Working Designs, recognized as the earliest major vanguard for niche games and one to establish their viability within a tough market, passed away at some indeterminate date in late 2005, though its death was officially disclosed on December 12th. The company was 19.
Though the cause of death remains semi-obscured, it was sadly not entirely unexpected. Working Designs disappeared from everyone before its death, perhaps in response to what may be considered the world’s shabby treatment of it during its final years.
Last communication of Working Designs was on April 1st: an April Fool’s joke about a fictional new console by Irem, bespeaking the company’s near-obsession with humor that amused millions. After the company’s disappearance, the public almost expected the corpse to surface in the river next to Electronic Arts’ offices. Or maybe found stabbed in the liver by Square-Enix, of which Working Designs shared an indirect competition.
Victor Ireland — the manifestation of Working Designs’ heart, soul, and foul mouth — is now floating around after exiting Working Designs’ body, and where he’ll end up is known only to him.
But what can be seen is that he’s just as outspoken in death as he was in life, ever proud and boasting about the legacy Working Designs has left behind.
"Seeing the respect gamers get now from so many more companies than when we started," Ireland says of their greatest accomplishment. "Color manuals were a novelty, foil-stamping was unheard of, spell checking and proper grammar was amazing...now all of those things as well as deluxe packaging, soundtracks, great hint books, etc. are far more common. As a consumer and a gamer, I see the change and know that we were a driving force because we showed it could be done and made more than just our customers expect it."
He suggests that the death of Working Designs may have been self-inflicted, brought on not only by shrinking revenue, but also a lifetime of abusive partners.
"Doubling our costs and localization time and halving our profits in one fell swoop wounded us," says Ireland regarding its final release, Growlanser Generations, "Goemon not getting approved was the end."
Though many could foresee this kind of end for the company, the trajectory Working Designs would take after inception was on the opposite end of the predictability spectrum. Born in 1986 in Redding, California, where it would spend its life, Working Designs began as an accountant software company. After founder Todd Smith died unexpectedly, co-founder Sylvia Schmitt hired Ireland to complete Smith’s work.
"Well, the idea to get into game software came from me and grew out of my hobby, which was games, and specifically the import gaming scene," says Ireland, "Because I had been doing freelance reviewing on the side for game magazines, I made a number of good contacts in Japan and with some effort, things just progressed from there."
After a brief stay with NEC (they banged out four games), Working Designs split to Sega, in which it would find it’s most publicized and tumultuous relationship. After experimenting with the Turbo Grafx-16, the Lunar series would provide Working Designs a permanent fix.
Working Designs started to run into translation abuse problems, which it saw as an outlet for its frustration with the sorry state that game localizations (RPGs especially) were in. The company believed the art of translating didn’t have to be cut-and-dry. Gameplay tweaks, revised dialogue, and jokes about libidinous presidents were all used to bring this principle to the forefront.
"The translations [were always] done in accordance with the general tone of the game," defends Ireland.
The first few years with Sega were happy ones with dozens of awards bestowed upon the company. Lunar 2 became the best-selling Sega CD game ever, beating out some live-action games where you drive futuristic garbage trucks and watch vampires ogle women.
But as the Saturn-era Sega started to implode, so too did relations with Working Designs. Sega CEO Bernie Stolar reportedly stated, "RPGs are not a significant portion of the market [and] we do not want to support them in the US."
And the point of no return? Sega shafting Working Designs with its booth space at E3 1998. It was stuck behind some wall where few could find it, likely next to the left ankle of a giant suspended Mr. Bones figure.
"He's not a leader, he is a follower," Ireland says of Stolar after a really awesome Final Fantasy VII commercial made every kid in America want it, "Sony legitimized that segment, and he has seen the money [that can be made with RPGs]."
Much has been said about this fallout between Sega and Working Designs, most of it from Ireland himself on Internet newsgroups for months after the incident. It is, after all, something worth pounding your chest over.
After Sega, Working Designs became a strange bedfellow to Sony, whose progressive outlook on video games is no secret. Despite the financial success of Alundra and the first Lunar remake (selling 100,000 and 500,000 copies, respectively), Sony was as badgering as Sega, but with less of the positive publicity that Working Designs enjoyed in the past. For some reason, pendants and punching puppets were losing their appeal and consumers began to resent the long delays and having to pay inflated prices, even if for deluxe packages.
"The packaging and presentation is the finest ever executed for a game, console or otherwise, and the game deserved that," Ireland says of Lunar 2, which included three game discs, a soundtrack, a making-of disc, a 100+ page hardbound art book/instruction manual, a pendant, a cloth map, and mini-standees.
Post-new millennium, releases became extravagant but more occasional, with the company often (coerced or otherwise) putting several games into one package, increasing costs and eating profits. By the time their last set came out (Growlanser Generations), it had been nearly three years between their previous, Arc the Lad Collection.
At this point, it had been half a decade since Konami released Goemon for the PlayStation 2 in Japan, though it had never left Ireland’s thoughts and he pursued it relentlessly, sacrificing his company in the process. It is a very special and sad story; were the finale of Working Designs to be anthologized in a history of the world, undoubtedly Ireland and Goemon would be mentioned in the same paragraph as Ahab and that huge whale.
"I think ‘better localizations in general’ is the most important contribution WD made," Ireland concludes, before floating off to pursue his eternal muse, "Once people played a WD role-playing game, no matter what they thought about the pop culture stuff that was packed into the early games, it changed them. They saw how moving and engaging an RPG could be when written in their native language well."
Working Designs is survived by its 24 children, a bunch of which can probably still be found shrink-wrapped in stores and on eBay.
··· Alex Vo