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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

A Perfect Storm of Waterfall, Language Barriers and a Bad Definition of Done

Kazumasa Ebata, a talented agile coach in Japan is currently translating my book for release there.  During our conversations I mentioned that there were a few stories that we might share in the book about Japanese and American game developers working together.  Here is one of those stories.  I'm not sure he'll want to include it though.
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Sometimes cultural blending works, sometimes it doesn't

In 1999, I was promoted to the role of "Director of Product Development" at Angel Studios, partly because of my role Directing Midtown Madness and partly because no one else was dumb enough to accept the job.  I took on the responsibility for seven games in development and was no longer making anything fun directly.  But I did get a better office and health care plan.

At that time, the next project Angel needed to ship was a Resident Evil 2 (RE2) port to the Nintendo 64 (N64) for Capcom in time for Christmas.  Both RE2 and the N64 were hot products and so this promised to be a great selling game....if we pulled it off.  In 1998, the video game industry was even more seasonal than today.  If you missed Christmas, you missed half your sales.

There were a few barriers to overcome.  One was a talented, yet stormy team that wasn't afraid to take on risk and challenge themselves to do the impossible.  I occasionally found myself keeping two of them apart from hitting one another.  It was our dream team.

The other barrier was working directly with Capcom in Japan.  This created a few problems.  First was the language barrier.  We understood half of what each other was saying.  The second was a culture barrier.  Capcom didn't understand why we didn't sleep under our desks when not working on the game.  The third barrier, I won't even classify.  Shinji Mikami, the legendary designer of Resident Evil, seemed to hate our guts.  He would visit us occasionally and practice scowling.  Maybe it was jet-lag or maybe he didn't like the food.  Whatever the reason, we didn't feel welcome.



Despite these barriers, we established long relationships with Capcom of Japan and Nintendo of Japan.  These relationships let us meet people in Japan that were extremely talented game developers and approached game development in an incremental, player-focused way that vastly influenced our craft as game developers.  Much of what inspired me about agile came from seeing their approach.

But back to the disaster.  The RE2 team was on track.  They were working hard to reach alpha, when all features were implemented and allowed the team to start attacking the bugs, tuning the game and polishing it.  It was a classic waterfall approach and it was headed towards the typical cliff.

We fell off that cliff in a dramatic way one sunny morning, shortly after we shipped the alpha build to Capcom.  Diego Angel (the CEO) and I received a long rambling email from a Capcom producer in Japan that I'll never forget.  The first half of the email described the general poor state of western workmanship.  The other half described how our port of RE2 fit that description.  We finally were able to decipher the problem.  Capcom's definition of alpha was different from ours.   Capcom's definition of alpha included the requirement that all bugs were found and fixed and that all optimizations were completed.  Apparently that definition was never translated and communicated to us and we never talked about it with them.

The main problem was that Capcom had no testing in place for the game.  Their alpha definition implied that we would handle all testing on our side.  Christmas was going to be missed.  We were going to deprive all those rosy-cheeked children of their zombie killing thrills on Christmas morning.

Alas, that was not the only problem we faced that morning.  As it turned out, I made it worse by committing the biggest email blunder of my life.  I intended to forward the email with a "poorly worded comment" about the Capcom producer's lack of politeness to Diego, our CEO.  Moments after I sent the email, Diego came running into my office with a shocked look: I had inadvertently cc'd the Capcom producer with the comment!

Normally this might have caused disaster, but this one time the language barrier came to my rescue.  Although the Capcom producer understood the meaning of the "poorly worded comment", he overlooked that the third-person wording of my email implied that I cc'd him by accident.  He thought I had boldly insulting him directly.  How was this better?  I don't know why, but he backed down.  From then on he was my best friend.  He brought presents from Japan every time he visited and did his best to help everyone understand that the confusion about alpha was a fault of the language barrier and not incompetence.   The relationship survived to eventually spawn the "Red Dead" series (a different strange story).