My name is Kenji Ono and I was born in 1971. I live in Tokyo. I came to be an editor of a Game Qritique magazine in 1994. It was published by Micromagazine Corporation in Japan and I came to be an editor-in-chief in 1999 and quit the job and came to be independent game journalist in 2000. That magazine was so unique because it had no advertisements and I learned journalism there. My current clients are offering many jobs, like interviews, or to cover an event, and some critiques.
I joined IGDA about 2008, I guess, as a volunteer and came to be a chapter coordinator in 2012. IGDA Japan was founded in 2002 as a private chapter and we came to be a non-profit organization in Tokyo in 2012.
Now I am a chapter coordinator and president of IGDA Japan, but it is just my hobby because IGDA doesn't give me any money. Seriously, I married in 2008 and my wife is working outside and I am working inside, but I am kind of a house husband. [Laughs.] And I am writing articles and covering many events like Tokyo Game Show, GDC, E3, and have many interviews. Today I have interviewed with Mr. [Haruhiro] Tsujimoto, the president of Capcom in the morning and came back. I am working in both sides. One is independent game journalist and my clients are some publishers. Not only games but also other sites. IGDA is very active in game industry Japan and we are holding many seminars and cooperate with many big events like TGS or CEDEC, the Japanese version of GDC.
Our major active other IGDA is Fukushima Game Jam. Fukushima Game Jam is kind of a serious game jam. Fukushima was affected by a tsunami in 2011 and we want to collaborate with their lead contraction over the economy and also that we should collaborate with -- we thought that they should develop their own game industry in Fukushima prefecture because everyone can develop games with one laptop and one smartphone and one Internet freely and publish their games worldwide, but there are no studios in Fukushima prefecture, so we decided to go to there with many professional developers in Tokyo and hold a game development event with amateur game creator developers in Fukushima. This event is holding in August every year and this is the fifth time.
I know IGDA is largely a volunteer-run organization. As a writer who covers the games industry, what more would you like to see the organization do to stand up for developer's rights?
Yeah, yeah. So, some people are confusing my role, but it is very clear because a chapter coordinator of IGDA is a cross-point of information. I can collect information through activity in IGDA and I can monetize this information in game-publishing media, so IGDA volunteer work is very helpful for my regular job.
So, you're volunteering to help get information for stories that you then write about?
Yeah. Especially in Japan, the Japanese game industry is very conservative. Especially in 20th century. [Laughs.] It is changing a little bit, but it is step-by-step, so voluntary work is very sociable for our gathering information.
What issues are you concerned about improving in the game industry?
I think that sharing information and building community is very important to improve Japanese game industry.
Communication, sharing information, and to cooperate with each other. And, you know, seriously, Nintendo is facing a crisis situation because they are being very conservative. So, I don't know their future. [Laughs.]
I mean, nobody does. But it's interesting that you mention the conservatism because I think historically with the game industry there has been a lot of not sharing of information. Not a lot of transparency. As I mentioned in my email, how much of the game industry here near me in America has been shaped by Japanese business culture? Do you feel it is a Japanese thing to be not very communicative about business information when it comes to creative decisions or other things? More so than an American thing or European thing?
In 20th century, in the PlayStation 2 era, the basic technology of the game industry was a kind of home electronics. It means that each company developed their own and integrated with their console. But in 21st century, that basic technology shifted to personal computing. So, it means that the many major American big companies like Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, they came into the game industry and so this is IT, information technology, culture.
So, I think Microsoft Xbox launched in 2001 was an indication of the change in the situation. There are many, many English-speaking researcher and developers worldwide and they had many communities and it was connected with GDC. And so, seriously, no Japanese didn't know about GDC until 2000. And so, many Japanese realized that the value of GDC in 2000 because Xbox was announced there.
But unfortunately, Japanese society culture was strong and it was difficult for many developers, even now, to go to GDC freely. The technology building Japan and the states, the Western world, was divided. So, yeah. I don't know if it was lucky or unlucky, but from 2006 or 2007, Japanese game industry shifted to mobile so quickly. I think you know two major players: DeNA and GREE, in Japanese game platformers, they grew up so quickly.
And they, even now, are strong players. After 2008, Apple started up stores and Google continued it and mobile markets shooted up a native app market so quickly, even in Japan, but many game publishers like Bandai Namco and Konami shifted their main strategy from console to mobile and they had success, very so much.
