Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 11 — The Game Designer (Simon CHAPUIS, Ubisoft)
Simon's career has taken him from Europe to China, where he is now a Senior Game Designer at Ubisoft. His story illustrates the complexity and pressure that can accompany this collaborative endeavor.
SC: When they play the game, they need to know is it supposed to be like that, or is it a bug? “No, no, this is a bug.” “Oh.” “Oh no, no. Actually this is a feature.” And sometimes a bug can become a feature.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Ever since Season 01 Episode 05, when Jorge Luzio said that there are 765 million active gamers in China, I’ve been wanting to cover this industry as part of the Mosaic of China. But I needed to find somebody who was not too junior, not too senior; someone who has been in China for a while, but has also worked in other countries; and someone who knows the big corporate world, as well as the smaller indie world. Well it took me until Season 03 Episode 11 to find the right guy, and that’s Simon. It’s like the Goldilocks of gaming. Or since Simon is French, I should say “Boucle d’or’.
On the topic of language, just a few notes for non-native English speakers in this one: ’IP’ is ‘Intellectual Property’, ‘QA’ is ‘Quality Assurance’, and ‘UI’ is ‘User Interface’. Simon speaks amazing English, just one word which is not very clear towards the end of Part 1 is ‘hierarchy’.
Alright, enough of this lag. Let’s boot up the episode before we all ragequit.
OF: Simon, thank you very much for having me.
SC: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
OF: Your name, how do I pronounce it, ‘Simon Chapuis’?
SC: Yeah, ‘Chapuis’.
OF: ‘Chapuis’. ‘Simon Chapuis’.
SC: Yeah. Makes sense.
OF: And why don't you explain where we are right now.
SC: We are in the city of 成都 [Chéngdū], in my wife’s office, the Chinese branch of a French company importing wine from Bordeaux.
OF: Right. The reason I'm asking you that is because it actually explains the crazy situation that we're in. Things are always unpredictable when it comes to travel, when it comes to any kind of arrangement. And that's certainly affected our situation here today. I've come from the other side of China to be here. We have cases here in 成都 [Chéngdū], I can't go to your home because your home is near that area.
OF: You - because you're in that area - you can't come to my hotel.
OF: So we have decided to meet in this office of your wife. Offices usually have very harsh walls, where echoes can be very difficult for recording. But luckily, we're in this very untidy room full of wine bottles and boxes. So I hope the sound will be OK.
OF: Maybe we'll hear traffic outside. So you're going to hear some sounds of 成都 [Chéngdū] in this recording.
SC: Yeah, very authentic.
OF: Very authentic. With that in mind, let’s start. So Simon, I'm going to ask you the question that I ask everyone first, which is: ‘What object did you bring that in some way typifies your life here in China?’
SC: It's a gamepad. A video game controller. I bought it in 成都 [Chéngdū] actually, I needed a gamepad because all of my gamepads actually were in France, and I needed to play games here. So I bought it, and now it's been part of my life in 成都 [Chéngdū] since 2018.
OF: Very good. And it's a big hint about what we're going to talk about.
OF: Because you're not just a gaming enthusiast, are you?
SC: No, it's also my job.
SC: I’m a game designer, so I make games.
OF: OK. Well, let's put this console in the middle of the table. Because actually, I do recognize it, it looks exactly like the Nintendo console. And let me start with the most basic question, what is a game designer?
SC: The game designer is the guy or the girl who defines the rules of the video game. So how the character should move, jump, what should be the enemies and the different traps, the kind of actions you can do to defeat the enemies, basically how you play the game.
OF: Mmm. And how does that process even start? You have a blank sheet of paper and someone says “Design a game”?
SC: It could be like that, it depends on whether you work for publishers, or whether you're an indie developer. So the first idea - if you're working in a big company - it could come from the Game Director, who would say “OK, there is a big trend in the market, we are looking for this kind of game, could you make a pitch.” Then it's up to the game designer to work on a pitch, to propose an idea for a specific type of game. Sometimes we start like that. And sometimes a company can already have a well-known IP, and you're supposed to design the next installment of this IP. So the basics are already here, it's up to the game designer to find new features that will make this game maybe better than the previous one. Or at least different enough, so it's not just like a ‘1.5 version’ of the previous game.
