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Studio Tour: Namco Bandai

Welcome to the Pac-mansion

This article originally appeared in the latest issues of Xbox World and PSM3.

Japanese game studios are notorious for being built around efficiency, not aesthetics. Remove all the controllers and consoles and most of their offices could pass for accounting or engineering firms. Colour schemes are a universal smudge of beige and grey and white - nothing distracting, nothing eye-catching.

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Namco Bandai's new headquarters - standing proud in a tree-lined street in Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo - feels like a palace by comparison. Walking into its vast, A-shaped atrium (the whole building's an A-shape) makes a powerful first impression. In the country that invented the pod hotel, so much wide-open space feels more than a little extravagant.

How fitting that one of the first things we see is a cluster of vintage Pac-Man arcade cabinets; after all, it was Pac-Man that cemented Namco's reputation for the Midas touch during the arcade scene's 1980s golden age. Their chirping blends into the sigh of a formal waterfall that spills around a peculiar stone structure - hidden within it, we discover, is a lavish screening room.

The lobby's music-free atmosphere is of almost zen calm. It's hard to imagine any work occurring at all, as all bustle and activity is sequestered behind card-key security doors.
Turns out it's impossible to go anywhere in Namco Bandai's headquarters without bumping into Pac-Man iconography. Even the inside of the lift is lined with dots, pills and Pac-Man ghosts. This is a company that obviously has a great deal of pride in its legacy.

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But don't be fooled - it's not all nostalgia. Modern, big-budget games are developed here, and today's tour takes us to the eighth floor, where Namco's two renowned fighting teams (Tekken and Soulcalibur) are hard at work. The lead Project Soul designers - siphoned off to develop new games following the brief retirement of the series - are back to work on Soulcalibur.

FIGHTING TALK

Namco's fighter floor consists of a vast rectangular staff pit surrounded by a path lined with test cabinets (networked to the same Tekken.Net service that links Japanese arcades), trophies and the desks of project leads. The pit packs the staff along tight, factory-like rows; filing cabinets cap each row under crowds of toys and trinkets - the relative sterility of the lobby is not universal.

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Most workers are Japanese, but we notice the occasional Westerner; Tekken series director Katsuhiro Harada says they're important for their different cultural perspectives. The theme of honouring your roots surfaces once more as Harada insists on showing off a control box from the very first Tekken arcade machines. This plain-looking box is the nerve centre of the arcade cabinet - just as this unassuming floor is a nerve centre for Namco operations.

It's almost an object lesson for appraising any studio: it's the work that goes on inside, not the sexiness of the exterior, that counts the most. Namco Bandai, however, is lucky enough to enjoy both.

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