In July 2015, developer Comcept launched a Kickstarter campaign for its game Red Ash. It didn’t go well.
Despite raising over $500,000 in pledges, the campaign missed its target and critics pummeled its approach — pointing to Comcept launching the campaign before seeing through a previous one, announcing a console port without identifying which console and continuing the campaign after finding external funding.
For production studio Hyde, which had teamed with Comcept to develop the game, the campaign presented a new problem.
Hyde has been around since 2002, has worked on over 200 games and has had a hand in some of Japan’s biggest franchises, including Final Fantasy, Persona and Yakuza. It just can’t talk about most of them. The team often works in secret, doing its job but not appearing in the credits or mentioning the work publicly. Speaking with Polygon, Hyde President Kenichi Yanagihara estimates that he will never be able to talk about 70 percent of what the company does. And that worked fine until Hyde asked the public for money.
"There definitely was some, I guess you could say blowback, from the announcement and with Hyde — people not knowing who they are," says Comcept Assistant Producer Josh Weatherford. He cites a Tumblr post that warned fans to be cautious because, it claimed, Hyde didn’t have experience with action games. Weatherford says because of Hyde’s backseat approach, the team’s hands were tied over how much it could say in response to the complaints.
"I think it’s mostly just the lack of information," he says. "You can’t talk about the thing so people are just going to assume the worst."
Hyde is one of many game studios that often works in the shadows. Some call the approach "white label development," "ghost development" or "secret team." And it’s been around almost as long as video games have been.
With Kickstarter and social media making developer reputations more important than ever, Polygon recently looked into some of the reasons why it happens and the benefits and problems it can cause. Yanagihara says he enjoys working in secret, and he’s happy to take the good with the bad. For others it can be a source of frustration, a lack of choice or the only way to stay in business.
Crediting has long been a sensitive topic in the game industry. It affects careers. It’s the kind of thing people complain about at parties. In 2015, a big budget game can require hundreds of employees and multiple external studios to make. Dealing with something at that scale — or even on smaller projects — mistakes can happen, as can internal disagreements. People get left out. People dispute their placement.
When an entire team agrees upfront to never publicly mention the work, though, many developers say it becomes a different issue.
"This generally tends to happen because a lot of development studios, and even publishers themselves, don’t want to be seen as having to rely on external parties," says Alexander Fernandez, CEO of outsourcing work-for-hire group Streamline Studios. "They don’t want to take the mystique away from what they do. And so their effective goal here is to try to make sure people think this is all being made in one place."
Fernandez says he hasn’t signed any white label deals in recent years, noting that he saw them more commonly 10 years ago, and he thinks it’s harmful to limit what developers can say because people rely on their portfolios to negotiate future jobs.
"In this business, it’s basically, 'You’re only as good as your last project,'" he says. "So if you’re unable to speak about your projects, it’s very much a hard thing to get out there."
There’s often a blurry line on how much developers can say, even on projects not meant to be white label. Representatives from several large work-for-hire studios say it’s common to have a self-promotion clause in a contract limiting what they can say, for instance, and those restrictions often lift around the time a game ships. But the client generally has the freedom to choose when to lift the restrictions.
For instance, Streamline was one of many teams that did outsourcing work on Kinect Star Wars, and even though the studio’s name appeared in the credits, Fernandez says he didn’t get permission to mention that work publicly until eight months after Microsoft released the game.
"It was just pretty much understood that no one would start talking about it," he says. "I won’t say we weren’t allowed to, as much as it was clear that 'you shouldn’t be talking about this.'"
It can also go the other way. Snowed In Studios is an independent team that worked on the director’s cut of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and President Jean-Sylvain Sormany says he was initially under the impression it would be a white label job. Then, one day he heard the game's publisher Square Enix planned to include his team’s name in the credits. Only then did he realize it was OK to discuss the work publicly.
People can also disagree on what it means to speak publicly — whether they can tell friends and family, mention it in business meetings, mention it on LinkedIn, put screenshots and logos on their websites. Sometimes this silence is written in the contract; other times it’s a general understanding.
