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Game developers have too much job security | 10 Years Ago This Month

Keiji Inafune identifies the root of Japanese publishers' collective slump as the Kinect hits shelves

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Your Own Worst Enemy

A decade ago, the Japanese game development scene was seen by many people as slumping. Major publishers like Capcom and Square Enix had been telling anyone who would listen that they needed to change their ways, to think about global appeal with their games.

And while there was no shortage of prominent developers who echoed those sentiments -- Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, and Phil Fish among them -- none of them worked as hard to make the criticism part of their personal brand as Keiji Inafune.

We already talked a couple months ago about the time he said everyone at the Tokyo Games Show was making awful games and Japan was five years behind the rest of the world. We can give Inafune points for consistency, as he would continue talking about issues with Japanese developers for about five years.

In hindsight I don't think the crisis in Japanese development was anywhere close to what Inafune proclaimed, but Capcom and Square Enix had certainly stumbled in places as they tried to appeal to the West. And it's all subjective anyway, so if he thought Japanese games were bad, there's only so much room to argue.

That said, I will absolutely push back on his comments from November of 2010 criticizing the Japanese industry for giving its developers too much stability.

"My generation is, for better or worse, holding the game industry back. There are a lot of people who take their company's commitment for granted and don't work as hard as they should"

Keiji Inafune

"My generation is, for better or worse, holding the game industry back," Inafune said at the time. "There are a lot of people who take their company's commitment for granted and don't work as hard as they should."

He went on to criticize Japan's "lifetime employment system" broadly, saying, "It's like a communist state. Working as hard as you can is your own loss. Not working hard becomes more advantageous. But doesn't that get in the way of making games? You can't make good games by just taking it easy."

He also argued that it took away the incentive to produce something great, saying, "Even if [the game] doesn't sell, you still get your paycheck the next month. Because people are used to working in such a system, against such competition, the sense of wanting to make a better and better game has weakened. It's like, 'I'm just doing what I was told to do.'"

Presumably he would have preferred a more precarious employment system like we have in the West, where just the month before Electronic Arts downplayed a round of layoffs to us, explaining, "As you know, seasonal roll-offs that follow game launches are common - and vital to maintaining a healthy business."

In other words, the holiday quarter is the time for getting games -- and the people who finish them -- out the door.

When we brought that up in last month's column, we linked to the eight other layoff stories from October of 2010. But November of 2010 was no better, with layoffs at LucasArts, Ubisoft Reflections, Monumental Games, Namco Bandai's US office, Seven45, IO Interactive, Tuna Technologies, and the outright closures of Ignition Florida, Instant Games/Garage Games, and Activision's Budcat.

Oh, and fresh off the release of 007 Bloodstone, Activision also confirmed its intention to shut down the 200-person team at Bizarre Creations barely three years after acquiring it if a buyer could not be found. (A buyer could not be found.)

And just for good measure, EA went back to the well a week after its previous layoffs and kicked "a relatively small number" of additional employees to the curb.

This isn't to say Japanese developers are exempt from layoffs, because it does still happen. This isn't even to say that Japanese publishers treat their employees better, given the horror stories of neglect for a healthy work-life balance like those told by Inafune's fellow former Capcom developers Yoshinori Ono and Manami Matsumae.

But this isn't some kind of mandatory trade-off. Clearly there are plenty of Western developers who receive neither a healthy work-life balance nor job stability.

There's no shortage of rhetoric in the industry about how developers have to be passionate about the games they make, how they have to be willing to sacrifice to achieve something special. Inafune's suggestion that things would be better for the industry if they were worse for the developers is simply a more straight-forward way of stating the same idea.

But even if Inafune was right and the industry actually would be hurt by having a work force that isn't forever living on a knife's edge between a life consumed by work and a life entirely devoid of it, then let the industry be hurt.

If the only way we can make this train go is to shovel people's physical and mental health into the firebox, then maybe it shouldn't go at all.

Kinect Makes Contact

Cover image for YouTube video

The big news a decade ago was the launch of Microsoft's Kinect, which quickly sold 2.5 million units and helped extend the Xbox 360's life by a few years, even if the actual gameplay experiences weren't quite great yet.

The Kinect was launching on an Xbox 360 already past its prime. Despite that, it was generating buzz and rejuvenating the platform in a way I haven't seen a peripheral manage before or since.

For all the shade former Microsoft gaming head Don Mattrick gets for the botched handling of the Xbox One, Kinect launched on his watch as well, and it went spectacularly. It certainly wasn't without flaws, but the peripheral absolutely hit the audience it was targeting and helped drag a few more years of life out of the Xbox 360.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted that game developers that built their business on Facebook like Zynga, CrowdStar, PlayFish and Playdom would continue to favor the social network even though it had changed the rules on them to make it harder to get new players and was forcing them to switch to its relatively short-lived Facebook Credits scheme for player payments.

CrowdStar shifted toward mobile development soon after and stopped making Facebook games entirely in 2012.

Also in 2012, Zynga's exclusivity deal with Facebook expired, and the FarmVille company wasted little time broadening its business.

As for Playfish and Playdom, they had likewise already started to expand their footprint beyond Facebook prior to Zuckerberg's comments, but their continued favoring of Facebook stopped being a question when their parent companies shut them down in 2013 and 2014 (or 2016, if you're going by the demise of the last Playdom game), respectively.

GOOD CALL: Playdom executive Paul LaFontaine says it's "premature to declare a victory for Facebook in social-mobile at this time," noting that mobile platforms and markets like China meant there was plenty of opportunity for social or mobile developers to find their fortune outside of Zuckerberg's empire.

BAD CALL: After 38 Studios moved to Providence, Rhode Island for $75 million in loan guarantees, company founder Curt Schilling had a bold prediction for the future.

"Four to five to six years from now, we're going to be looking back on this, and I know that 38 Studios will be one of the companies that will push and incentivize the Providence business community to become a national and global force," he said. "This business and this company is on a trajectory to be a multibillion-dollar business and company, and a multibillion-dollar industry in Providence. And that's world-changing."

In short, this did not happen.

In slightly more detail, 38 Studios was closer to a national and global farce than a national and global force. Its collapse less than two years later was a cautionary tale of poor management with a callous disregard for the consequences of their actions that stands out even in an industry full of such stories. As of last December, even Rhode Island itself was still very much not over it.