If I were fired from making games at Nintendo, I would feel cataclysmically heartbroken in such a way that I might never recover.
This is the imagined story I have just now constructed in my head, but for former Nintendo localization editor Chris Pranger, this heartache is more than a pained hypothetical. Pranger was recently fired this week for speaking interpersonally about company policy on a podcast. Previously he had worked on such games Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Star Fox Zero, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. Following his termination, he went on to write the following statement on his Facebook wall before soon deleting the post:
I look around my house and see images of my son and feel such intense shame and crippling sadness…I know that if I can't find a job at least as good as this one, I won't be able to provide for my family. I've lost them their health coverage and their security. I also know that I've probably lost a good deal of my friends, just because I know how hard it can be to stay in touch with someone when the convenience of proximity is lost. I'm so sorry to everyone. I've failed you. You believed in me and supported me and trusted me and I've failed you. I've failed me.
The aftermath is saddening, especially considering his crime was certainly PR driven. Throughout the culpable interview, he spoke from a place of intense passion on quite a many topic, and never came across as traditionally "offensive", as one would traditionally expect when dealing with a termination. Instead, he shocked the personal sensibilities of anyone with intimate knowledge of his conservative employer.
In my own personal experience of dealing with Nintendo policies and employees, I consider myself privileged to be bestowed the company line on any given day. Their preferred headline: "Breaking! Splatoon fun for the whole family!"
But here, an absolutely unprecedented sequence: A Nintendo employee speaking at extreme lengths about the most personal of workplace related topics. Some examples?
- Masahiro Sakurai, director of the Super Smash Bros. series, is so driven an artisan that he in turn is an emotional trainwreck at work. Moreover, a story told directly implied Smash balances were at the whim of personal matches in which Sakurai himself had lost.
- Localization costs are a matter most fans rarely take into account when asking for foreign games. On the surface, this is not a dramatic statement, even when considering it may have been out of step with company policy to say so out loud, but here it was spoken with a flair of hubris and indignation.
- Nintendo does not make voice acting a priority in the same way their competitors do. Again, somewhat innocuous in a passing statement, but not a flattering headline. More interesting was a detailed story of Snake's voice acting in Super Smash Bros. Brawl being an issue of union vs. non-union politics.
- Fans lack appreciation for character localization insofar that their favourite characters are, in some cases, lightly written or not written at all, and thus logical character development is seen as an affront to the fans. This again, spoken glibly.
If one were running a video game blog, the contents of this single podcast could feed a large family of five for a week with its ample headlines. Offhand, 'Nintendo Treehouse employee doesn't know "why they're gonna do" FFVII, thinks Square-Enix is "asking for trouble"', or 'Nintendo Treehouse employee doesn't like the "New" Super Mario Bros. name either', or "Voice of Fox McCloud reportedly upset by fan reaction to his Smash Bros. voice', or 'Treehouse Employee equates Miyamoto's directorial direction to 'sausage being made''. That last one was not even followed up on, which by itself is an affront to journalism altogether.
The broaching of these topics seem shocking to anyone who follows the company, but contrasted to the general landscape of the gaming developer world et al., perhaps not as shocking as one might think.
In the past, indie developers have carved an entire business model out of transparent, two way communications with consumers, not least of which are the exploits of many indie game makers like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish. (Heck, you can watch an entire documentary just about their own neuroticism.)
Titans of industry have more at stake, but crucial figureheads like Gabe Newell of Valve have over the years provided many anecdotes regarding intimate company policy, while industry veterans like Tim Schafer, Peter Molyneux and Warren Spector, among many others, are perpetual chatterboxes regarding their creative processes and bureaucratic observations.
This does not mean a multi-billion dollar corporation should play fast-and-loose with company transparency. But talking about general company reasoning and interesting creative anecdotes shouldn't be so taboo.
Over a time, Nintendo has in some ways lifted its iron-clad grasp on those who work for the Big N. A quick Google search of higher-up Nintendo employees will net you the personal Twitter accounts of spokespeople who speak candidly on various personal topics, political, or otherwise. Case and point: Bill Trinen and other Treehouse members are free to speak on social media regarding personal politics here in the year 2015, where in an episode ten years prior, Nintendo had sent Suicide Girls, an adult website, a cease and desist letter simply because a forum member listed "Metroid" and "Zelda" under her favourite games on her profile. Progress.
In the same vein, the late Satoru Iwata's very own "Iwata Asks" column shed a personal light on development stories not at all unlike the ones shared on that podcast. When Pranger spoke about localization issues of puns between Nintendo and NOA, one could imagine that identical conversation having happened on Nintendo's very own self-published media channel.
But holding sway is the line between wanted attention on these issues - from a corporate standpoint - and the ability to speak more freely as both a passionate creator and a fan regarding what you do for a living. Under the current structure of Nintendo's corporate policies, almost certainly was Pranger at fault; If anything, an employee should not so hastily cast an impassioned Sakurai under such an unflattering light.
But should Nintendo be so tightlipped about why a game like Xenoblade Chronicles is a dicey proposition, anyway? Would conveying to the consumer that the costs and expected audience for certain games is out-of-whack be a worse proposition than coming across as a monolithic, out-of-touch collection of suits that fans thought needed an intervention?
This fan to American Nintendo President Reggie on the streets of New York City in 2012: "Can you make the next handheld region free, because I have Project X Zone and I can't play it because I need $300 to import the Japanese DS."
Reggie: "…Um, Uhhhh….sorry…about that."
There is a space that exists between corporate conduct and personal gossip that serves a valid purpose. Pranger's breathless words felt as shocking as a cannonball into an ice-cool pool only because Nintendo so often keeps its sometimes strange reasonings out of sight of their fans and investors. But unfortunately for the company, some of these things do not then remain out of mind.
Though Pranger's terms of employment evidently included a clause that had been breached, this is still a regrettable matter that many of us empathize towards. Prangar still maintains an image as a likable figure, despite this strange episode.
But whenever the company is in a board room meeting hashing out ways to better reach their consumers, one can hope canned twitter speech and highly pre-meditated viral videos are not their only weapons of choice within a sub-culture that is more interconnected than ever before.