How many Japanese game designers can you name off the top of your head? There’s Shigeru Miyamoto, sure. Readers of this site probably know about Suda51, SWERY, and Akira Yamaoka. Hideo Kojima. Yu “Shenmue” Suzuki and Tomonobu “Dead or Alive” Itagaki. Shinji Mikami. Fumito “Ico” Ueda. If you’ve been around a bit you probably know who Yuji Naka is, and if you follow the scene you might have heard of Pixel. Yoot “Seaman” Saito. Gunpei “I invented your childhood” Yokoi. If you are a little more hard core about video games then you might know who Atsushi Inaba is. Yuji Horii. Hironobu Sakaguchi. Toru Iwatani. Keita Takahashi.
These folks make the (game-centric) news, even in the US, all the time. They have worked, usually in a design or “director” role, on hugely popular and influential games. They are key figures in the game industry, and that’s why you know their names. Many of them are interesting characters; Itagaki, for example, has never been photographed without his signature sun glasses and cowboy hat, at least as far as I can tell. Keita Takahashi gives talks at video game conferences about how games are not very important and playing outside is better for kids (and, good on his word, he’s quit Namco and is now designing a park). Sometimes these folks are in the news because they make cool games, but often it’s also because they have interesting opinions and ideas.
Now, how many famous Western game designers can you name? There’s folks like John Carmack. John Romero is pretty famous. Cliff Bleszinski. Sid Meier and Will Wright draw crowds when they speak. Peter Molyneux. Richard Garriott seems to be in the news pretty frequently, as is David Jaffe. You might know who American McGee is because there are games with his name in the title. Tim Schafer. Jon Blow. I’m starting to get to names that you probably won’t recognize unless you work in the game industry or are really paying attention. Doug Church. Chris Crawford. Dino Dini. Ron Gilbert. Clint Hocking.
There are a few, to be sure, but I think most Western game designers are anonymous to the public. Do you know who Jason Jones is? Do you know who designed Portal? Or Half-Life 2, for that matter? How about Condemned? Or Uncharted? Everybody knows that Metal Gear Solid is directed by Hideo Kojima, but how many people know who designed the last couple of Splinter Cell games? Do you know the names of the designers for Grand Theft Auto 3 or World of Warcraft? Who is Mark Healey?
Part of the reason for this is that Western game designers who are famous tend to be famous for things other than their games. Carmack is famous for DOOM, but more generally for bleeding-edge 3D technology. Romero for DOOM, but also for Daikatana and the various scandals surrounding that project. Peter Molyneux tends to overstate his projects when they are still in primordial forms. Garriott went into space. Jaffe is a active blogger with strong opinions and a willingness to call people out. These people are in the news because they make cool games, but also because they are particularly outspoken. Everybody knows David Jaffe designed God of War, which is undeniably an awesome game. But that was like five years ago; any idea what he’s worked on since then? He’s still a known entity because he speaks his mind a lot.
Dave Jaffe has close to 7000 followers on Twitter. Suda51 is about 8000. You know God of War is a much more well-known franchise than No More Heros or Killer7, and compared to Jaffe, Suda51 is a pretty quiet guy (as far as I can tell, he’s mostly interested in Japanese pro wrestling). Yet somehow Mr. 51 has amassed more followers. I’ve seen Fumito Ueda speak once at GDC, but the guy isn’t a media darling or anything; he’s still managed to collect 6000 followers. Tim Schafer is a popular guy–26k followers–which beats Peter Molyneux’s 18k. John Carmack is one of the most famous Western game developers ever and his feed is followed by about 15k people. Did you know that the guy who made D2 has more followers than John Carmack? Cliff Bleszinski is the most popular contemporary English-speaking designer I could find–48k followers. But Hideo Kojima has 60,000 followers!! And that’s his Japanese-only feed; the English one has 30,000 followers itself.
Why don’t we know the names of more Western designers? This isn’t a new phenomenon; Jason Rubin (do you know who he is? you should.) made waves back in 2005 with a speech at DICE about how game developers don’t receive public credit for their work. I suspect that there are a lot of factors, not the least of which is the way that the relationship between publishers and developers differs between Japan and the US (which is pretty much the point Rubin made).
