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Trading secrets: Knowledge-sharing in Japan
Trading secrets: Knowledge-sharing in Japan
September 25, 2012 | By Kris Graft, Patrick Miller

September 25, 2012 | By Kris Graft, Patrick Miller
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Production

Secrecy. It's been cited as one of the primary hindrances to the growth of the Japanese video game industry, both by the games media and by Japanese game developers.

In the past, Japanese game developers have been known to create their games in a vacuum, keeping their own indivudual game production and tech savvy close to the vest. Parts of the Japanese industry had motored along with dissociated knowledge, with no means, and perhaps no intention, to correlate crucial information to any significant degree.

We asked Japanese game developers at Tokyo Game Show about the current state of knowledge and tech sharing in Japan -- some acknowledged that at least there was a problem in the past, while some were astonished that there was even that perception at at all.

Keiji Inafune, CEO, Comcept

"That's probably true, how Japanese developers kind of hide their knowledge, compared to the Western industry, where they knowledge-share proactively. We do have CEDEC and different conventions that mimic your GDC. It's like we 'wanna-be' GDC [laughs]. [Those kind of conferences] exist in Japan, but in Japan, it's more about the company than the individual. It looks like a cooperation between big studios, but really the companies' profit comes first. In the U.S., it's more about the individual. In Japan, it's more about the company.

"It's really hard for creators to do real knowledge sharing. It's just difficult. And if there was any knowledge sharing at all, they'd do it behind the companies' backs.

"...I believe that [secrecy] did corrupt the Japanese game industry over the years. There hasn't been that individualism for the creators. It's been all about the company and the business. And when you're strong and stand as an individual, as a creator, in the Japanese game industry, [your company] rips you apart."

Kenji Kobayashi, director, DeNA

"We learn quite a lot through our partnerships. I don't understand why Japanese developers are considered secretive, or perceived as secretive. I mean, Blizzard and EA might talk to each other about MMOs, or EA and Activision and Epic might get together to talk about FPSes... but I don't think they disclose all the information. There are certain things you're going to want to keep internally.

"Whether it's the game industry, or other industries, you have to share to a certain extent. But when it comes to platform, sure, it would be good to increase our platform recognition as much as possible, with strong partners and strong developers, and we do  share knowledge, to a great extent.

"The landscape of the [Japanese] industry has changed. It's a different time. It's a new industry, we have new designs in the market. And their evolution can be seen at CEDEC, where developers get together, and they talk about how games are developed. So I don't believe that the game industry in Japan is closed. I don't see it that way."

Sanku Shino, SVP marketing and developer relations, Gree

"In my role, I deal with third-party developers a lot. Although we might not reveal how KPIs all work, if we have a really excellent title, we might explain how it worked. So if we have really excellent developers [we're working with], we would give them an idea. Although we wouldn't reveal specific numbers, we'd be open to sharing general ideas."

Akihiro Suzuki, executive officer, Koei Tecmo

"It might be a cultural thing; in Japan, people don't change jobs as much, so when someone joins a team they stay there for the long run. That means you have people who can continuously improve upon an in-house engine. In the U.S., you seem to have people who are more likely to jump to different teams or projects, so you have less continuity and internal resources to build your technology. I think that from the Japanese standpoint, in the long run it's much cheaper for us to develop in-house tech instead of licensing."

Masaya Matsuura, founder, NanaOn-Sha

"It's changing. Around me, at least, many developers have been using Unity, especially independent small developers. With Unity, it's easier to share the experience with each other, so individual small developers can collaborate with each other more easily. My feeling is, the small developers have more chances to collaborate with each other."

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Jeremy Alessi
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So traditional houses don't share but the newer studios do. The best point in there is that sharing and the length of time one spends with a company might be inversely proportional.

Jeffrey Marshall
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In my opinion, the decline of the Japanese video game industry is directly related to the decline of the Japanese economy, which began in the late 90's. The mid 90's were the high point of Japanese video games and it's been on a slow decline since then.

I think so because most people that develop games are not lacking in creative ideas. They usually have about 100 ideas that don't get implemented for every one that does. But for every crazy good game idea that gets implemented, you need a crazy investor with more money than sense to finance the game. And when money is tight, you get less investment in crazy good game ideas. It's been 15 years since Japan's economy boomed, and the momentum that its video game industry had back then is really starting to dwindle.

Thomas Puha
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The answers given dont even really answer the questions. Having visited many Japanese studios voer the years and working with them now, most of them are still completely flabbergasted that rival US studios talk tech together and solutions.

Simon Ludgate
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I find it interesting that while the study Knowledge Management was largely pioneered by two Japanese academics (Nonaka & Takeuchi) and its principles adopted by certain Japanese industries (notably automotive), KM still seems to elude game development studios in Japan just as much as it does in America. It's especially distressing to read about the failures brought on by a lack of KM, such as the FFXIII post-mortem in Game Developer Magazine.

Still, it should come as no surprise that knowledge sharing remains a difficult issue: “As people’s jobs and roles become defined by the unique information they hold, they may be less likely to share that information—viewing it as a source of power and indispensability—rather than more so. When information is the primary unit of organizational currency, we should not expect the owners to give it away” (Davenport et al. 1992, p. 53).

Without Knowledge Managers to mediate the flow of information within and without an organization, we see a sort of "information feudalism" where "Managers act as powerful feudal lords who not only rule over the creation and circulation of information, but also determine the meanings and interpretations that should be attached to information" (Choo 2006, p. 187).

But convince a game studio to hire a Knowledge Manager? I have no idea how to accomplish such a feat.

David Fried
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@Simon - But given the nature of Japanese employment, where elders are venerated to such a high degree that they can almost never lose their job (no matter how useless they might become), one would think that knowledge sharing would be a no-brainer.

It seems more likely to me that those at the top simply stopped learning new ways to do things, and because they're at the top and are "respected" by those "beneath" them, they force people to do things the old way. Their way.