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Tetsuya Mizuguchi in his office
Irwin Wong

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Directing from the sidelines

We look at the rise of concept teams — from Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Fumito Ueda and others — in Japan’s game industry

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

Over the past 20 years, Tetsuya Mizuguchi has seen his development studios shrink at a dramatic rate. When he started a team for Sega in the ’90s, United Game Artists, he oversaw around 100 people. When he left a few years later to form an independent studio, Q Entertainment, that number dropped to around 17. With his current setup, the number has sunk as far as it can go: Mizuguchi is the only full-time employee.

His story isn’t a fall from grace, though. His latest game, musical shooter Rez Infinite, was one of the top-rated early VR titles, made money and won multiple awards. And the team that worked on it wasn’t as small as the numbers suggest — most just weren’t full-time.

Mizuguchi is part of a growing group of game developers experimenting with a different way of working, a sort of extreme version of outsourcing.

He runs what some call a “concept team,” a small, independent group that generates game ideas and designs, and then partners with other studios to see those plans through. While not a new approach, this type of team has become more common in recent years — especially among developers who have established a bit of celebrity, and especially in Japan.

For many, it’s a natural place to land after leaving your corporate job. After Keiji Inafune left Capcom, he started a similar team called Comcept. After Fumito Ueda left Sony, he helped build one called GenDesign. The list runs long.

In the past couple of years, these teams have been responsible for some of the game industry’s biggest successes and most troubled projects, from Rez Infinite and Nier: Automata to The Last Guardian and Mighty No. 9.

And while many report benefits to working this way, many also point out quirks that can be challenging to overcome. We recently looked into why the model is gaining traction, and some of the financial, legal, personal and cultural issues that play into it.

Different approaches

There’s no one way to run a concept team. On one end of the spectrum, it might be one person wanting to work freelance. On the other, the lines can blur between being a concept team and a proper development studio, with more than a dozen people working together. To look at some of the different takes on the idea, we recently visited five teams making a go of it.

Rez Infinite concept art
Enhance Games

Resonair and Enhance Games: The duo

Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s office occupies a small room up a spiral staircase in an incubation co-working space owned by billionaire investor (and Rez Infinite executive producer) Taizo Son. It’s a flexible environment with communal tables and exposed wooden planks, and offers access to a theater room with a floor-to-ceiling projector, standing in contrast to the bland white and gray walls that commonly line Japanese game studios.

Mizuguchi’s room has five or six workstations set up, most filled part-time as collaborators pop in to work alongside him.

Coming from a background of leading a larger independent studio, Mizuguchi says he saw the struggles a company can go through when it has headcount to satisfy and less-than-steady work flowing in. He wanted to get to a place where he could focus on creative ideas without the same pressure, and he figured staying small and flexible would give him the best chance at getting there.

Differing from most people who work this way, Mizuguchi runs multiple companies. Resonair is his creative group, which puts together game designs and oversees development. Meanwhile, Enhance is the business and publishing group. For each, he hires contractors as projects arise.

(He’s also involved with a third company that’s about to be announced, EDGEof, which will coexist alongside the other two, though he can’t yet speak to specifics.)

On Rez Infinite, Mizuguchi says he spent approximately 18 months working with two contractors under the Resonair banner, casually hashing out the design before bringing in external studio Monstars to color between the lines. Enhance, meanwhile, took care of publishing and marketing the game.

For Mizuguchi, this is all a step toward his vision for how he thinks most game studios will be structured down the road.

“I think this is the future — no more companies,” he says, predicting that in 20 years the game industry will be a sea of freelancers rather than teams.

“I think the point is everybody getting professional and independent — everybody — so [there won’t be any more] managers. You [will] have to manage by yourself.”

He sees this being possible thanks to the increased standardization of game engines like Unity and Unreal, and a higher comfort level with staff working remotely. As part of his democratization plan, he also wants key collaborators to keep the rights to their work. If The Last Guardian director Fumito Ueda designs a character for one of Enhance’s games, Mizuguchi offers as an example, Mizuguchi wants to license that character and let Ueda keep the rights to it — unlike a large publisher, which might insist on ownership.

“I think the point is, what is healthy?” he says, marking a phrase he repeats numerous times over the course of the interview.

“Because, you know, artists should be free.”

So far, he says his experiment is working. Rez Infinite has been successful enough to let Mizuguchi continue experimenting, paying for itself in under 10 months.

