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Testing, as the more unglamorous role is usually called, is not so much a separate role in Japan as it is in the West. The task is usually relegated to regular team members who have finished their part in development. A programmer or artist can find himself playtesting for weeks or months before the project goes gold, or “master up” as it is called here.
Publishers take on some of the testing responsibilities and these tasks are often outsourced to other, smaller companies. If you’re working at one of those tiny developers and times are lean you may be “hired out” as a tester, regardless of your actual role. As such inexperienced foreigners looking for a way into the Japanese industry should best look at localization rather than QA, as is the norm in the West.
Internal producers are usually promoted out of their original development roles within the company. External producers, from the publisher’s side, can come from anywhere, including outside of Japan. As the producer’s role revolves around a lot of paperwork and communication your Japanese needs to be good. You’ll be in meetings, drafting preliminary design documents and overseeing the production, so if your Japanese is lacking there’ll be no good way of doing this job. At some publishers you may even need to oversee the marketing of your project, which will lead to problems for foreigners.
This role differs very little from that in the West except that outsourcing music and sound effects seems more popular than having an in-house studio. Only the largest companies will have dedicated sound-proofed recording studios. It’s more likely you’ll be given a slightly bigger desk and an affordable set of headphones.
Again, your Japanese needs to be up to scratch as you’ll be dealing with asset lists created by the planners. As for the difference in tastes, well, there are many. I have little good to say about popular Japanese or game music but it seems to require a particular crazy bent in the brain to come up with some of the stuff you hear. I’m sure highly talented musicians could find work in Japan, but apart from already famous DJs I have seen little evidence of foreign audio types.
As you can see, most roles only differ cosmetically from Western job titles. If you have a decent amount of experience in game development in the West there is absolutely no reason you won’t be able to do your job in Japan with equal gusto. It’s only some of the cultural thinking and ways of doing thins that can cough up some problems, but with a little patience these can be overcome or accepted.
One hears a lot of speculation about hierarchy in Japanese work and society. Though there are rules and people generally adhere to them rigidly, the game industry -- like elsewhere -- isn’t quite so strict. Leads usually do have their own desk positions overlooking rows of staff, and usually orders that come from up high are followed and hardly ever openly questioned. However, you don’t much see the deep bowing and polite Japanese (called "keigo") when people talk to their superiors.
In more business aspects of the industry things may be a bit more formal, but on the work floor it’s not something that governs the atmosphere. If your boss is so inclined you can have a very informal relationship with him and if you’re keen you can give your input on design issues and decisions, but do not expect these to be followed all the time, if at all. In the end they make the decision and yours is not to question why.
You also hear stories of “settai”, the obligatory drinks with the boss after work. Again this is not so prevalent in games but if you do go out with the boss or colleagues you can expect the atmosphere to be very informal and drunken.
The main stumbling block for those considering ingress seems to be the reputation the Japanese industry has with regards to working hours. “The Japanese,” people generally think “work long hours”. This is true but only on the surface; it ignores some fundamental truths that lie behind the phenomenon. Especially in the games industry people often start late. Working until 11 o’clock at night isn’t half as impressive if you come in just after lunchtime. Because the culture dictates that it is bad form for a lowly employee to leave before the boss does, many people have resigned themselves to the fact they won’t be going home at a normal hour, so often they try to fill the time during the day with short naps, reading manga or generally procrastinating rather than hard focused work. So it is true the Japanese work long hours, but they don’t necessarily work hard or smart.
As an outsider this can put you at a bit of a disadvantage. You’ll be expected to work late but you’ll probably actually work during office hours. This means you’ll burn yourself out quickly. Luckily, as an outsider, you can sidestep some cultural rules, including this one. As long as your work is of a good standard and finished on time there is no reason for you to force yourself to stay late. It may take some time but you can make your employers expect more regular hours from you.