Japantown: Some Big Qs

Former GameSpot editor turned producer James Mielke begins his series on the life and times of working at a development house in Japan.

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Greetings and welcome to the inaugural entry of a monthly column I will write on GameSpot about my life in Japan working in game development. Some of you may remember seeing my name on GameSpot over the years. It's actually the place where I first got my foothold in the industry, writing import reviews and news back in the late '90s, before joining GameSpot full time as its previews editor in 1999-2000. You can still find some of my reviews here, for games like Radiant Silvergun and Panzer Dragoon Saga. Yeah, it has been a long while.

After a decade in San Francisco working for GameSpot, EGM, and 1UP, I moved my family to Japan, spending the past three years in Tokyo at Q Entertainment as a producer on games like Child of Eden and Lumines Electronic Symphony. It was a great time, working side by side with my mentor and friend Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Space Channel 5, Sega Rally, Lumines), but once we shipped Lumines Electronic Symphony for the Vita, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, as the company began focusing more on social and mobile gaming. Because developing social games was not what I set out to do when I moved to Japan, I--with the support of my mentor, Tetsuya-- began looking for new opportunities that would provide a better career fit moving forward.

Enter Dylan Cuthbert, Kyoto-based super-programmer and president of the similarly named Q-Games (Fun fact: Q-Games was actually established years before Q Entertainment). Best known in the modern gaming era for the PixelJunk series of downloadable games on PlayStation Network, Q-Games is a company I always admired for its professionalism and the consistency and quality of its arcade-style PixelJunk games (PixelJunk Eden and Sidescroller are personal favorites). When Dylan got wind that I was planning to leave Q Entertainment (it's a small industry), he invited me to apply at Q-Games--something, if I'm being honest, I hadn't initially considered. It had nothing to do with Q-Games. I just wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in Japan in general, as I had begun to feel the urge to go home to New York City where I grew up. In fact, I wasn't even certain that I wanted to stay in the game industry at that point and considered a move into the music industry, or some other creative, design-related endeavor.

"I just wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in Japan in general, as I had begun to feel the urge to go home to New York City where I grew up."
But because my wife and I both have a significant number of family members in the Kyoto and Osaka area, I decided to give it a fair shot and arranged an interview with the team at Q-Games. To my pleasant surprise, our conversation went exceptionally well, and within a few hours of my video conference call with the core management of Q-Games (including Kentaro Yoshida, who worked on all of the major Panzer Dragoon games--qualifying him for hero status as far as I'm concerned), I got an official invitation from Dylan to join. With the prospect of working with such an established, respected team, and being able to add my own contributions to their future efforts, I happily accepted his offer to join Q-Games and spent the next month planning, organizing, and moving my stuff down south to Kyoto, where we found a great apartment only a 15-minute bike ride away from work.

I am now the main producer on the PixelJunk series and work with a great team of programmers, game designers, artists, and directors. The hours are much more organized than at other places I've worked, and yet I have had little problem waking up at 7:00 a.m. every day to get into the office by 9:00 a.m. Here, you work hard, and then you play hard. You do more and you do it better when you're rested and you're not burning the candle at both ends (which is how it often is in game development). I like Q's philosophy, and the very organic way in which they approach game design, which is probably why I'm so jazzed to be here.

My job here involves a lot of things, like working on and planning games of the future and actively discussing game designs with the various team members, all of which involves a great deal of technical R&D. The average work day also involves our lunchtime jamband, The Electric Bends, which creates a new song every day (I'm the drum programmer) and whose work can be found on Bandcamp. But when I'm not jamming with the crew, I'm helping to develop the company's social media presence with our PR and community manager, John Davis (formerly of Grasshopper Manufacture), as well as devising upcoming game promotions for recent Q-Games games, like PixelJunk 4AM. I also interact directly with our publishers and business partners. As the new PixelJunk producer, it's my job to help the teams I work with succeed in creating their dreams, but since the working style at this Q is so different from the working style at my previous Q, I'm still making adjustments (the Q-Games atmosphere is very organized, and yet feels very relaxed and positive and, in a way, low pressure).

From almost the moment I stepped into the office for the first time (new-job jitters) everyone was friendly and welcoming. I went out to lunch with a bunch of the guys, and one of Q's programmers, Jaymin, even lent me his bike to go take a ride with the rest of the team. In my second week here, Dylan took us all out to a restaurant that specialized in Okinawan food and hosted a traditional welcome party for me, John Davis, and our planning/programming intern, Sagar. It was such a fun, friendly, and relaxed gathering, and I got to know a lot of the other Q staff during the evening.

In time, then, all the gears will fall into place and everything will click, and I'll get to know how things generally progress around here--especially during crunch time--but as everyone here is so open and accessible, I think it'll happen sooner rather than later. It's a very positive atmosphere here at Q. In this column I will attempt to document the random trials and tribulations of a video game producer's life in Japan, but may veer off occasionally on a different tangent. Although I won't be able to dive into the specifics of the games we're working on (at least until they've been properly announced), I am looking forward to shedding some light on the job, in the hopes it may be of some interest to people who are looking to do the same sort of thing themselves one day. If you have any feedback, please join the conversation in the comments section. See you soon.