OF: I see. So your skills are what? Are you someone who is skilled in computing? Are you someone who is skilled in creating worlds? Are you skilled in art? Like, what is your skillset?
SC: A little bit of everything, but a game designer can come from different fields. Some started as programmers, some of them started as artists, and some of them started as something totally different. It could be anything. The common point is that we love to make games. And we want to say something with our games. Yeah, I studied art, I also studied programming a little bit. But most of the time, I don't really need these skills. Mostly I use Word and Excel.
OF: Word and Excel?
OF: Oh so actually, you're writing documentation.
SC: A lot.
OF: Oh. Wow, OK.
SC: And you need to think about every situation. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that “Oh OK, if you do this, and that, what will happen?” “Oh, I don't know, I didn't think about it. We need to try and see what will happen.”
OF: Yes, of course.
SC: Of course, it's not possible to design everything right from the start. Because it's impossible to imagine everything. So you need to test and iterate a lot. In big companies, usually there are multiple game designers. So some of them are focused more on battle systems, battle mechanics; some of them are more focused on driving vehicles; some of them focused on the story. You have lots of people working on specific aspects of the game. And you have a Game Director or a Lead Game Designer who is making sure that everything makes sense and works together.
OF: So what are you?
SC: I'm currently a Senior Designer, so I can overlook everything on the project. But of course, I didn't start like that. When I started, I was working on level design. Level design is another branch of game design. Usually I'm mostly focused on game mechanics.
OF: OK. And you said before that it could be an indie company, it could be a big company. So what is your situation now?
SC: Now I'm working in a big big big company. Yeah, one of the biggest video game companies in the world actually, Ubisoft.
SC: They have an office here in 成都 [Chéngdū].
OF: Yeah. I know Ubisoft, yeah, it’s a French company, correct?
OF: There you go. Well, now it’s starting to make sense, why a French guy is here in 成都 [Chéngdū]. OK, so in a company like Ubisoft, you're somebody who is writing the documentation. Who are you writing it for?
SC: Yes. So, multiple people. Programmers. So they need to understand how the game works, and the game logic, and everything.
OF: So what is a programmer?
SC: The programmer is the guy who is doing all the code. Typing a lot of lines of text that I don't really understand.
OF: Right. So translating what you're writing in the document into what actually happens on the computer screen.
OF: OK. You don't necessarily specify exactly how it looks? They have some kind of freedom to interpret your words?
SC: Yeah, Yeah. This is true, yes.
SC: So I give the intention: I would like the game to behave that way. And then it's up to the programmer to be creative and find the right way to create what I would like to have in the game.
OF: I see. So if you're writing a document for a programmer, what kind of details do you include?
SC: Usually we have flowcharts. You have one action, and you have a line linking the first action to the second action, and everything. And a lot of bullet points, to be clear and concise.
OF: Yes. Which I guess is even more important when you're working in an international environment, where people are speaking different languages.
SC: Yeah, exactly.
OF: Just make it clear. But even if you are making it clear, I'm still guessing there is a lot of back-and-forth, back-and-forth.
SC: Always, always. We need to always work together. It's not like “Oh I wrote my documentation, take it and do your stuff. And when you're done, send it to me, and we'll see if that works.” No, there is always communication, and we need to ensure that everything is clear for everyone, so that we are following the same path. Because making a video game is expensive, it takes time, deadlines are always very short. So we cannot afford to waste time. And we have to be clear right from the start, and communicate a lot. Yes.
OF: Got it.
SC: It’s very important.
OF: That was for the programmers, what other teams do you collaborate with?
SC: The artists, of course. Artists are very important, because the art would be the first thing that players will see. If they like the art, they might be interested in the game, more than anything else. Again, they have a lot of freedom to express the design through their art, I would say the challenge for artists in the video game industry is not only to make something beautiful, it's also about making games that can be easily understood by the players. So everything on the screen should convey, very clearly, its function. And this is always a challenge. Because sometimes you want to make something very very beautiful - like beautiful animation, it's very smooth - but when you play with the gamepad, and you try to move forward for instance, the animation is so smooth that you feel like the character is not moving fast enough. It's not responsive, it doesn't work as it should. That's when you have to accept that “Oh, the animation has too many frames.”
SC: So we need to cut some frames to make it more responsive.
OF: Like, it's a balance between looking good, and then the practicality of playing the games.
