Conventional wisdom says that Japanese developers aren’t the best when it comes to sharing knowledge with the wider community. And, in this very rare, selective case, that wisdom is right.
But anyone who’s been to GDC or our own Develop Conference in the past few years will have seen a slow increase in the number of Japanese developers willing to talk openly about their development process. And there’s no better place to witness the thawing of the cold front, and the establishment of a real Japanese game development ‘community’, than at CEDEC, the conference organised by Japanese publishers’ association CESA (which is also responsible for the Tokyo Game Show).
Celebrating its tenth year last month, CEDEC 2008’s motif ran in two opposite directions: looking back at the past decade – and indeed at the growth of game development in the country – and facing the next ten years and challenges which the rapidly-changing landscape will bring with it. Its opening keynote charted the progress of CEDEC’s growth within the past ten years, from a day-long Tokyo Game Show spin-off to a conference that this year welcomed almost 2,000 developers.
The backwards-looking aspect was perhaps best captured in a keynote panel discussion entitled ‘It all began from here: Things learnt from Space Invaders and Pac-Man and looking at the future’ which featured old friends and drinking buddies Tomohiro Nishikado of Space Invaders fame and Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani talking about their experiences in the last thirty years and their vision of the future of game development.
While the Showa Women’s University in Setagaya, Tokyo was certainly a venue large enough to hold the throng, hearing about how Squirrel helped Square Enix churn fast iterations on My Life as a King: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles while sat in a very typical classroom took learning to a quite literal level. Nonetheless, rooms were frequently packed to standing-room-only as the crowds assembled to hear wisdom from some of the country’s leading luminaries and studios. (Even Miyamoto had a keynote but his Wii Music insights made it strictly off-limits to the press.)
The first of the two structural focuses of this year’s event was increased emphasis on roundtables (“Going from a CEDEC that you watch to a CEDEC you participate in,” summarised Koei COO Kenji Matsubara during his opening keynote), many of which were helmed by IGDA Japan co-ordinator Kiyoshi Shin. One that Develop participated in was the ‘How to better work with foreign employees’ roundtable, which saw assembled studio workers – from employees at big studios such as Sega and Square Enix all the way down to exchange students hoping to break into the industry after graduation – discussing how to better communicate and help non-Japanese employees within local companies. Conclusions: help them settle in and navigate landmines like opening bank accounts, and Western studios tend to be a more ‘lively’ environment, so be aware that if people are scared to talk to them they might end up leaving.
New this year was an increased focus on looking at Western development with the establishment of the Overseas Track.
Bioware’s Jason Spangler spoke on the latest advances in production processes in Western studios – agile, scrum, managing builds etc. – while Steve Theodore spoke about the evolution and role of the technical art team at Bungie and Epic’s technology genius Tim Sweeney gave his predictions for the next generation of game machines and technologies.
But when sat amongst the hundreds of other developers in the keynote hall, or drinking with people from studios big and small at the well-attended networking party, it becomes clear that a community is forming and, while it may not be as large as that of Western developers, it’s through no lack of effort on the part of the organisers and indeed developers themselves.
“When I started the IGDA’s Japan chapter, many people said to me that because of the secretive nature of Japanese developers it would be impossible to build a development community,” IGDA Japanese chapter head Kiyoshi Shin told us. “But, actually, Japanese developers have helped to build the community. There are even people who attribute their current job position due to helping out with the IGDA.”
But perhaps the most fitting preview of the ‘the next ten years’ came not from any of the sessions, but from chatting to advisory board member Naoto Yoshioka, chief technologist of Square Enix’s R&D division and driving force behind both the Foreign Track and Square Enix’s participation in recent GDCs. His vision of the CEDEC of five years time is an event equally attended by Japanese and Western developers, with sessions hopefully featuring a similar ratio. There is so much for Japanese studios to learn from American and European ones, and them from Japan, he asserts – and, as our interview with iNiS’ Keiichi Yano (s) confirms, that’s a worldview many developers are subscribing to.
And, let’s face it – who doesn’t fancy a week in Tokyo every year?