Game Changers of Japan: Thiago Kimura De Leon from Square Enix’s Luminous Productions on the Video Game Industry in Japan
Many people first grow to know about Japan through video games—Thiago Kimura De Leon was just like that. Now, he works for Luminous Productions, a studio under the Square Enix Group. Read about his journey on how he got there, and his words of advice for all the foreigners out there hoping to enter the video game industry of Japan.
Written by: Jen Santelices | Date published: 6th February 2020
Short biography: Thiago Kimura De Leon was born in Brazil. He graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science from Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC). In 2005, he came to Japan under the Monbukagakusho scholarship and studied in Nagoya Institute of Technology for a Masters Degree in Computer Science. He worked in several big names in Japan — such as Konami, and Kojima Productions — and also abroad, such as in Gameloft’s studio in Seoul, and Ubisoft in Canada. Since December 2018, he currently works for Luminous Productions under the Square Enix Group as a Lead Game Designer.
Those of us that grew up with game controllers in our hands and our eyes glued to TV screens will definitely recognize the name Square Enix. They’re one of the most prominent game companies in Japan, and they’ve released some of the most iconic video games — from long-running series that span decades of history such as the Final Fantasy series, to newer but still successful games such as NieR: Automata and the recent Tomb Raider games.
These Square Enix titles are just a few examples of Japan’s long-running contribution to the world of video games, but this history goes so much deeper. So it really comes as no surprise that a lot of people associate the country with video games, and that many of the industry’s hopefuls have a passion for video games that takes them all the way to Japan.
One of these hopefuls that successfully built up his career in the video game industry is Thiago Kimura De Leon from Brazil. He currently works as a Lead Game Designer for Square Enix’s recently established development studio, Luminous Productions.
We talked to Thiago about his connection to video games, how he took that passion to establish his career, and his advice for anyone who wants to work in Japan’s video game industry.
Early life and path to Japan
Thiago was raised in Brazil, where he describes his early life as a state of “always studying and always playing video games.” The video games he enjoyed playing the most came from Japan, and this exposure gave birth to his fascination with the country and its culture.
“My initiation of Japan came from most of the games I played when I was young,” Thiago explains. “I knew they had a different way of creativity, a way that they do games. And so I became very curious about the culture of Japan.”
This interest not only in Japan, but also in video games stayed with him even past childhood. “I always liked to play in and learn new things from game worlds. I wanted to do that [career path], but at the time, there wasn’t an option to do that [in Brazil]. So I started going to the next step closer to video games, which was computer science.”
Thiago then went to UFSC in Brazil to get a computer science degree, and he worked for a couple of years in the IT industry there before he came upon an opportunity that landed him in Japan: a chance to study at Nagoya Institute of Technology for three years.
“I got a scholarship from the Japanese government,” Thiago says. “I came to Japan in 2005 to do my master’s degree. [After that], I had the choice to come back to Brazil, and work in IT again — which is a great job — but it’s not really my reason for staying in Japan to follow my dreams.”
Struggles with shukatsu and the Japanese language
Being a foreigner who had no prior Japanese language background, even as he had gotten used to life in Japan, the language barrier was a problem he constantly had to deal with. He first encountered this during his years as a graduate student in Nagoya.
“I learned Japanese a little bit before coming to Japan,” Thiago tells us. “But I had some struggles with the Japanese language at school because it was not a university prepared for language exchanges. It’s an Institute of Technology, so although we had some classes, there was not much support and structure for students who come from overseas. I had to do most things in Japanese so I ended up failing some classes.”
Although Thiago was eventually able to make up for his classes, this language barrier problem took center stage once again when he started doing shukatsu (Japanese job-hunting). “During the last year of university, you spend most of your time trying to get to job fairs, talking to companies, and going through the explanation meetings that each company has. These are 100% made for Japanese people.”
Thiago further recalls of his experience, “I was living in Nagoya. I remember taking the night bus to Tokyo so many times for all the interviews and tests and having to go back again.”
“It was very difficult because they have a bunch of paper tests they want you to do before you even have a chance to talk to someone.”
He adds, “These were timed tests, and at the time, my Japanese was not very smooth. I was able to talk and read a little slowly, but compared to a Japanese person, it was obviously lacking. So while I was still trying to read the questions, everybody was already finished. I failed many tests because I could not compare my Japanese skills with native Japanese people.”
Based on his experience with Japan’s shukatsu system, Thiago tells us that “the irony is, most people who come to Japan are actually very, very smart because they needed to come here through opportunities like scholarships.”
He further explains how he thinks that a lot of foreigners end up losing their chance to prove their abilities just because they cannot express themselves in Japanese. “We have a lot of skills, but Japanese is the first barrier. Even though we can be very good assets for the company, especially for jobs in IT or in the arts which don’t need extreme communication or polite Japanese, many people fail because they cannot pass this first step. It ends up being a loss for both that person and the company.”
