When the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's largest business newspaper (and as of last week, owners of the Financial Times) published an in-depth piece alleging that Konami's work environment is both tyrannical and abusive, reactions were sharply divided. While some defended the company's policies (or at least their spirit, while admitting that some of the workplace practices described cross the line), many commentators in the West sought to tie up these revelations to the ongoing narrative of what's happening at Konami - the shutting of Kojima Productions and seemingly acrimonious departure of Hideo Kojima being the latest in a series of high-profile brain drains from the publisher as it transitions away from console and towards mobile.
I have a problem with that narrative; it's too pat, too simple, and altogether too ignorant of the broader context in which Konami's work practices exist. There's absolutely no reason why a company which makes mobile games should be a more unpleasant, draconian or creatively bankrupt work environment than one which makes console games; indeed, there are plenty of mobile game companies which are wonderful places to work, and plenty of console studios which are soul-crushing and awful. The conditions described at Konami are the result of an entirely different set of management decisions to the transition to mobile, and most likely existed long before that transition began. Working in that environment probably meant that creators like Kojima (and the legions of talented developers who have left Konami in recent years) heaved a sigh of relief as the door eventually slammed behind them, but it wasn't their core reason for departure.
"It's not uncommon for salaried staff at Japanese companies to work... until very late at night almost every day, as well as devoting most of their weekends to their jobs"
Moreover, these conditions are not all that unusual - as a handful of commentators with experience of working in the Japanese games industry pointed out, and the altogether more muted reaction to the article within Japan itself made clear. Some of what is described at Konami is extreme, but not very much more extreme than the treatment routinely meted out to developers in Japanese workplaces, whose work practices and staff policies are routinely terrible; worse even than the western industry in the good old, bad old days prior to the EA Spouse debacle and the slowly dawning realisation that perhaps work-life balance might help to stop burning out talented staff quite so fast.
You recall the EA Spouse, right? It was a blog post by game designer Erin Hoffmann back in 2004 which criticised the conditions in which her fiancé was being forced to work at EA and which dragged a whole set of extremely dodgy labour practices (and simply bad, incompetent project management) out into the glare of public attention, where it transpired that all of these things which the industry had just accepted as "oh, that's how things are" actually needed to be changed and fixed. It was a turning point; it hasn't fixed everything about the industry's labour practices, but it was followed by some pretty major changes, especially at large publishers and studios, which have turned videogame companies into much better places to work today than they were back at the turn of the millennium. EA, the target of the original blog post, is now routinely voted as one of the best companies in America to work for, which is a pretty impressive turnaround.
Having taken on board the reminder that the games industry has workplace problems everywhere and that even its biggest and best companies have only in the past decade started cleaning up their act with regard to egregious abuses of staff, let's circle back around to consider the specific case of Japan. Japanese workplaces in general have a pretty well-deserved reputation for demanding extremely long hours from staff; it's not uncommon for salaried staff at Japanese companies to work (or engage in work-related extra-curricular activities such as drinking with clients and colleagues) until very late at night almost every day, as well as devoting most of their weekends to their jobs. Such routinely lengthy working hours are not a consequence of necessity; the productivity of an average Japanese worker is no higher, and in fact often lower, than that of a worker in any other developed nation with a much shorter average working week. Rather it is a consequence of a corporate culture in which the sacrifice of work-life balance, in the form of staying extremely long hours in the office, is seen as a sign of company loyalty and generally essential to promotion hopes.
Now consider what happens when you drop a game development studio, an industry which already has a reputation for long hours, overtime and poor scheduling everywhere in the world, into a national work culture like that. Worse; consider what happens when you combine those elements with a traditional workplace culture that focuses on promotion through seniority (and "loyalty") rather than on rewarding innovation, technical skill or quality of work, as many more traditional Japanese employers do. This results, inevitably, in a factory floor mentality which views workers as effectively interchangeable; if they are not sufficiently loyal or cause "trouble" in some way, they can easily be swapped out for another worker. It's the antithesis of how well-managed creative businesses treat their staff, and while it would be utterly unfair to imply that all Japanese firms act this way (there are many great exceptions to the rule), it's certainly commonplace at larger companies.