According to the International Game Developers Association’s crediting guidelines, anyone who works a certain portion of a game’s total work days — five percent or 30 days, whichever is lower — should be listed in the credits and thus free to mention the work once a game is released. But that’s only a recommendation. The IGDA doesn’t have power to enforce anything.
And when a deal involves a gag order, the companies involved don’t tend to participate.
Over the past three months, Polygon looked into white label work across the industry, and one of the most common situations we found is developers needing to stay quiet because they’re working with companies outside the game industry, companies that have their own policies on crediting.
Some might know Ottawa-based Fuel Industries for its work on the 2011 platformer Sideway: New York or for its role in securing the rights to dig up buried E.T. cartridges in Alamogordo, New Mexico. According to Product Director Nick Tremmaglia — who describes himself as "a creative director with a sense of reality" — approximately 80 percent of Fuel’s games are white label jobs. These often come from mainstream brands outside the game industry when companies hire Fuel to make games promoting their products but want to keep the spotlight on themselves.
"Usually they’re trying to simplify things," he says. "For instance, the board game company we’re working with right now — they have a stable of developers [building approximately a half dozen products for them]. And I think just to keep things simple for the end user … I don’t think they have anything against us as developers. I don’t think they’re trying to take all of the glory. They’re trying to simplify it for people who might be seeing those brands inside of a game."
"In the times when the product launches and it’s not successful, you’re not given that negative exposure either."
Tremmaglia says he prefers to have Fuel’s name on its games when possible because it helps the team promote itself and negotiate future jobs, though he sees upsides in keeping Fuel’s name off certain products as well.
"I think it offers us some protection, right?" he says. "In the times when the product launches and it’s not successful, you’re not given that negative exposure either. Like every studio, we’ve had some games that launched and [weren’t] as great as we thought they [would be] when we started, and it’s nice when you search ‘Fuel’ those don’t come up."
While Fuel defines itself as a "digital agency and entertainment studio," often doing jobs that straddle the line between games and marketing, the company has also done white label work for traditional game companies including Electronic Arts and Zynga on mobile products.
And Fuel isn’t alone in working for clients both inside and outside the traditional game industry. Two relatively high-profile U.S. development studios known for their work on console games also tell Polygon that they occasionally do small white label jobs to help fill in gaps between projects. Both requested anonymity, however, because they want players and potential clients to think of them for their high-end games rather than their side projects.
Sometimes the goal is not just to keep the work secret from players, but from a client’s investors as well. Many game development contracts include language to prevent teams from subcontracting work to other teams without first getting permission from their investors. Some teams ignore that language, though, says industry agent Ed Dille, and some smaller projects don’t include it.
SuperGenius, located in Oregon City, is an "art studio and support team," according to Studio Director Paul Culp, meaning it functions like an outsourcing team but works closer with the client. Most of the time, it assists on games like The Walking Dead, Broken Age and the Skylanders series. But Culp says, once or twice a year, SuperGenius tends to take a white label job — what he calls "secret team" work.
Culp says these jobs don’t come up as often as he would expect, noting that he doesn’t tend to see them for traditional console games, but more with mobile games from first-time game developers or companies that skew more toward tech than games.
Specifically, he says he sees them from other developers that have external investors and don’t want those investors to know they need help — "to appease investors and look like their production’s higher than what it would have been just keeping it in-house."
"Partially I think it’s investors," he says later. "It’s also strictly, I want to say, ego. People feel like if they’re calling in a professional house to help them ship a game, that makes them look weak in some way."
SuperGenius is also the only studio Polygon found for this story that charges more for white label work than for other jobs. Culp says he charges an extra 25 percent for secret team deals.
"Studios like us, we rely on our portfolios to get more business," he says. "And if we can’t put something in our portfolio, then it costs. So in that case, when they don’t want people to talk about it, we just sign an agreement that’s an addition to the contract, and charge them an extra percentage for it."
For many in the West, white label work is something they would rather not do, but they do it because it pays well or because it gets them in the door with certain clients. For Hyde President Yanagihara, it’s something he enjoys. He likes the idea of being a supporting character rather than a public figure because it allows him to focus on the work.
