Copyright 2001

[ November 22nd 2001 ]

The UK computer game industry will face extinction, says David Wightman, if it fails to learn lessons from Japan's developers. We arrived in Japan to find that our collective visions of the future had already passed through Tokyo years before.

Our cosy dreams of million-dollar deals and 10% growth were never going to be. Our thoughts of evolutionary change in video game development had been blown to pieces. Frankly, we were too late. It is obvious that unless the UK's prized interactive entertainment industry moves quickly there will no longer be a market for our skills. Lara Croft and Tomb Raider might have led the way but the Japanese have overtaken us big-style.

Jim Terkeurst of IC Cave, the prestigious Dundee University games R&D lab, with help from the Department of Trade and Industry, had an inkling that there were lessons to be learned and organised a trip to Tokyo. For a week, we met with the world leaders in the multi-billion dollar video games market. It was eye-opening. The trade mission was designed to take experienced UK developers from their egocentric roles in management and send them back to school.

The team, under strict orders not to peep a word of sales chatter, was there to meet with the undisputed world leaders in their field, ask questions, listen, and learn about Japanese "best practice". From our very first meeting, the differences between East and West were apparent to everyone. Asking the chairman of one of Japan's largest games publishers - one of the world's largest games companies - a development question would get an answer as detailed as that given by the lead programmer of the project. Ask a programmer a marketing question and he'd give an answer that could have come out of a corporate relations e-mail.

It's not brain washing, but a paranoia for progress, and thus a deep knowledge of the company that they work for. This kind of information and understanding is long gone in Europe's finance centric management teams. Lacking this kind of knowledge is suicide, but it is commonly accepted in the UK. The Japanese worked out a few years back that games development is the key to their future. And everything else is set up to support this process. Even the financing is being improved as games-maker Konami has shown recently by launching one of the first multi-billion yen bonds through the capital markets to aid development.

Then there is the time factor. A UK development company that's been writing video games since Sir Clive Sinclair blessed us with the ZX81 can write a game and have it on the shelves in a respectable 16 months. A typical venture-capital fuelled upstart development company takes from two to four years to deliver a game.

Japanese development schedules show that the process takes a maximum of 12 months and is typically much shorter. There's no less work involved, there's no more money involved and they sell way more copies than anyone else, so it's not a quality issue. Check the all-time sales charts and you'll find Nintendo at the top of almost every category, all produced in record time. How?

Quizzing the sleepless Satoshi Mifune, producer of Sega's Virtua Striker series of games, brings up discussion of "fruit going off". His need to get the product to market before the ideas become stale is one of the reasons why his team of 15 game producers push so hard. It's no lie to say that each of us on our return from Japan implemented, overnight, many of the lessons we had learned in the previous week, with schedules halved and quality doubled.

Our punch-drunk programmers now have a realistic glimpse of where the UK's industry needs to be just to stay in the game. Teaching these lessons is crucial if we are to compete on the world stage. If we don't it is very possible that UK video game engineering staff, like the film industry, will be respected for their technical capacity, but overlooked for anything grander than special effects, sound-stage rental and Cockney gangster games.

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