For his next project, which he hasn’t yet announced, Mizuguchi says he wants to continue the work he started on Infinite, partnering with most of the same people and pushing further in the same direction. In retrospect, he says he has mixed feelings about Infinite’s most popular stage, Area X — he’s satisfied with and proud of what the team made, but he also has “many, many frustrations” over tech limitations restricting the intensity of the visuals and the amount of “organic expression” possible.

“I want to keep improving,” he says. “[…] That is a big motivation for the next project.”

Fumito Ueda in GenDesign’s office
Irwin Wong

GenDesign: The upstart

As Fumito Ueda describes it, he essentially fell into his latest company.

In a previous life, he was the face of Sony’s Team Ico, a critically acclaimed studio where he directed three titles including emotional action game Shadow of the Colossus. Then in 2011, he made news when he left Sony while in production on the third of those three — The Last Guardian — a project that Ueda had been working on for more than six years at that point.

The story of what happened behind the scenes on that project remains something of a mystery, with many seeing smoke over the years and assuming that meant fire, but no one holding the matches willing to talk. Ueda’s stock answer is that he left because he felt it would be best for the project. Even now, with the game out and him long gone, he declines to clarify small details such as how long he spent on his own after leaving Sony and before moving to GenDesign.

Ueda says that when he first left, he didn’t have plans to start a new team; he simply wanted to get away from the management responsibilities and meetings that came with working at a big company, and he intended to take on freelance jobs.

Earlier this year, GenDesign posted the above teaser image on its website under the name “Beauty and the Beast 2018.”

“I wanted to just work at my own pace and sort of explore the ideas that I had in my mind,” he says.

Then a group of other Team Ico staff also left Sony, and Ueda says that led him to join forces with them to give everyone a place to work.

“It just felt like it would be a missed opportunity if we all disbanded and didn’t work together again,” he says.

From there, the group formed GenDesign and settled on the concept team approach, looking to develop game ideas and team up with and oversee others to see those ideas through.

Ueda compares it to building a car, saying that GenDesign would be the firm that gets hired to work on the interior design, but not the team on the floor at the manufacturing plant. He also compares it to being an architect, where GenDesign would draw the blueprint but not physically pour the foundation.

After a brief detour to consult on The Last Guardian, GenDesign is now back to its original goal of making something new. When we meet with the team, it’s quietly chipping away on a prototype for that something, which it recently teased on its website. At the time of our visit in late 2017, that meant nine people in an open office in the same building that used to house Shinji Mikami’s development studio Tango Gameworks. The team intends to focus on one game at a time — at least, for now — and following our visit, announced it was hiring.

Ueda says this approach wouldn’t work in the 8- or 16-bit era, but is more practical now. Thanks to consistent game engines building a common language among developers, GenDesign can prototype things to a certain stage on its own without a large number of artists or programmers.

The big question for Ueda at this point, he says, is how well a collaboration will work with an external team, or with multiple teams.

In the past, Ueda says he has seen many cases of teams within large publishers struggle with staffing. “When you talk to people who work at big companies, you always hear complaints saying, ‘We don’t have enough people.’ That happens everywhere, all the time,” he says. “There’s no easy solution to that — that’s just how big companies work. […] You need to rotate your resources over time in order to finish various projects.”

So part of his theory in setting up GenDesign is a belief that, if he can align with the right partners, he has a better chance of locking in a fully resourced team, since he won’t be part of a large company that can abruptly shift employees around.

“There’s plenty of risk involved because we don’t know who we’re going to end up working with,” he says. “But we’re trying to find the right number of people and people with the right skills. […] There are risks and challenges either way, but I think being able to go out and look for the right people to work with gives us a better chance to have our own style and stay true to what we want to do.”

Yoko Taro on the Tokyo Game Show floor in 2017
Irwin Wong

Bukkoro: The freelancer

By his account, Yoko Taro shouldn’t be a success in the game industry in 2018.

In 2010, he left his job at development studio Cavia after directing a series of dark, quirky console games. He wanted out, saying he intended to leave the game industry, and the market didn’t seem like it was going to argue.

Yet time after time, he’s found opportunities that keep pulling him back to games.

