Off the Air with Game Developer Johnny OOkami

Johnny with Teenage Peeps

Hey there, all you party people! Hope you’re out here living your best lives as we enter the final stretch of this hot & humid summer. The BCJ website has been on a small hiatus recently, due to a domain switchover and some design changes, but trust that we’re back and better than ever! 

This week, for all of our gamers out there, we are bringing you up close and personal with fellow video game enthusiast, developer and Detroit, MI native, John Wolff, a.k.a. Johnny OOkami. Based in Fukuoka, Wolff has been taking Japan by storm with the release of his new mobile video game, WurmZ, and his recent term as a co-host on a hit radio series about Japanese Youth culture. Amidst a hectic schedule, Wolff was able to sit down with us and recount his various experiences:

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Black Creatives Japan: Okay Johnny, so you have work experience in game development, translation and most recently, radio hosting! There’s a lot to unpack here since you have quite the diverse skill set. Let’s start with what first brought you to Japan: What exactly came first? When and how did it bring you out here to the Far East?

John Wolff: My getting to Japan, all stems from an interest in the game industry. As a child, I grew up with the games coming from early Japanese companies like Nintendo, Squaresoft, Capcom, Namco, etc… They had a huge impact on me and when I turned 16, I decided to teach myself about the game industry via starting my own video game studio in Detroit called Urban Electronic Games Association (UEgames). That route probably seems a bit unconventional, but having a small non-profit gave me a safe haven to explore the game world professionally. From there operating as a small studio, I went to conferences, hosted the first ever game conference in Detroit and recruited both fellow classmates & enthusiastic teenagers to learn how to make games. While I personally didn’t get my hands as dirty as I should have with the nuts and bolts of programming, I was quickly learning the roles of a Producer/Project Manager.

Later on, I took UEgames with me to college, and after some soul searching I found my interest truly did lay in game design. However, without a set major for game design at Boston University, I pursued a degree in International Relations while continuing to explore the game industry outside the classroom. After going to a plethora of informational sessions at Harvard, MIT and around Boston in general, I decided to buckle down and begin creating my first official title as a legit studio. Long story short, the first two games I attempted eventually failed over the course of my college career, despite being kick-ass ideas. My projects failed because I was ultimately too ambitious. I tried making 2 games at once while having a budget of only $5k given as a grant from my university, managing up to 10 people and just generally didn’t know what I was doing. The games and I both burned out and I learned 2 valuable lessons: Gotta get your hands dirty and Gotta have a scope that you can handle.

After that experience, UEgames and my life in general took a turn as I matured and began to work professionally after college. I became a data scientist at a mobile ad company that was publicly traded. There I met so many professional and rich people who made their millions off of simple, casual apps, it was bizarre. Casual mobile games definitely have their appeal, but if you don’t show ads you can’t make money. Simultaneously, people hate ads. Balancing this game economy with user satisfaction was rather fascinating to learn and experience from a data point of view. 

So, at this point you’re probably wondering where the hell Japan fits in with all this. Well, it was here at this mobile advertising company: We had a Japanese client that was using our tech and so we provided them support. Given the time difference their meetings would be late, around 7:00pm or so and I would hang around and see how things were done since I liked games and could speak a lil’ Japanese. What I found fascinating was how BAD our partnership was. The reason simply being that as a Western company we didn’t understand Japanese business practices and thus the overall atmosphere wasn’t conducive. Despite being such a unique opportunity our communications would constantly break down. I was shocked but also moved and I realized that the next phase of my life would be understanding more about this cultural divide. Therefore, Japan beckoned me from a business standpoint, but also interested me as a game enthusiast. The goal became to find some way to work at a Japanese game company, but first, knowing the language was critical.

Johnny & the Peeps in the Studio

BCJ: Okay, that makes sense. So naturally, the next stage of the game (pun fully intended) was learning Japanese then? I recall beforehand you mentioning going to a language school?

JW: Yes, exactly. After a deep search of the internet I found intensive language programs that were regimented by Japanese universities meant to prepare foreign students for the universities themselves (or a professional life in Japan). Japanese tuition is significantly less than America’s so with the money I saved from working in advertising I took the leap and applied to 3 universities. With my shoddy Japanese I got into only one, but I got in. Kansai University accepted me into their “Bekka” program, and I bought a one way ticket to Osaka, Japan. More information on Kansai University’s Bekka program can be found here: http://www.kansai-u.ac.jp/ku-jpn/English/about/index.html. I highly recommend these programs for anyone who wants to truly become proficient in Japanese. I caution however that it’s called an “Intensive language program” for a reason.

I spent 1.5 years at this intensive language program. Class from 8am to 6pm every weekday, homework all the time, quizzes every day, test every other week, essays, presentations, the JLPT. It was hell. During it all I continued development of a smaller title with UEgames and again, began to explore the game industry on my own once more, except in Japan. After networking and studying my butt off, my Japanese and connections were good enough to find me a video game recruiter and then a video game job in Fukuoka, Japan. When I graduated from Kansai University I felt unstoppable, but was flat broke haha! Fast-forward to the present and now I’m head of International Business Development. I have learned how to mitigate different cultures to remain objective and bring out the best ideas that mutually benefit both our company and collaborators. Still an independent game designer on the side too!

BCJ: That’s awesome and thank you for your honesty regarding all your struggles as well. People need to know that the process can’t always be fun and games after all haha! And some of our game otakus out there may be wondering: your interest was sparked in childhood, but do you have a specific memory where you made your decision to make games? Even with all the highs and lows you’ve come across, how does it feel to work in the game development industry now? Does your inner child still squeal with joy whenever you’re working on a project?