Located in Tokyo, Hyde employs 50 people and works on eight to 10 games a year, doing a little bit of everything — programming, art, game design. It works with large publishers such as Konami, Bandai Namco and Square Enix. And unlike most Western studios Polygon spoke to for this story, Hyde doesn’t typically sign paperwork limiting what it can say; it simply makes a verbal agreement with the client.
Yanagihara says that, since many of Japan’s larger publishers have recently stopped growing or have reduced their in-house resources, they have needed to rely on studios like Hyde to fill in the gaps. He also says that, particularly with long-running franchises in Japan, those publishers prefer to keep the specifics of who makes the games out of the public eye.
For Yanagihara, it comes down to what’s best for the product. He thinks it’s common in the U.S. for players to buy a game because they follow the development team working on it, while in Japan it’s more common for players to buy a game because they’re familiar with the publisher.
"For example, with Call of Duty a lot of people [in the U.S.] might not think, ‘I’m gonna buy this game because it’s from Activision.’ They might say, ‘I’m going to buy this game because it’s from Infinity Ward,’" he says. "... In Japan, it’s very common to say, ‘I’m going to buy this game because it’s Square Enix. I’m going to buy this game because it’s Atlus. I’m going to buy this game because it’s Nintendo.’
"If you go the extra step and say, ‘Well actually, it’s created by this person,’ then it kind of weakens the player’s impression because it’s somebody they don’t know, or it’s a developer they didn’t expect. And there’s always a little bit of a fear that if you go that far and say that much, then the title won’t sell as much and it’ll be harder to market."
He sees multiple other benefits to the approach as well.
On a practical level, it allows Hyde to work on two competing products simultaneously. Yanagihara gives an example from a few years back, when Hyde worked on a soccer game for Sega (which doesn’t have an English title but translates to "Let’s Make a Pro Soccer Club"), while working on another soccer title he can’t name at the same time. By keeping Hyde’s name out of the public eye, those games’ publishers didn’t have to worry about confusing players.
"It’s kind of a marketing strategy," he says."We don’t want everybody to think, ‘Hey, these guys make all the soccer games. Why is this one better than this one?’"
Staying in the shadows also allows Hyde access to work on big franchises, work that Yanagihara says would be less available under other circumstances. And he says the approach allows him to get honest feedback when he talks about games with friends, since they don’t know Hyde worked on them.
Yanagihara believes in Hyde’s approach to the degree that he’s sometimes hesitant to name names even when he gets approval from the client. Hyde did programming work on a recent numbered Final Fantasy game, for instance, but Yanagihara declines to say which part of which game because he doesn’t want to dilute the messaging for players.
"I can’t say exactly what it is, because then people will say, ‘Wait, Square Enix didn’t make that? I thought they were making it,’" he says. "I have an OK to say it, but I still don’t want to step on anybody’s toes."
Yanagihara says the roots of this approach run deep in Japanese culture, with many people preferring not to seek the limelight and many classic businesses working this way. He draws a parallel to car companies, saying that some cars made in the U.S. include information on the specific factory where the car was built, but that doesn’t happen in Japan. The main difference in Hyde’s case is that the work often involves a sense of creativity that a car assembly line does not.
Going forward, Yanagihara wants Hyde to keep doing white label work, because he says the team takes pride in being able to contribute to big name franchises. And he also wants to do more credited work, in part to give younger team members a chance at the spotlight. Currently, Hyde is working with Atlus on an unannounced original role-playing game and Comcept to make Red Ash, amongst other projects.
Hyde is far from alone. There are many developers working on big name console games in Japan that do not get credit. Like anything, these situations occur on a case-by-case basis.
Matt Smith is a Western-born programmer currently working at Tokyo-based studio Friend & Foe. Prior to his current job, he was on the publishing team at PopCap Japan, working with local studios to port PopCap’s franchises to the Nintendo DS. And for the DS version of tower defense game Plants vs. Zombies, he says, the studio he worked with didn’t want credit even when offered.
"We assumed that they’d want credit, and when we started talking to them about where to put them on the credits, they were like, ‘No no, you can’t put us on the credits,’" says Smith. "And we were sort of like, ‘Uh, OK …’ And it took a little bit of discussion and I had to talk to my Japanese boss at the time about what that was, and it’s [that] these companies basically want to be as close to nonexisting in the public eye as possible. Because they have big clients like Nintendo or other companies that, when they make a game using this company, they want it to look like Nintendo or Capcom or whoever made this title."