And now he’s found himself in the right place at the right time. When we meet in late 2017, he’s dressed in a ceremonial outfit that he’ll wear on stage later in the day at CESA’s Japan Game Awards. He’s Japan’s developer of the moment, having released the dark, quirky action game Nier: Automata and the mobile fairytale role-playing game Sinoalice earlier in the year. Both were breakout successes, with Automata being a rare surprise hit in both Japan and the West.

Unlike some of the other developers featured in this story, Yoko works as a freelancer. Like Masahiro Sakurai, known for directing the Smash Bros. series, he is someone who can pop into a company, lead a project, then pop back out. While he doesn’t always oversee every aspect of a game, he often represents the development team as much if not more than the companies involved.

Nier: Automata
Square Enix

Reinforcing that, he wears a $500 custom mask in every photo shoot, video recording and public appearance promoting Automata — to essentially cosplay as the character Emil. And he often goes by “Yoko Taro” in the West, keeping his brand consistent worldwide, despite Taro Yoko being the way Westerners would normally say his name.

He also rarely talks about his company, though he has one.

In 2015, he started a company called Bukkoro — which is a version of the Japanese word “bukkorosu,” meaning to murder someone, with the end of the word sliced off.

“The kind of people I want to work with are those who realize what the name means and want to work with me anyway,” he says.

Bukkoro has four employees — Yoko; his wife Yukiko, an artist with credits on the Taiko Drum Master music game series; and two friends. The four don’t make games as a group. Bukkoro basically exists as a way to organize four freelancers. Yoko says he doesn’t see tax benefits from being together; he simply wanted to start a company at some point in his life, and now he can say he did.

In that spirit, Yoko’s business card doesn’t mention Bukkoro. It refers to ILCA, or I Love Computer Art, a CG design company of about 100 people run by a friend of his. Yoko uses ILCA to help with negations and paperwork when a big project like Nier: Automata comes along.

Right now, he’s making good use of that relationship. Due to his recent success, he says he’s had a lot of interest from companies wanting to work with him. In particular, he says after Automata crossed the 1.5 million sales threshold, he started hearing from companies he’d never heard of before. And he wants to strike while the iron is hot.

“If we’re going to get serious for a second, Nier: Automata and Sinoalice — I put those both out and they were huge hits,” he says. “But I’m not really confident my next games are going to be hits. I feel like I’m probably going to make nothing but failures for the next two to five years. So what I want to do right now is take as many jobs as I can to make as much money as I can, and then my reputation can just slowly decline after that. […]

“I’m actually pretty serious about this. I don’t think popularity lasts forever. So you’ve really got to make as much money as you can, while you can.”

Hidetaka Suehiro at the Tokyo Game Show in 2017
Irwin Wong

White Owls: The dabbler

Thus far, we’ve mentioned three types of game studios — traditional teams that do most things in-house, concept teams that partner with others to see their ideas through, and work-for-hire teams that do outsourced production jobs.

Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro’s White Owls is all three in one.

Suehiro gained notoriety as the director of cult favorite mystery horror game Deadly Premonition and followed it with an episode of the Kinect adventure series D4, while working for development studio Access Games.

Then he went on to start a company of his own, White Owls. As of late 2017, White Owls had 13 employees, and Suehiro says he doesn’t want to grow beyond 20, having seen what it was like working at a bigger company like Access.

Suehiro says that part of the reason he started White Owls is because he wanted to work on a bunch of different things at once. So far, that has consisted of writing a book about a crime-solving cat, working as a concept team on “debt repayment life simulation RPG” The Good Life, working as an in-house team on the recently announced The Missing, and helping with a student game called King of Money, among others.

“My objective isn’t to make money,” he says. “I want to put together a company where people can realize their ideas. I want it to be an environment where you don’t need to get permission from anybody to make a game.”

The ideal scenario, Suehiro says, is to keep three games running in parallel — one where White Owls serves as a concept team, one where it does everything in-house and one where it assists another studio. He cautions, though, that this is all an experiment at the moment. He wants to see how things go, and adjust from there.

“There are lots of different ways you can make games, and we’re sort of in a situation now where we’re building everything from the ground up,” he says. “We’re starting from zero.”

Hironobu Sakaguchi in Mistwalker’s office in 2014
Irwin Wong

Mistwalker: The veteran

Differing from the four people profiled above, Hironobu Sakaguchi has been running a concept team for more than a decade.

In the early 2000s, after leaving a high-profile job at Square, Sakaguchi — known for creating the Final Fantasy role-playing series — formed a team called Mistwalker. The idea, he says, was to build a company that would allow him to do the concept work he wanted to do, rather than the managerial work he’d taken on as he’d risen through the ranks at Square.