Discussion

28 comments
sephirothsfan02
sephirothsfan02

Hello James Mielke,

 

First of I´d like to thank you for writing such an interesting article and hopefully there`ll be many more to come. As a gamer who loves Japanese games and a person who`s fascinated by Japan`s culture and history in general my dream has always been to move there with my family and get a job as a game developer. After graduating here in Austria I`m think about either continue my studies either in Japan, the USA or Cuba, my homeland, although Japan would by far be my favourite choice.

 

I`m looking forward to more of your articles, they`re very inspirational, also it`d be nice if you could tell us a bit more about your personal life and how your family copes with such an enviroment.

optimuserik
optimuserik

So .... when will you tell us some more from you're life there ?

modernchow
modernchow

Yeah Mielke! I remember reading a post on another site about hikes up and down a hill everyday to work back at the other Q. Bet you don't miss those days! Can't wait to read more about your new projects. Any chance Q games will revisit the podcast space once again? Would love to hear you, Dylan, and the rest on show! Congrats on a new gig!

salvucci91
salvucci91

This is full of insight, and inspires me greatly. I hope to create characters and game mechanics that are loved and enjoyed by gamers all over the globe !!

optimuserik
optimuserik

I also look forward to becoming a programmer at a game industry in Japan .

I just joined collage but this will help a lot in my future . Great to have some clues to what it's like .

I'm also curious about how hard it is to get a job there .

digi_matrix
digi_matrix

Wow, I did not know Q Games developed the XMB for PS3!

 

How big are the teams, and how far apart are they in the office? Are you constantly sending and receiving messages from the different departments or is it more tightly connected than that? 

realdevilsalias
realdevilsalias

The Milkman back and in force.  Awesome! Can't wait to see all this turns out.

isawachuck
isawachuck

Great article! I'm finally heading to Japan later this year and I can't wait!

OnidragonX
OnidragonX

Snap! The Milkman is back! One of the best EGM reviewers of all time on one of the best gaming mags of all time (aka 25  years). I remember playing FFXI with you back in the day when you were covering that--we started a linkshell. 

 

I'm very excited about this column. Looking forward to the next.

Brokazaki
Brokazaki

What is the octopus to innocent girl ratio?

mekentosh
mekentosh

Love this!! My dream is to Visit Japan one day. Can't wait for more!

pcdragon2007
pcdragon2007

Hello, Congratulations on getting the job!!

 

I am a Java programmer in the healthcare industry and dream of moving on to programming for an interactive entertainment company in Japan.  Thus, I am quite curiously about your journey to Japan; all the way from the beginning to your current point in time. I have a couple of question, if you would be so kind as to oblige.

 

What was the most difficult challenge you encounter in moving to Japan? Is it really expensive to move your belongings from the U.S. to Japan; may I ask how did you accomplish such a task? Did you have a promise of a job before moving to Japan? Do you have to speak in Japanese at work?

 

Thank you for any insight!!!

Hydroid707
Hydroid707

Yeah I definitely wouldn't mind hearing more of this.

 

q-bert39
q-bert39

 @optimuserik For foreigners, getting a real job pretty much impossible, and if you arent 100% fluent in japanese you can forget about it right now. You'll need to learn to speak the language fluently (takes a few years living in the country, and 5-10 if you dont) and to read japanese you'll need to know at least 3000 kanji, but this is the absolute minimum, you'll probably need to know around 4000-6000 to function at a professional level. Besides that, Japan is a very racist country, and if you are american and a foreigner you have a very very low chance of success, regardless of your education or fluency.

 

Sorry to burst your bubble.

Beer_Licorice
Beer_Licorice

 @optimuserik

 Getting a job in Japan is possible, but can be difficult depending on what you want to do and your level of Japanese ability.  If you only care about living in Japan and not much else, you can always get a job teaching English, it's easy for Native English speakers to do this, but generally is not a very fulfilling job nor does it offer stellar pay or benefits (usually, there are exceptions to that) If you want a job in a real field i.e. engineering/programming or whatever....you will generally need a very high level of Japanese ability because you will have to be sponsored for a work visa.  This is not always the case, and you could get lucky depending on the company.  For example blue chip companies, say Konami (for video games) or Toshiba (for electronics) would generally have an easier time sponsoring you then a smaller outfit.  I currently live near Tokyo, and it took me about 4 months to find a job while I was living in Japan going to school......also I was determined to avoid teaching English like the plague.

jamesmielke
jamesmielke

 @OnidragonX Good to hear from you, man. Our FFXI linkshell that we started with Lyonheart. Good times.

jamesmielke
jamesmielke

 @Brokazaki When you have two octopuses (octopi) and innocent girl, it's a broctopus.