Smith says he didn’t see any advantage in keeping the studio out of the credits. If anything, he saw an upside in having a local partner, since PopCap could benefit if Japanese customers knew the game was developed by a Japanese studio. (Though ultimately, the game didn’t end up shipping in Japan.)
"We compromised with them. We were like, ‘OK, well look, let's put your team in the credits. We won’t mention your company, but we’ll put your team’s names in the credits.’ And they were like, ‘OK, but at the very bottom.’"
Smith’s example points to a small project, but there are plenty of larger productions done in secret as well. Kyoto-based developer Tose may be the world’s largest producer of white label game work, and handles games of all sizes.
With around 600 employees in Japan and another 400 or so in China and the Philippines, Tose works on 30 to 50 games a year, alongside other products such as internet-connected refrigerators. And it almost never takes credit unless an overseas client asks them to (see MySims, Disney Planes for 3DS and various WWE games). Tose’s official site calls the company a "silent force behind the scenes."
Koji Morosawa is the leader of Tose’s overseas marketing office, and day to day, his job involves spreading the word about the company to potential international clients, which he says is a challenge given the company’s approach.
"It’s very difficult to put ourselves out there, because people always want to know, ‘So what have you done? What’s your track record?’ And, you know, it makes it difficult," says Morosawa. "They want to see titles. They want to see lists. They want to see demos. But we’re contractually barred from doing so. ...
"What I try to do anyway is invite them back to Japan, to our head office. We have a games vault that has not all, but a lot of the titles that we’ve worked on. And I don’t know how much of this I can say. Well, we do this. We invite them to our Kyoto office, to our games vault. We kind of turn our backs; we let them see [what’s there]. They can’t take any pictures. We can’t talk about it. But they can kind of see what we’ve worked on. [It gives] them an idea of our history and the breadth."
"Kyoto companies are known for working as a supporting act."
Morosawa sees some of the same upsides to working in secret as Yanagihara at Hyde, but on a larger scale. He says that because of Tose’s size and reputation, it’s able to work with multiple competing companies at any given time, which gives it inside knowledge on where the industry is going that it can use to inform its internal game designs and business plans.
And while he agrees that there is a certain aspect of Japanese culture that plays into teams working in secret, he points specifically to Tose being headquartered in Kyoto as a more significant factor.
"It’s definitely Kyoto culture," he says. "Kyoto companies — not only gaming companies, but Kyoto companies are known for working as a supporting act."
In some cases, developers take white label work simply because it’s all they can get.
One developer in Iran, who spoke to Polygon on the condition that we not reveal his or his company's names so as to not prevent his team from getting future work, is currently working on a mobile game for a popular mainstream brand under a white label agreement. He says his team takes the work since it doesn’t have other options.
Because the Iranian market is small, he says, and because his team isn’t able to sell its games worldwide, it’s risky to develop original titles. So his team takes white label jobs because it can get money upfront, and then the team uses some of that money to help fund its original games.
Often, he says his team works with a middleman who represents himself as a development studio to potential clients and then subcontracts the work out as deals happen, without telling those clients the games are made externally.
"It’s not so much about whether we agree with this practice as much as it is about making money," the developer says. "I’m obviously not OK with this, because it’s my product and that product will win accolades in awards ceremonies and our studio won’t be mentioned. And all of our effort will have only been for financial reasons."
He says that about two-thirds of his studio’s games are white label, and he doesn’t see any upsides to white label jobs apart from them paying upfront and being low risk.
"At the end of the day, we as a studio are trying to reduce the number of made-to-order projects as much as possible in order to focus on our own projects. But right now, because we need the money, we accept those kinds of projects."
In Buenos Aires, a company called ZenStation Studio plays a middleman role of its own, matching developers in Latin America up with Western clients.
Co-founder and Business Director Mauricio Morea previously ran one of the biggest development studios in Argentina, Games & Web, and after selling it he decided he didn’t want to deal with the same amount of overhead. So he started ZenStation, working with a partner in the U.S. who has contacts with various entertainment agencies. Together, they regularly sign deals with U.S. clients looking for cheap work on small licensed browser and mobile games, for brands like Ben 10 and Scooby-Doo.
