Famitsu Special Report – The Mystery of TOSE

The Mystery of TOSE

(The following is a translation from the 04/13/2017 issue of Famitsu magazine)

This is the real story behind TOSE: The game development company that’s been making games for nearly 38 years (since 1979), but hardly any gamers know.

The Story of the Biggest and Most Beloved Japanese Contract Development Company That’s Worked on 2257 Different Games

TOSE logoBack in February, Editor in Chief and author Hayashi went to an office in a business district in the Karasuma area of Kyoto. His destination was the biggest Japanese game development company, TOSE: An independent contract development company. Particularly amazing was the materials room hidden within, shown to us by CEO Shigeru Saitou: The over 1000 games that TOSE developed (excluding digital games) were all lined up in that narrow space. Saitou remarked “It’s unfortunate that we can’t show everyone all of the software that we’ve developed”. As previously mentioned, TOSE develops games under contract from publishers, so they’re rarely able to publicize the games that they develop due to contracts with their clients. Even editors in video games media don’t know very much about them. Our Editor in Chief even remarked “Huh? TOSE made that game too?!” several times. What lied there was truly a new history of video games from the Famicom era to the present, unknown to anyone.

In this report we will focus on TOSE, and show just what sort of business they are. We can’t reveal anything more than the nature of their business, but we believe that we’ll be able to further deepen the average gamer’s understanding of this major company in the industry that has been practically unknown to them.

The History of TOSE Software

  • 11/1979 – TOSE was established as a company in Kyoto, split off from Toa Seiko. They began developing and manufacturing game components for business use, such as arcade cabinets
  • 08/1982 – Began developing home console games
  • 04/1983 – Switched to exclusively developing home console games
  • 04/1984 – Began developing Famicom games
  • 04/1990 – Expanded to developing Game Boy and Super Famicom games
  • 02/1999 – Moved into design/development for mobile applications on NTT DoCoMo’s I-Mode, and website design/administration
  • 08/1999 – Listed on the Osaka and Kyoto secondary stock exchanges
  • 09/2000 – Listed on the Tokyo secondary stock exchange
  • 08/2001 – Appointed to the Tokyo and Kyoto primary stock exchanges
  • 04/2008 – Formed a new company Librica in order to do development/administration for a digital comic distribution service of the same name

What Creating Content For Contract Developer TOSE is Like

TOSE supports the entertainment industry as a developer that handles IPs from a lot of other game companies. Below we’ve collected details on their business model and attention to detail toward developing content. As you can see, TOSE not only develops home console games but has widely expanded their business into other areas as well.

Interacting With End Users Through Clients: TOSE’s Business Model

Client Requests and Developing Content

The diagram below depicts the sometimes difficult to understand flow of contract development. Basically publishers that would like to have a game created contract TOSE, and they create a game based on those plans. Development costs, administrative costs, and royalties are paid to TOSE, and TOSE supplies the publisher with design, development and administrative services. End users pay the publisher to obtain those games, and for most of them there’s no point in knowing the developer that actually created the game.

A diagram of TOSE's business model

Creating Different Types of Content, From Game Software to Mobile Applications

As you can see from the diagram of their business model, TOSE develops a wide variety of content. Game development makes up most of their work, but TOSE has developed 2257 titles (as of 11/30/2016) in the 38 years since their establishment. This includes 1032 console games, 940 mobile games, along with 285 arcade games and other types of content. TOSE’s activities also include those from clients outside of game software development: Systems development for web focused businesses, smart phone application development, pachinko and pachi-slot, and application development for publications and advertising agencies.

The Secrets of Excellent Content Development Supported by 38 Years of Know-How

Asking the Staff About Their Attention to Detail in Game Development

As we’ve shown, TOSE develops a wide variety of content not limited to game software. They are a one-stop-shop for services from design, to development, to administration.

The Director of Development, here referred to as Mr. I (TOSE has a policy of not making the names of their staff publicly available, so we use initials here), stated “As a business with a great software development record, we have many experts in planning, programming, design and sound”, as he introduced us to the wide variety of capable individuals on staff across different fields. Mr. K of the planning division within the same development department stated “Our development staff spans many generations, from older veterans to young people. The veterans have accumulated experience with various technologies, whereas the younger employees have endless amounts of strength and new points of view. This meeting of the superior skill sets of our team and unique ideas are TOSE’s strong point”, as he spoke of the strong points of their development processes.

