Working Designs

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Working Designs was a small, influential video game translation company that primarily operated from 1991 to 2004. Originally founded in 1986 as an office software developer, it shifted focus to translating Japanese video games starting with Parasol Stars for the TurboGrafx-16. While not their first RPG to be released, their first major success was the Sega CD game Lunar: The Silver Star in 1993. A critical and commercial success, it was also one of the first games to have a thorough "localization". Indeed, the Lunar series proved to be their most popular license, being their financial cornerstone through most of their existence.

Working Designs brought forth a great number of innovations to the field. Traditionally, Japanese video games were translated completely literally and by non-native English speakers, leading to... dubious results. Working Designs avoided this practice, choosing instead to rewrite portions of games that made little sense without a Japanese perspective. This also included the unimportant wandering NPCs in order to avoid Welcome to Corneria syndrome. Even before voice acting was common in video games, they had a full staff of decent-quality voice actors (an impressive feat considering they hired locally). Most importantly, though, they were the first company to really have a dedicated relationship with their fans. They would use high quality packaging and extras, and even release games with little commercial viability at the bequest of their fans.

They were not without criticism, though. One frequent criticism made against the company was their rewritten NPC dialogue. Working Designs often replaced trivial wandering NPC dialogue (itself usually either a Japanese-specific joke or just a vapid Welcome to Corneria) with their own brand of humor. Most of it was... a little immature, to say the least (such as turning the entire town of Meryod in Lunar into a bunch of inbred hicks ("Welcum ta Meryod! We're all family heer!")), but they also referenced a lot of American culture as well. The Sega CD version of Lunar: Eternal Blue was one of the biggest offenders in this regard. This rarely ever creeped into the regular game dialogue, which was kept as close to the original text as possible (if modified slightly to make more sense).

The other major criticism was that they rarely ever released their games in the original time frame given. This was usually due to the perfectionist attitudes of the staff, but often came about due to quality problems in the production of the packaging. Indeed, they went through dozens of companies to find one that would produce the cloth map that came with Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete at a reasonable quality and price. This was so prevalent that when Gungriffon Blaze was released on the first scheduled date, many reviews of it made sarcastic comments about it. One game was even delayed for nearly three years.

They also liked to change the game play in various ways; while usually this was beneficial, such as fixing major bugs, other times they were changed in ways that seemed to punish the gamer for not importing instead. Especially in Ray Storm where half the game was locked out on lower difficulty levels, and Silhouette Mirage where the game was made a good deal harder, causing much extra grinding unnecessary in the original.

Working Designs was not to last, however. Considering many factors, it was a miracle they lasted as long as they did. First, they didn't release games for the leading console of a particular generation until PlayStation in 1997 (well, one day before 1997). Initially, this was due to a reluctance to touch Nintendo due to their draconian Seal of Quality certification system. However, a larger feud started when Sony released the PlayStation, with Bernie Stolar in charge of the American branch. Stolar's refusal to allow any 2D games, RPGs, or "overly Japanese" games to be released in America made it intolerable for them to even try to work with Sony. Ironically enough, after SCEA fired Stolar, he found his way to the head of Sega of America, the company for which Working Designs was releasing games. Stolar's mishandling of the Sega Saturn in America and his "five-star game" policy (basically a slightly more lax version of what he had going at Sony) infuriated the developers for the Saturn, Working Designs included. This deprived Working Designs of access to many games they wanted to release over here and led to them dropping the system along with everybody else.

Ironically enough, though, it was perhaps Working Designs' dedication to their fans that did them in. One game with which they hemorrhaged a lot of money was Magic Knight Rayearth. Originally announced in 1995, it ended up being delayed nearly three years. The initial year's delay was for questionable reasons, but the two other years were undoubtedly due to Stolar's constant meddling. Even though the game was mostly ready for a long time, Working Designs had to fight an uphill battle with Sega of America to release the game. They finally succeeded... making it the last game released for the system by several months, long past any commercial viability. After relative success during the later PS 1 era, difficulty with Sony's approval process for the games they attempted to localize for the Playstation 2 led to them officially closing their doors in 2005.

Their legacy still lives on, though. It's now extremely rare to find a translation of anything (much less an RPG) that is of extremely low quality. Most games are now translated by native English speakers, which means that they are at least grammatically correct. And while most companies haven't really mimicked their self-referential humor, it still shows up in games from time to time, notably in Atlus, XSEED Games, and Nintendo translations.

Games published by Working Designs: