“School, Work, and Specialists” – Sakurai’s Famitsu Column, Vol. 33/34

Note: Do not re-post the full translation. Please use the first two paragraphs and link to this translation. For additional information, please read this postThis translation is for fan use only, and may not accurately reflect Masahiro Sakurai. The following is a selection from Masahiro Sakurai’s book: Think About the Video Games. If you enjoyed this article, I would strongly encourage you to support Sakurai by buying his books. If you have any questions about this article, please contact the administrator.

In this article, Sakurai shares his thoughts about schooling, finding employment in the games industry, and how he got started. Thanks to PushDustIn, Teh_CBass, sourcegamingsoma and Crane043 for translation help!

Original column – December 12, 2003

“School, Work, and Specialists”

“I’m thinking about trying to get a job at a major game company, but I don’t have any game making experience or skills. Is it even possible to get employed at a game company without any game creation experience or academic background?

-from Mr. K


“I want to make games for a living, but I don’t know how to do it” is something I’ve been hearing a lot lately. You guys are pretty concerned about this, aren’t you?

Well then, as a reference, I’d like to write about my own motivations for seeking a job making games, and how I got started. But first, a word. Please understand that in determining your own path, you take responsibility for everything. No matter what other people think, your life is yours and yours alone!

I believe that specialists create the world. For example, if a chef focuses hard on making the most delicious food, then those who eat will be delighted. Similarly, if a clothing designer produces good, functional clothes at a low cost, then those who wear them will be pleased. Architecture, office work, and the transportation industry are the same way. By becoming experts in their fields, those who have chosen a certain path will continue to enrich the lives of many other people, including experts in other fields. I think that in this way, these relations keep society moving. Therefore, specialists should strive to be the best at what they do, more than anything!

Even though I couldn’t express it as clearly as I can now, I had vaguely similar thoughts when I was in middle school, so I took the exam for a technical college in the city and enrolled there. You might be surprised to to hear that it was an electrical engineering school. I had heard that at this technical school I could learn practical things, more so than other colleges and vocational schools. Surely, I would learn things that had actual use in the workplace, and after 5 years I could become an outstanding expert in electrical engineering!

…At least, that’s what was supposed to happen.

As I took classes, I started to realize, “This isn’t something I want to do.” I once again pondered, “At the end of the day, what do I really want to do?” I think my outlook at that time was overly optimistic, and even now I occasionally revisit and contemplate that question.

So, I ended up changing my goal to getting a job making video games. I had a clear and genuine interest. Also, at that time I had an important thought: “Maybe, in order to become a pro, instead of going to school and studying loosely related things, wouldn’t it be better and quicker to accumulate experience straight from the workplace!?”

I immediately left that school and enrolled in an ordinary high school. At the same time I got a part time job to earn money, so I could buy games both old and new, and determinedly started playing them. If you’re going to do something, you might as well go all the way.**

**TN: The original text for this sentence is 毒を食らわば皿まで, a Japanese proverb that basically means “since you have done something so far, you might as well do it til the end”. The literal translation is “if you ate poison, you might as well eat the plate too.”

I would play various games all the way through. While playing, I formulated questions and answers in my head, then tried to organize these**. My methods varied, but I thought that if I knew everything there was to know about the enjoyment we get from these things called “video games”, I could become a specialist. From this, I developed a habit of buying and playing many video games, which I still do even today.

**TN: See question 15 in 100 Questions for an example of the Q&A process Sakurai is talking about.

Then, I wrote proposals, went through interviews, and soon after graduation I began working at HAL Laboratory. The ratio of successful applicants to total applicants was high, but the boss at the time said “Who i work with is all that matters.” Nowadays, it’s extremely rare for high school graduates to become designers, let alone directors. I was still in my teens.

However, soon after joining the company, I became quite worried. I realized there was a large difference between customers’ expectations of a game, and expectations of a game to sell commercially. To me, that felt like a deep and frigid gap. Even though I was supposed to make games that customers would find enjoyable, I sensed the gap between creators and sellers. I distinctly understood that “creations” and “goods” are different.