Mistwalker’s latest game is Terra Battle 2, the second in a planned nine-game series.

“One of the biggest reasons I left Square was that I was spending all my time managing teams and the business, so I didn’t have much time to focus on the creative, hands on, on-the-ground work of making games,” he says.

“So naturally, when I started Mistwalker, I didn’t want to do any of that.”

Similar to Suehiro, Sakaguchi says 20 is his magic number — he wants to keep Mistwalker under 20 people, since he sees that as the threshold at which point he’d need to spend too much time managing the business. As of late 2017, Mistwalker had 15 employees. It regularly partners with other studios as projects come up.

Now that he’s been working this way for a while, Sakaguchi says he doesn’t think he’d go back. From a workload perspective, he says he finds it more comfortable, and he sees the industry continuing to move in this direction.

“I think there’s a larger demand than before to have this sort of world setting and sensibility and taste to lay the groundwork for a game,” he says. “[…] It feels like the times have shifted a little bit and there’s a larger demand for teams like these. And that’s probably a good thing.”

Why it’s more common in Japan

Look at concept teams across the game industry, and one trend tends to stand out — an overwhelming number of them are based in Japan.

In the West, it’s not an unprecedented concept. When celebrities like Steven Spielberg or Vin Diesel want to make games, they often set up small teams to help manage them. Lorne Lanning and David Jones serve as the faces of Oddworld and Crackdown, respectively, even though the majority of the employees on those games don’t work at their companies. And there are countless cases of development studios partnering with one another in different ways, or outsourcing studios handling large portions of games.

But the specific trend of game industry veterans building small teams to focus on concept and design work and run the show from afar has taken a stronger foothold in Japan.

In interviews for this story, many of those we spoke to had different takes on why — some of which contradict each other. Together, though, their answers paint a picture of how Japan’s industry funnels developers in this direction.

Say a new game designer enters the industry, fresh out of school. They take a job at one of Japan’s established game companies like Capcom or Sony, get a couple lucky breaks and become a producer on one of the company’s smaller games.

The company, like many in Japan, is big on promoting a face behind each of its games. So it starts to set up photo shoots for them, crafting their hairstyle and outfits to make them stand out. It places them in interviews with magazines like Weekly Famitsu. It sets up public skits and silly promotional videos, making them into an entertainer as much as a game developer.

This helps the company, many say, since it gives players someone to identify with when they’re thinking of which games to buy. It also helps the designer, since it builds up their public profile and gives them a bit of fame to negotiate with.

So they use that fame, and after working on a sequel or two, they move over to a bigger franchise or build something from scratch. It takes off. People start to call them a visionary. They travel around the world, becoming known as not only a developer, but an ambassador for their employer.

While all this is happening, they start to gain more influence internally. Their days become less collaborative and more top-down, with those around them constantly looking for direction and feedback.

A few years pass, and they move into a management role at the company, as is a common career path. People still talk about them, despite their work being less hands-on, and they get a credit on every game the company ships. They appear on stage during formal award presentations. In the public eye, they become game industry royalty.

Then they leave.

Maybe they’re pushed out because something flopped on their watch. Maybe they miss the days when they could focus on the creative side of making games. Maybe they want to try new things. Maybe they run into differences with their co-workers. Maybe they don’t want to be told no by a boss anymore. Maybe they see financial upsides.

So they start to look at their options, and they see there’s really only one way out: to go independent.

This is a key difference, some say, between large game publishers in Japan and those in the West. In the West, THQ can hire Assassin’s Creed creative director Patrice Desilets after he leaves Ubisoft or EA can hire Uncharted creative director Amy Hennig after she leaves Naughty Dog, and it’s business as usual. In Japan, that doesn’t tend to happen. Once a developer reaches a certain point of fame at an established publisher, some say, they generally aren’t able to move to another large company.

“If you get to be too much of a rockstar, nobody’s going to touch you,” says Ben Judd, a partner at game talent agency Digital Development Management. “[…] I was trying to imagine [former Capcom executive Keiji] Inafune-san being the head of R&D at Sega. It’s just — there’s no way it would fit.”

“When you’re famous, it gets really hard to change companies at that point,” says Suehiro. “If you go to a new company, people over there are going to be worried how much you’ll cost. They’ll be worried about what kind of demands you’ll make. They’ll be worried about whether they can control you.”

