Monday, 18 June 2012

The Other Side of the Looking Glass - Part One

A recent interview with a Capcom designer sheds light on what it's like to work at the company ... and it's not an entirely rosy picture.

Yoshinori Ono might not be as famous a name in gaming circles as some other former Capcom men like Keiji Inafune, Shinji Mikami, or Hideki Kamiya, but he has been one of the driving sources behind the revival of Street Fighter. Ono is a man that has been with Capcom for a while, and you'd think that the company would be quite grateful to him for the successful revival of one of its flagship franchises. However, in a recent interview Ono gave there seemed to be more than a few indications that this might not honestly be the case.

For those that want the basic Cliff's Notes, the interview opens with the recent health problems that Ono has had. In April 2012 Ono was actually admitted to the hospital for a week; the reason? Most likely the fact that he was highly overworked. The interview relates that "After the release of a [Street Fighter 4], [Ono's] schedule becomes especially gruelling, making not only mental demands as he works to appear fresh and in high spirits for each new group of journalists he must address or fans he must hype, but also physical ones as he flies through time zone after time zone to each appearance."

After the last leg of a recent tour the Capcom developer collapsed in his home one morning, whereupon his wife called for medical aid. At the hospital there were some telling revelations, as Ono relates; "the doctor told me that my blood acidity level was on par with someone who had just finished running a marathon," that's a rather serious amount of stress on the body, one that he'd very likely been sustaining and accruing over a long period of time. After some hospital mandated downtime Ono was released back to Capcom, where what happened to him upon his reappearance was probably more disturbing.

"Nobody told me to take a rest. When I returned to work, Capcom didn't even acknowledge that I had been in hospital. There was no change in my schedule. I was at home for an entire week before the doctors allowed me to return to work. When I returned to my desk there was a ticket to Rome waiting for me. There's no mercy. Everyone in the company says: 'Ono-san we've been so worried about you.' Then they hand me a timetable and it's completely filled with things to do." 

It probably shouldn't be surprising, but it does come off as incredibly indifferent. There would be those that would raise the point that it might be more due to the Japanese work ethic then anything else, but at the same time this is the kind of complaint that we're hearing more and more from game industry insiders and their significant others all over the place. It was apparently hardly the first time it had happened at Capcom either, as Ono recalls tales of his younger days with hellish deadlines and pressures to get it done fast and properly.

"After I passed out, I was thinking in the hospital: there are so many people at Capcom that, over the years, have disappeared at one time or another. Suddenly, in that bed I understood what happened to them... The day after a game is finished and goes off to manufacture there are 10 empty desks, their previous occupants never to be seen again." 

It's clear that companies do respect some developers. There are of course the superstars like Kojima, Miyamoto, Yuji Naka, and others, but it would seem that unless a person is a monolith in the industry that there is little room for pity in terms of scheduling and workload. Somewhat distressingly at one point in the interview even Ono himself seems to display at least shades of the attitude:

Still, I wonder whether his experiences of overwork have made him more sympathetic with the junior members of his teams. "Quite the opposite," he says. "I am a middle-aged man so I am saying to the younger ones: 'You have the energy, the stamina, the get-up and go. You should be doing better.'" 

Whether he's saying this partly in jest or not I find it a little disturbing that he could be pushing people towards the same physical breakdown he suffered, or worse. I can't blame him for his attitude, it's probably what those above him told him when he was at that age, and it seems likely that once others get to his place they will be doing the exact same thing.

There's another thing in the interview that I want to cover as well, but that's best saved for tomorrow, since I believe that there's already been a lot put on the table today already.

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