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Travelling Without Moving

February 14, 2011

It seems like certain people are repeatedly blessed and cursed in various different ways. Some have the luxury of being born into money and social status, never wanting for anything but always having to question the motives of less fortunate people wanting to befriend them. Some never seem able to find anyone to marry, but have no trouble finding partners for casual relationships. For whatever reason, it seems like my curse is that of choice. Now, let’s get out of the way that I know that this is just a pattern that my mind is seeing. The problem is no doubt that I make such a big deal of the choices that are presented to me. But knowing this doesn’t empower me to make my brain work any differently; I am still burdened by every significant, or even seemingly significant, choice I have to make.

As people have often told me, the problems and choices that I usually struggle with are luxury ones more than half the time. The choice I had to make today was one of those, and it wasn’t the first time this very dilemma was presented to me. What made this situation so much heavier, however, was that though the choice in itself was pretty simple (do I want to work for company X or company Y), there was a bit of a meta quality to it. Beyond the decision of who I wanted to lift a paycheck from, there was what I perceived as a decision on which long-term path I wanted to start walking down.

Let me back up for just a second. As most of you will know, I work in computer games development. I design computer games; deciding the rules and systems that make players waste hours on end pressing buttons to make pixels on a TV screen light up in different ways. Not to get too bogged-down in the particulars of this work, let me just say that there are different ways of approaching the problems presented to someone in my position. And two of the most diametrically opposed methods of doing games design are the “western way” and the “eastern way”. This is an oversimplification to say the least, but for the sake of discussion let’s just say that in the east, the whole auteur thing is still considered a viable method (or lack of method, in fact), whereas in the west there’s a growing appreciation for what I call “the science of fun”. While I have long been in love with games from the east, Japan especially, I whole-heartedly subscribe to the western method of doing things. To a large extent because the western way of producing games is yielding better results these days than the eastern way. That, to me, counts as empirical proof that “my” way of doing things is valid. We’re in the business of making entertainment products that people pay money for, after all.

As said, there is a lot of generalizing going on here. There are plenty of differences between, say, various European studios, as well as between Japanese studios. But it’s pretty commonly accepted that pragmatism is hardly the most important thing to Japanese game developers. If all the focus tests prove X, but the director wants to do Y, the studio is doing Y and nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with it (see Final Fantasy XIV, for example). It’s his game after all. And yeah, it’s always a “he”. Girls can’t be the boss in Japan (though they no longer have to change their names in the credits – that’s progress of a kind I guess).

That said, I still have plenty of love for Japanese games, and believe there is an insane amount of talent in Japan still. If that talent could just be made to synch with modern, scientific development methods and ideas such as agile development, I’m pretty sure recent years’ lull in Japanese dominance of the games industry could be reversed. Now, here’s where I let you in on a little secret. I see myself as one of the potential harbingers of this revolution.

I have wanted to go to Japan for the longest time, feeling like if I were allowed to, my knowledge of the methods we westerners have so successfully used in recent years to take market share off the Japanese could bring about a renaissance among Japanese developers. Perhaps creating a new golden age for Japanese game development, where the Japanese design sensibilities were fused with what make western games so profitable. I do, however, have my Jesus complex in check, and I know nobody’s going to out and ask me to help them. I’m really not that important yet. Furthermore, there is another aspect to this whole situation. Because part of me really wants to just say “fuck it” and proceed in doing what I do in the environment and under the circumstances that made me who and what I am today. In other words, the same struggle that seems to be going on in the games industry, between east and west, is also going on inside my heart and mind.

It’s because of this that I found that this past week’s job interviews were so fitting, somehow. Considering and comparing these two companies with each other put me in a sort of microcosm of the real world. One company was highly profitable, very keen on having me on board, and willing to proceed to give me all the creative freedom that the budget would allow, on the condition that I proceed to work with people in the way that I have and use scientific enquiry as I’ve done in the past.

The other company, western though they are, suggested that I come on board and work with a reasonably popular Japanese games designer on a project where this gentleman is already credited as being the sole creative stakeholder in the game (an early trailer already states “Game Design by…”, and then his name). This of course made alarm bells go off in my head, and I proceeded to ask about what methods were used to develop the game, and why they needed a Lead Game Designer who, by the sound of it, would be a figurehead and lame duck next to this Japanese dictator-style design god.

To a lot of people, choosing the former company right off the bat is a no-brainer. And it would be, except that the latter option did sound like a potential shortcut into a very respectable Japanese games developer and publisher. I thought that maybe, if I earn this guy’s respect enough, he’d open doors for me in his home country. Perhaps get me a translator/language teacher for the first few months of my stay over in Japan… the hypothetical possibilities were endless (and probably entirely unfounded).

The reason I ended up not even thinking twice about accepting the offer from the former company was because of practicalities more than anything else. Indeed, the choice was taken away from me the moment that the second company said they wanted to go to a second interview. That simply wouldn’t work with my scheduling, and I had promised the first company an answer by the end of this week. In other words, there was not really a choice there in the true sense of the word. I did, however, make a choice between hypothetical scenarios. Because I’m afraid that even if all the best-case things came to pass, and my relationship with the Japanese designer would fast-track me into a position of influence within his company, I would still be in a situation of getting what I wanted on their terms. Which in itself is not what I want.

If I do move to Japan, or to the US or wherever, I want to go there because whomever is sponsoring me wants to bring over all the things that have made me into the professional I am today. Anything else is just wrong to both parties. You don’t, especially at this level, bring someone you respect on board to tell him his job; you do it because of what he has already proven himself capable of achieving. And so, I will proceed to work with my like-minded peers, remaining a westerner with a not entirely unpleasant yearning for the east. I’m convinced that I’m happier being myself in a well-known, perhaps even boring, environment than I would be if I had to go to a country that excited me but forced me to leave behind everything I love about myself in the process.

That said, I have resolved to at least go to visit Japan this year, to scientifically evaluate the feasibility of this idea to live and work there. Maybe it’s totally shit over there. But then again, who knows, perhaps what I find there is awesome enough to make me accept all the compromises I wouldn’t be prepared to make today.

If that were to happen, I’m pretty sure that’s what they call irony.


From → All Posts, Games

  1. Yota permalink

    Nice one! I enjoyed your blog. If you need some advice, let me know. Also, I know couple of Westerners working in Japan for game companies.

    Good luck.

    • Thanks Yota, I’ll keep this in mind. Indeed, if you think of something, I welcome unsolicited advice too. 🙂

  2. Kit permalink

    Great post, if someone could change the Japanese game development culture it is you! But after reading your line of argumentation it sounds like you made the right choice for yourself, although the world could have gained more if your conclusion would have been different. 😉

    I’m curious to know where your new address is, and I am sure that you will adore Japan when you go there for a visit 😉

    • Oh, you’re a charmer, aren’t you Kit?

      Who knows – maybe once I feel like I’m “done” over here, I will consider going to Japan on their terms and cause a peasant revolt or something.

      I’ll be moving to Cambridge soon, so come visit me if you’re even in the UK. ^^

  3. Anders Elfgren permalink

    I’d personally like to hear more thoughts on how you think about scientific game design and apply it practically in your work.

    • I bet you would. That’s a blog post I’ve been putting off writing because I’m afraid it’ll be an absolute mammoth post, and very destructive to produce.

  4. Don’t write mammoth posts. Don’t write destructive posts. Keep us in the loop when it comes to what’s going on in your head. But don’t kill your work by analyzing it to death.

    Keep making shit. It’s better than writing about making shit.

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