- [There's some great honesty in this interview about the cultural differences, and why the Japanese game development biz still has a chance - tip of the hat to Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for doing the interview, and check it out.]

Capcom producer Ben Judd is a company veteran that's worked both in the company's U.S. offices and in its Japan headquarters, helping to explain Western suitability to developers while starting Capcom's internal localization team.

Now he's that rarest of things - a Western-heritage producer at Capcom's worldwide headquarters in Osaka, and is uniquely placed to explain some of the cultural differences going on in game development.

In addition, he has drawn attention for his high-profile work producing the next-gen Bionic Commando, in development at Swedish creator GRIN (Tom Clancy's G.R.A.W. for PC), and in this in-depth interview, we discuss his work at Capcom and how Japanese and Western game development still differs massively.

I want to talk to you about being the first, and maybe only American producer in a Japanese gaming company. I mean, I know there are some other guys working in Japan, but I'm not sure there's anyone else in that role.

Ben Judd: Not a full-blown, 100% producer, no. We have a few assistant producers, I think, but not 100% producers. What do you want to talk about?

Well, I want to ask, first of all: You've never worked in an American development studio, have you?

BJ: No, never have.

But you're working with the guys at GRIN in Sweden on Bionic Commando. So you have an idea of the differences and similarities between Western and Japanese development. I'd like to get some of your insight into that.

BJ: OK. First off, one of the things that has been helpful is that I've played some Western games, so I can say that I know what American gamers like and don't like, compared to the Japanese gamers.

This is because I've lived in Japan for so long, and have Japanese friends, and can hear from them. So it's nice; I've always lived a life where I'm understanding both sides. Which is great, because you have a lot of knowledge, but a lot of times you're in the middle. So a lot of times, both sides are crashing in on you.

But as far as the development side goes, it's been a learning process for me, because I've worked in a Japanese development studio before, but never in a Western one, and one of the biggest differences is that Japanese design, usually, is: you design and create two or three levels -- you put everything into it; all the AI, everything, scripting, all of the graphics -- and so, within about six months to a year, you have a beautiful level, that is something that you can PR many months before the actual game is launched.

So, there are two advantages to the Japanese design style: I would say one is, you reduce risk. You know what your game is going to be like; you've already created 100% of what a level will look like. And then the other advantage, of course, is that you can PR things earlier, because you've got something beautiful right from the start.

And with Western development -- at least, the only thing I can speak for, of course, is GRIN -- and I do believe that each studio has its own culture, so this may not be 100% what it is for the other companies -- but they build things in layers. So you'll have a game that doesn't have any scripting; you'll have a game that has some limited animation; you'll have a game that has some props: but these things can be shared universally across all the levels. So it's a lot more efficient design.

And I think they're forced to do that, because with Japan, with Japanese workers, you can sort-of pile them into a project and force them to work 18 hour days right from the start, all the way to the end. So, it's not that I don't think Western development doesn't have its own fair share of long hours, but I just think that Japanese workers, you know, you can just burn them, hard, and for a long time. And because you can do that, you don't have to be as efficient.

And I think, also, that the level of detail that they try and build a game to is also a lot higher. But that's certainly one of the big differences; that you're working with games that are not complete, and don't look that beautiful. It certainly makes you a lot more nervous, and it makes it harder to PR, because they don't look truly beautiful until toward the end of the production -- but by that time, it's not enough time to generate the steam and the hype that you need to.

Why did you want to become a producer in Japan? I'm sure it has to be much more of an uphill road than it would've been in the U.S.

BJ: I just love Japan. It's that simple. I mean, the people there are so nice, and I love Capcom. There is, of course, political nonsense, and yeah, the uphill battle -- it's never fun. Every day, Japanese developers are sometimes negative by nature. So even if there's something positive that's come in the latest build, they'll only see the negative.

So, whenever I get those comments, and I'm telling them to GRIN, I have to sort of filter some of them out, because otherwise you have a totally demotivated team. The way it is in Western culture, it's more that you compliment the people, and make them work harder rather than sort-of talk down to them. But, you know, every time I start to get depressed, I think: Hey! I'm working for Capcom! That's what keeps me up.

