Keywords is becoming a lot more visible as a 6,000-person company for outsourcing game development. It recently added 45 more developers with the acquisition of Tokyo-based Wizcorp,, which, oddly enough, was run by a French man named Guillaume Hansali.
The deal was one of 11 acquisitions that added nearly 750 employees in the past year. While other game companies have been cutting back, Keywords has been expanding and bringing the lower costs of outsourcing to more game companies around the world.
With the Wizcorp deal, Keywords picked up developers with experience in mobile games and HTML5 technologies. I spoke with Hansali as well as Christopher Kennedy, regional managing director for Keywords Studios in Asia, in an interview. We talked about trends in both outsourcing and Japanese game development.
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Established in 2008, Wizcorp has provided game development as a service to Japanese publishers and developers including LINE, Square Enix, Avex, and Yahoo Japan.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me about the deal and what you guys are doing.
Christopher Kennedy: Keywords and Wizcorp have been talking together for a while about the potential of doing this deal. For some background, this is actually our second acquisition related to Ankama, a France-based games publisher. Three years ago we acquired their player support team, which was located in Manila, in the Philippines. It was a team of about 20 or 25 people. We took that over and provided the same continuous support to Ankama, and then built a larger business organically around that. We now have more than 700 people in the Philippines.
When we were looking at options to expand our engineering and art and development services, Japan was one of the most interesting places, most relevant places to do that. Obviously Japan has a long-standing history in games. The current market is very good for both traditional console and mobile. We were very interested in getting involved in Japan, developing games for Japanese clients.
When Guillaume and I met and started discussing things, it seemed like the perfect sort of deal. In Japan, Keywords currently has more than 300 people employed. It’s a very diverse team doing many different services. Roughly 40 percent of the team is Japanese. The rest is a mix of 20-plus other nationalities. Guillaume’s team at Wizcorp has a very similar feel to it. It’s about half Japanese and half a mix of other diverse talents. It felt like a very good match in terms of culture, and a way to bring development services into Keywords in Japan through an international team that would allow for quick synergies and easy synchronization. Our development team is currently very global, so Guillaume and his team offered a way to bring this team along with a lot of good communications.
Going ahead, while building on Wizcorp’s existing mobile development services, it allows us a number of ways to help grow the business and expand our engineering and art service offering globally. We can provide full Japan development services to Japanese clients locally. We’re also able to use the Wizcorp team as a product management hub where we can engage clients here locally in Japanese, and then through his team potentially outsource work to our other art or engineering services located in other parts of the world. Similarly, for western or Asian mainland or other non-Japanese clients, publishers who want to get their games in Japan, they’re able to be a bridge for that, speaking to the client in English and then working in Japan on full production.
There’s a lot of possibilities to expand, a lot of synergies. We’re already starting to make a lot of connections and get people at Wizcorp talking to people in the Keywords group. We’ll be doing a lot of client introductions soon as well.
Guillaume Hansali: Personally, I’ve known Keywords as a company for a few years, because I have a friend who’s been working at a studio that was acquired by Ankama three or four years ago. We had been part of the Ankama group for four years. Everything was fine, but Ankama was not necessarily the best — we had been exploring different synergies, different ways to work together over the years. A few of the projects we worked on together, there wasn’t much we saw for both of us going forward.
It made sense when we were approached by Keywords, because work for hire game development is something we’ve been doing for a very long time. That’s exactly the business we do. Very early on, in the very first discussions, we clearly understood that working with Keywords would make a lot of sense for us. Keywords would understand much more about our challenges and some of our constraints as a business.
We also see a lot of potential in terms of — we’ve been working for Japanese publishers and game developers for many years. We see clearly that we could be, potentially, a bridge to non-Japanese markets, to Europe and other western markets. We could provide a one-stop solution that’s not only development, but also localization and live operations in a lot of different countries and a lot of different languages. The fact that everything could be provided within one group would clearly be a very strong service offering.
From the get-go we were very excited. Now that it’s been officially announced and we’re starting to get in contact with a lot of different people within Keywords, which includes people from the sales division as well as leaders from different studios, that excitement is increasing. We see a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities.
GamesBeat: I wondered how a Frenchman started running a company in Japan. Can you talk about that?
Hansali: We started in 2008. Personally, I had been in Japan for a couple of years prior to that. I didn’t start in the gaming industry. I was an engineer, a systems engineer, and I worked mainly in web technologies. In 2008, at first, we were doing web development. As far as why Wizcorp started in Japan, I don’t know? I came in 2006 and I just loved it here. I didn’t see anywhere else where I wanted to work and start a business. Everything just made a lot of sense.
It was quite smooth, actually. Some people have found it very hard, but I found it very smooth and convenient to start a business in Japan. Obviously, it’s not easy to create your first portfolio and find your first customers, but I found that when you work hard and you try to provide good services, you can get off the ground.
GamesBeat: What was your biggest business in making games?
Hansali: It was mainly web development. We had a big interest in open source technologies and cloud computing, things like that. It was mainly oriented in that direction. We actually started making games in 2010. It was an HTML5 game, which made a lot of sense for us, because we had a strong web technology proficiency. At the same time, obviously we liked games. One of my associates at the time said, “Hey, we need to do this. It’s much more fun to make games than work on websites.”
The fact that it was HTML5 made a lot of sense for us because we had that capability. We had that technology. It made sense for us to start making games. As we started to work on more and more games, mainly HTML5 at first, within a couple of years we completely shifted and stopped doing anything else. Then we started to work on non-HTML5 games using Unity and other technologies.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have now that will go to work for Keywords?
