Have you gotten Japanese developers’ business cards? If so, check the job title listed on the cards. You may find a strange job title, “Planner.” In Japanese, we call them “企画(Kikaku).”
What’s a planner? What’s their responsibility? It’s tough to answer this question. Different companies have different definitions. It’s said that a planner is responsible for tasks not handled by other team members, such as; software engineers, hardware engineers, artists, composers, managers, sales, localizes, QAs and so on. However, it’s still vague and obscure because many Japanese companies don’t define the responsibilities of all jobs. So I don’t understand what the rest is.
My impression is that a planner is a kind of producer but often he/she is responsible for game design, level design and project management without any specialized background. The number of producer’s seats is limited, so they have to wear many hats without any specialties, although designs and management require specialties. I think it’s a severe problem in the Japanese game industry.
As a designer?
As I wrote, it’s thought it seemed like a planner is a kind of a level designer or a game designer. However, almost all planners aren’t familiar with 3D software; Maya, Unity, UE, and so on. Also, many planners cannot write game script code using script languages. Among Western video game developers, familiarity with 3D software and game script language is a basic requirement of a game designer and a level designer. But, in Japan, it’s not a requirement.
It means the planners can not test their ideas themselves. Instead of using 3D software and game script languages, some planners use Microsoft Word or Microsoft Exel to write down their ideas and then ask their technical colleagues to implement the ideas. It’s terrible and slow iteration. In such a slow iteration, the planners can not gain experience efficiently. Because of a lack of experience, they often make mistakes with their designs and have to modify the ideas. Modifying ideas in the slow iteration leads to a lot of overtime. They spend a lot of time working overtime, so they can’t have enough spare time to learn 3D software and game script languages. It’s a perfect negative feedback loop.
As a project manager?
Even though many planners haven’t learned project management, they often have the responsibility for project management/scheduling. So a lot of projects in Japan are managed without any methodologies. It’s dangerous and leads to overtime.
In my company, engineers who wanted to improve their team’s project management started using Agile/Scrum methodology and then they translated some English books to share knowledge about rapid game development. I don’t want to say “it’s not engineers’ responsibility.” because anybody should do that. However, while the engineers spent a lot of times improving their game development process, what did the planners do?
I think planners should have led the improvements, but they didn’t do that. I remember that a couple of planners had been working on it with us, but many planners hadn’t been interested in in the improvements. Worse, some planners resisted using any kinds of project management methodologies.
The Japanese game industry tends not to put much emphasis on academic qualifications when recruiting. However, it’s important to consider what a person learned.
As you know, a company hires people who studied engineering as engineers and people who studied art as artists. But, what about planners? What are the requirements for becoming a planner? What major should a person who wants to get a job as a planner take in a university? Or What should the person learn themselves?
The answer to the first question is “nothing.” There are no requirements for becoming a planner except social skills (e.g. “good communication.”)
Does it mean that many Japanese companies hire amateurs as a planner and then put them in a position as a designer or a project manager? I don’t know. Anyway, “no requirements” is possibly bad news for people who wants to become a planner because they don’t know what they should learn.
Practical designers cannot get a job as a planner
Strangely enough, the Japanese companies tend not to have a good impression of a skilled person as a planner, who is experienced in design. I’ve often seen that companies aren’t welcoming to such a person.
Here’s a fictional example. George was about to graduate and was looking for a job in the Japanese game industry. He didn’t have any work experience. But he has been learning a lot and mastered level design tool and game script language. He made some games himself and could demonstrate the games in an interview. To get a game design job, he sent in an application form for a planning position.
But, the planner division thought level design skill is a kind of art skills and game scripting skill is a kind of programming skill, so they recommended other positions to him. But he did not have a deep mastery of art and programming because he just wanted to become a designer! After all, he failed to find a job.
What is the solution?
Some Japanese video game companies don’t recruit planners, but engineers and artists. After the engineers and the artists experience a few projects, the companies convert some of them to planners. Such planners have some specialties.
That method is better than other Japanese companies’ one. However, I feel it’s inefficient. Acquiring artistic or engineering skills to be hired as professional is not easy.
I think the Western companies’ method is better because it defines more disciplines clearly with their job descriptions. It tells us what skills we should acquire to get a game designer job.
‘Planner’ is one of the representative disciplines in the Japanese game industry. But the responsibilities are not defined, and the requirements are not technical. Planners often get opportunities to work as a level designer, a game designer, and a project manager without any technical skills and knowledge. In fact, learning practical techniques and knowledge work against finding a job as a planner.
I know many good planners who contributed to the Japanese video game industry. They were amateurs before getting a job but became professionals over time. Many Japanese companies protect this custom. Some planners became a professional designer or producer through their own efforts, but others don’t. It sounds random.