What’s Japan Doing Differently?

Nov 25, 2009

In 2006, I had the rare opportunity to sit down for lunch with Takayoshi Sato, the CGI Director of Konami’s Silent Hill (1 and 2). I approached him with an interest in learning more about how videogame business and design happens in Japan, which has historically produced dramatically different work than we have seen from the American process.

I wish to emphasize: this exchange took place 3 years ago. It may or may not be representative of Takayoshi Sato’s current views. Projections and theories presented here may or may not be representative the Japanese videogame market today. As a point of reference: the Wii, PS3, and iPhone had not yet come out, and World of Warcraft was only 2 years old – this industry can change a lot in a few years!

Though I did not record the interview verbatim, I did take detailed notes. Although I considered reformatting the notes into a more conventional interview format, ultimately it would have included the same information, but it could have also invited the risk of quotes appearing “from” Takayoshi Sato in my words. The notes here are my notes, in my wording, from the conversation. Although my goal in this transcription has been to convey this developer’s message, my efforts to flesh out my notes into a full sentences has pulled in a few details from what feels like clear memory, and my notes at the time also likely included a measure of interpretation or deduction.

Hopefully this shorter format will also make for a faster, more accessible read than my recent 10-page interview with Atari Adventure creator Warren Robinett

Notes from the Interview

  • American developers engage in internal sales pitches, flashy demo projects, detailed proofs of concept, early visual renders and such to battle for budget increases. In his experience, this didn’t happen in Japan. Teams are assigned realistic and practical budgets for their projects, and then the teams stay within those budgets.
  • The core of project planning begins around, and encircles throughout all development: player control, player movement, and camera behavior. Gameplay mechanics, enemy/level design, artwork, and programming mostly surround and support those systems.
  • Mark Cerny (Marble Madness, Sonic 2, Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet and Clank) started in the US with Atari, but spent years as a developer in Japan, and so is an example of someone who has experience and knowledge from both sides of the Pacific. His most influential contribution to industry practice was popularizing the “Cerny Method”, in which a project doesn’t “go wide” into making all characters/levels until one representative level is fully playable, through several design iterations, and decided to warrant investment into full production.
  • A lot of videogame development in Japan currently seems to be shifting to mobile, but there’s no telling what the market will look like in the future.
  • Japan tends to hire people right out of college. Although something with a business or software engineering focus may be sought for certain types of positions within the company, there are not yet videogame-specific degrees forming any considerable part of the Japanese videogame industry.
  • Japanese companies tend to keep employees for most of their working life. This is done partly as a means of preserving company secrets, partly as a protection of valuable employee relationships, and partly because the culture regards leaving employees as betrayers.
  • In Japanese companies, there may be many workers at any given time sitting around not contributing on a given project or during a given phase – but it’s understood and respected by their peers that those people have given more of themselves in some other projects, and will likely find their way back into future project involvement when the time is right. This is in stark contrast to the frequent turnover in American videogame development companies, where employees often get restless or employers often change direction sharply every couple of years.
  • There are few, if any, significant books or courses on videogame development in Japan yet. They’re likely to appear in the not-so-distant future, but due to the secrecy of business in Japanese companies they’re unlikely to reflect industry practices.
  • Nintendo is a particularly big question mark to everyone. Virtually no one that works first party there ever leaves. Nintendo is known for paying notably high salaries than many other studios.
  • Japanese videogame studios are often merging, and mostly shrinking.
  • Capcom and several other Japanese studios (possibly including Namco?) closed their American studios. Nintendo is one of the few with a foot still firmly in the US.
  • There are virtually no studios in Japan with positions for “game designers” in a non-technical sense. The director, programmer/designer roles, and artist/designer roles work together to cover the job function sometimes relegated to “game designers” in some US studios.
  • Japanese videogame artists work almost exclusively in the resolution, format, and fidelity required by the game, concerned almost exclusively with how their art looks during play. Concept art, and the sort of high detail imaginative sketching that appears on packaging and manuals, is often produced after the videogame’s art needs are filled, while waiting for the game to ship. Rather than being a process step – except in the case of very rough sketches for personal planning – this sort of art gets done late in the process separately, explicitly for use in marketing materials.
  • Creative people in the development process in American studios sometimes become embittered over feeling lack of control in the work they do, losing a sense of ownership. Partly from the culture in Japan being one that emphasizes duty and mutual respect, creative people in Japanese companies seem to be better able to take direction while still feeling an immense amount of ownership in their work.
  • Everyone on a Japanese videogame development team generally understands or sees most of the big picture. There is not an intensely specialized attitude of just being with the company to work on an isolated part, and everyone shares interest in how the work and final product will come together.
  • The culture of duty and mutual respect also results in games which have a much more focused creative vision. Although most people on the team have visibility on and interest in the big picture, they work toward their common goals without the need to force their own ideas into it. This may also be a side effect of the tendency for much lower job turnover – in the US, everyone feels like the features and visible pieces they work on are critical to landing them their next job or role in another company; in Japan, most developers aren’t desperately trying to prove their individual ability because they’re at home with their employer, and feel the most pride from having been a part of the team that worked together to realize a successful vision.
  • No company, on either side of the ocean, is so big or so powerful that anyone can be certain it’ll still be around 5-10 years from now. History is full of surprising upsets that shook up huge companies and industries practically overnight.

(Originally posted as GameDevLessons.com Vol. 8 Sec. 4)

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