I think another factor may be that Japanese game teams and Western game teams are run differently. SWERY’s title at Access Games is “Director,” which implies that he is the vision holder for the project, the person with his fingerprints on every little detail, the guy who takes the credit when the game succeeds and takes the fall if it fails. Certainly there are many other people in design (“planning” in Japanese) roles working on these games as well; Kojima may be the “director” of the Metal Gear series but there are hundreds of other people working on the project too. But by putting one person in charge, management is trusting that person to lead the team, to be the creative source for the game’s complete vision, and to ensure consistency and quality across all of the development disciplines.
In many American studios, a “director” position is harder to find. Though there are often “lead designers” or even “creative directors,” it’s rare that a single person be the key vision-holder for an entire game. The overarching design of many Western games isn’t even decided upon by a designer–it’s often the result of some marketing research about what types of games are expected to sell in the next year or two. That’s not to say that lead designers don’t take charge and lead the team in the same way that their Japanese counterparts do, just that their perceived role within the company is considerably more dilute. There’s an implicit lack of trust; if management is to put a single person in the “make everything awesome” role, that single person is a potential point of failure. Instead, teams are generally organized into groups by discipline, with leads from each discipline forming a sort of elite clique that meets to negotiate changes and service management requests. This sort of decentralized organization is more robust–any single team member can quit without bringing down the entire project–but it also means that no single person on the team has the final say about anything. Sometimes there’s no single person on the team who is even aware of every detail of the project.
When a Japanese developer that has a clear vision holder needs a spokesperson, the choice is clear: get the guy who ran the whole project up on stage. But in a Western company, it’s not clear who that person should be. You could have the designer talk if he’s outgoing and photogenic (remember CliffyB’s 48k followers?), but on the other hand he might be a bit bitter that a lot of his ideas got vetoed by the programming team or the schedule. You could have the project manager get up and talk, but these folks are often just schedule-keepers, with little insight into the key artistic vision of the game. You could get a marketing person up there–they’ll certainly be able to speak clearly and avoid any potentially controversial topics. But marketing is even further removed from the core vision than the project manager, and often can only regurgitate details that came from the team.
I also think that the decentralized structure of many Western developers makes some designers shy away from the spotlight. After all, the game is a team effort; if they get up there and take all the credit, how will the rest of their coworkers feel? Valve, for example, doesn’t even put titles in its credits roll; everybody on the team is listed in alphabetical order, indicating that regardless of role, everybody deserves equal recognition. When there’s no clear vision holder on the team, it probably feels pretty arrogant to declare yourself the singular source of all that is interesting in the game.
I think that there might be an argument for putting one person in a highly-visible role and making them responsible for the overall quality of the game. I mean, it certainly seems to work in other sectors–you can take your pick of Harsh Taskmasters Who Are Hard to Work With but Ship Amazing Products, from Steve Jobs to George Lucas. Creating a “director” position, modeled after the role defined by the film industry, gives a team a chance to ship something that has real personality. When one person owns the vision and acts as the ultimate tie breaker for any given argument, that person’s choices and ideas and personality shine through the final product. That’s not to say that the value of the rest of the team is diminished, just that they are operating under somebody who is in a key creative role, rather than a key managerial role.
When a person in that sort of directorial position ships a good game, and they have a chance to talk about it to the media, it’s natural that they attract attention. When you play something like Deadly Premonition, and you see that it was directed by a single guy (who’s a bit of a character and has a weird pseudonym), then you will probably be interested in what SWERY has to say. And you might want to buy SWERY’s next game, because you enjoyed the first title and you think he’s an interesting guy and you’d like to see what else he’s done. The distance between you and the developer has been shortened dramatically, and the game you are playing is now a much more personal experience. Plus, that persons feels responsible for the entire project; even if it didn’t turn out the way that they had intended, they are still going to be great a great spokesman for the game because it’s really their baby.
I think that the relative anonymity of Western developers has a lot to do with this lack of directorial role. And while the West still ships great games, I think they might be made more interesting and diverse if more companies were willing to put one person in the position of absolute creative authority. If that happened, I think we’d know the names of a lot more Western game designers.