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Developer’s Den: Working Designs

Though not exactly a developer, yet much more than a publisher, Working Designs will forever be known as one of the top software companies for the Sega-CD. At the very least, Working Designs was a fantastic localization team. At the very most, Working Designs changed the way video games were translated, marketed, packaged, and sold. The company would seek out quality (and some times quirky) Japanese games that just begged for a stateside release. They would translate the games, fix any outstanding issues, and release them to a loyal fan-base. Each newly announced project was met with more and more anticipation, and the company quickly earned a reputation for quality.

Working Designs will be remembered by gamers as a game company, yet it was originally intended to develop accounting software. The direction of the company changed, though, in 1988 with the hiring of Victor Ireland. Probably the most important figure in Working Designs’ history, Victor was hired to continue programming on the accounting software, but his interests lay in gaming. In 1989 he pitched the idea of localizing PC-Engine games to company president Sylvia Schmitt. She agreed, and as they say, history was made.

Our Games Go To 11!

As a newly formed publisher for Hudson’s fledgling Turbografx-16, Working Designs debuted their first translation in the form of Parasol Stars. The game was well received and reviewed, but it wasn’t until the release of Cosmic Fantasy 2 in 1992 that Working Designs began to stand out from other publishers. Cosmic Fantasy 2 was a lighthearted RPG for the Turbografx-16 CD-ROM featuring the standard gameplay of its time. What separated the game from others was a charming story that featured a great translation (no Engrish here) and good voice acting, thanks to the new CD medium. Because the pickings were so slim for RPGs during this period, fans fully embraced Working Designs’ effort. This was also the first time gamers were exposed to some of the witty humor and pop-culture references that the company would later be known for. Ireland and co. quickly followed up with two other memorable RPGs for the Turbografx-16 CD, EXILE and EXILE 2: Wicked Phenomenon and then migrated to the Sega CD.

Put simply, Working Designs was the most important publisher for the Sega CD. In a relatively short period of time, it released Lunar: The Silver Star, Vay, and Popful Mail. All three were solid titles that really gave gamers a reason to own the pricey add-on. The first Lunar was regarded as an instant classic. It featured Working Designs’ best translation and voice acting yet, as well as a handful of wonderfully animated cut scenes that further enhanced the story. Add to this an amazing soundtrack, and there’s little mystery as to why it was the best selling Sega CD title until 1995. The game cemented Working Designs’ legacy as a top RPG publisher and a pioneer in utilizing the CD medium.

Of course, in 1995 Working Designs outdid itself with the release of Lunar: Eternal Blue. The second Lunar featured a longer quest, more animated cut scenes (which were larger and more detailed), and even better voice acting work. The game was Working Designs’ swan song for the Sega CD, and the great effort put into the translation was acclaimed by fans and critics alike. It outsold its predecessor, becoming the most successful Sega CD game of 1995.

While supporting the Sega CD, Working Designs set a new trend in packaging games. Each one came with foil covers and bright, beautiful artwork. The idea was to stand-out while on store shelves. The company also attempted to appeal to the collectors in all of us by releasing different CD labels on its Lunar discs (seven in total). Later, it would expand upon this “premium packaging” idea by including extras such as soundtracks and hardbound manuals. It even offered exclusive collectibles as incentives to pre-ordering upcoming releases (the infamous Ghaleon punch-doll maybe the greatest extra ever offered). This is a practice that has grown exponentially in the last few years.

Working Designs continued its support for Sega well into the 32-bit console era, publishing six solid to stellar games. Dragon Force proved to be one of the most impressive selections on the Saturn, and Magic Knight Rayearth was the final game published in the U.S. for the short-lived console. Ironically, it had been one of the first titles announced for the Saturn in Japan, making this last release a fitting, if not sad, bookend for its run.

Change and Decline

Just as it had moved from Hudson to Sega, Working Designs so moved from Sega to Sony. It published six titles for the Playstation before turning its attention to three MAJOR projects, and its first title for the Playstation was Alundra, a game many people considered to be the spiritual successor to Sega’s classic Landstalker. This wonderful release was followed with several shmups under the short-lived Spaz label, a departure from the traditional RPG adventures Working Designs was known for. The company’s biggest offerings from this era were the incredible localizations of the Lunar remakes, two games that originally appeared in the Japan on the Saturn. Both were slated to come to the U.S. but were cancelled when the relationship between Victor Ireland and then-Sega president Bernie Stolar deteriorated. Reportedly, Ireland was incensed at Stolar’s implementation in June of 1997 of a “five star” policy governing domestic Saturn releases, and this was just the final blow in a war that had been raging between the two men since Stolar worked at Sony. According to Ireland, Stolar was the biggest roadblock to Working Designs’ getting the green light to publish certain titles. In a 1998 interview with Lunar.net, he had the following to say on the matter:

I’ll talk about Sony now, one thing people don’t understand about the whole Sega Sony thing. They are like, “you suck, you used to say Sony was the worst, you’d never go over to Sony, and as soon as there was money to be made you switched over to Sony.” They just don’t follow the fact that the reason we weren’t at Sony was because of Bernie Stolar, when Bernie Stolar came to Sega very shortly thereafter we made the switch to Sony, because he made it intolerable to be at Sega, just like he made it intolerable to even try to be at Sony. That was when the switch happened. People are like “you did it for the money,” No! We go were the games are, and we go were the people appreciate what we do, and the management at Sega just doesn’t get it at all.

