Chuhai Labs' CEO Giles Goddard told us about the team's approach to various projects, shared what skills are crucial for specialists who wish to work at the studio, and spoke about the common principles that helped Chuhai Labs in developing its studio culture.
Chuhai Labs CEO, Giles Goddard
I’m Giles Goddard, CEO and programmer at Chuhai Labs. I left school early and joined Nintendo in Japan after working on Starfox for the SNES in 1991. I’ve lived in Japan ever since, starting Chuhai Labs originally in 2002.
At Chuhai Labs, we have a team of talented people with a wealth of experience who have previously worked at places like Microsoft, Capcom, Rockstar, Weta, and Universal Studios. We come from all over the world, covering a wide spectrum of skill sets such as programmers, designers, artists, and producers.
Work Organization at Chuhai Labs
We create teams tailored to each project to ensure a combination of experienced and junior core studio members and complementary freelancers. A single project’s team can vary from just a few of us to teams of 30+, depending on the game’s scope. Professionally we communicate using Slack and Discord, but also enjoy regular informal barbecues to encourage communication between the teams.
I am genuinely super proud of every game we’ve released so far, so it’s hard to pick favorites. Personally, I’m biased towards the games I’ve worked on like Carve Snowboarding on the Quest, but I’m currently most proud of our newest release, Cursed to Golf, on PC and consoles.
The team celebrates Cursed to Golf outside Chuhai Labs' Kyoto office
Hiring a New Specialist
A specialist skill definitely helps! But in a small company with small teams, everyone tends to end up wearing several hats, so a broad range of soft skills is just as important. We've found that flexibility and tolerance are often undervalued soft skills that are crucial for a small studio.
In small teams, simply executing tasks given to you by someone else is never an option, you have to always be living in the moment to find what’s most important to further the game you’re making. This can be unsettling for some, but for those willing to be flexible, there’s nothing that compares to the ownership of working on a living, breathing game.
Also for anyone living in Japan, an interest in the country and its culture definitely helps!
Working with Beginners
I think we have a very open and welcoming culture at the company. Through our social media channels and interview process, the new staff tends to get a good idea of what it’s like working here before they actually join.
When we have someone join us from abroad, we help them arrange things like an apartment, a phone, and a bank account, which can be quite daunting, especially if you don’t speak or write Japanese. The differences between how Western companies and Japanese companies operate can also be a hurdle.
Japanese companies tend to have many rules and regulations that can be jarring at first. These differences are something that I am always trying to find ways to improve for our mostly non-Japanese staff. I’ve lived in Japan for over 30 years, so I often forget how different it can be for newcomers.
The team celebrates hanami, the Japanese Sakura viewing party
Basically, we work very hard to avoid creating tight deadlines in the first place. Several of us, myself included, have experience working at companies that didn’t manage burnout well and overworked their staff due to mismanagement and bad planning, so we know what NOT to do.
The way we prevent this is threefold: first, by creating milestones and work schedules that are both realistic and conscientiously defined; second, demanding that everyone take frequent holidays, including all public holidays and weekends; and finally, limiting the amount of overtime that people are allowed to do.
We are also very open and upfront with publishers about our milestone scheduling to avoid last-minute surprises and sudden change requests, which goes a long way to insulating us from any kind of crunch.
Freedom is a valued part of our company culture. That’s not to say that there is no order, but we encourage everyone to contribute to all parts of game design, workflow, and our overall company culture. For example, if we hire an artist and they suggest a change to our workflow that increases efficiency, then we’ll change the way we do things to incorporate it. Our game directors and project managers are very open to new ideas that improve our process and games, especially those that take into consideration overall resources and time.
As mentioned, many in the team and I have years of experience working for large Japanese studios. Despite us thinking these would be dream jobs, we all experienced common issues that helped us in developing our own studio culture. Three major benefits of working at a smaller studio in Japan would be the following:
- More ownership in projects
The scale of projects and teams at big studios can be massive, so while you may contribute a lot of time and energy, at the end of the day you are one small piece of a bigger puzzle, often a puzzle with a picture that’s constantly shifting. In smaller teams, each person’s contributions account for much more of the overall project. In this way, we all feel a stronger shared sense of ownership, and also an individual one over the parts we can point to and say “I made that”.
- Openness to change
Larger companies are like very large ships–even in the face of imminent danger, they are slow to change course. The older the company, the more resistance to change you’ll face, even to potentially new and exciting ideas. Lots of things in Japanese studios are done because that’s the way they’ve always been done. We, on the other hand, are in the mindset that if you have a good idea and can justify why it deserves a chance, then we will give it a try!
- Less strict hierarchies
Large Japanese studios still adhere to the concept of exceedingly strict hierarchies, and often those are defined simply by how long you’ve worked at the studio. So no matter how much of a veteran you are, you’re still likely to be treated as the new person whose voice doesn’t have much weight for a long while. At smaller studios, your voice is heard and considered as much as anyone else's–as it should be. Great ideas for game design or new processes can come from anywhere, and we embrace that notion at Chuhai Labs.
BitSummit 2022 Livestream
Chuhai Labs' Approach to Education
Education and continual learning are extremely important not only for the individual growth of our team members, both newcomers, and veterans but for our studio as a whole. Our approach is to cultivate trust, honesty, and transparency between our studio members.
We strive to foster an environment that will allow for challenges, gently nudging our team members outside of their comfort zones, all the while ensuring that they are provided sufficient leniency to both fail and improve from those failures. Failure is simply a vital stepping stone to bigger and better things.
We also offer structured learning modules for those interested, such as Japanese language lessons, and are always looking to learn from others more successful than ourselves. For example, one team is currently applying a production process from a book that suggests a proven method, which the team openly discusses and experiments with during their game’s production to capitalize on others' success whilst creating their own.
We also support and encourage self-motivated learning by providing access to resources upon request, such as online courses, to help broaden the individual’s horizons and those of the studio.
How the Post-COVID Situation Affected Team Dynamics
It looks like things are finally getting back to normal, although because many of us have gotten used to working from home, that "normal" has changed. When we started working from home, there were some growing pains – it took us a while to get used to meeting and collaborating only online.
But I think humans are great at adapting, and so we were able to evolve the way in which we work together to the point I don’t think there has been a negative effect on productivity. The fact that we managed to ship several successful titles over the last couple of years despite these changes is a testament to that.
The team celebrates the announcement of Chuhai Labs' VR game, Carve
Advice for Artists
As said previously, soft skills are essential when working with a close-knit team. So for artists, of course, it’s important to be able to create high-quality art, and have knowledge of hardware and pipelines to ensure that artwork actually runs at the specified frame rate. But beyond that, what really sets an individual apart is their ability to work well with others.
Communication and teamwork are so often said to be important, but most people assume they are good communicators and team members without ever really thinking about what it means to be good at them.
It’s no easy feat, for example, to be able to justify your approach to a certain art problem, and have the wisdom, patience, and articulation such that people from other disciplines can truly understand you. Nor is it easy to remain calm and collected when someone disagrees fundamentally with your point of view.
But these are skills everyone in a team–artists and non-artists alike–must be able to exercise and foster if they are to succeed as a team, and not simply as a band of talented individuals. In that same vein, at Chuhai Labs, in particular, things like a good sense of humor and a love for Japan go a long way too!