Exceptions to this rule typically only come after someone leaves, starts their own company and then finds their way back to a publisher, as Sonic the Hedgehog programmer Yuji Naka did recently when he took a job at Square Enix more than a decade after leaving Sega.

Some credit this to a sense of honor between Japanese publishers not stealing away star employees. Others point to a lack of ability to be an effective leader at a different company because corporate cultures vary, and it’s hard to start from scratch. Others point to internal politics, meaning a famous developer at a company may try to block another from joining their organization as a form of self-preservation.

“I do know a couple of AAA creators who have done the rounds, trying to see if they could get positions in other publishers, and they have come up against what would be the equivalent of the person in that role who politically made sure they couldn’t come in, because they wanted to protect their territory,” says Judd. “Or it was just a, ‘You’ve got a certain reputation. That’s not going to fit in our company.’ And the door never opened.”

So our hypothetical developer decides to go independent. In many cases, that’s what they want to do anyway. Yet there too, they run into some difficulties unique to Japan’s market.

First, it can be a challenge to find funding for a larger team. While this is frequently true anywhere, it is especially difficult for developers in Japan looking to make console games, given the struggles of Japan’s console game sales over the past decade. In recent years, more investments have gone toward mobile game developers, and as most well-known developers made their names on console games, they have to fight for the limited investments available — which tend to pale in comparison to those in other territories.

“In the West, everything moves in such large quantities and at such a scale that we wouldn’t be able to compete on the same level even if we tried,” says Ueda.

A second challenge is, even if the developer is able to secure funding for a large team to make an ambitious new console game, they run into employment laws that layer challenges onto running a company.

“When you’re putting together a company, I think the risk involved with managing people and setting things up carries a lot more risk in Japan than it does in the West,” says Yukio Futatsugi, chief operating officer of Grounding Inc., a traditional game studio of around 50 employees with offices in Tokyo and Fukuoka.

This plays out in a few ways. For one, Japan has historically fostered an idea of “lifetime employment,” where an employee joins a company and stays there for their entire career. While that may not be as common a practice as it once was, Japanese employment law still favors employee rights, making for a number of difficulties for an employer.

If an employer wants to lay off or fire someone, for instance, it becomes a complicated process that can involve anything from paying them off to sitting them by a window with no responsibilities, leaving them nothing to do but stare outside and hoping the isolation will convince them to leave out of boredom or a lack of respect (known as being part of “The Windowsill Tribe”).

One of Grounding’s latest projects is a virtual reality take on the classic music series Space Channel 5.

As a result of these sorts of employment challenges, some companies will only hire employees officially after an extended trial period, or simply hire contractors as a workaround. If a new studio hires too many employees, it can find itself with underperforming staff or large financial commitments, which can limit its options.

“In order to keep those people on and pay their salaries, you start taking on work that you might not necessarily have wanted to do otherwise,” says Futatsugi.

The end result of all this leaves our developer one choice: to start a small team. And if they want to make games that impress their fans — the fans who became fans because of those big-budget console games the developer used to make — they’re only left with one version of that choice: to keep costs low and try to team up with others to make larger projects happen.

Essentially, to start a concept team.

Helping their cause, their reputation is often strong enough to let them sign deals for projects despite not having a full team in-house. And there are a large number of studios in Japan built to handle work-for-hire jobs, due to a long history of larger Japanese companies outsourcing development on their games. So they make it work.

In practice, the rules of this career path are not set in stone. Ueda, for instance, mentions that after he left Sony, he thinks it would have been possible to get a job at another large Japanese publisher; that’s just not what he wanted to do. In multiple other cases, developers say they didn’t just go small because they couldn’t find funding or because of the legal challenges involved, but because they preferred working that way.

While each step on the path plays a role in the overall system, it’s rare to find a developer who hits every last one of them on their way to forming a concept team.

Lonely at the top

So, you’ve started a concept team. What next?

One of the biggest benefits, many say, is that you don’t always have to decide right away. We asked everyone we interviewed for this story about the benefits and drawbacks of running a concept team, and two key benefits came back over and over: the low overhead, and the freedom that comes with that. Having fewer people on the payroll gives teams more flexibility, lets them wait for the right deals to come along and gives them a buffer if things fail.

