Q&A: Victor Ireland on the end of Working Designs

Head of localization house candidly discusses the the state of the industry and his company's downfall.

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Yesterday marked the end of influential niche publisher Working Designs' nearly 20-year run in the game industry.

Working Designs began as an accounting software company, but soon became a localization house for niche Japanese games. As a third-party publisher for the TurboGrafx-16, SegaCD, and Sega Saturn, Working Designs introduced America to the Lunar series of role-playing games, and brought over fondly remembered classics like Popful Mail, Dragon Force, and Magic Knight Rayearth.

After a public falling out with Sega, the company switched its development focus to the PlayStation and then the PlayStation 2, investing plenty of money and time into the localization of role-playing games, often with extravagant packaging and bonus items. Last December, the company released what was to be its final title, the Growlanser Generations compilation for the PlayStation 2. The company had been trying to bring over Goemon for the PlayStation 2, but company president Victor Ireland indicated that project was denied approval for domestic release by Sony.

A day removed from 17 years with the company he helped turn into a gaming publisher in the first place, Ireland answered some questions for GameSpot.

GameSpot: What was the final nail in the coffin for Working Designs?

Victor Ireland: Packaging Growlanser II and III together, doubling our costs and localization time and halving our profits in one fell swoop, wounded us. Goemon not getting approved was the end. At that point it was clear that the kinds of games we do and the manner that we do them would no longer be a guarantee of approval, and if I can't use my 15+ years of experience to pick games I know will sell and get them approved, what am I doing? What are WE doing? The majority shareholders in WD voted to stop the nonsense there. I can't say I blame them--they'd lost enough money in the 3 years prior while we tried to iron it out.

GS: In 17 years with the company, what one thing are you most proud of?

VI: Seeing the respect gamers get now from so many more companies than when we started. Color manuals were a novelty, foil-stamping was unheard of, spell checking and proper grammar was amazing...now all of those things as well as deluxe packaging, soundtracks, great hint books, etc. are far more common. As a consumer and a gamer, I see the change and know that we were a driving force because we showed it could be done and made more than just our customers expect it.

GS: Is there anything you would have done differently, any different direction you wish you had taken the company in?

VI: We're a pretty monogamous bunch, and given the Xbox's poor Japanese sales and GameCube's relatively poor sales in the US, there wasn't a practical or attractive alternative.

GS: In your message board post, you said that because people bought Working Designs games and showed support for these things, we have "deluxe packs, pack-in soundtracks, better packaging, great hint guides, and better localizations in general." Is that the extent of Working Designs' legacy?

VI: I think "better localizations in general" is the most important contribution WD made. Once people played a WD role-playing game, no matter what they thought about the pop culture stuff that was packed into the early games, it changed them. They saw how moving and engaging an RPG could be when written in their native language well.

GS: On localization specifically, Working Designs was responsible for some groundbreaking work regarding localization. How much farther do you think localization needs to go? How much farther can it go?

VI: It's come a long way, but there are still way too many spelling and grammar errors in games. The worst offense, however, is flat characters you don't care about. Giving life to characters demands more than a straight translation. You must work in the spirit of the original, and that's a tough domain in which to exist, let alone master.

GS: You mentioned a possibility that Goemon and Growlanser Generations might be released in Europe. Would these be released under the Working Designs name or through another publisher?

VI: There are some other publishers that have expressed interest.

GS: With the company's focus on role-playing games and 2D-friendly approach to graphics, why was the decision never made to publish for systems like the Game Boy Advance or Nintendo DS?

VI: GBA was too crowded a market, and DS came into the picture too late. The software for the DS is only now really starting to come on strong. It does have Goemon, too! That game alone made me rebuy a DS so I could play it. Now I'm glad I did because there's a bunch of great stuff.

GS: Ubisoft published the two most recent Lunar games for the North American market, one on Game Boy Advance and one on the Nintendo DS. How did Working Designs' stewardship of the Lunar license in the US come to an end?

VI: We sold the US rights back to Game Arts. It was theirs to do with as they wished.