However, thinking about things from a business perspective was very enlightening as well. I was still young, with a relatively flexible mind, and I strongly believe that getting a taste of that contradiction was good training. Even with just that, I felt that getting employed as quickly as possible was the right choice for me!

Then, when I was around 20, I made Kirby’s Dream Land. At that time I was young, in more ways than one… (wistful gaze).

Now, I’ll address the original “I want to make games for a living, but I don’t know how to do it” question.

These days, new graduates can’t suddenly become directors right out of school, except for a tiny fraction of small-scale projects. Compared to years past, video games have grown in scale, and employees’ demands for resources and skills have grown as well. In that sense, the path I took is probably impossible in the current conditions.

But! If you are going to become a specialist, at any rate you must not settle into the mold** of “average” or “ordinary”. This is true even in determining your life’s path. If you decide to pursue a course that everyone can follow, it will probably bring you peace of mind, for a while.

**TN: The original Japanese word is 鞘(さや)、which literally means “scabbard” (A sheath for a blade)

However, unless you have exceptional talent, being a member of the herd and remaining in your comfort zone, while at the same time doing fine work where you can display your own strength is quite difficult. Even though it’s risky, if someone has the will to break free from the herd, eventually they will be recognized by others. Specialists are the forces that change the world! …… working within their own circumstances, of course.

Right now, I think it’s OK to be unsure about finding employment. When I was younger, I also didn’t think that I could make a game or anything like that. If you want to make games no matter what, then instead of worrying about this and that, you should take action!

Even if you disregard job application requirements a little bit, if the work you enclose is appealing, I think employers will be flexible with you. In any case, companies are probably chomping at the bit for people who look like they have a lot to offer, or show promise.

However! If the presentation of your work or interview isn’t good, then that’s proof that you can’t demonstrate your ability in the real world, so it doesn’t matter how good your work or skills may be. Firmly grasp what you alone can do, and please do your best to polish that. On the contrary, if you don’t have something like that, then this might sound harsh, but I recommend investigating other career paths.

I believe that those capable individuals will surely distinguish themselves, no matter how their environment or circumstances may change. Believe me, recruiters probably don’t have bad eyes for talent, so people who are really up to the challenge will be quickly recognized.  “Something only you can do” will be widely accepted anywhere, won’t it?


Looking Back

Sakurai: Among the messages I receive, a significant amount of them ask how to get involved with the gaming industry in some way. Sometimes I honestly think, “It’s painful, so don’t do it.” (Laughs) But, it’s also true that there are things worth doing that are both painful and superb.

Interviewer: Right, because everybody is devoting their lives to making [ video games]

Sakurai: But generally, I feel that people who want to get into the gaming industry tend to lack perspective and resolve more so than technical skills. For example, sure they can make a trivial game in Flash or something. But that’s different from a game that’s actually sold on the market.

Interviewer: Hmm, I see.

Sakurai: That being said, originally I also didn’t think I could do something like create a game. But, somehow it turned out that way (Laughs). Maybe everyone doesn’t need to think about it that deeply either.

Interviewer: Though I don’t think you can simply say “I did it somehow.” (Laughs)

Sakurai: In the end, taking action is the most important thing. What I want to say most is for those people who are thinking “what should I do”, or those who seek approval from others. I’ve gotten the impression that many people have become paralyzed by thinking about theory too much. At any rate, you should put yourself out there and approach various game developers with a do-or-die attitude. I believe that although humans are born passive, there definitely comes a moment when they become active. When that moment arrives varies from person to person though.

Interviewer: So regardless of games, someday a moment will come when you start running towards something you want to continue to do throughout your life.

Sakurai: For example, regarding reasons for wanting to make games, if you think “I want to make games I like”, then “I want to play the games I like,” and “I genuinely want to make games” are different. And if you become a creator, you shouldn’t expect to just start making games as you like.

Share this!

Leave a comment below!