Sixteen Ton - Whaddya Get?Who Really Makes Videogames?Sixteen Ton - Whaddya Get? - RSS 2.0
For some time now, I've dwelled on who actually makes the games we play. Because, despite being a videogame journalist, I don't always know who is responsible for them. (The same goes for several of my colleagues and friends.) But I'd never really felt so out of touch as I did when a colleague pointed out a Gamasutra interview with developers TOSE Software. As Gamasutra put it, they're "the biggest developer you've never heard of." It explained a great deal about the fantastic Starfy series (which regrettably seems destined to never be released in the Western hemisphere). My colleague explained that while he knew TOSE had been involved, he never realized to what extent, simply assuming it was "another fun Nintendo game."
TOSE's websites give little away, cryptically stating, "We've worked on more than 1,000 console titles for 26 years (TOSE Group). ... We had always been in the shadow to support most main game publisher [sic] worldwide." They also have around 750 staff (more than 1,000 when you consider international studios). Some describe them as Japan's biggest developer and also a "ghost company" which bizarrely doesn't want credit for work and refuses to divulge which games it has worked on.
After sending out explorative tentacles to discover more about their mysterious 1,000 games, I was greeted by an almost frantic email from another journalist who requested his name be kept secret. "I've been doing quite a bit of 'developer research' over the past year. There's a number of companies you've never heard of (like ISCO and Aisystem Tokyo) that have created numerous games you own." He then provided links to a Japanese website listing over 100 games associated with TOSE. Translating the list, I discovered they were connected to multiple Final Fantasy, Biohazard and Dragon Quest games (including DQVIII), not to mention Metal Gear: Ghost Babel on the Game Boy Color. My source was quick to point out, though, the list didn't state whether they were responsible for full development or only a section of the game (e.g.: art assets). Admittedly, most games were also cross-system ports; the PAL PS1 versions of Final Fantasy IV through VI even list "Porting: Tose Co., Ltd" in the manual. But this doesn't change the fact that TOSE has left its mark on games everyone has played. Their clients include Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Capcom, Konami, Square-Enix and even EA.
It then dawned on me: Few know the real truth about who creates videogames.
This subject is bigger than and goes beyond just TOSE. Not knowing who makes our games has been (and I emphasize this) a problem since the Atari days. Warren Robinett's easter egg in Adventure was the only way he could take credit for his work, because publishers back then took sole credit for a game's creation; later on, he formed Activision to combat that mentality. And things began changing slowly: Companies like Electronic Arts originally championed those behind the games. As Trip Hawkins explained, "One of my mantras is, 'Creativity is the rearranging of the old in a new way.' My reference points for EA were Hollywood for product development, and the record business for promotion and distribution. I wanted to treat developers as artists."
Over the years, and with more games being developed in Japan, this mentality of public recognition dwindled. It must also be noted with bitter irony that for a medium which is forever debated as being "art," the people behind it seldom get the acknowledgement deserved. For example, take a big publisher like Rockstar. The GTA series is actually developed in Scotland, by Rockstar North. It is shocking how many people you'll find who think it's actually an American-developed series.
Such mistakes are constantly made. On a popular forum for classic games, someone posted a poll asking people who their favorite developers were. After several replies, most people had in fact been listing the publisher behind their favorite games; they embarrassingly admitted to not knowing who the developers were, and seldom paid attention to such details. Publisher names take prominence on box covers, and so unsurprisingly people often get confused and misplace their adulation. Magazines also make appalling errors. I recently read a reflective article on Bushido Blade, developed by Light Weight and published by Square. It was agonizing, since while the statistics box clearly stated the developer's name, the author of the piece bizarrely insisted on writing about Square as if they were the developer.