Our new Jobs in Japanese Gaming series will look at some of the different gaming jobs in Japan through interviews with people who make games happen in all sorts of ways.
First up, meet Ben Judd, a video games agent who has been in the industry for well over a decade.
GaijinPot sat down with Judd during this June’s BitSummit, an annual indie games festival held in Kyoto which he co-founded, to find out more about the gaming industry and how his career developed in Japan.
A 44-year-old American video games agent, Judd was the first non-Japanese producer to work for games giant Capcom—the developer behind Street Fighter, Monster Hunter and Mega Man, to name a few. In addition to being a translator, producer, and video games agent, Judd is a founder of the video games publisher Dangen Entertainment. He’s also the voice of Phoenix Wright in Capcom’s Ace Attorney series. Just don’t try to get him to shout, “Objection!”
What is a video games agent and what does one do?
What don’t I do? I run three companies right now. I’m one of the three owners of Digital Development Management, the world’s largest video games agency. Separate from that, I work with Capsulated Software, an Osaka-based software development company, and I’m also one of five members of Dangen Entertainment which specializes in localizing and releasing awesome games in both English and Japanese language regions.
The work that a video games agent does is a lot like what they do at Hollywood agencies or sports agencies. I work with Japanese game developers like FromSoftware, PlatinumGames, Game Freak, Art Play and a wide variety of others, to help them realize the game concepts they want to make, and then help them to find a publisher.
How did you start in the games industry in Japan?
In 2002, I joined Capcom U.S.A. and worked there for a year. The president at the time, a man named Bill Gardner, said “You have a really good relationship with the producers. They really like you. Why don’t you go work in Japan?” I did international business at first. He called me an “asset wrangler,” and abbreviated to “ass wrangler” — this is before sexual harassment was a thing, apparently.
I did that for another year, and ultimately there was a problem in the localization of one of the games. That was Resident Evil: Outbreak. They had me come down and take a look at it. It was really bad. Apparently, they were translating it into broken English, then they’d pass it over to a recording studio who would then rewrite it and record it. None of the parts were direct connections to the creators who were writing the text, so there was this weird telephone game that just led to a lot of bad-quality localization. I said, “You know, you really shouldn’t use this team.” And they didn’t. So then they were like, “We don’t have anyone to localize the game. Ben, will you do it?”
None of the parts were direct connections to the creators who were writing the text, so there was this weird telephone game that just led to a lot of bad-quality localization.
I asked Bill, and he said, “As long as you do your ass-wrangler job until 5 p.m., what you do afterward is up to you.” So I ended up going into the office at 9, working until 5, getting dinner until 6:30, coming back and working 6:30 p.m. until like 1 a.m. every day. But I got to localize games! I was working on games! That was the dream. I loved every second of it.
That helped me make the argument of having an internal localization team which I built from the ground up, and it ended up saving Capcom about $500,000 to a million dollars a year to the point where they were like, “You can do whatever you want. You can be a producer for a game, or you can be the head of PR at Capcom U.S.A.” And I’m like, “Well, the money would be better in the US, but I know it would be better to make a video game,” so I chose that path. That was Bionic Commando: Rearmed, and then Bionic Commando 3D.
Where did you go from there?
When I left Capcom in 2011, I decided to be a video games agent. I didn’t know what that was when I started, but by doing it I was able to expand my network and make connections. As a beginner agent, I saw lots of companies talk a good game about supporting indies, but I knew on the backend they weren’t paying these people any money to make their games. They just wanted to give them easy things to do rather than really support them.
Seeing the passion at events like BitSummit and realizing that indie developers really did need help from anyone who could give it was my motivation for starting Dangen Entertainment in 2017.
As an agent, I saw lots of companies talk a good game about supporting indies, but I knew on the backend they weren’t paying these people any money to make their games
What brought you to Japan originally?
I really knew I wanted to do something in Japan when I was in high school. My college was Ohio State University. It’s one of the largest universities in all of America. That was in ’94 or ’95, at which point everybody was taking Japanese. If you had to take a foreign language, because of how well Japan was doing, it was like “for your future, you must take Japanese.” Very much like how parents nowadays want their kids to take Chinese — it’s the exact same mindset.
So I couldn’t get in, because the juniors and seniors got priority. It took me two years to get into a Japanese class. After two years, I ended up doing very well and got a scholarship to study abroad in Toyama (Prefecture) and studied there for a year.
If you had to take a foreign language, because of how well Japan was doing, it was like “for your future, you must take Japanese.” Very much like how parents nowadays want their kids to take Chinese — it’s the exact same mindset.
I went from one year of foreign exchange to teaching English for a couple of years, because I needed to improve my Japanese. It wasn’t JET (Japan Exchange Teaching Programme), but similar — a sister city program. And then Capcom. The rest is history.
How has the industry in Japan changed since you started?
It’s a lot more competitive. I know a ton of people who are freelance translators. Tons — that never existed when I was there. I was the only foreigner at Capcom Japan at the time (in the early 2000s), one of maybe 1,000 people. Now there’s 60, 70 foreigners, so there’s a ton of competition. When I got here, I was one of no foreigners. I think they viewed me as special. The industry is very different nowadays.
What’s your opinion on trying to start in Japan straight away, verses going to an international branch as you did?
Well, the U.S. office guarantees you a higher salary — it’s that simple. Getting a start with an American salary, which is probably 1.5x or 2x higher, and then moving over to the Japanese office, they can’t lower your salary. That goes for any company around the world, when you get to Japan they have to match it or go higher. So no matter what, you’re going to end up getting 20 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent more money, but still being able to work in Japan eventually. So if you can do that, going over to the U.S. office then going to the Japanese office, that is preferred.
the U.S. office guarantees you a higher salary
What advice do you have for people trying to start in the Japanese games industry?
If you want to get in the games industry, it’s quite simple: What skills do you have? I always tell people to set micro-goals. If the true dream is “I want to make a video game,” so many people just focus on that. But there are tons of steps on the ladder to get to that goal. So first, be realistic. Go, “Is my Japanese good enough?” Mine wasn’t. That’s why I was an English teacher. I had to do something to make ends meet so I could get my Japanese better. And then it got better, and the other goal was “hey, I want to live in Japan,” so I did that teaching English. Then it was “I want to work for a Japanese company,” so that was Capcom. Then it was, “I want to make a video game.” It took all those little steps to get there.
I was the only foreigner at Capcom Japan at the time (in the early 2000s), one of a 1,000 people. Now there’s like 60, 70 foreigners, so there’s a ton of competition
You also need to realize what skill you have that a game company needs. If you’re not a programmer, if you’re not an artist, if you’re not a good designer (and everyone wants to think they could make a video game, trust me, you are not a good designer), if you can’t do sound, then what can you do? I knew I couldn’t do any of those things, but at least I could do languages, so localization ended up being my entryway.
I also had business acumen, and I could be savvy when talking to people, and could “read the room” so to speak, so there are other different secondary skills that people can have.
It takes a little luck, but it takes a lot of hard work. I mean, I probably worked 14-, 16-hour days… And of course, people are like, “That’s unhealthy,” and “The brain doesn’t work that way,” and whatever, but, you know, hard work is hard work. The people that work harder are going to have a natural advantage over the people that don’t work harder. That is just how it works.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.