Working Designs was an American video game publisher that specialized in the localization of Japan-native RPGs, strategy games, and top-down shooters for various video game platforms. Though the company had published many 'cult hits', it was known best to fans as the long-time exclusive US publisher of the Lunar series. On December 12, 2005, Victor Ireland, President of Working Designs, announced via the company's message board that it was closing its doors. He has started a new company called Gaijinworks.
Console RPG advocacy
Working Designs was one of the few game publishers that attempted to bridge the cultural gap between the Japanese and American video game industries during the 1990s with an eclectic selection of releases from various genres. RPG genre games, in particular, were the most popular genre of console games in Japan during the 1990s, but were also viewed as being unmarketable in the United States at the same time. Working Designs would work towards bringing several of these titles to an English audience including the cult classic Lunar RPG series.
RPGs and anime became more commonplace in youth culture following the '90s with works such as Final Fantasy VII (Japanese release: January 1997, American release: September 1997) helping to bring Japanese-style RPGs more squarely into the gaming mainstream. Although the efforts of Working Designs to bring RPGs to American audiences during the 1990s and the early 2000s were ultimately eclipsed by the accomplishments of companies such as Squaresoft, Atlus, and Enix, they were still appreciated by a small but loyal fanbase of console RPG and anime fans.
Voice acting talent
Working Designs became known as one of the earliest American publishers to make use of full, spoken English dialogue in their products as voice acting was not a common feature in most mainstream games during the early 90's. The voice acting, made possible by their adoption of the emerging CD-ROM format, created a strong selling point that differentiated their titles from many publishers. This made a lasting impression on their audience with titles such as Cosmic Fantasy, Lunar, and Popful Mail becoming fan favorites.
While it was in operation, Working Designs became notorious within the industry for often changing their release dates producing postponements upwards of a year or more. The final Sega Saturn game released in the US, Magic Knight Rayearth, was delayed for over three years, even though the delay was unintentional.
Working Designs released their games with premium packaging, and as such, their games demanded a premium price. Intended at first to stand out from the crowd and later deliberately packaged to be collectors' items, the games were immediately recognizable and reflected the type of marketing that particularly popular title releases would sometimes enjoy in Japan. Some in the game industry and some gamers were frustrated by this approach, while others appreciated the special touches. Working Designs was among the first North American game publishers to apply foil stamps and extensive artwork to their packaging, and were supplying games with manuals printed and bound in full color with anime artwork and conceptual drawings from the game's design, at a time when a lot of manuals for games published in the USA were in greyscale. Also, every manual came with a written letter, presumably from Victor Ireland, describing the translation process and procedure of their games, usually found on the last page of the manual. Every edition of these notes closed with the signature phrase, "We're nothing without you!"
PlayStation editions of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete, and the Arc The Lad collection came with such accessories as hard-cover manuals, cloth maps, and omake boxes with cardboard stand-up figures, pendants, and other trinkets. The Growlanser Generations Deluxe edition comes with such extras as a deck of playing cards, a ring with a chain to wear it on, and a watch. These games were packaged in cardboard boxes which drew criticism due to these boxes being prone to shelfwear and overall fragile, making complete copies with unflawed boxes difficult to find, further spiking its second-hand value in addition to these games requiring all pieces for full collector price, because these inserts are often lost by the consumer.
The expensive packaging is often cited as one of the reasons for the company's demise, as they priced their products at a premium due to the included 'extras', which supposedly scared away casual gamers. But WD's final game, Growlanser Generations, was produced in both deluxe and standard editions, and demand for the deluxe edition greatly outstripped demand for the standard one. In fact, the profit margins on the deluxe extras were very high. Victor Ireland has often stated that the company's demise was not due to the packaging, but rather it was because Sony insisted that games they deemed "inferior" should be sold at a discount price, or bundled together. The extra profit Working Designs earned on the deluxe extras was not enough to offset the losses of time and money they incurred by selling two or more games for the price of one.
Including humor in games
Working Designs would also become known for their tendency to interject humor (sometimes crass) into their translations where none had existed within the original Japanese release. The jokes were usually Americanized and would often break the fourth wall with pop culture references and modern slang. Working Designs was particularly fond of referencing This Is Spinal Tap; their old company slogan, visible on some SegaCD releases, was "Our games go to 11!", and several games' translations subtly reference the film. This drew criticism from players believing the implied humor made the localization seem unnatural.
Many games published by Working Designs were often produced in low numbers and today, most of them are reasonably rare or difficult to acquire. Since the company's demise, it has been speculated that this was intended to drive up demand of their games and increase value among collectors. Many of the company's titles had short shelf life on retail and instead of issuing a price drop after a certain amount of time, production of their games ceased without notice and were no longer available.
Working Designs published games for the Sega CD and TurboGrafx-16/CD due to the appeal of the CD medium, instead of the more popular, but more expensive, silicon cartridge-based Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. When the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn arrived on the scene, Victor Ireland met with then-President of SCEA Bernie Stolar to discuss translating and publishing Sony's Japanese launch SRPG Arc the Lad. Stolar outright refused Victor, saying that RPGs were not the future, and said that WD's games didn't help the Sega CD and TGCD. This sparked a feud between Vic and Stolar, and Vic resigned his company to making Sega Saturn games, as the Nintendo 64 was considered to be too expensive to consider publishing on. When Sony eventually let go of Stolar, and Sega hired him, Victor finished up his Saturn projects and moved the company to the PlayStation, where they achieved some of the more notable successes in their history. And as a personal triumph, they finally managed to get the rights to Arc the Lad and its sequels, which Sony's new management insisted that they bundle together as one game. Vic's feud with Stolar led them to ignore Sega's Dreamcast console in favor of the PlayStation 2, but friction with Sony's approval process was starting to cost Working Designs money, and concerned fans wondered why Working Designs didn't move to the Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft Xbox. In fact, Victor had been pursuing the rights to titles on both consoles, but in a vicious cycle, kept finding himself outbid on the few titles that matched his company's skills. When asked why he passed on Lunar Legend for the GameBoy Advance, a title he already owned the right of first-refusal on, he said it was because the game was mediocre, and because he still disliked the expense of publishing cartridges. He initially dismissed the Nintendo DS, saying that although production costs had come down significantly, the high wait times were still costly, and endorsed Sony's PlayStation Portable, and may have been pursuing titles for that handheld. Upon his company's demise, he quietly withdrew his support of Sony's PSP, and voiced his support for the Xbox 360.
Due to a series of delays, approval snags, and sagging sales, Working Designs announced on December 12th, 2005 that the all existing staff had been laid off and the company was effectively kaput. Speculation on the reasons for why include the company's perceived inability or unwillingness to release games for non-Sony platforms since Magic Knight Rayearth for the Sega Saturn.
In a public statement posted on the message board hosted at Working Designs' official site, WD President Victor Ireland, though expressing much gratitude for strong core fan support over the years, stated that a series of complications related to the approval of upcoming games for the PlayStation 2 had created a loss of revenue from which the company would not be able to recover. Ireland however went on to express optimism that a possible publishing deal may occur in the future with the support of remaining WD staff, likely for Microsoft's latest platform, the Xbox 360. The statement ended by encouraging fans to contact Microsoft among other firms about their desire to see more titles like those which Working Designs had built its reputation on.
Company statement on closure
The following is a copy of the statement made by Victor Ireland on December 12th, 2005, announcing that Working Designs was ceasing operations:
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.