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
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.