SC: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
OF: Interesting. OK, so we have the programmers, we have the artists…
OF: Who else?
SC: The ‘QA’, so the Quality Assurance: the guys who are testing the game a lot, to find all the bugs.
SC: When they play the game, they need to know “Oh is it a bug, or is it a feature? Is it supposed to be like that?” Because sometimes you could wonder “Oh, it looks like a bug but I'm not sure. Maybe that's what the designer wanted to do.” No no, this is a bug.” “Oh.” “Oh no, no. Actually this is a feature.” And sometimes a bug can become a feature.
OF: Ah right. One of those happy accidents.
SC: Yes. But yeah, we work really very closely with the QA. Because although the designers must test the game a lot, they don't always have the time to track the bugs. It's not our job.
OF: Interesting. But it sounds like your job, it kind of covers all of those things to some extent. There's a little overlap with all of these different teams.
SC: Yes. Yeah. And that's why - although I'm not a good artist, and I'm not a programmer at all - at least because I studied that, I'm aware of the difficulties and the problems in these fields. So I can also anticipate some issues and I can understand the rest of the team more clearly.
OF: Right. OK, why don't we use this as a chance to actually talk about your background? How long have you been a game designer for?
SC: I started 2007.
OF: So what's that now? It's about 15 years.
SC: Yeah, 15 years. I started in France in a small company in Strasbourg. At the time, we were making games for the old-school mobile phones, with the keyboard and everything.
OF: Right, like the Snake game on the Nokia.
SC: It was a little bit more advanced than that. But that's the same idea, yes.
OF: I'm ageing myself right there.
SC: And that was very very interesting, because you have to make games for a device that is not meant to be for video games.
OF: For a creative person, that would be very interesting, yeah.
SC: Yeah. And after that, the time there was the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii. We made some casual games on these consoles. Then I moved to Germany. Although I was working in Germany, I was living in Strasbourg, so I was just crossing the border every day. It was an international company with people from all around the world. Here we made games for console and PC. Then I moved to Barcelona.
OF: Oh right.
SC: Yes, actually I worked at King, so the company behind Candy Crush. Although in Barcelona we were developing other games. What we call ‘Match Three’ games, you match candies or dice…
SC: …Together to eliminate them.
OF: There are so many versions of that, right?
SC: Exactly. And that was a very good experience, working with people from all around the world. I think I became addicted to that, I love working with people from different countries, different cultures. And when I had the opportunity to move to China, it's something I wanted a long long time ago.
OF: Ah. Because some people, they end up in China. Other people, they try to engineer their life to China.
OF: So you really wanted to be here.
SC: Exactly, yes.
OF: Why was that?
SC: I have to admit that I'm in love with 王菲 [Wáng Fēi], this famous pop singer. I really love her music.
OF: Does your wife know about this?
SC: Yeah. And I was very much in love with the Chinese culture. So I really wanted to come here. And finally I'm here.
OF: You applied for a job? Or someone came to you?
SC: I was very lucky because a colleague of mine used to work in a Chinese company. And he told me "Oh, there is this company I know, I work for them. Maybe I could give you their contact.” That's how I managed to get hired by the company, and I came here to 成都 [Chéngdū].
OF: Right. You're making it sound like it's a global marketplace for people like you. Is that true?
SC: Yeah, well I think it's something that I realized quite early in my career. Because the industry is very tough. You need to be open for traveling a lot.
SC: Yes. Because there are companies all around the world, competition is fierce, and you need to be open to relocate.
OF: Well you say it's tough, so what do you mean? Why is it so tough?
SC: It's very hard to make games. Lots of new people joining, they’re live their dream, and they are super happy. But because it's so tough, people get burnt out and they have to leave the industry. Because it's really hard. So maybe after two years, they will say “I love making, but I’m done with the industry.” And that's how it is.
OF: So I guess someone with 15 years experience is actually quite rare.
SC: Yes, exactly, yeah. Because we very often have very short deadlines. And you need to test the game a lot. And sometimes you get some feedback from the players that they didn't understand the game. So we need to rework the whole feature. So yeah, it’s very hard.
OF: Yeah. I'm guessing that a lot of it comes down to this ‘X Factor’, right? Because how do you know what is a good game? Can you articulate what makes a good game?
