|

GAMES

Expat game developers have an unfair advantage in Japan

by Brian Ashcraft

Making video games for home consoles such as the Wii U, the PS3, and the Xbox 360 can get really expensive really fast. The huge teams and corporate money involved have made the game industry closer to the film business. And while the nature of PC gaming allows bedroom programmers the ability to do what they want, it isn’t hugely popular in Japan, unlike in the West.

There is an option for budding game-developers, however — a less expensive one that allows for more freedom and, if they’re lucky, more exposure than they could ever imagine. It’s an option that more and more Japan-based foreigner game-developers have been taking advantage of: smartphone games.

It wasn’t long ago that Japan produced the most advanced mobile phones on Earth. Japanese keitai denwa (as they’re called) were at one time packed with features that weren’t available anywhere else, such as digital cameras, barcode readers and digital money. What’s more, there was a preconception in the West that Japanese mobile phones were simply just better, more advanced, more futuristic.

Then everything changed: Apple released the iPhone. The iPhone was unlike anything anyone had seen. It not only changed the way people interacted with their phones, it changed how they played games too. Step on any Tokyo subway now, and you’ll see an endless sea of commuters playing games apps on their iPhones.

Many foreign game-developers living in Japan were early iPhone adopters and were, thus, quick to see the handset’s operating system, or iOS, as a viable place to release their games and hit a worldwide audience.

“The early adopters of any programming language will be those with a strong grasp of English. This is because the documentation, Internet forums and books on the matter are often only in English,” said Hawken King, a Tokyo-based developer behind Facemakr, an avatar-creation app. “So if you have a question or problem, you will only get a solution in English.” What’s more, King continues, iTunes Connect, the system where developers register, upload and manage their iOS apps, is only in English.

This gave English-speaking game-developers in Japan a huge edge as they were able to start developing for the iPhone quicker than Japanese developers, who were more familiar with domestic mobile platforms.

Another reason that expat indie developers may have been able to jump on the iPhone bandwagon faster was because they had cut their teeth developing games for the PC, which is not as popular in Japan as it is elsewhere.

James Kay, a veteran of the Japanese games industry who co-founded his own iOS and console developer, Score Studios, in Tokyo, is one expat who has seen the impact the iPhone had on the local industry first hand. “I learned a lot working at various studios in Japan,” said Kay, “but I felt that if I was really to make a difference I’d have to put my money where my mouth was and just do it myself. … You only really need to pay the $100 a year to be part of the Apple development program and you can publish your own apps.”

King, of Facemakr, adds that the profit split of 70 percent for the developer and 30 percent for Apple is like nowhere else in the game industry. “I still feel people underestimate how much of a game-changer this was for independent developers and studios alike.”

Apple’s iPhone also lets small developers take their games to a huge, global platform in a way that home consoles cannot. Apps, which can either be free or cost a dollar, are far cheaper than console games that cost $60 or $70. If an app hits it big — like “Angry Birds” did — the profit margins are staggering. The freedom iOS gives game-developers is enticing many of them to leave big studio jobs and strike out on their own.

“Big game companies offer some unique opportunities to work with very skilled people and with very interesting hardware,” said Tokyo-based game-developer David Pasca, who worked at “Final Fantasy” developer Square Enix in Japan before releasing his own iOS games such as “Fractal Combat X.”

“With time, I reached a point where I felt the need to work on projects on which I had the last call,” he said.

Creating games for the iPhone allows that. As Kyoto-based Andrzej Zamoyski — who had worked for Microsoft in the U.K. on the popular “Fable” game series — explains, there were over 100 core developers on “Fable 3,” with hundreds more working on the game throughout the process. For his recently released iOS app, “Hungry Oni,”, the team was just him and an illustrator. “The amount of work involved in bringing a fully realized game to market shouldn’t be underestimated,” explains Zamoyski. “But at the same time this challenge is what kept us motivated, vastly widened our skill sets, and gave us a greater understanding of development as a holistic process.”

Some developers, like Zamoyski, King and Kay, end up in Japan because they have grown up playing Japanese games and they are naturally drawn here. Others become game-developers after reaching Japan. “I think a lot of foreigners in Japan look to app development as a way to satisfy a creative urge,” says Kay, who has written a book titled “Japanmanship” about his experiences as a foreigner in the local game industry. Those foreigners who come to Japan, Kay continued, have an obvious adventurous spirit that might not be fulfilled by the country’s corporate structure. “App-development is so easy to get into that it’s a great creative outlet for, well, pretty much anybody.”

  • Ron NJ

    Better title: Japanese developers face unfortunate handicap in technology adoption.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liam.conroy3 Liam Conroy

    What a sensationalist title!

    Japan is still an expensive place to live, there’s little to no business support, loans or grants available to small or independent foreign developers and most indie games don’t make any money. I think these factors might balance anything out that comes from a “unfair documentation advantage”.

    This phenomenon isn’t new either, it’s the same thing that’s been happening over the years, in both directions. From console manufacturers providing original docs in Japanese, through to middleware vendors providing original docs in English

    Still, one thing is for certain, when a budget for a current gen AAA game is around a 1000 times that of something like Angry Birds, the mobile and indie space is only going to continue to thrive. How many people are going to take one roll of a very clunky, risky looking dice over a 1000 rolls at releasing the next Angry Birds/Indie darling? Not to mention the relative creative freedom given from working on a small, self directed game versus, say, working on the “tree team” of Call of Duty 10 for 3 years?

  • Phillip

    It may be a disadvantage not to have a good grasp of English, but it’s not unfair. Other monolingual countries don’t bemoan the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t learn their language; they simply get on with it and learn English, the main language of books, newspapers, airports, air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music, advertising, etc, etc.