Kennedy: In Japan, prior to the deal, we have 300 people employed, and then Guillaume’s team is adding another about 45 on top of that.
GamesBeat: Was it difficult to do a transaction like this in Japan, or is that not as hard as it used to be?
Kennedy: No, there’s no part of the acquisition that was difficult because it’s in Japan. There’s certainly a lot of paperwork required, physical copies, and stamping. You can’t get away with signing anything and sending over PDFs. But that’s about it. We took care of it with the help of our lawyers and getting everything couriered around.
GamesBeat: Is it 6,000 people that are at Keywords altogether?
Kennedy: Yes, during peak we have just over 6,000 employed in the company. It’s a very large group and it continues to grow. We always have to keep our presentation decks updated.
GamesBeat: You’ll be the world’s biggest game developer at some point.
Kennedy: [laughs] It would be good if we got there. We’ve certainly put a lot of energy in the last couple of years into development services. We’re traditionally known a bit more as a language services company, a translation company, but we’ve been working hard to take that tag away and show our clients and the market that we’re not only a language services company. We’re very much part of the core development process in games.
We’ve had a number of acquisitions on the engineering front, on the art front. We have a combination of dedicated art or engineering studios, but also studios like Wizcorps that have full development capabilities. They can create a concept for a game and take that all the way through production, release, live operations. If the client wants to outsource part of the development, we can do that as well. If our clients need a hit squad to go in and send a team of expert programmers to work on a specific part of their build, we can do that as well. We’re growing very quickly there. Our art and engineering teams are making up more and more of the group’s headcount.
GamesBeat: I’ve been writing stories about game development all over the world. For so many years, game development was very strong in Japan. Is it as strong today as ever, or has it changed recently in some way? Now that games are made in almost every country, is there anything different that Japan is specializing in?
Hansali: Obviously Japan has always been an interesting country in the sense of both the type of games, the type of content it’s been producing, as well as the way that people have been working. Maybe Japan is a bit different in the sense that game development hasn’t been considered a real profession with the proper training and proper curricula that you can find in western countries. In Europe and the U.S. you have reputable schools providing the kind of curriculum where you can learn all the steps to create games. Although you can see more and more of these schools here, the vast majority of people working in the game industry in Japan are people who’ve learned by making games.
It can sometimes be seen as a very — not necessarily disorganized, but very organic way of making games. It can be hard when, as a service provider, you work with a Japanese publisher or game developer, to first get a grasp of how they work creatively. They’re not necessarily very good at precisely explaining what they want or having very detailed specs. There’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of discussions and trying to understand what they want to achieve. It can be hard sometimes, because it’s not always easy to have an accurate estimation of the difficulty of the work.
It also feels like you’re sometimes much more a part of the creative process, though. Although it can be challenging, I feel it’s also very rewarding when you get it, when you finally say, “Okay, that’s where we’re going. That’s what they want.” They are very passionate people. Obviously they’re known to work very hard, and sometimes very long hours. But to be honest, we’ve found them to be very reasonable.
Kennedy: From my perspective, Keywords first opened offices in Japan at the end of 2009. We’re coming up on our 10-year anniversary this December. From a market perspective, the development scene has changed quite a lot. When we first opened up, the local mobile market was still at the edge of the futurephones. It hadn’t gone fully into iOS or Android yet. The mobile gaming scene — led by Gree, DeNA, and a couple of others — was still very Japan-focused. It was a very uniquely Japanese platform for phone-based games that didn’t get out of Japan very much.
Console gaming, as well, in the PS3 and Xbox 360 era — it wasn’t, let’s say, the highest point of Japanese console gaming either. There was a bit of trouble getting the programmers into that new hardware. All the platforms were very different at the time, between PS3, Xbox, and the Wii and WiiU. Getting SKUs across multiple platforms was more difficult than it is now. Mobile was very isolated in Japan, and then console gaming was also a bit less international than it is now.
In 2015 and 2016 onwards, I almost feel like there’s been a bit of a renaissance. We’ve seen both console and mobile gaming improve drastically, in terms of games coming into Japan and going out of Japan. The numbers are gigantic now for the games going out. You see a lot of multiplatform titles now. PlayStation 4 and Steam as well — we have more and more requests related to Steam now, whether it’s ports or testing or support for those games. Xbox still isn’t having too much of a footprint here, sadly, but seeing console and PC versions of a lot of triple-A games coming of Japan now is great. Those games are going global. They’re going into more and more languages than they used to. There’s a big drive for Asia as well as Europe.
In mobile games, we’ve seen Japanese games, fully native apps, and also HTML5 and other technologies, but they moved away from the futurephones a long time ago. The games are competing very nicely and doing well. It’s a booming market that continues to do well in Japan, but Japanese IP is also making a large impact in Asia and America and Europe. The free flow of games across different platforms and the growth of the Japanese IP is impressive.
Games are coming into Japan as well. There’s more and more of that happening. A few years ago you always heard the term “yo-ge” for a western game. They were treated very differently than the local games. But I hear that game less and less now. Western games are being received on a bigger scale here. It’s just part of the larger media that makes up the game industry. It’s just one more game to play.
I’ve seen a lot of changes out here, and all for the better. Even on the technology side — Japanese publishers, especially some of the big RPG companies, were famous for re-creating the game engine every single time. Now we see developers and publishers using the same engine across multiple titles. We see Unity and Unreal as middleware resources being used more often. It’s helping to keep the content coming out at a faster pace and a higher quality.