tavares is a twenty-year industry veteran. He has worked on titles like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates, Wild 9, Crash Team Racing, and Loco Roco. After seven years in Tokyo, he has recently moved back to the United States.

Interplay and Shiny Entertainment's Wild 9 for the PlayStation.

Finally, Dylan Cuthbert made his start in Amiga development in the UK. After catching Nintendo’s eye, he joined Gunpei Yokoi’s team at Nintendo before eventually going on to work on StarFox and put in stints at Sony in the United States and Japan. In 2001, he founded Q-Games in Kyoto and the studio recently revealed 'Pixel Junk', a series of casual titles for the PlayStation 3.

Path to Japan

“I don't think I chose to work here but rather to live here. Tokyo is easy to fall in love with if you're even slightly geeky. So my decision was mostly based on my desire to live in Tokyo. The work in Japan followed from necessity,” says Barnett.

On modern college campuses it’s not uncommon to meet aspiring students who want to work in Japan. Interest in games and interest in Japan often go hand in hand. Many students seek to live in Japan one day. “Although experienced developers seem to be more realistic about it and are more influenced by the stories of long hours, the young ones, or those still wanting to break into the industry still seem incredibly keen. There is some idolatry involved, of course. Everybody thinks they'll be working closely with Mr. Miyamoto on the next Zelda or some other million-selling product,” says Barnett.

Nevertheless, curiosity brings exchange students, English teachers, and game developers to Japan every year. Taveres says “I had started seriously studying Japanese around 1995-1996. When I was between jobs in late 1997, I thought to myself 'Hmm, I don’t have a girlfriend or wife or kids tying me down so if I really want to learn Japanese I should go to Japan.' So, I chose to go to Japan to learn Japanese. But I had no way of supporting myself so I needed a job in order to live there.“

While most foreign developers make a conscious choice to attempt to live in Japan, this is not always the case. Cuthbert did not set out to live in Japan. “I didn't actually know much about Japan when I first came over here. I had knocked up a 3d demo on the Game Boy for Argonaut Software, and then Nintendo saw it and flew us out to Kyoto two weeks later to show it to their engineers here. Kyoto and the Japanese people left a very good impression on me. So I pretty much decided I wanted to try working and living here from that first impression.

Company Differences

Japanese business culture has a fearsome reputation in the West. Books about life and work in Japan are filled with tales of strict hierarchy, unbreakable protocol, and Japanese proverbs like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Fortunately, the game industry tends to be a bit more laid back. According to Barnett, “There is little deep bowing, keigo (formal Japanese) and nobody wears suits. The leads and often bosses are pretty laid back in informal situations. You can have a laugh with them, go drinking with them. Again, as a foreigner I can get away with more, but I can see my colleagues also acting a little less stiffly than you may think.”

Culture differences can generate conflict says Cuthbert. “Japanese managers are definitely more on your case than Western managers, and sometimes that grates against a certain mentality in Foreigners that they are inherently better... But in almost every case I have seen the manager is simply trying to maintain harmony and order and as a result you get heightened efficiency. I've never come across a Japanese manager who is simply in a bad mood for no reason.”

However, the biggest issue for many office workers in Japan is the working hours. According to proper Japanese etiquette, nobody leaves until the boss and no individual leaves before his or her immediate supervisor. Regardless of whether a single individual has any work left to do. This is compounded by “slacking” during the day according to Tavares.

“Japanese don’t ‘work’ long hours,” he said. “They just stay at work for long hours... It’s mostly a cultural thing. In Japan, they have the Sempai/Kohai system. I believe maybe fraternities and sororities have a system like that (in America). Basically, you as a 'noob' are assigned to be under someone. That person is supposed to show you the ropes and be responsible for you and conversely you are generally supposed to do whatever that person tells you to do.”

“Culturally you are generally not supposed to leave work until everyone above you has left, so if your sempai (senior workers) or your boss has not left, then you should not leave. Not everyone follows that… but that’s the general rule… If you don’t follow the guidelines, you are less likely to get promoted. Although, because of Japan’s economy, most companies can’t offer lifetime employment anymore, (though) most Japanese still act like that’s the system,” added Tavares.

According to Barnett, “Being foreign certainly helps break the mould. But it's a slow process. At a new job, I usually follow the hours of my co-workers but then slowly start to scale down. People have to get used to your working hours slowly. Once they are accustomed to me always being the first in, the fact I'm the first out every day should be less of a shock. In the meantime of course, I must make sure my work is all in order and finished on time. I wouldn't be able to get away with it if my work was late or not up to scratch.”

He continued: “I'm sure my bosses expect me to do the Japanese hours but even they will come round. In fact, I often set a trend with colleagues following my example; coming in and leaving earlier, with me already breaking the "rules" and getting away with it. I find this very encouraging.”

While Japanese work hours are notorious, so are the hours of the games industry. With only so many hours in a day, there is a maximum working time and Japan might not be as bad as the West in this respect, states Cuthbert. “The worst place in the world for working hours is America. I worked in America for about three years, so I know directly, but I still hear from people working in America that they are working both days at weekends, and extremely long hours during the week. I've worked hard in Japan but never to that extent.”