In regards to TOSE’s attention to detail in game development, project manager/director for console games division Mr. W stated “We develop with the utmost focus on quality”, moving on to comment “The thing that I focus on most myself, is always being aware of and keeping planning as the basis for development”. Many ideas come about during the course of game development and the amount that the staff wants to accomplish grows. In regards to this Mr. W stated that “In some cases, those ideas will actually be detrimental to the overall direction of the game. In order to not stray from the direction that we want to head in, I take great care to make sure that we don’t lose track of what we want to present to the end user and always keep the concept of the title in mind”. Mr. S, primarily responsible for project management of development and administration for smart phone games and applications, explained “The point that I like to emphasize is whether or not we’re developing in a way that will support successful administration or maintenance afterward” in regard to development of these types of games. The game begins service from time of development, so maintenance must be carefully considered from the start. Mr. S noted that “Even so, “It will definitely sell better if we do this!” isn’t always the right answer in game development. We keep the ability to improve the application during maintenance in mind when developing.” He also spoke to us about lessons he’d learned from experience, saying “If the staff themselves don’t develop the game with a sense of fun, then it won’t be a game that end users will have any fun with either. We think of games from the end user’s perspective, and make every effort to approach development with those same feelings.”

It seems as though “end user perspective” has become a key phrase in TOSE’s development department, and Mr. T (of said department) said “We take great care to develop with the end user perspective in mind. When development carries on for a long period of time, consideration tends to shift toward the company and making development more convenient. We’re always conscious of whether or not what we’re creating will make the end user happy”. COO Yasuhito Watanabe also speaks about this in the upcoming interview, but this seems to be a fundamental way of thinking within TOSE.

Developers Talk About the Reality of TOSE’s Creative Process Amidst Joys and Sorrows

As we’ll touch on in the coming examples, it’s generally not revealed to the public when TOSE works on a game. However, amidst the 2257 titles that they’ve worked on, there are examples in which the publisher has made known that they were developed by TOSE. We present some of those rare examples below, and we’ve spoken to their creators about their impressions of working with TOSE.

The Legend of Starfy

Published by fellow Kyoto game company Nintendo. TOSE’s name appears in the credits.

Nintendo x JOYSOUND Wii Karaoke U

Nintendo x JOYSOUND Wii Karaoke U – Also a Nintendo title. It was surprising that TOSE had so much know-how when it came to karaoke.

Example 1: Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 3 Professional (02/09/2017 by Square Enix)

“TOSE has worked on games in the Dragon Quest Monsters series since the Game Boy Color original, so we’ve had a close relationship with them for close to 20 years now. Their office was in the Shijou Oomiya area of Kyoto, and I took my shoes off and changed into slippers even though the building looked like a textile shop. It was a very interesting experience. I think there was a conference room that had sliding paper doors and a traditional alcove? It had a very Kyoto feel to it, and I remember being very impressed (laughs).” (Taichi Inuzuka, Producer at Square Enix)

Example 2: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (3DS Version) (08/27/2015 by Square Enix)

“We have a long history working with TOSE on titles such as “Rocket Slime” and “Dragon Quest VIII”, so TOSE is like a second home to me. When it comes to game development, they’re a very distinguished developer with a strong sense of stability. I love the fact that I can trust them completely with any task, large or small (Is this me confessing my love for them?). Their Kyoto intonations make me feel at ease, as if they’d cast a Heal spell on me!” (Noriyoshi Fujimoto, Producer at Square Enix)

Example 3: World of Final Fantasy (10/27/2016 by Square Enix)

“TOSE has handled a lot of development work for us, but this was the first project I worked with them on as a director. Working with them on this project was very interesting, because they put together a team with a lot of people who felt quite a bit of love for the Final Fantasy series. They surprised me with a lot of their hits, and when I’d purposefully throw them a wild pitch with some of my requests, they showed me some gutsy plays in which they hit it right back at me! They’re a very serious and passionate developer.” (Hiroki Chiba, Director at Square Enix)

Example 4: Monster Strike (3DS Version) (12/17/2015 by XFLAG)

“When I think of TOSE, I think of veteran developers, and my impression of them was always that they were a very reliable company. But when you pull back the curtain, they’re certainly serious, but many their planners and directors like to joke around. They’re certainly very amusing and lighthearted creators. Creating entertainment should be fun, after all! Putting the finishing touches on it with them was great too. TOSE would say “We’d like to put this in, but what do you think!?”. And I’d say “That sounds great! Let’s put it in!” (laughs).” (Koki Kimura, Director & GM at XFLAG Studio)

Asking Two Key People About TOSE’s Past, Present and Future

TOSE, Japan’s largest independent contract developer, has been supporting the game industry from the shadows for many years. But what are the key policies for running this kind of business? We asked CEO Shigeru Saitou and COO Yasuhito Watanabe these important questions.