What do you feel are the differences between Japanese business culture and American business culture?
We can say that it is the difference between Japanese culture and American culture. So, seriously, we are surprising ourselves as fans of major studios in the states about what is the public information and what is private information. It is very important. And we, even in GDC, no company share every information in company. And even in states, there are many conservative studios like Electronic Arts or Blizzard, they are well-known for their conservativeness.
Do you think that's influenced by the origins in Japan?
Yeah, I feel they are similar, the culture, between Valve and Nintendo because they -- and Apple. Apple Computer is well-known for its secret strategies. But instead of it, many publishers and studio share their knowledge widely in GDC and other events like SIGGRAPH and I think often this culture is important for our industry improving.
Is that something you're trying to push for as a writer and IGDA, to try to make game companies in Japan more communicative?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is changing little by little, and many engineers and game designers have cooperated with us. I don't know. One of the most helpful studios with us is Square-Enix. It is very interesting because before 2000, Square and Enix, both publishers were well-known for their conservativeness. But they are very open and especially engineers coordinated with us and they offer their meeting space to have their seminar for us freely.
Yeah, I think it doesn't connect with Japanese game industry. I think it is only our issue. For example, we're trying to improve our activity to more professionality. For example, I think we need our own budgets. And I think we should pay money.
Yeah, for professional IGDA. We are just still an amateur organization, but we would like to improve our activity with much budgets and for example we need sponsors, we need to start our own business, and we can be more active. [Laughs.] But it is our issue.
I know IGDA over in America is funded from memberships and a percentage comes from studio affiliates. How is IGDA Japan funded?
Yeah, yeah. We are discussing about that possibility of a sponsorship but sponsorship culture doesn't exist in Japan, even now, so it's difficult. This sponsorship culture is also very different from Japan and the states.
How does the money that you have or that you get now, how do you use that to help with developer's rights?
It is a very interesting and difficult problem, but we hold seminars with charged tickets so everyone can attend our seminars. This revenue is our main budget. But it is difficult for us to increase the price of tickets or increase the number of seminars in a year. So we are looking for a new way of income. For example, banner ads on our websites or a special sponsor for each event. Support from the other non-profit organizations and our local government. So, yeah. But it is step-by-step. [Laughs.]
You are very lucky because in the states, sponsorship culture is very familiar with local society. I heard that many IGDA local chapters are supported by local sponsors. So, this collaboration is very interesting. We have studied this communication thoroughly and activities -- do you know Global Game Jam?
Global Game Jam is a good activity because now many came to be familiar with major Japanese publishers and especially Bandai Namco held their own satellite in 2015 and about 100 professional and amateur student developers came together in the global jam in Bandai Namco's studio.
My guess is 200 people and they made good games through collaboration. And many IT companies like Microsoft were good sponsors for Japanese local global game jams satellites and many universities also had a satellite and Global Game Jam came to be a good platform in the industry for the industry and the universities. In 2015, 19 satellites opened and over 600 people attend in Japan.
So it's step-by-step. [Laughs.]
What do you do make of the notion of unions in the game industry? Is that a thing you think should happen?
Yeah, union culture is very different from Japan and America.
You know, in Japan, each union usually belongs to each company. There are some unions among the industry, like voice actors. There are many Japanese animation films and there are many voice actors in Japan. Most of them belong to companies, belong to voice-actor studios and there is one strong union among the industry but actors -- actors also have their own unions. The script writers and the directors, yeah -- this union is very active in the film industry.
Do you think that would work, to have a union in the game industry?
I don't know. I haven't heard of unions in game industry.
Never? Have people ever discussed it or have you heard it suggested?
Of course, big publishers like SEGA has own union in the company but I don’t know much information about its activity. But I think most studios don’t have own union in company and there are no unions which cover a whole of game industry. We haven't discussed unions. If someone who wishes to create a situation in the game industry, I think they will ask for a special public service of unions for every workers. I think so.
There are some public services for workers who wish to change dangerous situations and I forget the name of the public service but I can share that informationof URL later.
Please do, yeah.
Yeah. These unions access every worker in every industry and in Japan, you know, there are strong automobile manufacturers industries like Toyota or Honda and there are many workers in these factories but these days, many Japanese car companies are shifting their factories to overseas so many workers are losing their jobs. And these workers ask their situation to these public union service and in these days, some game industry developers may go to these services but I don't know in factories.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about Konami and some of the rumors. Have you heard about some of the stuff that's been going on over there?