The work hours seem to vary from company to company. Barnett’s blog is filled with tales of co-workers pulling all nighters while Tavares says that “At Sega we worked 10am to 11:30pm 5 days a week with an hour and 20 minute commute each way to the company apartments. I put up with it because I was happy for the privilege to be in Japan. The second time I went to Japan my jobs generally had more normal hours with the occasional crunch period.”

Language and Cultural Issues

The language barrier can prove to be an issue for foreigners working in Japan. It is not uncommon to meet expatriates who have lived in Japan for years but cannot even order food at a restaurant. The US Department of Defense classifies Japanese (along with Korean, Chinese and Arabic) as a level four language requiring 63 weeks of intensive study for a “limited working proficiency”, compared to 43 weeks for level three languages like Vietnamese, Thai, or Russian.

Both Japanese and foreign developers have to adapt to the language barrier according to Tavares. “I think they quickly realized my Japanese was not so good. Still, my programming skills were very good so I was quickly assigned many things others couldn’t do. There was one guy on my team that spoke English and he helped me but I also asked him not to speak any English if at all possible so I could learn (Japanese) better. Lots of communication was done by pictures.”

Cuthbert too faced a barrier when he first started. When asked how the team adapted in his case he said, “They learned English!… Much of Miyamoto's English was learned from the StarFox team. But towards the end of StarFox my progress with Japanese started moving along faster than their progress with English and Starfox 2's communication was entirely in Japanese.”

One of the hardest things for anybody learning Japanese as a second language to learn is Keigo, a series of humble and honorific verb conjugations and vocabulary. It is used primarily in the workplace. One uses humble forms towards themselves and honorific forms towards superiors, clients and customers. In Cuthbert’s case, “I learned regular, spoken Japanese first, and then started peppering it with keigo or formal Japanese as I went along. Because everyone speaks regular Japanese it is much easier to learn than keigo which is stiff and unnatural at times.”

Nintendo's Super Nintendo classic Star Fox.

However, Japanese do not tend to expect foreigners to speak keigo even when it is appropriate. In fact, many foreigners have complained that most Japanese believe that foreigners cannot speak the language at all. To make matters worse it is not unheard of for managers to exploit this weakness in their foreign labor. Barnett says, “At first, when my Japanese was terrible, it was an easy excuse for my bosses to keep dangling over my head even when it wasn't applicable. Anything I asked for, was asked to do or had problems with was always met with the ‘...but your Japanese ability...’ excuse. It took one instance of putting my foot down and threatening to resign for those excuses to end.”

Sometimes Japanese can feel uncomfortable speaking anything but English to foreigners. This is unfortunate because it stunts the growth of one’s Japanese abilities. According to Cuthbert, “They would try to speak English but you just have to have confidence in yourself and not give up or you'll fall back into using English and your Japanese stops progressing as fast as it could.”

Differences are not just limited to language. Some companies have entirely different design philosophies. This was apparent to Cuthbert who had not been exposed to Japanese games in the UK because the NES was not a force in European gaming. In fact it was the projected profits from his game, StarFox that allowed Nintendo to start their European branch. “I was amazed by the attention of detail Nintendo put into even the smallest element of the game design. I really enjoyed working with them because of that. I was also very anal when it came to the details. I would spend hours just fiddling with one pixel to get it into the right place aesthetically. So I found some like-minded people when I worked with Nintendo and that endeared me to Japan even more.”

Attitudes towards the press are different as well. This allows developers some degree of freedom to design without PR and marketing breathing down their necks says Barnett, “This is one thing I do like about Japanese development; (PR, press relations, and marketing) come quite late in development. PR, sales and press are informed of the product rather than consulted.”

Views on the West

Being a foreigner gives one a unique perspective on the industry in part because one can see others’ views on one’s own culture. Foreign markets are becoming more important as the Japanese gaming audience shrinks. But that does not always mean one’s co-workers will take advice according to Barnett. “I remember having an argument with a planner about why we should probably have more than 4 spaces for name entry. Though he could vaguely understand it would be easier for localization, his retorts all came down to the idea that we are making a Japanese game now, a localized version later.”

He continues, “There is a general lack of planning in these matters. Localization is always an issue to be dealt with later, with the focus being the home market. This often leads to immense problems localizing at a later date as you can imagine. Too little space for text, too many textures with texts on, as most things are hard-coded there will be very little automation, etc. I'm sure most developers know the foreign markets are important, as they are much bigger than the Japanese one, but I think few really understand it or what is required.”

Not all developers take that stance. Cuthbert says, “For our Nintendo projects, we tend to think about localization up front and make sure our graphics and text files are switchable to different languages. It eases the workload when we actually move into the localization process later on.”

