[Japanese independent developer and .hack creator CyberConnect2 has made an enduring company and franchise, even while adhering to much stricter 'quality of life' than many Japanese developers. In a rare, personal interview, company president Hiroshi Matsuyama explains the firm's founding and how work/life balance became so important to him.]
CyberConnect2 isn't the best-known developer in the world, but it's a unique company with an unusual history. The company, currently headquartered in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka, got its start in the PlayStation 1 days as CyberConnect.
Its first two projects were PlayStation 1 games: a 3D platformer known as Tail Concerto, and an action game called Silent Bomber. Bandai released both of these games prior to its merger with Namco, and neither was commercially successful anywhere in the world.
CyberConnect2 co-founder and president Hiroshi Matsuyama first spoke to the western press in 2002, when he was at E3 promoting his upcoming game, .hack -- a serial RPG for the PlayStation 2 set in a faux 'virtual world' which was released in four chapters with anime discs included in the package to flesh out the story.
At that time, Matsuyama joked with his producer from Bandai Games, Daisuke Uchiyama, that this was the developer's last chance to prove itself with Bandai. It was clear that the joking was revealing the truth, though.
.hack went on to be successful beyond the expectations of the companies involved -- and it was also successful in the U.S. market at the time, where the anime boom was in full swing. The company, which had started with just 10 employees, had now split into two teams.
One was working on .hack games and the other working on fighters based on the immensely popular manga and anime series Naruto. CyberConnect2's latest Naruto game, Naruto: Ultimate Storm, was released for the PlayStation 3 last fall.
The company has also moved into film production; it produced a movie based on the .hack property, which debuted in Japanese theaters. Matsuyama sees this as a core of the company's business going forward.
One element of CyberConnect2 that's particularly unusual is the company's focus on quality of life; Japanese developers are even more notorious than Western studios for working their staff hard and burning them out.
Matsuyama here tells the story of the company's evolution, his own personal path from manga fan to president of a successful developer, and why his philosophy is so much different than even other successful independent development companies in Japan:
Obviously, you don't go from nowhere to starting a company, so I was wondering if you'd tell me about your background before you started CyberConnect2.
HM: Let's talk about things after college; you're probably not interested in my childhood.
HM: (laughs) As a child, I grew up really interested in anime and manga, but I graduated from a university in Fukuoka, and through those four years of going to college -- I think a lot of Americans can relate to joining some sort of club or extracurricular activity while going to college -- I joined an organization that had to do with drawing manga.
The official title is, loosely: The Friends of Manga Research Club. A manga club, essentially. The focus was to draw manga, within the club that I had joined when I was attending Fukuoka University. So, as can be expected from a group that would form with such a purpose, everybody there enjoyed watching anime, reading manga, playing video games, drawing manga; so for four years, there was a group of people that just enjoyed these things and continued to pursue these things as a hobby.
The university that I went to is Kyushu Sangyo University -- Kyushu Industrial University, I guess you could say. Within that context, this university was the only university in all of Kyushu that had a fine arts department, and within that department there were a lot of friends that I had, and people that I knew there that liked manga.
So, since I had grown up as a child liking manga, my desire was to someday work for a company, drawing manga, or creating manga, or creating anime, or creating a video game. I had a lot of upperclassmen and same classmen that I had gone to school with, that would graduate and then get hired and work for an anime company, or would go to Tokyo... So I had seen a lot of that happen.
Even though I'd seen that happen with a lot of my upperclassmen -- they would graduate and then begin working for an anime company, or begin working for a video game company -- for some reason, after three years of being in Tokyo and working for these companies, they would quit, and return to Kyushu.
And each person that came back, they all had their individual reasons, but a lot of these reasons fell into things like they were having a really hard time living in Tokyo; life was difficult. They just were having a really hard time there. Or that the company that they were working for was off their rocker.
So they decided to return for a variety of reasons, but these would be some of the reasons. So, observing all of the things that had been happening, I realized that a lot of the people that were coming back from Tokyo were naive about the real world, or inexperienced.
So even though they would say, "Well this company is really screwed up!" in my mind, my question was, "What are you using as a foundation for coming up with such a decision? You're inexperienced. Have you worked for other companies? Do you even know what you're talking about, as far as what goes on in the real world, within society?"
So I had figured that if I were to leave, most likely something similar would happen to me. So I decided that I wanted to take the long way around, instead of take a detour.
In order to discover what it's like to work in society, I became a regular employee for a concrete company; a cement company. So, I figured that in life, while I was out there, I would discover what sort of things can be done with my strength, and what sort of things cannot be done no matter how hard you try... So I worked there with the hopes of discovering what realities in life were like.
Matsuyama used his three years at the company to understand the structure of doing business in Japan. "I learned that everything flows downstream, from the top down. That there is a vertical framework within this industry, and that at the very bottom, you can climb your way up to the top," he says. While he was still working there, one of his old friends from his university days contacted him.