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Interview: Tose: Game Development Ninjas

May 19, 2006

The biggest developer you've never heard of.

Tose's HQ in Kyoto

Tose (pronounced "TOH-SEH") is a bit of an unusual company. Their primary business is the outsourced development of games, in whole or in part. The company employs over 1,000 developers in Japan and China, and has been operating in an outsource capacity since 1979. Tose doesn't like to take credit for their work, standing back while publishers or other developers take the praise (or criticism, as the case may be). The titles Tose will admit to working on (most of their portfolio, due to agreements with publishers, is confidential), include Sega Casio, SNK's Sasuke vs. Commander (1980 arcade game), Nightmare Before Christmas (GBA), Shrek: Reekin' Havoc and, Shrek: Hassle at the Castle (both GBA titles for TDK Mediactive), and a series of Nickelodeon licensed mobile games for THQ. The anomaly is Starfy, a series for which the company holds half the IP. The spelling of the game's name has been much-disputed over the years, but our interview put that to rest, determining that Starfy is the official Tose spelling.

As the next generation ramps up, Tose is looking to make further inroads with outsourced development, lending their expertise where needed so that companies don't have to take on added internal staff. At present, 70% of their clients are located in Japan, 15% in China, 10% in the U.S., and 5% in other regions such as Korea and Canada. The company is currently hoping to make a bigger impact on the American market, where outsourcing is still at an experimental stage for many developers. In this interview, Gamasutra quizzes Masa Agarida, vice president of Tose Software USA, Koichi Sawada, director of China sales for Tose US, and Shigeru Chigusa, president and director of Tose Software Shanghai.

Gamasutra: Why don't you push for games like Starfy to come out in the US ? It was a good game.

Masa Agarida: We almost never put our name on a product, so we're always behind the scenes. I guess that's why.

GS: What is the organization of Tose?

MA: We're based in Kyoto, and we were established in 1979. Basically we have 6 studios in Kyoto, 1 studio in Tokyo, 2 in China.

GS: How many people do you employ?

MA: 800 in Japan, 200 in china.

GS: How come we've never heard of you until right now?

Koichi Sawada: Well we're based in Kyoto, right? So we're ninja. You can't find us! But in the past 26 years we've worked on 1,100 games. Including partial games.

GS: For all different publishers?

KS: Yeah, many different publishers all over, even some in the US.

GS: Do you have many of your own original IP?

MA: Nope.

GS: Even with Starfy, that was Nintendo's IP, and you made it?

MA: Starfy is a little bit different. It's the first one where we owned the IP. Actually, we shared the IP with Nintendo. We worked together to create the game from scratch.

GS: Do you do that very often, sharing IP?

KS: No…it's kind of weird, right? Most developers insist on getting the IP, and all that, but we never do.

GS: Why do you choose not to?

KS: Well that's the strategy our president picked. We try to act behind the scenes, and we follow our clients' desires, instructions and everything, so our policy is not to have a vision. In our company, we follow the customer's vision. So instead of showing the Tose brand up front, most of the time we refuse to put our names on the game.

GS: But you put your staff names in the credits, right?

KS: We do, but lots of people use fake names.

GS: Just like the old days of the arcades!

MA: (laughs) Yeah, sometimes our staff names are in the game, but most of the time, we don't put them in.

GS: Do you feel like your staff ever gets frustrated not getting credit?

MA: No, I don't think so. We're happy to hide ourselves.

GS: It's very much treated like a regular job, I guess? Not so much for personal recognition.

KS: That's right. Other developers treat it like it's real work too though. And it's true that some people want their name on the staff roll so they can present it as part of a portfolio when they move to other companies. But we have a very low turnover rate. They tend to stay with the company.

GS: What kinds of places do people outsource to you from?

KS: Everywhere. But we have lots of Japanese clients.

GS: Do you mostly do full development, or more individual asset development?

KS: Both. The Japanese office works mostly on full development, and the Chinese studios do too.

MA: As we said, we've worked on 1,100 games – most of them were full production, done by us. But that number does include mobile games.

Starfy 4 for the DS

GS: Did you start that way since 1979? Working exclusively on games ever since then?

MA: Yes.

GS: Were you working on Space Invaders for Taito, or what?

MA: Well I don't know – I'm a little bit younger! (laughs) As far as I know, at the beginning of our company we were doing arcade games. But then the market changed, so we changed our direction to console games.

KS: We still develop some arcade games too though.

GS: How do people find out about you if you're so behind the scenes? Is it just sort of word of mouth through developer culture?

KS: Yes. In Japan, Tose is very well known (among developers). We're trying to expand our presence in the US and Europe too.

MA: So, secretly marketing. Not everybody knows us, especially in the States, so in 2003 I came here. The first time we visited with publishers, nobody knew us. We'd just get to the door, and they'd ignore us. “Go home.”

GS: They weren't very receptive at first?

MA: No.

GS: So how do you teach publishers that outsourcing is potentially beneficial? It seems like a lot of companies really want to keep things in-house.