SC: Magic, maybe. It's very hard. Sometimes you think you're making a good game. But when you have the final product, actually it's not that fun.
OF: At which point in the process do you find that out? Like, only at the end?
SC: If it's a big project, at the very end. Because a big project is made up of different parts, and you need to wait for all these parts to be together, to have an idea of whether the game works or not. On a smaller project much earlier, because the scope is much smaller.
OF: So I'm guessing these big projects, they're the ones that have extra budget, it’s important, it’s in the spotlight. And yet these are the ones that can go wrong the most.
SC: Yes. Yeah yeah that’s true. In video game history, they have several stories about big games - what we call ‘AAA Games’ - that failed. Because although the budget was big and the deadline was OK, the game wasn't interesting.
OF: Yeah it's, I'm guessing, what keeps you interested in doing it for all these years. Because you've been doing it for 15 years, and even you don't have the answer, right?
SC: Yes. Yeah, yeah. I really don't know. A game can hook you - for several years, maybe sometimes - and you don't really know why. You just enjoy the game.
OF: I mean, do you still enjoy playing games? Or are you, at this point, just sick of it?
SC: No, I still love playing games. But now I have some kind of curse. Although I try to step back when I play games for my own entertainment, the game designer is always here.
SC: Telling me “They designed this like this. And this like that. What do you think about this? Maybe they should have done it like this, or like that?”
SC: So it's really hard to forget my job now. But I still enjoy video games, yes.
OF: OK. I mean, I guess for you, ‘making the game’ is the game.
SC: Yeah, actually, this is true. You have to make choices, and a choice may be rewarded. Sometimes you make the wrong choice, and it's like you're losing a life in a game. So yeah. And if you want to be a game designer, you need to love making games. It's very very important. Because you're not just making games for yourself, you’re making games for everyone. And because you love making games, you want to share your game with everyone, so everyone can enjoy it.
OF: Well you're talking about everyone, so who are these people, the gamers? Like basically, they’re your customers, your consumers. What are they like? Because in my mind, I think gamers can be very passionate. I would say they can go over the top when they're happy, and they can go over the top when they're angry. Is that your experience about your interface with your customers?
SC: Well I was lucky enough, I think, to have players and gamers… They love the games, and they love talking about games - and sharing their opinions and thoughts about the game - but in a very open-minded way. So it's always about exchanging ideas and trying to think of how we could improve games, or imagine new ways to make games, and enjoy games. So that's something I like a lot, to talk about games.
OF: Are they easy to please, or are they quite hard to please? Because I'm guessing they're quite savvy, you know, they can tell a good game from a bad game pretty easily.
SC: Yes. But what's super super fun, actually, when you make games is that players don't really know what they want.
OF: Oh right.
SC: For instance, you have a game that is successful: OK. And you want to make a number two: OK. So what should we do for the next episode? So players will say “Oh, it has to be brand new, because I don't want to buy the same game every year.” But at the same time, when you look at series like Call of Duty, it's kind of the same every year. So they like to have the same thing because they enjoy it; they want something new; but if you propose something that is really really new and different they will say “Oh no, it's not… I prefer the old one, it was better.”
SC: They never really know what they want.
OF: Yeah. That's interesting. That must be frustrating for you as the designer. Because if it is the fact that they want something which is similar, but just with a little tweak, then it's not so much fun for you, right? You're just doing little changes here and there.
SC: Yeah, when you are on the creative side, sometimes you would love to go wild and be super creative. The thing is, we work in an industry. You cannot do just whatever you want, you cannot go wild. You have to be realistic. That's how it works. And you need to get your salary every month, to pay your rent, to buy your food. Making money shouldn't be a taboo, it's business, it's part of the industry. But it's true that from a creative standpoint, we would like to have all of these crazy ideas. “Oh it would be great to do this, and that. Oh I would love to do this.” But maybe it's not what the player wants.
SC: So you have to find the right balance between what you think is innovative and creative enough - and will bring some value to the game - and what the market actually wants.
OF: Yes, and I can imagine you as a designer, you can sometimes get very very focused. To the extent that you kind of forget about the customer. And you need people around you to keep pushing you in the right direction sometimes.
SC: Yeah. You don't realize that you're going too far. Maybe here it's too complex. It’s very important to always work in a team, and to get as much feedback as possible.