Former Sega arcade game icon Yu Suzuki was able to generate concepts through his company Ys Net for the better part of a decade, for instance, before he was able to get his ducks in a row to make the game he wanted to make, with the currently-in-development Shenmue 3.

Both Fumito Ueda and Hironobu Sakaguchi cite a desire to get away from the stress and time commitment that came with managing large teams as one of the key reasons they left their former jobs.

Asked if he would still keep GenDesign as a small concept team if given a blank check for $100 million, Ueda says he thinks he would because he finds it more comfortable working with a small group.

“I think of the budget and the size of the team as two separate things,” he says. “Just because there’s money falling from the sky doesn’t mean it’s easy to go on a hiring spree to make what I’ve always dreamed of making. From my limited experience, I’ve seen where money flows in but it ends up taking two or three times the amount of time, and you can’t really buy time with money.”

The Last Guardian spent a decade in development and ended up being GenDesign’s first release.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Asked if he looks at his job as doing the fun part of game development and leaving the grunt work for others, Sakaguchi says, “You’re reading my mind, aren’t you? Since you said that, you know, I’m not going to lie. We get to do the fun stuff […] but there’s a lot of work that goes into it, too.”

While most of the benefits to running a concept team come back to the idea of freedom, the drawbacks span a wider spectrum.

Top of the list, for many, is the communication challenges that come from working in different offices. In a situation where a large publisher hires a concept team to oversee another studio, reporting lines can get crossed and it can be hard for those in charge to oversee the work being done daily.

Like many aspects of running a concept team, this sort of oversight varies by company. When working on Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro embedded himself in development studio PlatinumGames’ office for three weeks every month. While working on games at Mistwalker, Sakaguchi splits his time between working in Tokyo and Honolulu, checking in on external teams as needed.

Under the best circumstances, this sense of distance can help a project, since those doing the grunt work don’t feel the pressure of as many people watching over their shoulder.

Under less than ideal circumstances, the distance can lead to misunderstandings that lead to wasted effort, time spent waiting for approvals or additional hours spent on meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“You’re kind of playing the telephone game,” says Judd. “You have one person saying, ‘Bob you do that.’ You have, ‘Bob you do this, and Jim you do this,’ and you’ve kind of divided your instructions. So it’s much easier for miscommunication. […] What that means is you’re going to probably have to have more internal meetings, more sync-up, and then you’re gonna have some loss when it comes to hours. Instead of having your artists build out art, they’re gonna have to be in meetings and communicate more, and so you’re gonna lose a little time and money that way.”

Beyond the day-to-day issues, some developers also point to a concept team/external studio package deal being a harder sell when pitching a game, potential team incompatibility issues and it being harder to motivate or control a team when working from afar.

Ueda says the most important part of working as a concept team is getting everyone on the same page for the general approach of the game, rather than worrying about overseeing every small detail while it’s happening.

To some, that may sound strange, as the public perception of Ueda paints him as a perfectionist who stresses over every detail of the games he works on, to the point that his games have a strong artistic touch but also take a very long time to develop.

“I get that question all the time,” says Ueda. “[…] You know, I don’t think I am. When I’m working on a project, I’m not aiming for the sky. I’m almost saying like, ‘Please forgive me. This is all I can do. But hopefully it’s enough.’”

Still, he acknowledges that the main drawback of working as a concept team is that he’s not always around to oversee and approve every detail.

“The downside that I feel is, because you’re not always physically in the same building every day, you might not always be aware of every minor detail being added to the game,” he says. “[…] There’s always going to be that small sort of feeling or percentage of, maybe we need to explain ourselves better or go back and forth a lot.”

He says it’s never been easier to work this way, though, thanks to standardized tech and communication options.

“There are good and bad aspects to it, but I think they kind of cross each other out,” he says. “[…] The most important thing is that we align ourselves with the team so that we’re all looking in the same direction. As long as that happens, then I don’t think the smaller details that I can’t personally oversee will matter that much.”

Perhaps the most sensitive part of all this is the question of whether concept teams make for better games. Some people we spoke to who don’t work for or with concept teams questioned whether the approach makes for better products in the end, or simply makes for better working environments for those at the top of the food chain.

Ueda says he sees benefits on the creative side to having a less busy workplace. Mizuguchi says it leads to happier employees who can therefore produce better work. Suehiro says the biggest downside of being small is not having a guaranteed, reliable talent baseline, but he thinks he can make up for that as projects come along. Yoko says he wouldn’t be able to work a regular office job at this point in his career, so working freelance is his only option.