When you show the game to the management in Osaka, -- since, like you say, the development style of the two cultures is pretty different -- how does that work as an interface? Can you make them understand that, culturally? Or is it a real challenge?

BJ: Not initially. It's taken me probably a year and a half, just to get people -- the Japanese that are creators, that are on my team, that I always take over to Sweden, that had seen how the guys work -- it's taken me a year and a half just to get them to understand how the development is. And those are a few people that have been on the project, right? Trying to get the higher-ups to understand... people that only know Japanese design, to understand... is near-impossible.

So, the way I see this is: I'm always trying to do something new. I was the first, I think, foreigner that worked in Capcom Japan for a long time. And I was the first person to start the localization team. See, each one of these challenges, I bring home myself. It usually comes with a lot of pain, but the idea is that if I can just open this road, maybe there will be other foreign producers out of Capcom Japan.

And I think that Japanese companies need to do that. They only look at Japan a lot of the time, and the market is going more and more global; unless they start trying to internationalize themselves internally, then they're going to fall by the wayside.

Are you bringing in any of the working practices, or would you like to bring in western working practices to the Japanese studio if possible?

BJ: Hmm. Probably not. And the reason why is: I've seen a lot of different cultures, and I've seen a lot of different styles of working, and some things just are not meant to be mixed. Some things are just not meant to work out that way. Having someone, a single person like me, in the middle, to make sure that you're borrowing the good parts...

Like, for example, with Bionic Commando Rearmed, we've got the art coming from the Japan side for the in-game cutscenes -- which is great, because I love that art -- you've got the tech coming from GRIN's side; being able to pick and choose those parts, the best of both worlds from both sides, is great. But trying to force them to work together is not always easy.

Bionic Commando Rearmed is the XBLA/PSN game?

BJ: Correct, correct. The in-game cutscene art only is being created in Japan.

I mean, of course, we always have the designers; I've got several designers that were always on these projects, from Japan, that constantly get from them feedback.

It's helped out a lot with the bosses, because, traditionally, western bosses are not that good -- for a reason -- and the Japanese bosses are designed much better. They have a lot of insight. So, getting their director to talk with our directors is nice; people realize, "Oh, there's this new way I could do it!"

The other thing is the story; when we were planning out the story, one of the Japanese guys suggested this ridiculous idea, and at first, everyone is like, "Huh?" But then we sat down and thought about it, and said, "Yeah! That's a great idea!" And it feels very Capcom.

And later, Ulf Andersson -- who is the Swedish director who's directing next-gen BC -- he said to me: "If that idea had come from a Westerner, we all would've laughed him out of the room." And, I thought about it later. He's right. That idea only could have come from a Japanese person, to have been accepted the way it was.

At TGS last year, I was talking to Ryan Payton from Kojima Productions...

BJ: I know him - we did a podcast together, actually.

That's right! When we spoke, he said one thing he did to encourage people from Kojima Productions to look at western games, is he put a 360 in a high traffic area in the office, and he put in, like Gears of War, Halo, other high profile games that are popular in the West, that have a lot of ideas.

Apparently, people just, you know, walking by, they'd screw around a little bit; he'd leave them on the attract mode, and maybe people would play them, maybe they wouldn't, but it seeped out. Have you tried anything like that?

BJ: We've already got something like that. We've got a gigantic 60" TV, and constantly, teams are playing software. We've got a marketing team that constantly gets them new software, so... Most of the guys have already played Call of Duty 4, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3.

I mean, don't make any mistakes: The Japanese guys know that the west is starting to kick ass and take names, and they are studying those games. And from what I know of Japanese motivation and business practices is, if they ever feel that there is something that they're not staying on track with, or on target, then they study it, see what's great about it, then they learn how to do it better.

A lot of people talk about the Japanese industry being, you know, on the way out, in terms of design and stuff like that. I don't think that they're out yet. I think that they'll come back.