OF: Do game companies specialize in particular games? And if so, what is Ubisoft famous for?
SC: Yeah, so Ubisoft is very famous for ‘open-world’ games. So there is Assassin's Creed, there is Watch Dogs, there is Far Cry.
OF: So these are all big budget games?
SC: Yes. Yeah yeah, big big budget. They publish a lot of other games, casual games like Monopoly, UNO.
OF: Got it. So what are you working on right now?
SC: I’m currently working on UNO actually.
OF: Oh, UNO.
OF: I wonder if people in China know that game.
SC: I think UNO is not that popular in China.
SC: Although you can find games that look like UNO.
OF: Oh I see.
SC: But they are not UNO. UNO is very very popular in the U.S.
OF: Yeah. So… I mean, I know this game. I used to play UNO when I was a child. This is a simple game, right?
SC: It's a very simple game, yes.
OF: So as a designer, what can you do with this simple game? This is actually quite a challenge, right?
SC: Exactly, that’s always the biggest challenge for me. Because people play this game for its simplicity. UNO relies a lot on randomness. So I want to bring more depth and more control to the player, so they can build strategies and just make the game a little bit more interesting. And it's very hard because the moment you start adding complexity to the game, then you have to be careful, because maybe it's no longer UNO.
SC: Maybe it's a different game.
SC: We need to make a game that is still UNO, but at the same time we want to bring new stuff.
OF: And you mentioned that it's not well-known in China, so why are you doing UNO in China?
SC: That’s a good question.
OF: Because this is a game that's global. Or maybe your key market will be the U.S. for example.
OF: And yet here we are in 成都 [Chéngdū], making it.
SC: Well that's the beautiful thing about video games, you can make a game for a market in a totally different country.
SC: Yeah, it’s very international.
OF: So do you know why your company is here in 成都 [Chéngdū] of all places, and not elsewhere in China?
SC: They have an office in Shanghai. I think they opened the office in 成都 [Chéngdū] 14 years ago, something like that. My guess would be that, in 成都 [Chéngdū] there are other video game companies here. I guess they have a pool of designers, artists, programmers, people who have experience in video games.
OF: Right. Yes, because you first came to 成都 [Chéngdū] with a Chinese company.
SC: Yes, exactly.
OF: Maybe that's a good question to ask you, then. If you think about the differences, what was your experience like with the Chinese gaming company?
SC: The main difference, I would say, is the hierarchy was very important. There is the boss, and then you have managers, then you have different layers of employees. So it's very much like a pyramidal type of hierarchy. Whereas at Ubisoft, I think it's much more flat. The way you work with people, the way you communicate with people, is very different. I cannot say one is better than the other. I can say positive things in both, and negative things in both. When it's flat, it's easier to communicate and to convey the information to everyone. When it's pyramidal, you have a strong direction to the company, and we stick to that. It doesn't mean that other companies don't have a strong vision, but the way you work is just different.
OF: Yeah. I guess it means that there's not pushing ideas back and forward.
OF: So it’s more efficient in some way.
OF: Is there one game in your career that you're most proud of?
SC: It's the game I worked on when I was in Germany. It's a game that is called ‘Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams’. So the first Giana Sisters was made for the Commodore 64.
OF: Oh yes.
SC: So this old computer.
SC: So we made a new episode in the series. We managed to create something quite original. And there was an issue is deadline and budget, so we had to do a Kickstarter. So Kickstarter is this website where people can give money to companies or indie developers, to help them to fund their projects. So it can be video games, music, comic books. When you do a Kickstarter, you make a promise to the player. You tell them “OK, we need this amount of money. We want to release the game on this date.” And people trust you.
OF: And they're part of the project themselves from day one, right?
SC: Yes, yes. So you want to make a good game. And you also want to keep your promise. And I'm proud of this game, because we made a good game, it got good reviews, we released it on time, we released it within the budget. It's not perfect, but people still enjoyed it. And they enjoyed it so much that this event in the U.S. called Games Done Quick - you have players who play the games as fast as possible - I was very happy to see one day that Giana Sisters was actually part of this event.
SC: Someone took the time to practice the game, to beat it as fast as possible. And I was like “Yeah! That's cool. That's my game.”
OF: Let's finish this part of the conversation by talking about China. What is the future going to be here in China?
