FEATURE: Just How Realistic is "NEW GAME!"? - Interview with a Game Developer in Japan

“How can Aoba get a job straight out of high school, it’s just unrealistic! She’d never get hired without experience in 3D!”

This interview comes to us from Callum May of The Canipa Effect.

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“How can Aoba get a job straight out of high school, it’s just unrealistic! She’d never get hired without experience in 3D!”


Despite the huge praise that last season’s NEW GAME! received, many fans found it difficult to accept that Eagle Jump reflects reality in any significant way. Whilst it is indeed a slice of life comedy show, there’s nothing to say that it can’t make strides to educate its audience on the realities of a particular industry.


After all, to learn from anime is to appreciate it as something valuable.

 

Aoba NEW GAME!

 

But I’ve never quite bought the idea that NEW GAME! is just a moe show about cute girls in a fantasy world that in no way represents our own. Especially since the author, Shōtarō Tokunō worked as a character designer himself at tri-Ace not long after graduating from high school. Credited under character design and 3D modelling for both Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria and Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Aoba appears to be on a very similar career path to the one Tokunō once went through.


There’s very significant differences between the Western and Japanese game industries and whilst some events in NEW GAME! appear to be bizarre or unrealistic from our own perspective, they can be common within Japan. So in order to get an insider’s perspective on this whole debacle and gain some relevant context, I reached out to M. Ian Graham, a game developer with experience in both America and Japan to help clear this up.


NEW GAME! Ko Getting Shot

 

Callum: Could you introduce yourself and some of the games you've worked on?


Hi! My name's Ian. I'm a freelance game developer based in Tokyo. I've been in the game industry for 11 years - 8 in California, 3 in Japan. I've worked on games like Words With Friends, Scramble With Friends (now WordStreak), and Disney MMOs Toontown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean Online. You don't see any Japanese games on that list because I have to be tight-lipped about projects in Japan. That said, I spent two years working with Silicon Studio, the makers of Bravely Default. I also just launched an unnamed online game that involves giant robots fighting aliens.


As for what I do: I specialize in building online multiplayer games. I'm mainly technical, with a bit of game design and project management thrown in. So I'm coding about half the time. I spend the rest on mentoring, planning game systems, and making sure teams stay running. Using NEW GAME! as an example: I might be a mix of Umiko (the programmer) and a game designer version of Kou (the character team lead). Coincidentally those are also my favorite two characters.


Happy Aoba NEW GAME!


Callum: Many believed that Aoba being recruited to Eagle Jump straight out of high school was unrealistic. As someone with experience in the Japanese game industry, what's your perspective?


This is rare but not unrealistic, especially when hiring artists.


Art hiring is usually a merit- and evidenced-based process, especially compared to other roles in development. An artist lives or dies by their portfolio. Assuming no plagiarism, the portfolio doesn't lie. And if you have a lot of applicants to go through, looking at portfolios first makes early screening easy.


Japan also has a glut of character artists due to the draw of the anime/manga industry. Counterintuitively, this can make it easier for a gifted artist with no paper credentials to pass an early screening. The reason is that excess supply lets the hiring company raise standards. For art hiring, this means making the portfolio a strict requirement. If everyone submits it, it's the first thing you look at. And if you see someone with amazing work that looks relevant to your needs, you might ignore other credentials. This is especially easy if you're at a smaller company. No big HR department to get in the way.


The likely order of events in NEW GAME!: Aoba is a bit of a badass. She had an amazing character art portfolio for step one of the screening process. This got her foot in the door. Then she won the team over with her passion as a life-long fan of the Fairies Story games. Bam. Hired.


Umiko and Aoba NEW GAME!

 

Callum: Is it true that new recruits will be taught 3D animation from scratch like Aoba?


For new grad hires in Japan this is pretty common. Aoba's case is not that unusual. The background: Japanese universities often teach few job relevant skills. So most companies hire by pedigree, personality, and intellect. Then they train you on the job from scratch. This isn't just a game industry thing, by the way. It's a country-wide educational issue that companies all adapted to decades ago. Universities and hiring practices are improving, but big corporations still have weeks-long training programs. The conservative assumption: A good hire out of school is a blank slate that will learn fast. Obviously this varies by company. Smaller shops are more sane and adaptive while huge companies stick with old practices.


For similar reasons, it's common to place junior hires in roles that don't cleanly match their skills. This gets even more likely with understaffed companies or heavy project turnover. Teams hire for the long term but make project placements based on short term priorities. This happens everywhere in the world, not just Japan.


Let's look at the perspective of the hiring company. A resourceful artist with solid fundamentals will adapt to your tools. They'll make good work in the end, even if they've never touched those tools before. If you're hiring a new grad, you're hiring for the long term. And if you're hiring for the long term, your best bet is to place a ton of weight on fundamentals. You also need to gauge how well those fundamentals will apply to the job over time. Both of these pieces start with evaluating the portfolio. They also lead you to strike a balance between productivity on short-term tasks versus long-term aptitude and benefit to future products.


Fairies Story 3

 

One company that does a good job of the above and talks about their process publicly is FlightUNIT. They're a character modeling company that's done work for the Tales and Atelier games. They also handled the 3D for NEW GAME!. If you read Japanese you can find their CEO's thoughts on Twitter.