That's why reaction to the Konami story was muted in Japan; because anyone who's engaged with the industry in Japan has heard all of this before. Hell, we've heard worse - the company with yakuza ties (this doesn't narrow it down very much, incidentally; many of Japan's videogame publishers have financial ties to organised crime due to their involvement with pachinko) which hired thuggish construction foremen as "producers" on a behind-schedule game, who physically abused and intimidated development staff to try to force them back on schedule; the world-famous publisher whose Japanese development studio pays far below the industry average, enforces horrendous contract clauses and tends to burn through staff in less than 18 months, on the basis that it can easily recruit new eager-eyed staff from the ranks of fans of its famous franchises. Asking staff to clock in and out to go to the bathroom is just another item to add to the bottom of the list of reasons why Japanese games companies are, in general, terrible employers.
Again, this is absolutely a generalisation and there are good companies out there - but oddly, they're rarely the famous ones, which means that when talented foreign development staff decide to pursue their dream of working for a Japanese company, or working on a beloved franchise, they often find themselves at the mercy of a very abusive employer. It's also worth pointing out that some staff are fine with this kind of treatment; they see no problem with devoting their entire lives to work, to the exclusion of social or family time, and bristle at the suggestion that employers who demand this are abusive. The difference, of course, is between being given a choice to focus intensely on your work, and being forced to do so; one is flexibility, the other abuse.
"With policies like those being pursued by Konami and its ilk, Japanese publishers risk turning the trickle of brain drain of local talent into a raging torrent. This is an industry in desperate need of an 'EA Spouse moment'"
Why raise this issue now? A few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to put the Konami story in context - the conditions described therein are bad, but they're barely an outlier in the context of the broader Japanese industry, and using the Nikkei report as a further reason to bash Konami in particular (rather than as a jumping-off point for a broader consideration of employment issues in the Japanese industry) seems unfair. Secondly, I think it's important to air these issues simply because there are so many developers, artists, coders, creators, designers and other talented young people in the games industry who have stars in their eyes and dreams of moving to Japan to work - and that's a dream I've seen turn into a nightmare often enough to wish to raise a flag of warning.
Finally, though, I think the Japanese industry's abysmal labour practices and workplace policies need discussion for the sake of that industry itself. Almost every senior staff member at every large Japanese developer I talk to sings from the same hymn sheet; they'd love to hire more foreigners, they feel like Japanese development has become isolated from the broader exchange of technical skills and know-how which developers overseas use to advance their art, they think they'd benefit from a wider range of cultural inputs and contexts in their creative processes. Yet it's a pipe-dream, for the simple reason that most of these companies are so utterly unappealing to work for that the only foreigners who'll stick it out are those who are already so embedded within and in thrall to Japanese culture that their cultural perspectives are next to worthless. Moses will not come to this mountain; talented foreign staff will not work for Japanese companies who underpay them, ignore the idea of work-life balance and treat them as disposable. The mountain, rather, must come to Moses; the companies must make themselves into appealing workplaces if they are ever to achieve the diversity and growth which their bosses talk about so airily.
Indeed, the threat may be even more close to home; even talented Japanese developers no longer need to work for Japanese companies, not necessarily. Many of those who left large, unpleasant Japanese workplaces in the past decade found themselves in the USA or Europe; many more have ended up starting or participating in small studios working on mobile or indie titles. Never mind attracting foreign talent; with policies like those being pursued by Konami and its ilk, Japanese publishers risk turning the trickle of brain drain of local talent into a raging torrent. This is an industry in desperate need of an "EA Spouse moment"; if the Nikkei's condemnation of Konami's practices can start to set that change in motion, it could be the salvation of Japanese AAA game development in the long term.