Many argue that Stolar’s actions forced Ireland to drop support of the Saturn, but just as many are quick to point out that the latter had long been voicing his opinion that the Saturn was a dead platform, and that it was time to move on to greener pastures. The showdown with Stolar (along with the 1997 E3 booth debacle) could have given Ireland the excuse he needed to jump over to Sony’s camp.

Either way, Working Designs reaped the benefits of its new partnership with Sony and quickly released Alundra in 1998, selling more than 100,000 copies in just its first month. More Saturn ports followed, including the incredible Thunder Force V and Treasure’s Silhouette Mirage. The biggest and most famous products to come under the WD banner, however, were the aforementioned deluxe remakes of both Lunar titles. Each game came packaged with a myriad of extras including soundtracks, maps, making-of disks, and other collectibles. The group’s final publication for the Playstation came in the form of 2002’s Arc the Lad Collection. This was a series of three games all packaged together in one release (Ireland had wanted to release the first game back in 1995 but was blocked by Stolar). Like the Lunar remakes, Working Designs again went all out with its extra content. While fans of the company rejoiced at this marvelous release, it can also be marked as the beginning of the company’s demise.

Too little, Too late.

After releasing only three games for the Playstation 2, including the mega-collection Growlanser Generations, Working Designs went out of business. On December 12th, 2005 Victor Ireland posted this statement on the Working Designs website regarding the closure:

First of all, sorry for being incommunicado for such a long time. It’s been a busy time, as you’ll see.

There’s no easy way to say it, so I just will. Working Designs is gone. All the staff has been laid off and the office is closed and has been for some time. Yes, the website is still here, and I am going to do my best to keep it tucked away somewhere on the ‘net so it doesn’t become an illicit domain. (Of course, some of the haters may be of the mind that it’s been illicit all along, heh!).

The most frustrating part of all of this is that I know that our fanbase is still there. Growlanser Generations sold well, but of course not better than it would have sold as two separate titles. We just spent too much time fighting the good fight to even get it out, and other games approved.

Though almost finished and substantially improved from the Japanese release, Goemon is dead for the US, and that was really the final straw. If I can’t guarantee that the games I personally choose for us to release in the US can actually get approved and come out, there’s no business to be done. There is a possibility that it may be released in Europe (as well as Growlanser Generations), but nothing is finalized yet.

I know many of you will have lots of questions, and there will be some I can answer, and some I can’t. Sony has made it clear that they do not want the details of their dealings with any publisher made public. Suffice to say that you would buy what we wanted to sell if we could sell it.

I want to thank each and every one of you personally for being a fan, buying the games we released, and telling your friends. You HAVE made a difference, because you bought the crazy things we did. Thanks to YOU, there are deluxe packs, pack-in soundtracks, better packaging, great hint guides, and better localizations in general. We said it a lot, but it really was true. We were nothing without you.

For the future, there are still great opportunities. I have been in touch with a number of other publishers and manufacturers and I will be working with some of the WD staff to do games for other publishers for the time being, but not as Working Designs. One thing that holds a ton of promise is xbox 360 RPGs, and I’ve contacted Microsoft about getting what’s underway in Japan out in the US and helping to get more done worldwide. We’ll see what happens on that front, but please let them know that you want more RPGs here. There’s some amazing stuff coming for the ‘360 in Japan, and I know I want it – I think you will, too.

Thanks for everything. It’s a tough road ahead for games that aren’t of the least-common-denominator variety. The choices you make with your hardware dollars are more important than ever for the generation that is upon us.

With that, I bid all of us…

…Good night, and Good Luck.

The company’s exit was a blow to loyal fans around the globe. But what caused it? The decisions to release collections rather than individual games didn’t help on the business side of things, and constant struggles with Sony over publishing rights extended already over-delayed localization periods. This, along with high prices resulting from the premium packaging the company was known for, spelled disaster. Working Designs simply invested more in its games then gamers could give back. Sure, the loyal were there, but casual fans were not. Going out of business while attempting to give an enormous amount to your fans… you have to admit, it’s one hell of a way to go out.

There is Still Hope

Although Working Designs is now a dead company, its influence is still felt. Localizations are serious business now, and no longer are U.S. gamers subject to lazy translations which could render a game incomprehensible. More RPGs then ever are making there way to our shores as well. Working Designs proved that quirky Japanese games could sell well in America, and fellow pioneer Atlus continues that trend today. Speaking of trends, it’s now very popular to offer both collectibles exclusive to pre-orders and special-edition versions of games. A couple great examples of this would be Konami’s recent Castlevania pre-order items (a full soundtrack and book filled with artwork and series retrospective) and the special edition of Halo 2 (which came with a DVD full of extras and a fancy metal case).

As for Working Designs itself, the name may be gone, but Victor Ireland is still around. Recently he revealed that he has begun a new company named “Gajinworks.” While little is known about the company so far, it is rumored that a number of former Working Designs employees have joined Ireland, and they have their eyes set on the Xbox 360. We can only hope that the magic of Working Designs will live on, but until we get some more solid information it’s really up in the air. For now, break-out the old Sega CD and pop in Lunar for the 200th time.

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Sources

  • Commodore Wheeler (real name unknown). Review: Cosmic Fantasy II. RPGFan. January 15, 1999.
  • Klepek, Patrick. Victor Ireland Starts New Company, Gajinworks. 1up. July 26, 2006.
  • Luedtke, John. The History of Working Designs. GamingWorld. September 9. 2002.
  • Meston, Zach & Arnold, J. Douglas. Interview with Victor Ireland. Popful Mail Official Strategy Guide. 1994.
  • Rudo & Webber. Interview with Victor Ireland. Lunar-net. 1998.

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