Morea says, in practical terms, it makes sense to describe ZenStation as an agent or broker, but he thinks of it as a development studio because he works closely with the studios he hires, similar to how he worked at Games & Web. And he says he makes white label agreements with those studios because he doesn’t want to confuse clients who might see multiple names floating around.
"The client might say, ‘Hey, but wait. Who’s working with me?’ ... It’s more complicated for the client and it loses seriousness. They unfocus if they see you and then some other team who did the game, and then they see it on a magazine and it doesn’t mention ZenStation, and [they say], ‘Hey man, you told me you’re the head and I’m talking with you, and then some other guys are [taking credit].’ It’s weird."
Most of the time, Morea says his clients aren’t interested in knowing the specific developers who make the games and are simply interested in seeing a portfolio of past work.
"If somebody comes out and says, ‘Hey, what’s your strategy? How do you do contract designs? Who do you contact? Who do you work with?’ ‘Hey man, wait a minute. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m not gonna give you my book,’ you know?" He laughs. "Because it’s cool to share and everything, but the barriers of entry are not too high. Also it’s not that there’s a big secret on how to do business. It’s basically knocking on doors, saying, ‘Hey, we do this’ ..."
"I don’t hide the information, but I don’t give it away all the time ..."
"If [a client is] really anxious to know who the team is, I get suspicious. Because you trust me; you work with me. I’m the face. I sign the contracts. So why would you want to [know who the team is]? You want credentials? You want portfolios? Sure. Here’s the portfolio. Here’s their credentials. Here’s everything. But if [you] want their phone number, it’s kind of weird."
Morea admits that part of the reason for the secrecy is that he doesn’t want ZenStation to be cut out of the equation if a client chooses to go straight to a developer.
"It could happen, definitely yes," he says. "It’s obvious that it’s going to be cheaper. Because if they work directly with a team, the margin we [get goes away]. But I don’t even want to think like that."
Morea says ZenStation also offers Western clients upsides that individual development teams in Latin America aren’t able to — having staff in a local time zone, having native English speakers, money in the same country, standardized contracts, local lawyers, consistent communication. These things give more confidence to clients, make it easier for them and are reasons not to cut out the middleman, he says.
According to Morea, ZenStation is also flexible with some of these policies, and once he gets to know a certain client well he will sometimes tell them about the developers involved. He also says, in many cases, the clients don’t want ZenStation’s name on the games either.
In 2015, game studios can live and die on their public reputations.
Teams hire people to manage their image. Business deals can hinge on a developer's popularity. And credentials are one of the most common marketing tools for a public relations or crowdfunding campaign.
Not all developers take that approach, and for many of those featured in this article, that sort of marketing is a secondary concern. But for some in the industry, white label work falls into a black hole at the bottom of the crediting spectrum that makes it harder to find future jobs. And for many players, a developer's name can be a sort of shorthand to help them figure out if they will like a game. As in film or music, it can be hard to separate the artist from the art.
White label work presents challenges for studios trying to establish reputations and for players trying to follow developers they like and find games they enjoy. Yet given the lack of a way to police the work, it will likely exist as long as people have something to gain from it. Like many things, it's often an issue of subtle negotiations where a single person or small team doesn't always hold the power.
"It’s kinda hard to suggest to someone to not take a job."
"It’s kinda hard to suggest to someone to not take a job," says Thomas Allen, head of the IGDA’s game credits special interest group. "The employers I think should be encouraged not to do it, but the hard part is incentivizing that."
As a long term-plan to try to standardize crediting in general, Allen is working on the Credits Certification Program, which will allow studios to earn badges to display on hiring websites if they disclose their credits and allow for a community review. He thinks it’s unlikely that developers will open their books for the program as much as he would like them to right away, though — and even if they do, that would only enable transparency from companies that choose to participate.
It's a step as what he sees as the right direction. And though it may not be possible for the industry to ever reach 100 percent accuracy, given the secrecy involved on different levels, he sees it as a nice goal to aim toward.
At least, for the studios and clients willing to play along.Illustrations: Orioto