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.
There is an antithesis to this, though, in the form of independent videogames. These are mostly free of constraints and don’t require massive publishers or sections of development to be outsourced to anonymous and “cost effective” third parties. I pitched questions on outsourcing and crediting to prolific indie figure Greg Costikyan, of Manifesto Games. “Outsourcing is more often used for ports, [but] the waters are somewhat muddied in cases when a publisher who owns the right to a franchise or license goes to a third party with a clear idea of what they want developed. Even in such cases, however, the point should be that people make games, not corporations. Games, like film, are created in a collaborative fashion by many talents. (Except, of course, in the case of products that are [mostly] one-man operations, like, say, the original Roller Coaster Tycoon, or, at the indie fringe, Dan Marshall’s Gibbage.) Thus, as with film, we need to develop a culture that understands the collaborative nature of the form. One of the things Manifesto will be doing at launch is, where we can discover the information, including with all listings the four talents I view as critical in development: lead designer, technical lead, art director and lead producer.”
A good example of farming out franchises is Metroid Prime – it wasn’t developed by Nintendo, but rather Texas-based Retro Studios. But speak to the uninitiated, and they’ll happily proclaim it as one of Nintendo’s best. Another example is Ecco the Dolphin – it’s not a classic Sega game at all! It was developed by Novotrade International (now Appaloosa Interactive), a company founded in Hungary; clearly listed on the title screen, but again, it’s surprising how many don’t realize this. Finally, how many paid attention to Advance Wars on the GBA and noticed that it was developed by Intelligent Systems? How many also know that previously, Hudson Soft had been involved with making some iterations of Nintendo’s Wars series, including the unreleased N64 version? Then, of course, there was the Gamecube version by U.K.-based Kuju Entertainment. This makes for around a dozen titles with at least four separate companies being involved! No wonder Joe Public has trouble keeping up.
Costikyan continued, “Surely the press has some responsibility in this matter? When you go to any random website, are they more likely to credit the developer or the publisher? Clearly, publishers have a common interest in not making ‘stars’ either of studios or individuals, since that gives them greater negotiating leverage; but it mystifies me why the game press doesn’t try to get behind this more often. Attaching people to a story humanizes it and makes it more interesting, and for all the honors we heap on the likes of Wright or Meier or Miyamoto, there are plenty of interesting and articulate developers everywhere in the field. Mind you, PR reps certainly try to ‘control the message’ and avoid connecting journalists with actual people (other than publisher ‘spokespersons’), but perhaps our journalists should make more of an effort to penetrate the crap and get to the reality? If nothing else, a developer is less likely to be guarded and keen on perpetuating the usual wafflespeak that passes for marketing in this industry, and is therefore likelier to make better copy.” Speaking to someone who on a daily basis has to wade through the swamp that is PR liaising, Costikyan makes a rousing point.
Having outside companies work with established intellectual property creating (or porting) entire games is nothing new – TOSE was formed in 1979, and most of its work deals with other companies’ IP. But the outsourcing of separate project sections is relatively new, starting around the time when CDs were introduced, and suddenly games were requiring additional, not to mention expensive, audio and animation.
I was fortunate enough to speak with the always affable Dale DeSharone. Quite the pioneer, he not only dealt with Nintendo franchises when developing the Link and Zelda games for Philips’ CDi, but he also dabbled extensively with outsourcing in Eastern Europe. I asked him to explain the genesis of his Eastern connections, which formed in partnership with a Russian friend and colleague, Igor Razboff. “Igor and I got together and talked about what type of business we could start in St. Petersburg. I had seen numerous animated films coming out of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. So I thought, ‘Well, we could probably do animation over there.'” At first, they simply brought half a dozen Russian animators over to Massachusetts in the U.S., put them up in an apartment and had them create the animated cinemas for the Link and Zelda games. This helped with the limited budget and worked so well, they expanded operations. “We formed Animation Magic. That was both U.S. and the studio in St. Petersburg, [which] grew to about 150 people. And we had not only animators, but engineers and 2-D game artists. We were also starting to get into 3-D animation. It worked out [to be] a pretty smooth process. Igor, of course, spoke Russian and would talk to them on the phone everyday. He and I would both travel over there once every two months. With that studio, we were working on Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clan. Which was almost finished and then never published. Almost all of that was done in St. Petersburg.”
With the setback of having a completed title go unreleased, DeSharone explained how he eventually moved onto creating solely art assets for other games. “The old studio in St. Petersburg was sold to the Blizzard guys, and I decided to start a new company by myself, without a partner, in 1997. So that’s when I went to Kiev and started Boston Animation. The current studio is over in Kiev, and right now we’re mostly creating artwork for other [companies’] games. We’ve done quite a bit of artwork for Sony Online, for their EverQuest I and II, and Star Wars games. And … we’re doing a lot of work which I can’t really talk about.”
The reasons behind such events, though, make for melancholy reading. “Games are just getting huge, and I think that’s part of why our transition is concentrating mostly on artwork, in terms of our offshore studio. To put an entire triple-A game together … requires so much money and such a huge team these days.” A common and sad tale in videogames: It’s more affordable to farm out development of games, or sections of them, to other smaller companies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and companies like TOSE and Boston Animation are successful, but that doesn’t mean consumers should be lax when it comes to knowing who is responsible for games.
If the videogame medium is ever to be taken seriously, to evolve and develop to its full potential, to move beyond the “production line” image it has, it is imperative that people start taking an interest in who is actually responsible for the games they like. So, the next time you play one, look past the splash screen and read the credits, because someone, often anonymous, invested a huge chunk of their life into something you enjoy.
John Szczepaniak is a South African freelance videogame writer with a preference for retro games. He is also a staff member on the Retro Survival project, which contains articles on retro gaming and is well worth investigating.