“[Foreigners] have a lot of skills but Japanese is the first barrier […] Many people fail because they cannot pass this first step. It ends up being a loss for both that person and the company.”
Thiago’s entry into Japan’s video game industry
With this thought process in mind, Thiago found other ways to prove that he was worthy of a job in Japan and show what he was capable of. “I ended up getting lucky because the company that I was hired for was Konami,” Thiago says.
The Japanese gaming giant had two things that were different in their recruitment process which ended up giving Thiago the opening he needed to get through the barrier. “The first one was that their tests were logic-based. It had a lot of picture sequences, so you didn’t need any language to understand. And on the same day of the tests, you can also do an interview with their president. I was given a chance to talk in Japanese, and I left a good impression.”
Thiago ended up being hired by Konami right after his graduation from Nagoya Institute of Technology in 2008. And from just harboring a love for Japanese video games, this opportunity was his first step in creating new video game worlds, just like the ones he spent countless hours getting lost in when he was still a little boy in Brazil.
Working in the video game industry
Thiago worked at Konami’s Tokyo offices for a year as a game programmer and game designer, where he was part of a team that was in charge of games that were released on consoles.
This initial step led into a long path within the video game industry for Thiago, where he was able to work for a lot of esteemed names in the industry along the way. He was given opportunities to work for other game companies in Japan and abroad, in both console and mobile games, with responsibilities ranging from direction to creative direction.
In 2018, exactly 10 years after he finished his Masters Degree from Nagoya Institute of Technology, he started working at Luminous Productions under the Square Enix group, where he currently works as a Lead Game Designer.
The Square Enix and Luminous Productions chapter
For those who might be unfamiliar with the Japanese company’s background, Square Enix actually has its roots from two separate companies: Square, founded in 1983 and Enix, founded in 1975. Both companies were involved in video games that eventually became household names: the Dragon Quest series that was published under Enix in 1986, and the very first Final Fantasy game in 1987 that was developed under Square a year after.
Since their initial success in the late 80s, both companies continued to release video games throughout the 90s and early 2000s for the consoles of the time. However, in 2000, they started considering a merger between the two to “mutually decrease development costs and compete with foreign developers”. In 2003, this plan was fully realized, and both companies came together under the name Square Enix.
Operating under Square Enix, the company continued to find success in video games, and even took over other gaming companies in Japan, such as Taito, who was responsible for the arcade game classic Space Invaders, and Eidos, which published the Tomb Raider games.
In 2012, the company released Luminous Studio (presently called Luminous Engine), a game engine that was used to develop the Final Fantasy XV game, which then lead to Square Enix establishing a new studio for the developers of the game. And in March 2018, Luminous Productions was born, with Thiago joining the team as their Lead Game Designer in December of the same year.
Thiago describes his role by saying, “Every game has different parts, such as battle systems, the story [and so on].” He goes on to tell us that his job is to take charge of the planning for a certain part of the game, however, since the game they are currently working on is yet to be released, Thiago is unable to go into too much detail about his role in this during the interview.
When asked about what it’s like working for the company, he tells us, “At Luminous Productions, there’s a lot of other foreigners. So compared to other Japanese companies, they have a more global mindset and they know that we need to have skills from many different areas.”
Thiago continues, “[The company] understands that games are not only for the Japanese market — they need to be global, and we need to understand what players want from different regions. So in that sense, it's more foreigner friendly than most Japanese companies in terms of game development. And I think that's a really good thing about us.”
Thiago’s advice for video game industry hopefuls
Being in a unique position to talk about working as a foreign employee in a big Japanese gaming company, we asked Thiago if there’s anything he wants to say to others who were just like him — those that want to work in the esteemed video game industry of Japan.
“Whatever you do, you need to learn Japanese,” he says. “Spoken Japanese is very important. Being able to communicate with people in Japanese is the first step.”
However, on top of Japanese skills, he emphasizes something else that he feels is important with being a foreigner in Japan. Thiago says that although he believes that learning and being able to function in Japanese society is important to work here, he also believes that finding a balance between understanding Japan and embracing your foreignness is essential.
“I don't look Japanese. People see me and they don't expect a perfect Japanese person. They don't expect me to speak perfect Japanese. Instead of trying to follow the same path that every other Japanese person has done, try finding your own path,” Thiago says.
“Instead of trying to be Japanese, understand what's different and what's special about you, and try to show that part of yourself that’s unique.”
Lastly, Thiago talks about one more characteristic that he thinks is important to succeed.
“Initiative. It’s the most important thing you can have in a company. Even if a company doesn’t end up hiring you, they will always see that initiative.”
He explains his mindset and why he thinks taking initiative is important, by saying, “I need to have the initiative to be able to do my goals. And whatever I do, if I can get closer and closer to that goal, then I will feel happy. But that's the catch. You may never reach the goal. Maybe you want to be a rock star. It's difficult to do so. But as long as you know you are on the right path, you will feel satisfied. You will feel happy.”
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