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[In the second part of an informative two-part Gamasutra series, pseudonymous Japan-based game creator JC Barnett takes a deeper look at how game development works in Japan and how you can find your place in this storied industry. For the first part, click here.]
In the previous article I wrote about the very basics of moving to Japan to work in the Japanese game industry. In this article I’ll explain a little more in detail the various roles you could apply for and some general insights into the development culture here.
Obviously the roles that need to be filled in a Japanese development team differ little from those in the West, but some are more suitable for foreigners than others, for various reasons.
Unsurprisingly most foreigners can be found in localization teams. It’s probably the best way in from other industries if you have little or no development experience. The most popular industry providing game development with its localizers seems to be the lucrative English teaching machine. English teachers find themselves with enough time to study Japanese and become really good at it quickly if they put in the effort. It’s also the role where westerners are almost automatically more qualified than their Japanese counterparts, especially as there are fewer Japanese that have mastered English as well as there are westerners that have mastered Japanese.
Though there are some “rewriter” roles available, where you’ll correct translated texts, you’ll be in higher demand if you can actually translate from the Japanese yourself. Your best bet is to apply to bigger companies as the smaller ones usually outsource this work or let the publishers handle it. There are some specialized localization companies around too, so you’ll have plenty of avenues to explore.
I don’t think I need to comment on the level of Japanese required for this work, but just in case: the better you are, the better your chances of landing that job. A minimum of JLPT1 would seem to be a proper requirement. JLPTs, or Japanese Language Proficiency Tests, are yearly examinations organized by the government where foreigners can get certified for four different levels of Japanese proficiency, with level 1 being the highest. At level 1 you’re not fluent yet, though. Apart maybe for localization roles few game companies actually care about JLPT certification, so it’s not necessarily required, though it may set some worried minds at rest having it on your resume.
Artists are referred to as “designers”, “CG designers” or even, though not usually, “graphickers”. When it comes to actual, in the trenches development this job requires the least Japanese ability, though a minimum of “conversational level” is highly recommended. Of course you can point at the screen and use a lot of body language and dictionaries but eventually this will hurt your chances of promotion and continued employment. Design documents, meetings, bug lists will all be in Japanese so I highly recommend being a competent speaker.
The job itself differs little from its western counterpart apart from the fact they seem a little more obsessed with detail here, even if it goes to the detriment of the schedule. Be prepared for a lot of rework and re-doing as the design changes during the development process. In Japan, visual design, as game design, is considered more an art than a science so people have no problem demanding changes, minute or vast, regardless of the schedule if they think it will make for better graphics. This can be a little frustrating but it’s something you’ll have to get used to.
All major software packages are used and the standard for 3D seems to be Maya, though a few rogue studios may still work with 3DS Max or XSI. Software is mostly localized so you’ll probably stumble a little bit at first in Photoshop, but some packages, like Maya, allow for English UI settings. In-house tools will be in Japanese, though.
Once you start getting in senior and lead positions you’ll have to rely on Japanese a lot more. Documents that you need to read or write and all the many many meetings you’ll be roped into will only be in Japanese. Needless to say lead positions are unavailable until your language improves sufficiently.
One small stumbling block for artists is the recondite nature of Japan’s visual aesthetic. You can often, in retrospect, learn to understand why certain things are popular in Japan but it is very hard, as an outsider, to create something that really appeals to the locals without a certain amount of luck being involved. There are some cultural issues you can easily learn with regards to visual inputs and colours but beyond that it’s a bit of a No Man’s Land. This is a problem especially with 2D and graphic design, and I recommend listening to and asking for help from Japanese colleagues.
Programming too differs little from the West apart from the fact a lot of Japanese developers still hard-code many things, which can lead to immense problems later on in development. Here too a minimum of conversational level Japanese is required until you move into lead positions when you’ll need to be a lot more fluent. All documents and bug lists will be in Japanese but if you request digital copies of all correspondence you could use on-line translators and copy/paste the more difficult kanji into, for example, Jim Breem’s excellent Japanese dictionary.
Programmers, I am led to believe, are very much in demand right now, especially if they come with next-gen experience. Japan’s schooling system just isn’t providing the industry with the young, raw talent it so needs, or at the very least not enough. A keen foreign programmer could find himself in a seller’s market. It’s fairly obvious the West is far ahead in the technical aspects of game development and more and more companies are beginning to realize the problems Japan has in this field.
Few companies buy engines, but this may be a shifting trend. Unreal or Renderware experience may count for less in Japan, apart from those few studios that have publicly announced their intentions to use them. These companies specifically will be interested in western coders with the right experience.
Designers are called “planners” in Japan and it sums up the job pretty accurately. As most games are ultimately designed by the director rather than a team of designers, the Japanese planner can find himself as an asset manager, list maker, or bug tracker rather than getting his teeth really into the design side of things. With a director, if you’re lucky, you’ll have an auteur who steers the direction of the game into a focused ideal vision or, if you’re unlucky, a manager who occasionally disrupts the flow of things by ordering changes on a whim. As such a planner’s work is never done.
As Microsoft Excel is probably your main weapon and tool, your Japanese needs to be up to scratch. You’ll need to take direction and write and communicate to the rest of the team. To be honest, I have not come across any foreign planners yet, though it is a job a foreigner could easily do if his Japanese is good enough. How much actual design you’ll be doing depends on the company, of course, as well as your immediate director and his dreams and vision.