Working Designs was a small, influential American video game publisher headquartered in Redding, California. It was primarily known for translating Japanese Role-Playing Games for the Sega CD, the Sega Saturn and the PlayStation. It was originally founded by programmer Todd Mark and venture capitalist Sylvia Schmitt in 1986 as an office software developer for the IBM PC; after Mark's death in 1988, programmer Victor Ireland was hired to complete his unfinished work and transitioned Working Designs to a video game publisher. Their first game was Parasol Stars for the TurboGrafx-16, which was released in 1991. While not their first RPG to be released, their first major success was the Sega CD game Lunar: The Silver Star in 1993. A critical and commercial success, it was also one of the first games to have a thorough "localization". Indeed, the Lunar series proved to be their most popular license, being the financial cornerstone of most of their existence.
Working Designs was responsible for a number of innovations to the field. Previously, Japanese video games had been translated completely literally and at times even by non-native English speakers, leading to... dubious results. Working Designs avoided this practice, choosing instead to rewrite portions of games that made little sense without a Japanese perspective, or which were non-essential to the game's story. This included the dialogue of largely unimportant wandering NPCs in order to avoid Welcome to Corneria syndrome. Even before voice acting was common in video games, they had a full staff of decent-quality voice actors; an impressive feat considering the generally low standards the plagued 90s games and the fact they hired locally. Most importantly, though, they were the first company to really have a dedicated relationship with their fans. They would manufacture high quality packaging and extras, and were dedicated to providing niche releases for a relatively small fanbase.
They were not without criticism, though. One frequent complaint made against the company was the previously mentioned rewrites to NPC dialogue. In place of the usual trivial wandering NPC dialogue (itself usually either a Japanese-specific joke or just a vapid Welcome to Corneria), they inserted new (and frequently different) dialogue with their own brand of humor. Some of it was... a little immature, to say the least, like turning the entire town of Meryod in Lunar into a bunch of inbred hicks ("Welcum ta Meryod! We're all family heer!"). They also referenced a lot of American culture, with the Sega CD version of Lunar: Eternal Blue being one of the biggest offenders in this regard. Thankfully, this rarely ever crept into the important game dialogue, which they made sure was close the to original intent and text.
The other major and common complaint was that, at least as far as their role-playing games were concerned, their release schedule ran into frequent delays. This was due in part to the perfectionist attitudes of the staff, but also due to quality problems in the production of the deluxe packaging for which they became known. Indeed, they went through dozens of companies to find one that would produce the cloth map that came with Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete at a reasonable quality and price. They became so notorious for this that reviews for Gungriffon Blaze made sarcastic comments about it actually releasing on time. Magic Knight Rayearth for Saturn was also rather infamous for being delayed nearly three years, ending up as the last game for the system in America when it was a fairly early Japanese release.
Working Designs also felt compelled to alter the gameplay in various ways at times. Usually this was beneficial, such as fixing major bugs or slowdown. Other times, the changes seemed designed to punish the player for not importing instead. Especially in RayStorm, where half the game is locked out on difficulty levels below default and the default difficulty was bumped up to higher than what it is in the Japanese version. Silhouette Mirage was also victim to this sort of meddling, having been made significantly harder, and requiring grinding not necessary in the original. At their absolute worst, these difficulty changes were done so carelessly and poorly that it bordered on game destroying - the most drastic example would be Exile: Wicked Phenomenon, where a fairly easy game had its difficulty jacked up to the point of being near unwinnable.
Working Designs was not to last, however. All things considered, it was a miracle they stayed in the business as long as they did.
First, until they jumped ship to the PlayStation, their games were never for the more popular consoles. This was at least partly due to a reluctance to touch Nintendo due to their draconian Seal of Quality certification system. However, initially attempts to get a license with Sony didn't go very well. This is because Bernie Stolar was Sony Computer Entertainment America's executive vice-president, and his refusal to promote any 2D games, RPGs, or "overly Japanese" games in America made it effectively impossible for Working Designs to even try to work with Sony, since these games were their forte. Ironically enough, Stolar soon departed from SCEA to replace the retiring Tom Kalinske as president and chief operating officer of Sega of America, the company for which Working Designs was releasing games. Stolar's questionable handling of promoting the Sega Saturn in America frustrated many of the console's developers, Working Designs included. This deprived Working Designs of access to many games they wanted to release in the U.S., though they were still able to rescue some before the Saturn was discontinued. They decided to completely forgo releasing any games on the Dreamcast due to their frustration with the Saturn and strained relationship with Sega.
Ironically enough, though, it was perhaps Working Designs' dedication to their fans that did them in. One game in particular which saw them hemorrhaging money was the Saturn adaptation of Magic Knight Rayearth. Originally announced in 1995, it ended up being delayed nearly three years. Most accounts seem to put the delays down to legal issues regarding the use and possible changing of the original characters' names, as well as technical problems. When Working Designs initially got the game, they discovered that parts of the source code were missing due to a hard disk crash, and had to be rebuilt. After relative success during the later PS1 era, difficulties with Sony's approval process for the games they attempted to localize for the PlayStation 2 (the most publicly infamous being the forced packaging-together of Growlansers II and III and the cancellation of their planned localization of Mystical Ninja Goemon) led to them officially shutting down on December 12, 2005, ending its twenty-four year run as a major third-party developer.
Their legacy still lives on, though. It's now extremely rare to find a translation of anything (much less an RPG) that is of extremely low quality. Most games are now translated by native English speakers, which means that they are at least grammatically correct. And while most companies haven't really mimicked their self-referential humor, it still shows up in games from time to time, notably in Atlus, XSEED Games, and Nintendo translations. To top it all off, Victor Ireland established Working Designs' Spiritual Successor, Gaijinworks, in July 2006; they would go on to digitally re-release the Arc the Lad games as well as Alundra on the Play Station Network.
Games published by Working Designs:
- Cadash (TurboGrafx-16, 1991)
- Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble 3 (TurboGrafx-16, 1991)
- Exile (TurboGrafx CD, 1992)
- Cosmic Fantasy 2 (TurboGrafx CD, 1992)
- Dungeon Explorer II (TurboGrafx CD, 1993; voice work only)
- Exile: Wicked Phenomenon (TurboGrafx CD, 1993)
- Vasteel (TurboGrafx CD, 1993)
- Lunar: Silver Star (Sega CD, 1993)
- Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (PlayStation, 1999)
- Vay (Sega CD, 1994)
- Popful Mail (Sega CD, 1995)
- Lunar: Eternal Blue (Sega CD, 1995)
- Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete (PlayStation, 2000)
- Shining Wisdom (Sega Saturn, 1995)
- Iron Storm (Sega Saturn, 1996)
- Dragon Force (Sega) (Sega Saturn, 1996)
- RayStorm (PlayStation, 1996)
- Sega Ages: Volume 1 (Sega Saturn, 1997)
- Albert Odyssey: Legend of Eldean (Sega Saturn, 1997)
- Alundra (PlayStation, 1997)
- Elemental Gearbolt (PlayStation, 1998)
- Magic Knight Rayearth (Sega Saturn, 1998)
- Silhouette Mirage (PlayStation, 1999)
- Vanguard Bandits (PlayStation, 2000)
- Gungriffon Blaze (PlayStation 2, 2000)
- RayCrisis: Series Termination (PlayStation, 2000)
- Silpheed: The Lost Planet (PlayStation 2, 2001)
- Arc the Lad Collection (PlayStation, 2002)
- Growlanser Generations (PlayStation 2, 2004)