Special: Cuthbert On Japanese Game Development's Evolution
In our final special report from Japan, Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert (Starfox DS) discusses a number of fascinating topics, including his company's work with both Nintendo and Sony, defeating the 'salaryman' ethic, and how foreign developers operate in Japan.
Present at our interview conducted at the Tokyo Game Show were Q Games' president Dylan Cuthbert (left) and two other representatives from the company - senior programmer James McLaren (middle) and programmer Jerome Liard (right). We started by asking about the history of the 25-person company, which is based in Kyoto, and is not to be confused with the Tetsuya Mizuguchi-headed Q Entertainment (Cuthbert mock-bitterly notes: "We chose our name first!").
Q Games was founded in 2001, and has worked at high levels with Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft on various game technology, prototypes, tools, and fully fledged games through the last 5 years. Most of these have been constructed for internal technology or prototype reasons, and the company recently shipped its first two games as an independent entity, Starfox Command for Nintendo's DS handheld and Game Boy Advance title Digidrive, part of Nintendo's unique 'Bit Generations' retro-styled original game series. Previous to founding Q, Cuthbert has held senior positions at both Nintendo (being instrumentally involved in creating Starfox for Super Nintendo while working at Argonaut) and Sony.
The company's history actually bears repeating, in that a number of the little-known projects the firm was working on are intriguing and relevant to today's market. In particular, Q Games was working with Sony in its early years "developing technology for an online MMO", including much use of generative landscapes and fractal-style constructed worlds.
Cuthbert and compatriots immediately responded to a technology comparison with Will Wright's Spore, noting: "We developed a lot of that same technology." However, after Sony decided they wanted the tech to make a platform shift to PlayStation 2, Cuthbert decided to decline the offer and halt the project.
While the fractal world concepts continued to attract interest, including a prototype of some of the same ideas for Microsoft (apparently only likely to have gone ahead with "a certain big person" external to the company as "the front man for the game", a concept which Q said "no thanks" to).
But the company has been much in demand for complex, technically dense projects, including a Flash animation authoring tool for Sony's PSX game/DVR hybrid, early PSP demos displayed as technology showcases for Sony's handheld (both the 'duck' and 'city' demos were authored by Q Games), and other compiler and tool-related projects for PS2 and PSP. Most recently, senior members of Q's team are helping out with unspecified PlayStation 3 OS technical tasks.
We asked Cuthbert how he has managed, as a European, to operate a successful and still-operating independent developer in Japan, and he notes that his unique history, having "worked at Sony and Nintendo and kept all the contacts", has really helped Q Games to operate at such relatively rarified levels. He commented that Japanese businesspeople "don't tend to break those connections" at higher levels, if the firms are operating in a positive way with regard to each other.
But how is Q, another smaller independent developer in Japan, able to structure itself? According to Cuthbert, the company is made up of the technology team of 4 people, and then a game development staff of roughly about 20 people, a number that is "evenly split between programmers, artists, and designers", plus support staff.
This split isn't necessarily normal for a major next-gen console game, but since the company works a great deal on portable titles of late, Q's president notes of the 5 artists for Starfox DS: "For a DS game it was plenty." In fact, he comments: "I think the DS and the PSP have helped because you can make smaller titles" as an independent developer, and shows a disinclination to expand his company any further, commenting: "I just want to make games that are interesting and have some form of originality in them."
How about contrasts between Japanese and Western development? Cuthbert particularly references: "In Japanese companies, there's a lot more attention to detail for the minuter points of the game" over all game publishers. But he singles out Nintendo as a prime example of this, noting that "Miyamoto-san is very detail-oriented", spotting specific issues or ideas within game software that bear expanding upon. He muses: "No other companies have that kind of person at that [senior] level", noting his belief that the developer-savviness of Nintendo at senior executive levels is one of the reasons it continues to do so well.
On the negative side, the Q boss referenced that overall, "There's more of a salaryman attitude from the Japanese staff", defining this as the idea of "not going all-out [and] keeping undercover" because "...it's dangerous to stick your neck out." However, he makes it clear that it's possible to change this way of thinking over the longer-term, commenting: "You have to break the salaryman attitude."
So how about middleware? Will the adoption of game engines such as the Unreal Engine or other software tools and middleware aid development and help Japanese companies operate more efficiently? Cuthbert opines: "I hope so but I don't see it happening very quickly - it's a bit alien to them." He explains that the kind of middleware equivalent more suited to the Japanese are "...more like the kind of [more basic] libraries Nintendo supplies - these are very easy to use."
Finally, our interview touched on the issues around recruitment in Japan, and he shared an issue we've heard elsewhere for the Japanese market: "Finding programmers is very difficult." This, he said, is "...why we hire from abroad more often than other companies", citing a "lack of basic training in programming" for many entry-level game development staff.
Cuthbert expressed concern that 2-year courses at many Japanese specialty game schools don't train wannabe developers such as programmers in enough detail, musing that, in the worst cases: "After 2 years they haven't learnt anything." He did note that "we get a lot of resumes" for 'planners', somewhat of a game designer equivalent, and artists are somewhat easier to find: "If you search hard, you can find a lot."