JW: Well, I was 16, pre-ordering a copy of Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater, when I got a free copy of Game Informer. The cover read “How to make your own video game!” and I was just like, “Wait, you can do that?”. I then became obsessed with the idea and spent the next 10 years learning about the industry and trying out different projects as an indie developer. Working at a Japanese video game company has been my first “official” game industry job.

Working in the game industry, or working on games is definitely not easy and rather grueling. Creative projects can test the very mettle of your soul. However, there’s freedom in being a creative; literally living and controlling your own world. I know my younger self would geek if he saw me today.

BCJ: Agreed, you definitely did Little Johnny justice; pretty sure if we currently had time travel capabilities, he’d be here right now, proud, bright-eyed and ready to give you the ultimate fist bump…which might possibly shatter the fabric of space & time as we know it, but anyway…Let’s shift gears a little now and talk about this since it’s also fresh in your mind: what was it like being a part of the Teenage Peeps Radio show? Did you ever think you’d be on the radio?

JW: Oh man, this was a crazy experience for sure! It’s a side of Japanese culture that foreigners don’t normally see. I didn’t see this opportunity coming at all, but it definitely made my experience in Japan more authentic. I’ve come to really like Japanese music through our program, learned more about fashion and general miscellaneous information. And I was always told that I had a voice for radio, but who’d-a-thunk my on-air debut woulda been in Japanese. Too crazy.

BCJ: Without a doubt and speaking of crazy, such is the life of a pop idol at times, right? Many people may think being an idol is all sunshine & rainbows and couldn’t be further from the truth; did you and your co-hosts ever discuss the darker side of the Idol Industry at all? Was it eye-opening to you and other fans?

Hmm, off-air we did haha! I had some real deep conversations with these 16-year old girls; Japanese idols are all part of management companies which can be rather ruthless and limiting. They control what the girls can post and say on the radio/social media, dictate what clothes they wear and how to appear in a certain way. And then, outside of that, their fan base is 50% young girls their age and 50% older men, which real-talk is creepy, but “normal”.

Johnny & the Peeps On the Air

BCJ: Ugh, and no doubt we could talk for hours about the normalized obsession of older men with very young women that definitely crosses the line of creeptastic in Japanese culture, but then we’d be here all day so alas, we’ll move on…From what we could tell regarding your workspace, you all were recording the show in a clear “fish bowl-like” studio where onlookers could easily see you. Were you and your “Peeps” ever fighting off paparazzi and/or fans at any point?

JW: They definitely were, but me not so much. Two of the resident members were on “Koi-stay”, the high school version of Terrace House (yea…), so they were big stars and always had fans come to the show to give them gifts. Also when we had other Idols appear on the show their fans came in numbers…jumping, waving, screaming, proclaiming their love right in front of the studio. Wild…By the end of my tenure though, I had a few people asking for pictures with me and my autograph as well; gotta say I felt kinda cool.

BCJ: Additionally, what was it like for you being in the “public eye/ear” generally? Especially as a gaijin and a black gaijin at that. Did you ever feel like the “token” just to give the show an edge?

JW: More than “token”, I was an authority. Not on black culture (though I did that justice), but on American pop culture, games and technology. In the beginning I was down on myself a lot because I was never really sure what “role” I should play on the show, especially when the content is directed towards tweens and not anything I really know. The beauty of that was that NO ONE really knew about young kid culture in Japan, so playing on my pure ignorance lightened the mood in many ways and allowed me to just be myself. Additionally, every person who appeared as a host or a guest had so much character which also made the environment chill. 

BCJ: That’s really great to hear! You and your co-stars seemed to have a very genuine bond on air and they’ll definitely miss you! After getting to this point, do you have any tips and tricks for people out there hoping to get into either of these fields?

JW: Learn the language, get fluent. I know it’s hard, but my opportunities here are linked with my Japanese proficiency and old fashion hustle. Entertainment industries such as Games, Fashion, Radio, Television, etc., are really hard to navigate and most of the time there’s no direct way to enter into the industry. Therefore, seek out those who are established and learn from them; let them connect you with other people and keep connecting and climbing until you get to where you wanna be.

BCJ: Wise words from a true Game Guru and what’s next on the horizon? Can fans expect a WurmZ 2? Will Johnny OOkami be heard providing his charming wit elsewhere on the radio? 

JW: My first official game title, WurmZ, just had a successful Campfire run which is Japan’s version of Kickstarter, a crowdfunding campaign. I managed to raise $2.7k, all in Japanese which is crazy. You can find the page here: https://camp-fire.jp/projects/view/103469.

Simultaneously, the game was soft-released into the Japanese market after translating and other localization. If your AppStore is set to Japan, you can download it for free by searching WurmZ by Urban Electronic Games: https://apps.apple.com/jp/app/wurmz/id970127659?l=en

While there won’t be a WurmZ 2, after improving the game taken from data of the soft-release, WurmZ will be updated and become available worldwide with new features and content so stay tuned!

Next up for me is moving back home, actually. I’ve released my first game in Japan, in Japanese. I’ve also made enough connections with the industry that will allow me to extend my businesses back home. Thus the mission now is to connect on a global scale, I wish to build a bridge between Japan and the US through gaming and cultural exchange. That’s the next stage of the game that I’m at right now. If all goes well, I’ll be coming back and forth quite regularly. Follow along @UEgames if you’d like!

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We surely will, Johnny and we’d like to thank you again for sharing all of your amazing experiences with us! Rest assured, the BCJ community and our supporters will be looking forward to updates on your ever-evolving journey. To our wonderful readers, please check out any of the links that Johnny OOkami provided here and tune in next time!

Sharing away!

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