Designing your own games as an independent is hard work, perhaps even more grueling than working for an employer. It’s especially hard when you’re working far from home – like in, say Tokyo, Japan.
The first challenge is the lack of affordable living space in the crowded city. “It was a pain in the ass trying to fit a PS3 development kit in the tiny space between my desk and dresser,” says Mark Cooke, of his time spent working for No More Heroes developer Grasshopper Studios before striking out on his own in Tokyo. In addition to creating his own games, he worked as an independent consultant in Japan until earlier this year.
James Kay is the cofounder of Score Studios, a small independent game studio in Japan. “I don’t have typical days. One of the great things about working from home is that you can do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want to,” said the British expatriate about working on his own games.
West, Meet East
But why choose Japan to set up shop when it would be immeasurably easier to create an independent game studio in your home country? “As a lifelong gamer, I was, of course, aware of the huge influence the Japanese game industry has had over the years on the game industry as a whole,” says Cooke. “I wanted to see firsthand how development approaches in the U.S. and Japan differed.”
Tokyo, especially, has a certain appeal. “It’s hard to explain, but the way I feel about being here is the way people feel when they describe feeling ‘home,'” says JAB, a relative newcomer to Japan from Dublin. JAB, who chooses to be professionally identified by his initials, is different from Cooke or Jay in that he designs games for Sky TV, the British satellite television provider, creating motion controlled webcam games for their website. As an independent developer, though, he can live anywhere his heart desires, and that is Tokyo. “I’ve never had that anywhere else. It’s a huge place. It’s safe, polite and clean. Quite the opposite to Dublin.”
Cooke echoes JAB’s affinity with the huge Japanese capital. “Some time after my 26th birthday I decided I wanted to try living somewhere completely different. Tokyo was about as different of a place as I could have chosen.”
Kay has a much more gung-ho outlook than Cooke and JAB. When he was asked why he decided to work out of Japan, he simply said, “Why not?”
Road to Tokyo
Both Cooke and Kay first came to the island country to work in the Japanese studio system, but they found their creativity was stifled working for the giants. Companies in Japan do not usually allow individual workers to express themselves through their work. The project director is the auteur and all work is done in the pursuit of his or her vision. “I know my decisions didn’t really affect the game. I never had as much ownership over a game as I had even in England.” Kay says about his time in Japanese game studios. However, when asked about his company’s most recent releases for the iPhone, Bail Out and the sheep herding sim Flock It!, he proudly states, “They’re like our babies. It’s us.”
Cooke says there was one big reason why he decided to strike out on his own: “Control. I wanted to be in control of what I worked on, who I worked with, and when I did said work.” Leaving the studio system was a way to stay in Japan without crushing his creative spirit and passion for games by floundering within the Japanese game studios.
Unlike Cooke and Kay, JAB spent no time in the traditional Japanese studio system. He has worked independently in various countries for the past twelve years. “One of the nice things about being freelance is that I wake up when I wake up, and that’s a luxury I’d hate to lose,” he says.
Japanese Work Ethic
Game development is usually not an early morning activity but for these independent developers, just getting the same chemical kick in the rear that everyone else does can be a challenge. “Once up, I hit the coffee machine that I paid too much money to ship over here,” JAB says. In addition, due to the time differences, most of their business has to be taken care of before it’s possible to start work on the games themselves. Cooke says that his mornings were dominated by Skype calls with overseas clients, “I worked with clients in both Japan and in the U.S. My mornings were afternoons in the U.S.”
Sometimes simple things like checking the mail become large, complicated tasks. “I have to go to the post box in Shibuya [one of Tokyo’s 23 wards] and check for mail,” says Kay, which means a trip on Tokyo’s crowded subways. Then he must deal with the special bureaucracy that only the Japanese government has to offer. “I have to speak to the accountant or meet the lawyer, which is always a bit of a trip down the rabbit hole in Japan with its many rules and laws, some enforceable, some not.” For example, Japan’s labor laws require that Kay register for National Health Insurance through his LLC. Without a support staff, running such important errands himself is definitely a distraction from game-making. “Little things just annoy me. … I’m an artist. It’s what I do. Sometimes you just want to do that.”
Even without small business tasks, the huge number of hours spent working on games is still more than those of most game industry workers in Japan or America. “For every game, I create all the programming, graphics and sounds, so there is always a lot to do,” explains JAB. But that’s JAB’s “cross” to bear; it’s clear that he loves his work. “It’s hard to pin down when the work actually starts or stops, as it’s all great fun,” he says.
The same is true of Kay. “Sometimes, you’re on a roll,” he says. “You’re working until 11 o’clock [at night].” Working alone or in small teams allows a lot of work to be done in a very small amount of time. Cooke sees the amount of work that he takes on as an honor instead of a burden. In order to demonstrate this point, he challenged himself with a seemingly impossible task: to complete ten games in ten hours. He turned the project into a presentation for a monthly gathering of Tokyo artists and musicians called Pecha-Kucha night.
Those long hours are worth the investment by allowing for much more relaxing lunch breaks. In Japan, the typical working lunch consists of cold meat or fish, rice and some vegetables. “I [always] go to a ramen shop near my house and eat something like Tsukumo Ramen’s delicious cheese ramen,” Cooke says.
A Burning Yen
As fun and rewarding as the freedom of independent work is, there’s one other more practical reason people choose to work for themselves. “The money was considerably better as a freelancer,” Cooke explains. Japanese workers in the game industry are underpaid and overworked compared to their counterparts in Europe and America. Promotions are based, not on merit, but seniority. “If you want a pay raise, you get a new job,” Kay says. So he did.
While the rewards of solo work are high, the pressure to perform is even higher. “All the responsibility and gamble is ours. We don’t have access to a publisher’s resources, like QA and marketing,” says Kay. “But that is also exciting; we can decide our game plan, so to speak. We might fail, but if we succeed we know it’s down to us, our decisions, our own hard work, and that is quite gratifying.”
“There is definitely a bit more stress while working as a solo independent, in that there can be no one around to bounce ideas off of or to help out in a stressful situation,” says Cooke. “There is more pressure on you to deliver. You need to be more careful in ensuring that the work you accept is doable given your individual skill set.” This is especially true in a foreign environment like Japan. Kay combats the culture shock by adopting some of his surroundings into the lexicon of his gaming studio, Score, which uses a rare and little known Japanese character for “twenty” as part its logo. “We strive to bring the best, most polished products to the widest possible audience bringing together both Western and Japanese design sensibilities,” the company’s website states.
These designers made the call to transplant to Japan for a variety of reasons. It may have been to leave a job that crushed their creativity. It may have been part of a search for a new home. Or it may have been pure whim. It doesn’t matter, really. The proliferation of technology and the spread of high-speed internet access means that the physical location where a game is made makes little difference to the audience. These developers may draw from their surroundings but they make games for all cultures to enjoy, be it Japanese, British or Botswanan.
Ryan Winterhalter is a freelance games, tech and travel writer in Tokyo. In addition to The Escapist, he has written for 1UP, GamesRadar, Gamasutra, GameSetWatch, PlayStation: The Official Magazine and Play Magazine (UK).