SC: We will see more and more free-to-play games, this is the norm now. But at the same time, we have companies now who want to create their own AAA Games. So they are no longer focused on the business aspect, but they are now focused on the creative aspect, they want to shine.
OF: Simon, thank you so much for that.
SC: Thank you very much.
OF: You've taught me a lot. I think sometimes you've been looking at me like “Oh my god, this guy does not know anything.” You are correct. Well, let's move on to Part 2.
OF: Alright. The 10 questions, Simon.
SC: I am ready.
OF: OK. Question 1, which comes from Shanghai Daily, even though we are here in 成都 [Chéngdū]: What is your favorite China-related fact?
SC: I realized that many Chinese leaders, scientists, novelist, they studied in France.
OF: Oh really?
OF: Like who?
SC: 邓小平 [Dèng Xiǎopíng] of course.
SC: Very well known. 周恩来 [Zhōu Ēnlái].
OF: 周恩来 [Zhōu Ēnlái], oh right. Even with those two examples, I’m already impressed. And there's many more, I guess.
OF: Alright, I'll have to do my research. Next question, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favorite word or phrase in Chinese?
SC: It's because now I have a kid, so it's actually a song for kids that I really love.
SC: I think it's from a cartoon originally. It’s: 大头大头 [Dàtóu dàtóu]; 下雨不愁 [Xiàyǔ bùchóu]; 人家有伞 [Rénjiā yǒu sǎn]; 我有大头 [Wǒ yǒu dàtóu]! So it’s a cartoon, and in this cartoon there is a kid with a big head, which is 大头 [dàtóu].
OF: 大头 [Dàtóu], ah.
SC: And yeah, it’s saying that it's raining outside. It's fine because the family has an umbrella. But he has a big head. I love it.
OF: Your kid speaks French and Chinese?
OF: OK. Next question, which comes from naked Retreats: What’s your favorite destination within China?
SC: That's an easy one for me, it’s 大连 [Dàlián]. Because my wife is from 大连 [Dàlián].
OF: Oh, man. I actually was supposed to be in 大连 [Dàlián] this week, but I had to cancel my trip. So I'm very jealous of you. Tell me about 大连 [Dàlián].
SC: It's a beautiful city next to the sea. The sky is always blue. There is the sun, it's hot in the summer. It's cold and there is snow in the winter. So you have everything in 大连 [Dàlián], it's just a beautiful city.
OF: Yeah. I've heard a lot of good things about 大连 [Dàlián]. And it has an interesting history as well, right?
SC: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in 大连 [Dàlián] there are several museums, so you can learn about the history of the whole city. The modern city of 大连 [Dàlián] was actually built by the Russians, then it was invaded by the Japanese, and then it was taken back by the Chinese.
OF: Right. Fascinating stuff. Wish me luck, I hope that I will see it the first time.
OF: Next question: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SC: What I will you miss the most is actually all the friends I made here, because I made a lot of friends.
OF: And the least?
SC: Just renewing the work permit every year is a challenge.
OF: Yes. Visas.
OF: Next, is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SC: How much everything relies on smartphones. If you don't have a smartphone, I don't know how you can do anything here.
OF: This is what keeps me up. Because if I lost the phone, what the hell happens? I mean, I lose things, I'm an idiot. Luckily, I've never lost the phone. But what would happen if you do? It must happen, right?
SC: Yeah. The first thing I do every time I leave my home: “Do I have my phone? It's raining outside, do I have my umbrella? No, it doesn't matter. Do I have my phone? Do I have my phone?” You cannot do anything without a phone.
OF: I've been here for so long. I don't quite remember how it was in Europe beforehand. I'm sure people are also addicted to their phones in France, no?
SC: Yeah, but I think if you want to go to the grocery and you want to buy something, I think in France we are still using the bank card. Paying with the phone, we might do it, but I'm not sure.
OF: Yeah. Next question, which comes from SmartShanghai. It should be SmartChengdu, but… where is your favorite place to go out, to eat or drink or hang out?
SC: Here in 成都 [Chéngdū] I would say Blue Frog.
OF: Oh, that exists here?
SC: Yes. There are at least two Blue Frogs here in 成都 [Chéngdū].
SC: And if I want to eat a good burger and have a beer, usually it’s the best place to go.