Mmhmm. Yeah. Yeah, Konami is also well known for their conservativeness. I think the one of the most conservative studios is Konami. I think so. Especially because Konami has two cultures: one is consumer and one is mobile. And Konami mobile is not so conservative because Konami wants to hire many good workers, many innovative developers, many engineers, and these engineers want to work in a freedom culture studios. So, Konami is changing their strategy.
But unfortunately, consumer studio is very conservative, even now, and I heard that they canceled most of their consumer titles now without, I think, Professional Evolution Soccer. Professional Evolution Soccer is a well-known franchise in Konami. [Laughs.] They just keep this franchise but I heard that most of their consumer titles were canceled.
There have been a few articles written that scratch the surface of things I've been hearing about strange treatment of workers at Konami. Things like email addresses changing every week for their employees, workers being monitored. Have you heard any rumors or anything about Konami mistreating its employees? Not asking you to comment on rumors, but am just curious if what you’ve heard over there is different than the sort of things I’ve heard over here.
I don't know. I But there are many rumors including not only developers but also more key players like Mr. Hideo Kojima. I heard that Kojima-san thought it was a good time to quit his job in Konami because -- do you know the sales of Metal Gear Solid V now worldwide? I don't know. But I think business of Metal Gear Solid V was not so good and Kojima realized the results and it's just a rumor but he thought it was good timing.
I think the situation is not so bad because I heard that they are re-thinking and changing their studio culture by inside people. It means that the franchise and studio will remain. I don’t know the future of this franchise but good visionary needs good team and unique studio culture creates unique game. It is very difficult to develop it from zero base, especially in Japan.
What do you think?
It is not only a Japanese game-industry issue but also Japanese society issue because I don't know if it is lucky or unlucky, but, seriously, Japanese worker is protected strongly in law. I think it is very different from United States.
The Japanese work situation is very similar to Europe. European law system is very effective to Japanese law in labor in general. So, seriously, it is difficult for a president or management to fire their workers freely. It is very very difficult. Yes. We can say that Japanese worker is protected not only in the industry but also game industry.
Why is it so difficult to fire people in Japan?
Before World War II and after World War II, the Japanese economy was very bad. And many workers -- it was very bad. And many managers and presidents feared a revolution. They thought there would be a revolution like in the Soviet Union. It is serious.
So, Japanese capitalists thought that they should give more rights to labor to protect their social system. It was also the order by GHQ.
There's also a Japanese concept that I'm going to be pronouncing wrong, but karōshi, where you literally work yourself to death.
Yeah. But if a president or manager really wants to fire their workers, they usually choose very bad ways. For example, they keep their workers in a room without window with no computer or no job.
I've heard of this. This is a way to shame people into quitting, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.The most famous example was “pasona room” in Sega and it became the social issue in 1999. I think most Japanese publishers did the same way and it could remain even now. It is very ironic but after the “pasona room” problem, the rate of permanent workers in game industry was increased. We need many workers in the second half of game development and it is easy for managers to fire permanent workers. Of course, good permanent workers could be full-time and be protected by law. But it is rare case and depend on the company.
It's not only at Konami, but also at Sega, Capcom, Bandai Namco. I think most of Square-Enix -- most publishers have done these decisions before.
Of trying to get people to quit.
Yeah, I think so. And it's not only the game industry but also Japanese society's issue. Even Sony, I think, this culture remains in the company.
Is that a thing, then, that IGDA Japan, where you would try to intervene?
Unfortunately, we don't have much power in the game industry.
But I believe that we have a chance to offer education by themselves by a service in many seminars or game jams. It's important for developers to have a chance to change their jobs and go to another studio. But they need education. They need to improve their skills. We may say we hold these seminars for developers to increase their chance in game industry.
You're saying IGDA Japan doesn't have as much money as it would like, doesn't have as much power as it would like. Do you have any examples of times you feel like you or the organization have won victories for workers?
You're saying no.