Part of the problem with developing for foreign markets may be that Japanese developers do not understand what makes games popular in the West. While they appreciate the appeal of their own games, the Japanese market has never opened up to the West and developers may have a hard time dealing with a market that likes both Gears of War and Final Fantasy. According to Cuthbert, “The style of the games can be very "American" or Western in appearance. The themes tend to be much grittier and more realistic, whereas the themes of Japanese games are more abstract and anime-like… Western games don't appeal to the average Japanese gamer's sensibilities. Some do break the mold of course - Crash Bandicoot for example.”

The original Crash Bandicoot for the PlayStation.

Localization issues may have played a role in Japanese acceptance of Western games. Tavares says, “It’s not just about putting on subtitles or fixing UI text. Voice overs need to be in Japanese for them to have the same sense of involvement. Soundtracks may need to be in Japanese if they have lyrics that are part of the game. If there is a radio in the game that has commercials and DJs which are all jokes and add to the enjoyment of the game, unless those are redone in Japanese, the Japanese players will not experience those parts of the game and hence the reception of the game will be less.” Often these things are left untouched when a game is brought over from another territory.

Change is coming, however slowly. “There used to be that view in Japan that Japanese games were better. But in the last few years the number one games have been Western games. On top of that Japan has not stayed up technically and so, seeing the systems Western teams have created to make game development easier has also been an eye opener for Japanese teams,” says Tavares.

Barnett agrees, “There may even be some cultural snobbery at play too. Some Japanese actually look down on Western games, thinking, like so many Westerners that Japanese games are far superior. It's bunk, of course. And sometimes my colleagues seem surprised at the high quality of certain Western games, as if it wasn't thought possible.”

“That said, this viewpoint is becoming increasingly rare as all the evidence points towards a Western development sphere which is far more powerful and cutting edge than the Japanese one and that is hard to ignore,” continues Barnett. “A lot of my colleagues really enjoy playing Western games. A lot of publishers are still afraid to import them though; how long did it take for GTA to make it to Japan? Things are changing in this field just as is the tradition, extremely slowly.”

Needed Changes

Change does indeed come slowly in Japan. It is not unheard of to find governmental offices still keeping financial records with string bound ledgers and a pencil. While the private sector is a bit quicker on the uptake, there are still those resistant to change as noted by Barnett, “Japanese corporations are glacial when it comes to changing with the times. They haven't even sorted out workers rights and sexual equality yet…”

Perhaps the biggest issue facing foreign workers in Japan is pay. According to Barnett’s blog, both artists and programmers earn less than in the West. Tavares says Japanese companies “…hire right out of school and pay very little. A programmer at Sega or Sony would start at around 3 million yen a year or $26k U.S. A top programmer at Sega or Sony makes a maximum of 6 million yen a year or about $52k. Because Japanese companies work that way, they do not value experience.”

He adds: “Fortunately for them and unfortunately for the people working there, they all only speak Japanese, which means the people are basically stuck in their system. Those that manage to learn English have the option to leave to a higher paying system but the rest don’t …so I suspect that system is unlikely to change from external pressure.”

With the industry changing so quickly Japanese companies need to change. But certain practices show no signs of being abandoned. Issues like pay, work hours, rewarding of innovation continue to plague Japanese developers. “The hiring out of college and paying poorly issue has not changed and I don’t know if it ever will or if it will… The inventor of the Blue LED left Japan because he was so angry that the company didn’t give him anything for his invention…Japanese companies reward the least…so his opinion was that all smart people should leave Japan unless Japanese companies change their ways,” says Tavares.

Examples of slow or non-existent change not withstanding, there also are signs of progress in the industry. “I saw a few changes although there is still a long way to go,” Tavares says. “The use of middleware for example happened while I was there. Use of version control systems as well. Also a change from hand coding everything to using level editors and other tools…It’s possible it could change from internal pressure. If one company ever started paying for experience then other companies would start losing their experienced people unless they started paying as well.”

In the end, Cuthbert summed up his views on the industry in the three territories he has lived and worked in.

“The UK is a pub culture - people like to doss and arse about a lot, but they are very good and very skilled at their jobs - when they do them.”

“The US is a corporate culture, everyone is a cog in the machine, even in a smaller company, so there is far less responsibility towards the company and its finances and people assume that they should have the best wage, best equipment, best software, best everything, even if they don't use them. That said, they have great responsibility to the work itself and there are some extremely clever and diligent people there. Corporate politics, gossip and rivalries can get a bit too much.”

“The Japanese games development culture is still slightly "salaryman", everyone kind of avoids responsibility by remaining quiet but they persevere by themselves until they get the product done. Unfortunately, this lack of sharing is hurting the technical development of the games industry here in Japan. The Japanese never give up until all the details are in place and they try and leave nothing haphazard or rough-edged, or oozappa (in Japanese).”

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Winterhalter


Ryan Winterhalter is a freelance writer in Japan. He has written for many publications and websites, including PlayStation: The Official Magazine, 1up.com and Play (UK). He can be reached at Rwinterhalter at gmail.com or on Twitter @rwinterhalter.

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