GS: As Working Designs showed that there was an American audience for many of its games, others began to take note and jump in the game. Currently, Mastiff, Atlus, NIS America, Agetec, Hot-B America all seem to specialize in somewhat niche, localized fare. Did the niche outgrow Working Designs? What kept the company from competing with these new players?

VI: Me, really. We were tied up, and I was obsessed with getting the three Gs approved. It made no sense to me that they were denied because they were so right for our market, and were exactly the kind of game we did that our fans liked. Until that was cleared, nothing else could be licensed. My hands were tied to get any more product by our majority shareholders. If I had cut and run, we could have been doing our usual two games a year in that time. Think of it, we could have done six games in the three years I wasted! But there's no guarantee any of those would have been approved either, since they would have been games that emphasized story and gameplay over graphics.

GS: Do you think the shutting down of Working Designs reflects anything about the current state of the game industry?

VI: Absolutely. The fans that want more than pabulum are out there, but some hardware vendors are obsessed with mainstream to the detriment of the gamers in the niche that we served. The only thing that can change that is true competition, and I think that is coming this generation in a major way, but too late for WD.

GS: For the president of a niche publisher, you ruffled some feathers in the industry by taking public stances on issues that had typically been privately dealt with between publishers and console manufacturers. Looking back on it, do you think your comments hurt the company in any way? Would a more politically minded approach to these situations have served Working Designs better?

VI: Absolutely. Even the mild statements I've made here have probably ruffled a few more. I have always been a gamer first and a politician second. I was there to get great games out that would have been left for dead in Japan until we got them. In the end, I think that absolutely hurt WD, but it wasn't clear how much until it was too late. As the industry filled with legions of MBAs that admit to playing games an hour a week (if that) to see what was hot, gamers in high-level positions became ever more rare. It's really screwed up the market. Look at the diversity you saw on the PS1, and compare it to the PS2. It's taken a huge hit. Me3 is the most popular SKU.

GS: You specifically mentioned Japanese Xbox 360 role-playing games as an area with plenty of promise in the next generation. Why Xbox 360 RPGs in particular? And how successful do you think Microsoft's attempts to win over Japanese gamers will be this time around?

VI: I can't say which games because I don't want to jinx it. There are a number that have interested me, and I think MS is really committed to the gamer here and in Japan for this coming generation. I don't think MS will necessarily win this round in Japan, but I think they will make a substantially stronger showing. They now understand that they need to be hitting on all cylinders in Asia/US/Europe to make a big dent this next round and set themselves up to win in the generation after.

GS: Any thoughts on the next generation of platforms?

VI: I want to know more about the Revolution. I also want everyone to write Microsoft and demand their JRPGs!

GS: Thanks again.

Discussion

26 comments
Taxonomy
Taxonomy

Im sorry but what the hell why cant people see that they had great games, I LOVED EVERYTHING THEY DID.... and I find out about this years later WOW

HyPeRRuSh
HyPeRRuSh

I remember the day I saw an article in EGM about some Fantasy Adventure game called "Popful Mail." Had no idea what it was but the screenshots caught my interest and I was hooked. The Working Designs team TRULY brought Popful Mail to life for the Sega CD here in the States (at the time, voice overs for video games was quite a big step) and I fell in love with the dialogue. Not only did the VOs say their lines, but with real feeling as the conversations went smoothly. As far as the company closing, yes its a sad departure but I'm glad the President is a gamer 1st and spoke his mind. Sticking to the politics would only be someone who steps back and puts out fluff. WD was a company who made sure their games (and their packaging) was nothing less than the best and something that stood out from the rest. ;)

bakagami
bakagami

It sounds to me like Sony held their head under the water

lindseyiluvyou
lindseyiluvyou

Now there is just about no chance of their being a Lunar 3... that sucks i love WD

bcfish
bcfish

Just finished replaying Lunar 1, and got curious as to how Working Designs is doing. That sucks man, but to WD's credit I'm still playing their games! Thanks for everything guys, and hope wherever you all are you are still rocking the industry bringing quality stories and games to us gamers like it should be. Peace

kornlogic
kornlogic

I'll miss Working design. They brought us gamers real rpg bliss. Good games like "Lunar". All I got to say is that they knew their rpgs. Bravo Working Designs, Thank you for the nostalgic memories.