But I think you know in game development, in the game industry, indie-game movement. In these days, some Japanese developers are shifting to indies. Not only -- I think you know Mr. [Keiji] Inafune [former head of research and development, as well as online business and global head of production at Capcom]. He is a very famous indie game developer now for “Mighty No.9”. He quit a job at Capcom and came to be an indie-game developer. Mr. [Koji] Igarashi in Konami [similarly quit]. And there are some famous indie-game developers who gather the money from Kickstarters. Not only famous developers but also many professional indies are moving up, even in Japan, and we are supporting these indie-game developers to hold our demand.
Those indie developers want to promote their games widely, but it is difficult because their promotional budget is very small. So, many organization including us are holding demo events to promote their games in public.
When we hold these events, many professional game journalists like us come to cover these events and some of their games are covered in the articles. The most famous one is the Indie Game Corner in Tokyo Game Show and IGDA Japan is cooperating with this innovative idea to choose the games. Organization of Tokyo Game Show cannot understand what game is good and what game is bad.
We are cooperating with choosing the many applications.
I don't know exactly the Electronic Arts situation.
This was about 11 years ago, when a woman named Erin Hoffman, who was the wife of someone who worked at Electronic Arts, wrote an anonymous blog post.
I don't remember. Sorry.
No, that's okay. She basically wrote about how she never saw her husband --
Ah! I have heard it.
Do you get the sense that the American game industry has improved since then? Do you feel like the Japanese game industry has improved since then? What's really changed?
In a couple years, Computer Entertainment Association is focusing to this issue of developer satisfaction and the discussion of especially women's working situation in the game industry because not only Japan but also worldwide, women working situation is very important issue in this industry. That discussion has just started. But the real situation is not so clear.
So, not only me, but also we don't know the real situation in this industry. Especially working. Discussions just have started now.
Are there topics you would like to see more communication about within the industry?
Yeah, I think so.
And the situation is changing a little by little. I think at the many IT companies coming to the game industry in the mobile era, and I think it is very good because most of IT game companies has money. But they don't have their own IIPs and they want to hire good engineers, good developers to develop good games but they don't have any brand, they don't have any IPs, and they have only money. So they are hiring developers with good salary. So, I think -- this is my opinion -- increasing the income is very important for many developers. The market of mobile and the market of the game industry is increasing, so I think the situation is changing little by little. It is important to increase the market with good games.
Traditional Japanese game media is shrinking, but I think that media is transforming to the new era from only paper to web. We can inform many informations in many medias, not only paper but also web and movies. Seriously, this is Nico Nico, the Japanese version of Twitch. It's very active and there are many YouTubers, even in Japan. [Laughs.]
So, yeah, there are many YouTubers. Yes.
So, in this Tokyo Game Show, it is very interesting because there was only PlayStation, because Microsoft canceled their booth and Nintendo hasn't had a booth for a long time. The market of Wii U is very weak, so there was only PlayStation. But market share of PlayStation is very small in Japan. Mobile was dominant.
YouTube and Twitch and Nico Nico -- these companies I think are new performers in the game industry. Seriously, the second Keynote in Tokyo Game Show was their talk. New game media era is coming.
Yeah. It is very interesting because I don't know in the other countries, but in Japan, the media and games developers and publishers are very -- the relationship between game industry and media was very tight. And some publishers publishes NES games in the '80s, and many developers came to be a writer or journalist and many journalists came to be game developers. And even now, some new website or news media dealing with this information are developing their own game or apps and promote their apps in their own media. So, it is very interesting. These collaborations are important to increase the market size in Japan.
We can say that it is a situation because, seriously, there is no criticisms in Japanese game media.
No criticisms of what? Of the industry?
Yeah, within the game industry. Because it is difficult for Japanese games media to critique games due to advertising.
I need a good critique to understand what is important. But in Japan, seriously, the market is the only critic of the industry.
I think the culture of criticism in the game industry is very connected with convenience. Before console, it means that arcade era, there were no more criticisms in other games because if you feel this game -- if you thought this game was bad, you can stop to insert coins. And in this era, most games are free. If you want to stop, if you feel this game is bad, you can stop charging money. Most of these games are free, so you can uninstall these apps when you feel this is game is bad. The market ranking is the only measure for consumers to know good games. It is similar with audience rating of TV . But in game industry, the situation is more bad. It is controlling in unexpected way with advertisement and it sometimes happen troubles with Apple.
So, it's a very difficult era. It's difficult days for good critiques due to business model of games, but I think a good critique is important to improve this industry.