Important side note: Don't take the "no skills" bit as career advice, especially if you're in the West. It does not work like this in the States or Europe, and game companies there expect you to learn tools before applying to job openings. Even in Japan, training up will only help you. Knowing your tools not only lets you hit the ground running, but also shows that you've got the perseverance needed to succeed on the job.


In spite of the above, there's one piece of Aoba's situation that NEW GAME! glosses over: She's probably not making those first models from scratch. A new hire in her shoes usually starts with painting. In other words, they'll just draw textures for existing models. For her first modeling jobs, she would work with existing parts made by other artists. After months of learning, she might finally graduate to making something from nothing. It's possible that some of this is happening behind the scenes. But what you see in NEW GAME! is definitely a beautified version of reality.


Aoba Bear Suit - NEW GAME!


Callum: Is working overnight as common and accepted as NEW GAME! portrays it to be?


NEW GAME! is beautified. In other words, what you see in the show is optimistic. In the Japanese game industry, all-nighters are more common than shown in NEW GAME!. They're an accepted approach to tight deadlines and unexpected problems. Crunch time is also a well known issue in Western games, but in Japan it's more widespread. This isn't healthy or good, but it's reality.


I've pulled all-nighters at every games company I've worked at, both Stateside and in Japan. But in comparable situations, Tokyo teams crunch harder and longer. They also spend longer hours at the office, even without pressing deadlines. A launch I finished this month had five core team members staying overnight for two weeks solid with only brief trips home. Yes, productivity and morale both suffer, and no, it's not a smart way to do things.


The frequency of all-nighters depends on the company, the project, and your role on the team. Online games are worse than traditional games because you have a live service to support. Tech people like me, and managers who work with us, are often the hardest hit. Artists tend to have some isolation because they work early in the development pipeline. But they're not entirely safe. You can see this in NEW GAME! episode 11. Umiko works overnight because there are bugs to fix. Members of the art staff are on-site but mostly idle. They're on standby in case anything comes up, and also to provide moral support. If that doesn't seem silly, it should, and it's the way things often work here.


NEW GAME! - Aoba Alseep


Why are all-nighters more widespread in Japan than in the West? It's complicated, and it's not just a game industry problem. Short answer: Work culture and management practices are "outdated" in Japan. The tech industry anecdotally runs a decade behind the States when it comes to tools and practices. And long work hours aren't the only problem. Low wages, low productivity, inflexibility, and poor support for child care are constantly in the news here. Politicians do a lot of talking about reforming work practices from the top down. Workers are skeptical that anything will ever change.


On a brighter note, the game industry is at least great about flexibility compared to other types of work in Japan. I wear jeans to my clients' offices. No one cares if you get in late. Granted, that's also because you're probably burning the midnight oil.


Callum: What part of Aoba's work-life do you find the most relatable?


For me it's all the stuff around the edges. NEW GAME! is set at a place in time. It captures the feeling of living and working in games, in present day Tokyo. Everything feels spot on, from Aoba's commute, to the atmosphere of late night work, to joking around with coworkers. I felt nostalgia pangs watching it, and I still live here!


Game Testing in NEW GAME!


Callum: What do you find to be the most unrealistic part of NEW GAME!?


1. Everyone's a cute girl.

2. There are no assholes.


NEW GAME!'s a moe show and four panel comic. Like every other show in the category, it inevitably has a beautified (cuteified) cast. You buy into that going in, or you probably don't have a very good time. Do I fault the show for this? Not at all.


Four panel comics are also their own specific category with their own expectations. Lots of pure slice-of-life stories. Lots of fluff. Never expect high drama. Personally, I think NEW GAME! did a great job of cramming in as much feeling as it did. Especially in the arc that comes after the end of the show. But no spoilers from me.


"No assholes" is where I think the author might have enriched things a bit. Umiko slightly reaches into this territory. She can be a bit of a jerk, which is common for us programmer types. But it's in good fun. There's no one who gets you really mad. Think Tarou from Shirobako (another spectacular show about entertainment work). You can find infuriating characters like that in every company. Dealing with them is one of the biggest challenges of work, and I'd be curious to see the author's take.


Apart from those two points, NEW GAME! is spot-on in terms of realism. Based on my experience, yes, what they show you is how it all actually works here. But don't just take my word for it. The author also worked in games doing character design before starting the comic. He has direct experience and knows what he's talking about.


Fairies Story 3 - Character Models


Callum: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about your industry?


Games, like other types of entertainment, take a ton of hard work to bring from concept to reality. Yes, it's fun, but game dev is not a line of work I'd recommend to people who need "balance" between work and non-work time. I still manage to cram in a lot of hobbies, but it's a constant fight to keep time open, especially as a freelancer.


Also, the fact that you like playing games doesn't mean you'll like making them. Don't go into construction work because you enjoy spending time in nice houses.


All that said, making games is incredible fun, and it's never been easier to try your hand. Free tools like GameMaker and Unity are easy to start with and have a ton of learning resources online. If you've got the time and the inclination, it's worth doing some tinkering. At worst, you might find a great new hobby!


Callum: And finally, did you enjoy watching NEW GAME!?


Absolutely. NEW GAME! was far and away my favorite show of the summer.


Am I biased? Hell yes.


NEW GAME! Yay!


A huge thank you to Ian for both his detailed answers and his hard work within the games industry.


*****

 

And a huge thanks to Callum for sharing this interview with the people of Crunchyroll!!

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