Planner: One of disciplines in Japanese video game industory?

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.

Background?

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.

Conclusion

‘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.

 

 

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7 Responses to Planner: One of disciplines in Japanese video game industory?

  1. Graeme says:

    I don’t know if the American style is much better. Now there are game degrees, which I think will help soon, but before a game designer usually started as a game tester. As you said, they have no specialty. Although we force them into level design or scripting or game design in America, very often they don’t perform their task at the same level as others would. For instance, having an artist create the levels, or a programmer do the scripting is often more efficient. But a designer role in America is to make the game “fun”. Now everybody should be contributing to the “fun” of the game, but sometimes in America the artists or programmers would rather just do their specialty instead of thinking about “fun”. In recent years, though (in some studios) it has gotten to the point that the input of people who aren’t “game designers” is often not wanted in the creation of the “fun”. So as a programmer, you only make tools that the designers ask for, and debug their mistakes. As you said, though: some designers become good through hard work (and they are the ones that are receptive to everybody’s ideas), but others keep being amateurs.

  2. AlexMcAin says:

    Hi:

    Something that amuse me if how,at least me think that Japanese game industry it’s better than Western, and you think the oposite XD. Anyways I posted the same as Graeme in the other post so I will just says (again) Graeme you are right again.

  3. minahito says:

    Hi Grame! Hi Alex!

    Interesting! I know the proverb; “The grass is always greener on the other side.”

    Graeme :

    Now there are game degrees, which I think will help soon, but before a game designer usually started as a game tester.

    I think the person who previously was a game tester has a speciality. He/she is NOT an amateur. The amateur I said means that a person didn’t do any practical actions to create games. For example, a MOD creator is not an amateur, right? Many Japanese studios had been hiring people as a planner, who don’t know what MOD is. They should stop it.

    I have no academic background, so I’d like to support a person who doesn’t have no academic background but keeps efforts. But, if Japan needs to increase a number of practical planners, universities in universities in Japan should have game degrees and give education to young guys.

    Now everybody should be contributing to the “fun” of the game, but sometimes in America the artists or programmers would rather just do their specialty instead of thinking about “fun”.

    I completely agree it. Now everybody can/should contribute to the “fun”. Japanese studios might have the same circumstance; the artists and programmers tend to focus on their specialties.

    • Graeme says:

      When we hire testers they have no experience doing anything. Once they become designers or producers, all they have learned is how to test games. I think a mod maker at least has tried to create something before.

      Don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way, though. I think testers are vital and we should have them as full-time staff. But, to make an analogy, just because someone can drive a car doesn’t mean they can build one.

      You wouldn’t promote a tester to a programmer if he had never programmed, and I think it should be the same for design.

      But it sounds worse for you — the planners are the same level as testers in America. Maybe it’s a good thing that I am no longer directly on a game team. 🙂

  4. AlexMcAin says:

    Hi :

    Sadly that’s exactly what happening with the game industry:

    ” Maybe it’s a good thing that I am no longer directly on a game team”

    thanks to this behavior in the industry to promote someone without experience that we start to move to other areas. And that hurts the game creation and innovation!!!.

    Cheers,

    • Graeme says:

      I’m still in the game industry, I just moved to the tools side of things.

      I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry in my career, and not all are bad. Many were inevitable.

      I think young and inexperienced designers were inevitable when the costs of games kept getting higher. Now, current game engines don’t really help reduce costs anymore because everyone uses them, and they are all based on that old Doom/Unreal model. I think we can do better, and if we can’t find ways to drive costs down anymore, we can find ways to drive fun up.

      I think that if we can ‘prove’ that something is fun then bad designers won’t be able to hide behind excuses anymore.

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