CEO Shigeru Saitou and COO Yasuhito Watanabe

CEO Shigeru Saitou and COO Yasuhito Watanabe

TOSE Has Actually Worked on Many Significant Titles Throughout History

I think that there may be some readers who have never heard of TOSE. Could you please explain once more just what your company does?

(Saitou) To sum up, we strive to be the number one contract, planning, and development company. We’ve been a major force in the background of game history for the last 37 years.

TOSE has been around since 1979, so since before the Famicom launched, right?

(Saitou) It was the second year of Space Invaders’ life, so it was the heyday of arcade games. Our former parent company had done some work with electronics, but they made Space Invaders cocktail cabinets on the side. I was a student studying psychology at that time, and I did circuit board repair work as a part-time job. I got a job at that parent company after that, and while they did arcade work it was in a completely different division, and we spun that division off into its own company. And that’s when TOSE began, with only 5 employees.

TOSE didn’t originally start as a game developer, but rather a arcade cabinet manufacturer, right?

(Saitou). That’s right. Space Invaders started losing popularity soon after, so we started thinking that we should start developing our own games. So we drew up our first design document. We took it to a publisher, but that was our motive for starting game development. We switched all of our business over from arcade game hardware design to software development. I did game design, planning, and even music composition (laughs).

You even did the music composition yourself? (laughs)

(Saitou) Those games were selling very well, and I thought “Wow, this is really working”. At any rate, we developed arcade games for awhile, and then moved into console game development in 1982. Then the Famicom came out the following year.

Were you already involved with Nintendo at that point?

(Saitou) No, not at all. The CPU in the arcade hardware that we had developed for was a rather uncommon one called the “6502”. As luck would have it, that’s the CPU that Nintendo used in the Famicom as well.

So you already had development know-how when the Famicom was released. Mr. Watanabe, were you already working at TOSE at this point?

(Watanabe) Yes, I was a part-time employee.

(Saitou) He was a programmer.

So then both of you were directly involved with game development originally, and not on the business side?

(Saitou) We didn’t have that many people on staff at that point, so everyone just sort of did everything! (laughs) Operations, business, planning…

So then the CEO himself did the planning for the games, pitched them to different game publishers, and actually made the games as well?

(Saitou) That’s right.

Just a moment ago you showed me all of the games that TOSE worked on, and I was shocked. There are a bunch of titles from the Famicom era that anyone who likes games from that time would know…Do you ever get credited for the work you do?

(Saitou) Well (laughs), apart from a select few titles, such as the Dragon Quest Monsters series from Square Enix, we don’t.

And what might the reason for that be?

(Watanabe) A lot of them are due to contracts with the publishers, but during the Famicom era it was because there just weren’t that many development companies. So when the credits rolled, it was possible some of those people would get snapped up by other companies.

Looking at the lineup, people have played so many of TOSE’s games over the years without even realizing it, haven’t they?

(Saitou) I’m just glad that they’ve played them. There were a lot of times when games we worked held over half of the spots in the top 10 best-selling games in Famitsu and Famimaga (laughs).

Oh really!?

(Watanabe) There was a week when we had the top three spots.

That’s amazing. But to think that a large portion of gamers don’t know that TOSE developed these games…Normally when you send a creation off into the world, how well it’s regarded is the motivation for your next one. Aren’t you ever frustrated by not being credited?

(Saitou) Well, at best that would have been having our names in the credits in kana or something (laughs).

In kana! (laughs)

(Saitou) That’s how the names of the creators and such were written then. The staff that help with development are always happily watching how our software is regarded, even if their names don’t appear in the credits. I myself was involved in developing hundreds of games, but I’ve never thought of my name being attached as a creator.

Even though you took historically important Famicom games like “XXX” (Editor’s note: It was a popular early Famicom action game) from planning to development.

(Saitou) That’s right (laughs). My name isn’t anywhere in the history of game creators.

What is Contract Game Development Like?

Mr. Watanabe, has anything changed in regards to the way you dealt with game companies between then and now?

