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Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers v.1

Posted: Thu Jun 08, 2017 1:12 pm
by marurun
I was not sure the best place on this forum to put this, so I'm putting it here! It is a book review of a book about games.


The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers (Volume 1) is a Kickstarted book that later became available via other outlets. The author’s (John Szczepaniak) stated goal was to interview a lot of Japanese developers before their knowledge passed with them. I managed to borrow a copy through my local library's interlibrary loan network. This was a difficult book to read and review for a number of reasons, but hopefully you'll bear with me and have enough information to make up your own mind by the time you're done reading this review.

The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers (Volume 1) is a paperbound book of 526 pages. It's approximately the size of a textbook, and the minimalist cover and dark blue background make it look like one, too. Most of the text is two-column layout. The printing process in monochrome, so black and white only. No color.

Let's start with what I liked. There's a lot of interesting information in here about developer workflow, how many many of these artists and programmers got started in the industry, and about early developer work environments; and for some of them, you get a good feel for their personality and life or career after peak relevance. Sadly my list of dislikes is significantly longer.

I know this is a self-published Kickstarted book, but it has lots of design and layout issues that make it difficult to read and reference. First, there doesn't seem to be much discernible order or flow to the way the book is organized. Sometimes adjacent interviews are related, but sometimes it just hops from one topic to the next. Szczepaniak makes little effort to create a structure or scaffold to provide context for the order of the interviews. In addition, the table of contents is a Selected Contents (author's language) which helps the reader locate most of what's in the book but not all. There are a number of one-page memorials to deceased developers in the book that are not findable save by flipping through the book. Fortunately the book has an index, but the list of terms in the index is lacking. For example, several interviewees mention the late Kenji Eno, but since he has no index entry, the information about him in the book cannot be easily located. Furthermore, the haphazard interview flow (more later) means that common terms like Famicom are scattered across far too many pages, and some of the references may be only mentions in passing. A proper index is not simply a case of finding every instance of a keyword.

Finding content in the book is also hindered by challenges to reading and scanning the book effectively. The font selected for this book is a sans serif font which makes reading the two-column text more difficult. Serif fonts are generally considered preferable for printed media due to providing greater contrast and visibility against the page. The end result is that the text is a little more fatiguing and difficult to read than it should be. Despite being printed in black and white, there are a lot of images scattered about the book, and many of them are small or have poor contrast, making the details difficult enough to discern that they often provide little to no useful information. Some post-processing on the images might have improved their translation to monochrome. Further, the author often presents images embedded in the text without any captions or callouts. Sometimes the text makes it obvious what the nearby image is, but often an interviewee will discuss two or three different games in the general vicinity of the image, and if you don't already know from what game the image is, the book doesn't do anything to help you. The images are also sometimes awkwardly placed in-between the text columns, requiring the text to wrap from both sides.

The last set of issues involves the interviews and the author, John Szczepaniak, himself. This may be opening a can of worms, and your own thoughts on the author's interview methods may differ, so take this with a grain salt. I found most of the interviews to be meandering, aimless, and in need of editing and direction. Szczepaniak is clearly able to edit interviews since, at times, information is redacted at the request of the interviewee. At other times, there's a note that the interview contents are being presented out of order. In most cases, however, the author regularly errs on the side of providing as much of the interview content as he can. Were the interviews more tightly crafted, this would be a good thing, but it's clear that many interviews proceeded without much of a script with Szczepaniak and interviewee going off on tangents left and right. Some of those tangents result in useful information, but quite often they do not. Some questions are awkwardly worded and many are simply personal inquiries or exclamations from Szczepaniak. The result is that Szczepaniak comes across as somewhat unprofessional. A book with the title The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers (Volume 1) should probably be more structured and organized with either a historical or narrative direction. What we get is simply a transcript of personal interviews from a fanboy. Were the interviews more processed and embedded in some kind of larger narrative, this book could have communicated its best content much more effectively and in a much smaller space. As it was, I found myself constantly skimming ahead to try to get to a more interesting part of the interview or to try to discover valuable historical insight amidst the idle banter. This is all on Szczepaniak. It is the interviewer's job to make sure the interview stays stays focused and on track or to at least edit the result to look that way, but even Szczepaniak's asides and footnotes lack a professional tone, and it really hurts the final product. The book was Kickstarted as a collection of interviews and the author’s travel log, so perhaps I expected more professionalism than was promised, but given how much Szczepaniak hyped his own bonafides, both in the book and on the Kickstarter project page, I don’t think my expectations were unreasonable.

One final gripe before summing up: the book is riddled with full-page promos of the industry professionals he will feature in a later volume. I read over the Kickstarter page prior to writing this review, and there isn't mention of intent to write multiple volumes. Guess what - Kickstarter donors only get the first book. They have to buy the rest even though their funds arguably provided the opportunity to do extra interviews. If the author had been a more aggressive editor and organized interviewer, he could likely have fit a number of additional interviews into a book this same size.

In summary, this book was a conflicting read. I went in with high hopes of learning a great deal about early Japanese games development, and while I ultimately did, the process was much more arduous and time-consuming than I feel was necessary or appropriate. This book has neither the professional polish nor the laser-focus of the kind of historical retrospective the title suggests. It was work to read and not at all fun or entertaining, and it pains me to type that. I think the author's goal was noble, but his final result is lacking and fails to put the interviews in context. The reader is left to paint that picture themselves with only the raw materials with which to work.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Thu Jun 08, 2017 7:32 pm
by Erik_Twice
Woha, thank you a lot for this Marurun, I truly appreaciate you taking the time to review this.

I think that the problems you mention are a bit inherent to HG101 itself. I like the site, they cover stuff noboody else does, but it's true they have severe editing problems and are not very professional in their coverage.

It's a shame, really, because it looked very interesting.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Thu Jun 08, 2017 9:52 pm
by Michi
Damn. That's a real shame. Sounds like another instance of a great idea, with poor (or at least sub-standard) execution.

Thanks for the thoughts and taking the time to type them out, marurun.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Thu Jun 08, 2017 10:09 pm
by marurun
I had very strong feelings and too few pressing projects at work.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2018 10:39 am
by marurun
So, it looks like this book, and the second volume as well, is free to read if you have Amazon Prime. That's the best price for this tome.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2018 10:59 am
by BogusMeatFactory
marurun wrote:So, it looks like this book, and the second volume as well, is free to read if you have Amazon Prime. That's the best price for this tome.

When i tried to access it, it was free with kindle unlimited which is their 9.99 a month service.

Re: Review of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2018 11:06 am
by marurun
Oh, poop. Well, pay $10 for one month and then read them and you'll have still saved money.