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.