Isual
Isual

this is terrible, a legendary RPG developer and publisher down the drain? man, Lunar 2 was one of my first RPG's and it was great... but i guess times change, Sony, Please just buy WD and put it into one of your development teams!

Flagg217
Flagg217

I tend to have mixed feelings about WD's downfall. I will miss them and their great games -- primarily Lunar. As far as the GBA being an overpopulated market . . . he's right. I work at TRU and our demographic for the GBA is kids under 12. Granted, most of our games are Nicktoons platformers, but we get games most people probably don't know even exist! Go to EB or Gamestop and try finding the trash that we sell! We have a much wider selection than the other retailers, but c'mon quality over quantity people! I also own Growlanser Genererations Deluxe because I'm a collector and even I have to say $90 is pretty steep even with all of the great stuff it came with. Regardless, it is said to see the end of an era.

ulrikz
ulrikz

We need more companies like WD, not less :(

HitmanAgent47
HitmanAgent47

It's heartbreaking to find out that my favorite publisher has finally closed their doors. The Lunar series is my favorite RPG series of all time, and all thanks to Working Designs. I really hate the mainstream audience, I really do. I hope the gaming industry takes a huge hit from it all too, and learn that short term cash from brain dead pop-culture induced morons is not the answer. Victor Ireland has my upmost respect, and I feel that publishers like EA can burn in Hell. Thank you Victor for giving me an oppurtunity to play games that not only became my all time favorites, but that there are some people out there who actually care for the hardcore and casual gamer than these other hacks. I will always remember and honor Working Designs for their amazing talent and localization for games. You will always be in my heart as a gamer.

therealrider
therealrider

Well, there's a liitle bit less soul in gaming now. We're now going to be stuck with more boring me too sequels. Here's hoping that people will realize what's happened here and go out and try a great niche RPG.

Grizzly77
Grizzly77

Good bye WD and thanks for the great games... I never had a sega CD or Turbografx, but they brought Lunar 1 & 2 to the PS, and I fell in love with RPGs again. I don't see the problem that some people have with the way Victor Ireland handled things. He was vocal in what he wanted and never backed down. How can that be bad? If only the rest of us were as passionate and vocal about things... would we have so many pathetic forms of entertainment? You all know what I mean, cookie cutter movies, television shows, and music. Why is it that a person who stands for what he/she believes in and works towards that end gets such bad press? Thanks but no thanks for the bland vanilla variety entertainment. Good luck to all the other niche game publishers, I'll take my games in rocky road flavor!

MooPlaid
MooPlaid

This news to me is really upsetting. I, like many I'm sure, have loved their games for many years. I remember Cosmic Fantasy 2 actually getting me to tear up (first time for a game for me). I just wish the corporate losers at Sony (and to a lesser extent, Sega) would have supported WD better. I'm not too fond of Sony, and reasons such as this are why. That being said, if anyone at WD reads this, I loved your company, their products, and wish the best to you all. Here's hoping someone maybe wisens up and is more understanding to your company (here's looking at you Nintendo...and I wish Microsoft too, but doubt that happening).

Yagami-Iori
Yagami-Iori

Its too bad that stubbornness on multiple sides killed this company.

ebonyflame
ebonyflame

Another one bites the dust. I am truly sad to see this company go down as they localized some great games. In my opinion they did this to themselves by dedicating their work exclusively to the PS2 instead of spreading thee wealth to all consoles, testing the waters so to speak, seeing where the greatest demand was. Even back when they began developing for the original Playstation and Saturn at the same time the demand was greatest on the console with the weaker lineup, the Saturn. Just goes to show that developers better get their heads outta their asses and goto where the greatest demand for certain types of games are, namely the underdog systems. And for companies that focus mainly on localization learn from this, it may not be wise to localize all your products for one system, especially when that systemis over-saturated with the type of genre that you specialize in.