OF: Nice. So do you actually eat 四川 [Sìchuān] food?
SC: Yes, it's very good.
OF: Next question, what's the best or worst purchase you've made in China? Apart from this object that I'm looking at right now, your console.
SC: Yes, apart from the gamepad I would say books. Lots of books. I also bought some traditional Chinese comic books. And you have the big picture, and like two or three lines of text just below.
OF: Nice. And it's not too many words, when I see a whole bunch of words on a page it's very intimidating.
OF: But if it's just a few sentences, that’s…
SC: Yeah. And you have the context, and it's easier to understand.
OF: Yeah. OK, you’ve kind of inspired me with that. Maybe I'm going to ask you for a few titles. Next question, what's your favourite WeChat sticker?
SC: Ah Yeah, it's a series I think called Popo 猫 [māo]. So it's a big yellow cat…
SC: …With a smaller white cat.
OF: Yes, I've seen these guys.
SC: Yes. And they’re like “Are you there?” If I want to send a message to my wife, I just send her “Are you there?” just with the cats. I like the animation, I think it’s very funny.
OF: Well as a game designer, I probably should in that case pay respect. Because you know what you're talking about. Next question, what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SC: Maybe the only French song that you can find in China.
OF: Oh wait, let me guess which one it is. Is it 'Ça Plane Pour Moi’? No.
OF: Is it 'La Vie En Rose?'
OF: Wait, what's a famous French song, what is it?
SC: It’s a song - I don't even know why it's so popular here - it’s 'Je m'appelle Hélène’.
SC: Yeah, so 'Je m'appelle Hélène’ was the song for a French TV series. The series wasn't very good. But this song, you can find it in all KTVs.
OF: What kind of song is it?
SC: Romantic. She's saying “My name is Hélène. And I'm just a girl like the others.” Yeah. Everyone knows this song. Even younger generations here, they know the song.
SC: I don't know why.
SC: And I'm sure nowadays in France, nobody remembers this.
OF: OK, I'll look it up. Thank you. And finally, and this comes from JustPod, which is the studio that I use in Shanghai: What or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
SC: I follow on WeChat a publication called Sixth Tone.
OF: Oh, yes.
SC: I really like their articles. Usually it's very in-depth, you can see that they do a very good job searching for information, explaining everything in detail. And they talk about all topics possible, it can be about social issues, it can be about science, it can be about so many different things. And I like the way they make you think in a different way, or realize “OK, it's not just A and B, maybe there is also C and D."
OF: I agree, yeah. It's quite rare to find writing about China, from a Chinese organization, that is nuanced.
SC: Yes, exactly.
OF: And I think Sixth Tone do a really good job, so I agree. And it's come up a lot in previous episodes as well. So it's nice to have a chance to give a shout-out to Sixth Tone again.
OF: Simon, thank you so much.
SC: Thank you very much.
OF: It's also great to have a chance to see you in situ here in 成都 [Chéngdū].
OF: I hope I have another excuse to come here, especially to try out Blue Frog with you.
OF: The final question I would ask you is, out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China?
SC: A lady called Adelle Neary, who is the Consul General from Australia in 成都 [Chéngdū], she will have many stories to share.
OF: Great, that’s perfect. We had a diplomat in Season 01 and we haven't had one since then, so I'm looking forward to meeting Adelle next year. And if you had one question that you would ask Adele, what question would it be?
SC: This is a good question.
OF: I'm putting you on the spot here.
SC: Are there any similarities between your hometown in Australia and 成都 [Chéngdū]?
OF: Perfect. Simon, thanks for your time.
SC: Thank you. Thank you very much.
OF: Most video games out there have something called DLC - downloadable content - which game designers create to offer users some extra goodies. And as regular listeners will know, Mosaic of China has it’s own DLC in the form of the PREMIUM version of show, where there’s 10-15 minutes of extra content per episode. Head to the Mosaic of China website to follow the instructions on how to subscribe. And while you’re doing that, here are clips from today’s full-length conversation:
SC: They try to hook you with mechanics that force you to come back every day, to collect your free reward.
OF: Wait, so since you've been here, you've never left China?
SC: The rules are different, the art is different, we have new music, to give to the player a new experience.
OF: I will encourage them not to buy the power-ups.
SC: It's not just translation, it's really localization.
