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Interview with Brandon Sheffield, Writer, designer and Editor, Game Developer magazine

Brandon Sheffield has worked on a number of projects with Japanese companies. Though he never resided in Japan, his work has seen him involved in both roles as consultant and writer. He offers a different perspective to our previous interviews, partly in that the companies he worked a long side were far more traditional and in how his input was generally external to the process or mediated through a single member of the development team.

Below, Brandon talks about his time working on a Japanese FPS title. The game was a four-player co-op FPS, designed with the Western market. With this in mind, Brandon was hired to work along side the fifty person development staff to write and develop the story. Despite a promising start and being backed by a big developer, the title it was cancelled while still in Alpha, due to a lack of funds.

GJJ – How did you find working with Japanese developers differed from with their Western counterparts?

BS – Working with Japanese developers was pretty different, mostly because one of the big things they wanted to know from me is “will Western fans like this,” which obviously a Western studio wouldn’t be asking. I felt like the team was mandated to ask this from above though, and they could’ve done a fine job without asking, really. Though there were a few cases where they tried to keep some gameplay elements that would look pretty stilted in the U.S. market.

By and large my team didn’t differ too much from Western teams. Very dedicated, definitely trying to make the best game they could. I might say they were even more dedicated to their vision though. Even with a team of 50 people, they were more accepting of experimentation and trying new things than other teams I’ve worked with. But again I don’t think that’s because they were Japanese – it was just a good team.

GJJ – Did you discover any unexpected issues working with them?

BS - I’d say the biggest issue I didn’t expect was that people would agree with me even when they didn’t, really. Or if they didn’t totally get a concept I was thinking of (usually because I didn’t explain it well), they would just say, “ah, I see,” and move on, being just as confused as before. This came to a head when I realized they totally didn’t understand the story I was trying to tell in the game, and wrote up a potential new story that was easier to grasp. We worked this out, and the problem was ultimately fixed by bringing in another designer who was incredibly good at calling out things she didn’t understand. She forced me to explain every detail of what I was thinking about, and this helped both the team to understand me, and me to hone my ideas. Once we got past that rough spot, things really improved.

GJJ – What benefits do you think Western personnel and influence could bring to Japanese development studios?

BS - Western personnel and influence can help teams that are ready for it to have better process and development practices. But by and large the structure of Japanese game companies is not set up to support that. I really don’t think Western influence is necessary in Japanese studios. These companies could be figuring this stuff out for themselves, they just appear to refuse to do so. All you have to do is make good games, while learning from the best practices that are floating out there. While a lot of technological advances have come from the Western side, this could all be done from within Japan if they wanted. Hiring Western developers seems to be more of a crutch, or a way to placate management than anything.

In my case, I was hired because they wanted a story written in English, because they wanted to make an FPS, and so of course Western markets would be the target. They weren’t hiring me because I’m some genius who was going to teach them how to succeed. I was hired as part of a team that knew what it was doing, but who also wanted to bounce ideas off someone who lived and breathed that market. Makes total sense, in that case.

GJJ – Sorry, I was thinking more of if you feel that Japanese development could benefit from more cultural diversity, similar to that North America and Europe has always enjoyed with its more open boarders?

BS – I think any industry could benefit from cultural diversity. But that shouldn’t necessarily overwrite a country’s unique ideas and perspective, which seems to be happening sometimes. There’s a “me-too-ism” that is happening in Japan that chooses to follow western ideas rather than finding their own ideas that work better in the current game environment.

Currently Brandon is working on two projects, one for the Xbox Live Indie Games and the other for iOS/Android, with a third project coming up that will see him working on a PSN/XBLA title that is being co-developed by Japanese and European teams. If you are interested in learning more about Brandon and following his work visit his site, Insert Credit, where he regularly contributes.

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