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.
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.