sk7731
sk7731

R.I.P. Working Designs

Fallen_Angelz
Fallen_Angelz

I would gladly take Bonks Adventure and Keith Courage over any Nintendo crap thesedays. But thats a whole other discussion... RIP WD, we shall miss thee...

megasdkirby
megasdkirby

He is arrogant and full of himself. He won't accept the fact that he was wrong and that he should have made games for different platforms. Ok, so Sony was responsible...at least partly. But WD's download was mostly due to Ireland's unprofessional approach at the bussiness world. He wanted to do what he felt like doing, not what he knew SHOULD be done. And it seems that history will just continue repeating itself...first he had problems with SEGA, now SONY, what is next Microsoft? He should change his ways, or it will be a never ending cycle for him. And I agree with what YukoAsho said 100%.

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

The GameCube did FAR better in the US than the TurboGrafx 16, the Turbo CD/Turbo DUO, the Sega CD or the Sega Saturn. It also probably had more games in WD's line of thinking than the PlayStation 2. That was a pathetic excuse for his own failures and everyone here knows it.

megasdkirby
megasdkirby

slim_boi, unfortunately they are too proud of themselves to even care. And as long as gamers still support them, they will continue to do as they please. Which is a pity... :( And I read the interview, and once again as though he refuses to support multiple systems. What is his deal? It will be dejavu all over again if he continues with this type of attittude. Multiple system support equals lots of money for the company and chances for a better future. And I laughed when he said that the GBA has an overpopulated market...what about the PS2? That was just a sad response. But I do agree about the entire "XBOX not winning this round, but making a mark thing", since I do believe that this will be the generation that will resemble the Genesis/Super NES wars, Microsoft being like SEGA and Sony being like Nintendo. And to be honest, it is about time another king is made...like Nintendo, Sony has had enough glory. Now it is time for another company to be number one, either it be Microsoft, Nintendo, Daewoo, General Electric, Vivid...whoever wants to make a video game console. But in any case, I wish lots of luck to Ireland and all of his staff. I will always remember the great times I had playing your localized games. ^_^

Statictrance
Statictrance

Victor, if your reading, your the reason my sega cd was a wise purchase afterall. It's sad to see the company fall, but I'm trying to keep remembering all the games on my shelf *and in your backcatalog* that i know and love. I restarted a game of popful mail in memory of WD. I hope you have success with X360 games, because I'm looking at my 360 and it needs some RPG love in a bad way. I'll look foward to whatever next game you put your name on, keep us all updated cause we'll support it

slim_boi
slim_boi

I for one will miss WD..Sony, get your act together!!!!!!

magus704
magus704

It's so sad to see such a great publisher go down just because the mainstream can't seem to get it in their heads that there are other genres out there besides first person shooters.

DJGeki
DJGeki

I'm all for more RPGs in the market. I don't care if they're American/European/Japanese or made otherwise! If it's got a good story, bring it on! I believe that WD did all the things Ireland stated, and I loved the company. Sometimes I disagreed with their translations, but they always stayed true to the spirit of the game. Even if their anachronistic blurbs dissuaded some gamers from playing, they were not a bad thing overall. Those same time-bending quips occur in Japanese, too...they just don't convey the same ideas. Mr. Ireland, I hope you read this and all of the rest of our comments and realize just how much Working Designs did to an industry that has "progressed" into a market that looks way too much like the movie industry, where there is very little room or incentive for the indie developer (like me!) to push their way in. Your company, and all the coders, translators, and content developers, made me want to own my own company, and that's just what I'll be doing relatively soon. I've been with you since Cosmic Fantasy on the TG16-CD, and I've got the Deluxe pack of Growlanser...now I just need to find the time to play it!! Please push your people to develop for the next gen of systems or even start a new company! Good luck.

strahd01
strahd01

Looks like were getting some good JRPGs for the 360 now that Victor Ireland is in the scene! w00t! score!