KS: We just beg them.

GS: Seems like when you've made 1,100 games you shouldn't have to beg.

KS: We do have a good portfolio, so…

GS: It's interesting that you wouldn't want to have your portfolio known. Is that part of the contract that you don't say your names, or is it a choice?

MA: Well, some publishers tell us not to say anything about our work. And for confidentiality reasons we don't even want to reveal our own information to anybody.

GS: So publishers take the credit themselves, and you only reveal parts of your portfolio when you're trying to get work?

MA: It depends.

GS: So you're the biggest non-publishing, independent developer, with this many people. It seems like if you wanted to, you could do something pretty big on your own.

MA: At first we were a very small team – something like 4 people or so. We didn't want to be something as big as we are now. But we worked so hard to get jobs that we just needed more people for each project. Then over time we became as big as we are now.

GS: Seems like you have to get a lot of work in order to sustain 1,000 people.

Shigeru Chigusa (president/director of Tose Software Shanghai): We never have enough people.

GS: You do contract work even in China? That's interesting to me, because it seems like in China, people are really looking for work, even studios that exist in China already. So how do you support 200 people there?

SC: Well 25% of our business comes from local Chinese - major Chinese companies. 25% of our business comes from the U.S. or Europe, and the rest comes from Japan.

GS: Is it difficult working with the Chinese government, being over there?

SC: No, they're very supportive because we were one of the first game studios to come to China , so…

GS: When did you open in China?

SC: 1993. The city government of Shanghai just published the first whitepaper on the game industry in Shanghai, and the calendar starts in 1993, when we arrived. So we've been hiring people, training them, and some people leave to start other companies.

GS: So do you have to have an education program?

SC: We train them in house.

GS: Since you're this gigantic developer, I guess you have to keep up with the latest development techniques? Do you have to have a dedicated tools team?

MA: Actually we have a central tech team for the entire company.

GS: Do they develop your practices, and that spreads through the company?

MA: Exactly.

GS: How did that come to pass?

SC: Can't really reveal the details.

GS: It must be a good thing for you then, that the next generation is coming. A lot of developers are scared of the bigger teams that will be necessary, but you must be looking forward to it?

MA: Definitely, yes.

GS: Do you have a breakdown of what percentage of your staff does what?

SC: Our Chinese operation has a higher percentage of partial work, whereas the Japanese studios do more full development. Companies come to us if they need models, or maybe some animation. Right now, we're also making all of our artists in China hybrid artists. Which means they can do both 2D and 3D, so that at the end of the year, every artist should be able to do 3D art.

GS: How many dedicated 2D artists do you still have in China at this point?

SC: Maybe about 40.

GS: In Japan what are the majority? Programmers?

MA: Programmers and artists.

GS: It seems like maybe US companies may even need to start using you more now.

MA: We hope! We want to have more exposure in the US market.

Starfy 4 for the DS

GS: So does even (mainstream consumer game magazine) Famitsu know about Tose?

MA: I don't know, actually. If they're game review people, they probably don't. But if they know anything about development, they should.

SC: Basically, if they don't know Tose, they're either not developers, or they're not important. (laughs) So how did you find us?

GS: Well…we walked over here (at the GDC Game Connection) and saw your sign. So what other games can you tell us you developed?

MA: Not really anything. But we can tell you we developed almost 19 PSP games and 17 DS games.

GS: Have you developed for any of the more obscure consoles, like the Wonderswan?

SC: Oh yeah, absolutely. Like a world famous RPG for instance.

GS: Virtual Boy?

MA: No. What is that? (laughs)

GS: What about older PCs, like PC-88 or X68000?

MA: No…but the MSX, yes. And 3DO.

GS: Can you say what publishers you worked with back in the NES days?

MA: Jaleco is one.

GS: What's your office in the US like? How big is your staff?

MA: (points to Koichi Sawada) Him and me.

SC: Yeah, it's the whole company over there!

(starts showing slides)

GS: Oh, it says you have a pledge to never become a publisher.

SC: That's right.

GS: And you work across all tools?

SC: Pretty much. And everything we use is legally licensed, even in China.

MA: Yeah, please mention that.

SC: Because all of our clients are public companies, and we're a public company, so we can't risk using unlicensed products.

GS: What's your stock value?

SC: It's about 16 dollars now. We've had better days.

GS: Can you adapt to the workflow of other companies?

SC: Oh yeah. We have to! And sometimes we make suggestions. Surprisingly, a lot of major studios are still new to outsourcing. And if they don't have a good feedback system, it hurts us.

GS: Yeah when they don't have proper art check-ins, it's got to be tough.

SC: If you have a next-gen project and only one person to check everything, it's a big problem.

Though Tose is certainly interesting just as an entity, it seems as though they would be a much more prominent force in the industry if they were to reveal the full extent of their portfolio. Even so, as more and more developers look at outsourcing as a viable option for their move into the next generation, outsourced development companies like Tose may become increasingly in demand.



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