One of Mistwalker’s upcoming projects is the claymation-styled Terra Wars.

Sakaguchi admits, though, that he set up Mistwalker not because he saw it as his path to make the best games possible, but because he felt it would be a more comfortable way to see his ideas through. That’s not to say he’s intentionally sacrificing quality, he says, and Mistwalker’s games have generally reviewed well, but he acknowledges that Mistwalker is not a particularly well-rounded company.

At the time of our interview, he says as an example, Mistwalker only has one programmer, which to a certain degree puts it at the mercy of the teams it partners with. While at Square, he saw the benefits of having a big staff work together and gain expertise in different areas over time, learning how to work well together and building a stronger overall company.

Shinji Mikami, one of a small number of high profile Japanese developers to start a traditional large independent studio in the past decade, Tango Gameworks, tells Polygon his main motivation for going that route was due to the expertise and relationships and processes that a team can build by working together over time.

“The most important element in making a game is people, and having very strong relationships with the people you work with,” Mikami says. “And if you consider those people — the manpower — as a tool, then the closer they are to one another, the more efficiency you’ll have.”

Sakaguchi suggests that because Mistwalker doesn’t have the same level of internal expertise in each discipline, that might be why Mistwalker’s games don’t tend to score quite as high as the games he worked on at Square.

“But,” he says, “the goal for Mistwalker is not to make a strong, powerful game company with a lot of value in our programming talent and this and that. The goal is to be able to create what we want to create, and put that out in the world, leave that behind, and then move on to the next one. If I wanted Mistwalker to be a powerhouse, then my strategy right now is not really working. It’s not going to get there anytime soon. But that’s not the company I’m building.”

What it’s like on the other side

For those in charge, running a concept team has a number of upsides. For those working at support teams that partner with them, it can be more complicated.

In every case of a celebrity developer running one of these projects, there are handfuls to dozens to hundreds of other people involved. And those on the other side report a wide spectrum of opinions on how well the structure works.

At the root of this is the way Japanese game publishers have historically worked with external game studios. While these things vary by team and company, many we spoke to point to a top-down mentality, where those in charge often treat third-party studios as production facilities than creative partners. Some are prohibited from even mentioning the work publicly.

“The way that Japanese teams work with outsource teams is, I think, still different from the West,” says Judd. “[…] If you work at an outsource company and you don’t have the actual control over it, and somebody else is controlling it at a publisher, then ultimately you’re gonna have to eat a lot of shit, and you’re not gonna get to have a lot of the fun, and that’s just what it is.”

In many ways, working with a concept team is the same as any work-for-hire job. The support team is not in charge, and sometimes they’re happy to have the work; other times they’re frustrated to not be in control and having to report to someone who’s not always in the office.

Takuya Aizu runs Inti Creates, an approximately 100-person studio, and regularly oversees a mix of work-for-hire and independent games, juggling five or six at any given time. He says working as the support team with a concept team is similar to doing a work-for-hire job for a publisher, especially if you’re working on an established franchise for the publisher where there are clear boundaries set in place.

When working with a concept team, he says his team doesn’t feel jealous about seeing through other people’s ideas. Instead, he says it sees a lot of value in what concept teams are able to provide.

“Those ideas are a big part of what can sell a game, and that’s a huge responsibility, building these characters and building these words,” he says. “[… So] we don’t ever think, ‘Oh, these guys have it easy’ or, you know, ‘This is a piece of cake. We all wish we could be doing that instead.’ We don’t really think like that.”

He sees communication challenges involved with concept teams, though, noting that anything that adds an extra set of approvals can make it harder to adjust on the fly if development is running behind and you need to cut content or delay a project.

“Communication can be really difficult, even if it’s just everything within your own company,” he says. “You know, there’s a lot of different layers that you have to work with. […] When you have all those cooks in the kitchen with us making the content and you have the idea guys and you have the publisher, that communication can be very difficult and it can create a lot of extra headaches.”

He notes, though, that on Inti Creates’ highest profile concept team collaboration — the action-platformer Mighty No. 9 with Keiji Inafune’s team Comcept — communication wasn’t a huge issue because his team had worked with Inafune for about 20 years before and they had a shorthand with one another. Instead, he says the problems on that project came from other places (see sidebar).