(Watanabe) Back then our clients didn’t know too much about how to make a game. They would supervise, but for the most part they left the development part to us. Basically, the team would work with instruction from someone supervising on behalf of the game company. I say team, but it was really more like a single programmer and another person for support.

That was back in the Famicom days, right?

(Watanabe) That’s right, though it was still like that at the beginning of the Super Famicom era too (laughs).

(Saitou) We’d make arrangements for someone from our client’s organization to come here to Kyoto, so for them it was very convenient (laughs). And we really strived to build a company that offered those sorts of conveniences.

That’s very interesting.

(Saitou) Whenever something got popular, we’d get requests to make games about it. When golf was popular, we got a lot of requests for golf games. Thinking back on it, someone here who was in charge of making a golf game had never actually played golf before. So we took him to a nearby golf course, and he played for the very first time (laughs).

(Laughs)

(Saitou) After that we got a lot of requests to make games featuring licensed characters. We’d write up the requirements documentation and give it to them, and the game would be completed while it was being passed back and forth for feedback.

And how do you interact with your clients now?

(Saitou) We do it in mostly the same way. However the amount of requests for certain things have increased over time. For example, we might be asked to do just the cut-scenes and music for a game. For a social game we may be asked to do just the design, or to simply help out with it. It only happens maybe once a year, but some developer will go out of business, and their game is brought to us to finish from there. We will take projects that get stuck in development. This is something that happens periodically (laughs). We gain the trust of game companies by solving those problems, and it increases our customer base. We have a long history of that.

I see (laughs). How many staff members are currently working at TOSE?

(Watanabe) Counting contract and off-shore employees, about 1000 people in total.

How many titles has TOSE worked on up until now?

(Watanabe) That number is increasing all the time, but we’ve worked on 2257 released titles as of now.

That’s a ridiculously large number! (laughs)

(Watanabe) A lot of them were from back when we were making games on NTT DoCoMo’s I-Mode platform. We were making over 100 titles per year.

Over 100 titles per year!?

(Saitou) We made ringtones and I-Mode compatible sites too, it really helped out with the size of our catalog. Together with Mr. Natsuno (Takeshi Natsuno, the father of I-Mode), we really helped to expand the I-Mode platform.

So you got those sorts of jobs as well! TOSE grew and developed in many ways, but what policies have you had in place since the beginning?

(Saitou) Well we put things together by “working behind the scenes”. Then we finish things to their utmost completion. We don’t abandon projects halfway through, and put everything we have into them. We have a big development staff, so if some of them are getting stuck on something, we can call in others from somewhere else and get the problems resolved. Even if that drives up the cost, it’s no problem because it will earn us trust.

There are a lot more smart phone games out there right now, so has TOSE’s smart phone development increased?

(Saitou) It’s definitely increased, though it still isn’t even quite half of our workload.

(Watanabe) As we said previously, mobile games were a big success for us back on the I-Mode platform. But when social games were introduced, we weren’t really able to accept requests for them at first, and we got a late start in that area. The scope of smart phone game development is constantly growing, and we’ve been getting more and more requests for them.

(Saitou) The busiest times for us were when platforms like the Famicom and Playstation had grown popular. Game companies would start looking for outside help to develop titles.

(Watanabe) Because we’ve acquired a lot of staff and knowledge, we take a lot of work for smart phone games now. In a year or two, they very well may switch places with console games in terms of sales.

I think it’s amazing that you’re getting so many new clients, even in the era of smart phones.

(Saitou) At any rate, we’re equipped to accept requests from all clients. Our talented staff is more than prepared, and they’re always prepared to respond positively to any client requests. In the event that we can’t handle it within our company, we’re able to call in help from others.

That’s a very good strong point to have. What methods do you use to ensure quality and to always be improving your processes?

(Watanabe) In the case of smart phone games, we make sure that we have staff that takes into account feedback from the marketplace and users, since you have to create a product like that with maintenance in mind. In the case of console games, it’s a very different way of thinking. You have to be able to feel the mood of the market, while managing constantly changing conditions.

(Saitou) On the technical side of things, each of our sections has a training program. People who can work independently do so, while accomplishing various tasks. Having training available is important to us, since we’re a company with a long history. What’s more, not much has changed within our company, so it’s very easy to acquire knowledge. The only change is usually with our clients. When departments or whole companies change things around, our clients will often increase (laughs). And managing that by myself for the first twenty years was quite a task.

