Game developers in Japan

Gamasutra has an interesting feature on the experiences of British and American game developers working in Japan. Here are some excerpts from the five-page article:

“Culturally you are generally not supposed to leave work until everyone above you has left, so if your sempai (senior workers) or your boss has not left, then you should not leave. Not everyone follows that… but that’s the general rule… If you don’t follow the guidelines, you are less likely to get promoted. Although, because of Japan’s economy, most companies can’t offer lifetime employment anymore, (though) most Japanese still act like that’s the system,” added Tavares.

According to Barnett, “Being foreign certainly helps break the mould. But it’s a slow process. At a new job, I usually follow the hours of my co-workers but then slowly start to scale down. People have to get used to your working hours slowly. Once they are accustomed to me always being the first in, the fact I’m the first out every day should be less of a shock. In the meantime of course, I must make sure my work is all in order and finished on time. I wouldn’t be able to get away with it if my work was late or not up to scratch.”

Attitudes towards the press are different as well. This allows developers some degree of freedom to design without PR and marketing breathing down their necks says Barnett, “This is one thing I do like about Japanese development; (PR, press relations, and marketing) come quite late in development. PR, sales and press are informed of the product rather than consulted.”

Foreign markets are becoming more important as the Japanese gaming audience shrinks. But that does not always mean one’s co-workers will take advice according to Barnett. “I remember having an argument with a planner about why we should probably have more than 4 spaces for name entry. Though he could vaguely understand it would be easier for localization, his retorts all came down to the idea that we are making a Japanese game now, a localized version later.”

He continues, “There is a general lack of planning in these matters. Localization is always an issue to be dealt with later, with the focus being the home market. This often leads to immense problems localizing at a later date as you can imagine. Too little space for text, too many textures with texts on, as most things are hard-coded there will be very little automation, etc. I’m sure most developers know the foreign markets are important, as they are much bigger than the Japanese one, but I think few really understand it or what is required.”

Perhaps the biggest issue facing foreign workers in Japan is pay. According to Barnett’s blog, both artists and programmers earn less than in the West. Tavares says Japanese companies “…hire right out of school and pay very little. A programmer at Sega or Sony would start at around 3 million yen a year or $26k U.S. A top programmer at Sega or Sony makes a maximum of 6 million yen a year or about $52k. Because Japanese companies work that way, they do not value experience.”

He adds: “Fortunately for them and unfortunately for the people working there, they all only speak Japanese, which means the people are basically stuck in their system. Those that manage to learn English have the option to leave to a higher paying system but the rest don’t …so I suspect that system is unlikely to change from external pressure.”