Craig Allen also worked with Inafune during the Comcept years, back when Allen was the chief executive officer of studio Spark Unlimited and the two companies collaborated on action game Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. In a 2016 interview with Polygon, he spoke highly of the concept team structure, saying he felt that project went a lot more smoothly than some direct publisher deals he’d been involved in, and pointing to upsides of Inafune not always being in his team’s office, looking over everyone’s shoulders.

“I think, is a great way for a creative executive to work with a team, because the team finds its own space in the middle,” he said. “Good management is kind of setting where the goal posts are, so that people know where they need to go to be successful. And if you’re doing too much micromanagement, it’s really hard to do that from afar without leading to a lot of frustration and disappointment.”

Not everyone feels the same way about someone leading from afar, though.

When Rui Guerreiro worked as a character artist at Sony’s Team Ico on The Last Guardian, he was there when the game’s director, Fumito Ueda, left the company to finish work on the game as a freelancer. “I kind of felt a bit betrayed by that because, I mean, you want to deal directly with the director, not just being told what to do [by others],” Guerreiro said in a 2016 Polygon interview. “So it kind of felt like the team was not the same anymore.”

Guerreiro said it was a complicated project and that the challenges involved more than just Ueda leaving, but he said he ultimately ended up leaving Team Ico in part because the team felt different.

In response, Ueda says he thinks the lines of communication on The Last Guardian improved after GenDesign formed and took on the project. Guerreiro left before that happened. Ueda agrees that it can be hard when everyone wants access to a director or producer, though, and says it took a bit of time to find a comfortable groove on the game after leaving.

“I hope that whatever sort of communication hurdle was felt on the other side of this project, that it became better as time went on,” Ueda says.

Judd says he’s seen this sort of scenario play out multiple times, with teams or team members doing work-for-hire jobs feeling frustrated.

“I think if I was in that scenario I would feel much the same way,” he says. “Creating the core concept — basically the heart and soul of the game — versus the people who have to sit there and build out everything else as construction workers, you know, it can’t be a lot of fun for them.”

As an upside, he points out that a support team will generally take home the bulk of a project’s budget in these cases, simply given the number of people involved.

“If you’ve got 10 people doing the core, and you’ve got 100 people doing the heavy lifting, then 100 times 10, 20 percent profit margin means they’re gonna make off with the lion’s share of the budget,” he says.

Of course, every situation is different. For The Good Life, Suehiro’s White Owls is serving as the concept team while Futatsugi’s Grounding will step in to help with production if the game’s upcoming Kickstarter campaign is successful. And they acknowledge that while Suehiro is leading the project, it’s much more of a back-and-forth creative arrangement compared to some of the more top-down examples.

This flexibility is a point many stress. As with many things in game development, the specifics of each situation often overshadow the high-level structure.

One size fits all

While many factors play into a team of any sort, the elephant in the room with concept teams is age.

In researching this topic, we found that the majority of people running these teams are in their late 40s and 50s. Many of them came up as the industry did, making their names in the early days of console games and then breaking free as they outgrew the companies that gave them their starts.

As a result, their approaches come with a lot of history.

For parts of this story, we looked at the idea of running a concept team in a vacuum — seeing the pros and cons of the approach in otherwise ideal circumstances. Yet day-to-day, it’s rare to find ideal circumstances. Each team brings its own baggage — its resources, experience, clout, talent and relationships, but also its bad habits and ego. And generally, those factors play a larger role than a team’s structure in whether a game turns out well.

To a person, every concept team head we spoke to says their decision to work this way came not only because they preferred the model, but because their experiences led them in this direction. For some, that came with getting older and wanting a slower pace. For others, it was seeing creativity struggle and trying to figure out a way to change that. For others, it was wanting to get out of managerial roles.

Multiple developers mention that they had been promoted into managerial roles at their previous companies, and then they realized they didn’t want to be managers for the rest of their careers.

“If you’re a creator that’s getting older and still wants to work with games, probably the best way is to leave and start a company where that’s all you do,” says Yoko.

And in some cases, this is one of the only practical options at this point in their career to continue to make the sorts of games they want to make happen.

“I would much rather have a famous creator be in a scenario where he could still create, than be stuck in a publisher and then be relegated to The Windowsill Tribe,” says Judd. “Because these are my heroes of my childhood.”

Interpreters: Graeme Howard, Kyoko Higo, Matt Papa

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