Those long hours are worth the investment by allowing for much more relaxing lunch breaks. In Japan, the typical working lunch consists of cold meat or fish, rice and some vegetables. "I [always] go to a ramen shop near my house and eat something like Tsukumo Ramen's delicious cheese ramen," Cooke says.
A Burning Yen
As fun and rewarding as the freedom of independent work is, there's one other more practical reason people choose to work for themselves. "The money was considerably better as a freelancer," Cooke explains. Japanese workers in the game industry are underpaid and overworked compared to their counterparts in Europe and America. Promotions are based, not on merit, but seniority. "If you want a pay raise, you get a new job," Kay says. So he did.
While the rewards of solo work are high, the pressure to perform is even higher. "All the responsibility and gamble is ours. We don't have access to a publisher's resources, like QA and marketing," says Kay. "But that is also exciting; we can decide our game plan, so to speak. We might fail, but if we succeed we know it's down to us, our decisions, our own hard work, and that is quite gratifying."
"There is definitely a bit more stress while working as a solo independent, in that there can be no one around to bounce ideas off of or to help out in a stressful situation," says Cooke. "There is more pressure on you to deliver. You need to be more careful in ensuring that the work you accept is doable given your individual skill set." This is especially true in a foreign environment like Japan. Kay combats the culture shock by adopting some of his surroundings into the lexicon of his gaming studio, Score, which uses a rare and little known Japanese character for "twenty" as part its logo. "We strive to bring the best, most polished products to the widest possible audience bringing together both Western and Japanese design sensibilities," the company's website states.
These designers made the call to transplant to Japan for a variety of reasons. It may have been to leave a job that crushed their creativity. It may have been part of a search for a new home. Or it may have been pure whim. It doesn't matter, really. The proliferation of technology and the spread of high-speed internet access means that the physical location where a game is made makes little difference to the audience. These developers may draw from their surroundings but they make games for all cultures to enjoy, be it Japanese, British or Botswanan.
Ryan Winterhalter is a freelance games, tech and travel writer in Tokyo. In addition to The Escapist, he has written for 1UP, GamesRadar, Gamasutra, GameSetWatch, PlayStation: The Official Magazine and Play Magazine (UK).