SC: Oh, that feels good, that’s very fun. I want to do it again, I want to move on to the next level.
SC: The publisher will make sure that there is good marketing, to promote the game, and to make the game available.
SC: Here there is a greater emphasis on monetization.
OF: That’s what it is.
SC: Yes. “Come here and spend money.”
OF: So your hometown is Dijon?
OF: All I know is mustard.
[End of Audio Clips]
As always, there are images that accompany the show on social media, so do a search for mosaicofchina or oscology, and you’ll find them there on most platforms, both in China and worldwide.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Like I said at the beginning of today’s show, it has been great to include a game designer in Mosaic of China, to sit alongside the previous episodes we’ve had with the likes of fashion designers, architectural designers, handicraft designers, and so on. So it’s only fitting that today’s catch-up with a previous guest of the show, is with the car designer Ajay Jain from Season 02 Episode 21. Stick around for that after the music, and I’ll see you again next time.
OF: Ajay, let me first apologize because I don't quite know what I was thinking when I recorded the intro and outro to your original episode. Because I decided to pronounce your surname in the most odd way. And I don't know what kind of weird vomit came out of my mouth. Your name is Ajay Jain, I somehow said “Ajay Jayn” or I didn't know what came out!
AJ: Inexcusable for somebody who claims to be a linguist.
OF: Secondly of course, people will already have realized that we are catching up over Zoom. So where do I find you today? And tell me the story of what happened between our original interview up till today.
AJ: It's probably the longest 18 months of my life. After speaking to you, I got a job to move back to India, to Mumbai. We arrived, I started work, we got the kids to school, we got an apartment lease, our container arrived, I moved my father to come and move in with us, the internet was on, paintings were hung on the walls, everything was working at home, and the country went into lockdown. It was really really lucky for us. Then coming into a new job - in a new country, in a new environment - was quite a challenge.
OF: Well let me interrupt you, because some people might not have heard your original episode. And for those who didn't, you are a master car designer. You have spent how many years altogether doing car design in China?
AJ: Ten years in China, about 11 years in Europe.
AJ: And never in India.
OF: Exactly. So what actually was the new job in India?
AJ: I moved to India to work at a company called Mahindra & Mahindra to head up their advanced design division. AJ: Then, after nine months at Mahindra, I decided to change my job and move to another Indian company called Tata Motors, which was really out of the blue. So in the last 14 months, I have an overview of not just one Indian company, but two Indian companies. Both are very much focused on the local Indian market, and they are Indian-run Indian-owned Indian-managed companies. My Indian experience is still quite fresh, but the fun challenge of being able to influence the way things are done: that, I found, was fairly similar to China. So you do feel empowered, and have a level of influence and making your mark and changing the course and the direction of things. However, the speed of things, nobody can compete with China. The pace, the sheer ambition - the number of projects, the number of things that you do in a day - is just phenomenal in China. And then you come to realize it when you step out of that environment.
OF: Well, it's been a whirlwind 18 months. So the next obvious question would be, what does the following 18 months look like?
AJ: Well, interesting you say that. We are in the middle of another move.
AJ: We’ve decided to move to a town called Pune where Tata Motors is based. Another change, another bit of a transition, but I hope the next 18 months aren't going to be as volatile as the previous 18 months.
OF: Oh, very good. Your family, they basically grew up in China, right? I mean, it must be a foreign country really, for them to now live in India?
AJ: Yes it is, it is. My two daughters are born in Shanghai, they definitely seem to want to return to China someday, if not for their education or work.
AJ: So yeah, it's a whole new life and a whole new transition for us.
OF: Well it was great to have you as part of this project. I did not realize that it would be this swan-song of your ten years in China, so I'm really glad that I could catch you before you ended up leaving. And the person who you referred for next season unfortunately couldn't be part of the season. But I did find a nice replacement, so I will be adding this update chat at the end of that episode. And that’s it, you're stuck in the Mosaic forever. I hope that this will be an excuse for us to keep in touch. And good luck with your move to Pune.
AJ: Thank you Oscar. And it’s been great, this summary of my life in China. Big thanks to you, that I can share it with people. I hope you will be visiting India, and the Mosaic will grow out of India perhaps, and becomes a cross continental phenomenon.
OF: Oh my god. I'm tired already, just thinking about it.