Beer_Licorice
Beer_Licorice

@pcdragon2007

Japan has good points and bad points.....much like anything else in life.  Kyoto is a great place and a real cultural center of Japan.....if you like old temples with a lot of history it's the place.  Plus the Kansai area is a friendly place all around and in spitting distance of famous places like Nara and Nagoya.  The University of Kyoto is extremely famous and one of the top universities in the country.

 

I don't know about the video game industry, as I work for an automotive manufacturing company but working in Japan directly for Japanese company can be demanding.  Hours can be long and it's not unheard of for people to work from 9AM to 10PM or later regularly.  You also need to get used to taking the subway and train frequently as taking a car is generally not overly feasible.  Getting your license is very expensive (at least by US standards) and can cost more than $3000. 

 

jamesmielke
jamesmielke

 @pcdragon2007 All of your questions shall be answered in the upcoming columns, so keep 'em coming.

q-bert39
q-bert39

 @optimuserik Edit: By racist i mean if you are white you're second class, but if you are black, hispanic, chinese, w/e else you are completely screwed. Not to mention most japanese completely hate america. So you might have a shot if you are white, and if you arent american. If you are a white american, you better be very good and know japanese better than english, but if you arent white, dont even bother.

optimuserik
optimuserik

 @faith_star83

So I should get some experience too . Is any experience in domain valid or does it have to be IN Japan ?

optimuserik
optimuserik

 @Beer_Licorice

Their reaction is understandable .

Anyhow living for 3 years and having a full time job can mean that you will probably stay there and live as a Japanese ... more or less.

I respect that you made it and I hope to somehow manage it too .

Beer_Licorice
Beer_Licorice

 

 I don't want to create a protracted argument about race or be labeled a troll so I will say this finally and then let it die. 

 

I have been living in Japan for a little over 3 years (you can decide on your own whether that is a long time or not. I personally think it is long enough for me to have an opinion on the matter).  I speak Japanese to my co-workers, and I play the game like everyone else.  However, despite these attempts to integrate, for the most part you will always be viewed as a foreigner, and regardless of your skills or language experience I think the odds are stacked against non-Japanese for sure.  Now I accepted that risk when I came here, and I NEVER thought I would be handed anything, but I won't try to tell people that the situation doesn't really exist when I'm fairly sure it does.  I've had people (on multiple occasions) come up to me and my girlfriend, and criticize us for being a mixed couple.  I've had people come and tap me on the shoulder when I'm buying sushi and say crap like "Ooh! The foreigner is buying sushi!"  I don't walk up to random people and say "Oh! Look at the Japanese guy wearing Western clothes!"....but I digress

 

My point is that good full-time employment has a lot of barriers for entry here.  Perhaps also partly to because becoming a full-time employee or SEISHAIN in a Japanese company is a big deal because it is viewed as a lifetime commitment to that company.  In my company, it requires approval of our board of directors and to my knowledge notoriously few non-Japanese workers have acheived it, even the one's that are way better at integrating then I am. 

 

Do I think it is possible to find a good paying job that's not English teaching? Of course I do, but I think the odds are far more stacked against you than in other places.  That's my two cents.  You are free to accept, reject or otherwise spindle or mutilate my viewpoint. 

 

Cheers

faith_star83
faith_star83

 @Beer_Licorice  @q-bert39 

well guys, it is not as bad as many of you say. I have been in Japan for a long time and there are good jobs to be found. I myself had several attractive offers (although I work in electric engineering and not gaming industry).  Also the racism issue is not much of a problem if you speak Japanese and adapt yourself to Japanese customs and socialize.

Fact is, that many foreigner think they can just go to Japan and everybody there is waiting for them and hires them with a handkiss and thus never bother to adapt or learn the language. Then they start accusing Japanese and their society of being unwelcoming and racist...I have heard this so many times really.

If you are serious about going to Japan, learning Japanese is necessary, but not the most important thing. If you want a job in Japan you compete with Japanese co-workers. Thus, knowing Japanese is not a bonus but a standard requirement since you have to be able to comunicate with your superiors and co-workers. Also being a foreigner does not qualify automatically for a job (on the contrary). So you need to have something (such as work experience) that makes you more attractive to Japanese companies than the average Japanese joe. So you need to get experience that is hard to get by in Japan. If you have both: Japanese language and social abilites and actual value for the company, then you will have many job offers. In the company I work now (big Japanese electric company) there are several foreigners and their Japanese was very bad at the beginning. Working in a Japanese company is anyway the best Japanese training you can get...and most Japanese employers know this...

Beer_Licorice
Beer_Licorice

 @q-bert39

 This is sad, but unfortunately true.....as far as I know my company has been hiring foreigners for contract jobs for at least 15 years.  They are almost always white, English speaking Europeans (or Americans) with an odd Thai or Indonesian guy thrown in.  I have never ever heard of them hiring a black guy, even for an intern post.

optimuserik
optimuserik

 @q-bert39

Guess I'm lucky then .... so I have a chance . Need to learn Japanese even more then .

Anything that can help me ( or anybody who wants to try ) ?  As in exercises ... tips how to learn ... some e-books ... any help would do .