Wait, you managed that by yourself?

(Saitou) We didn’t really have anyone to handle just the management aspect. I’m very grateful that we’re in Kyoto, and that Nintendo is so close by. We visit one another (laughs).

That’s definitely another advantage that you have (laughs)! By the way, has there ever been any conversation around what it might be like to be a publisher as well?

(Saitou) Our clients often ask us that same question. We’ve gotten used to doing things this way, so we just tell them that we wouldn’t do that (laughs).

But you could do it if you tried. Curiously, what’s made you decide not to do it?

(Saitou) We certainly could do it if we tried. However, we’d be competing with our clients if we released games ourselves. But even more importantly, we’ve seen that publishers can go through some bad times. They aren’t always lucky enough to release hits. We’ve always been in the black for our entire 37 years as a company, and we have no plans to change that now. Also Kyoto is an area in which it’s generally thought of as very important to to continue a successful business. Once things go bad, it can be difficult to recover. There are a good number of long standing businesses in Japan, that have been going for over 100 years. You aren’t a successful business if you can’t stay around for that long.

So in this case, your location matters, right?

(Saitou) There are mostly B to B companies in Kyoto. When it comes to more global B to C companies, even when you include Nintendo, there just aren’t nearly as many. Even though there are a lot of global manufacturers of electronic parts, and various other materials.

It may be a cultural characteristic.

(Saitou) That’s right. That’s why I think our business is so well suited to Kyoto.

Strategies for Non-Game Focused Areas

You also have a lot of business that has to do with distribution of digital publications, or other non-game focused areas.

(Saitou) We designed a distribution service for digital publications aimed at the Nintendo 3DS, and collaborate with publishers on it.

(Watanabe) If we don’t expand our business into other areas, we won’t be able to increase our technological knowledge. Getting into digital publications taught us how the world of publication works, and we learned how the entertainment industry works through a service called “Take Out Live”. When we come up with our next idea to expand our business, I think we’ll be able to make use of that knowledge there as well.

When it comes to game developers, I think they’re typically thought of as conservative in terms of expanding into new areas. But that obviously isn’t the case here.

(Watanabe) We have plans to augment our design ability considerably as well. We’re making use of staff with desires to be manga creators or animators, which we haven’t really done up until now. They can do character design, come up with stories, and do all of the art themselves.

They certainly may have a high level of general creativity. This isn’t really related, but could you talk about how you’d like to see TOSE develop from your individual perspectives?

(Saitou) Every genre of entertainment has people who work behind the scenes, just like with console and mobile games. I’d like to be number one in all of those genres. I imagine that with our development know-how we could become something of an advertising agency, but for creative solutions. Though that certainly won’t be an easy thing to achieve. We may not even be able to achieve it in my lifetime, but I’d like for that to be a goal.

(Watanabe) I think it’s necessary to be more aware of the concept of “Internet of Things”. We’ve made console games our focus, but when making mobile games it’s necessary to use things like databases and servers that weren’t a part of game development until fairly recently. So I think we have to look for the business possibilities in those surrounding areas. Not just simply with game contents, but with product websites and CG movies. I’d like to be able to accept requests from outside of the game industry, so we need to prepare to do that.

It sounds like you’d both like to be able to turn this into a company that can do anything related to entertainment (laughs).

(Saitou) That’s the general idea.

Lastly, what message do you have for the readers that will only have heard of TOSE for the first time from reading this article?

(Saitou) I thought that this industry would end at any moment back when I started this company, so we were very lean at first. But of course it didn’t end at all, rather it turned into an industry that has made me feel it can continue on forever. It’s absolutely an industry that will grow as it changes in all sorts of ways, from here on out. TOSE is able to create content for all sorts of genres, for all sorts of clients. You may think that game development companies can only create games, but that isn’t necessarily the case. For example, VR technology is also used in the housing industry, and could be put to good use in the tourism industry. The presentation and techniques that we’ve cultivated through game development can be utilized in user interface design for other types of industries. My real intent behind saying this is that I’d like students who are interested in these things to join TOSE as staff, and help create all sorts of different content (laughs).

(Watanabe) We proactively participate in events sponsored by game companies that observe trends in development and the marketplace. And at those events we feel the amazing passion of users for each individual title. I believe it’s necessary to pay attention to user trends and feedback in order to make even greater games than before. Our development staff shares these same feelings, so please continue to support TOSE’s game development.

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