Jake Kazdal: From Space Channel 5 to Skulls Of The Shogun
Jake Kazdal isn’t a household name. Like most hard-working people in the industry, his name never makes headlines and his work is appreciated without his name on it. Yet a quick glance at Kazdal’s résumé, from his start as a ‘game counsellor’ for Nintendo to his upcoming indie game Skulls Of The Shogun, reveals a career that could be the dream of a thousand hopefuls wanting to break into the industry.
Game counsellors manned a toll-free number run by Nintendo during the NES days. Gamers (mostly kids) would call them up to get tips and hints about their games. The job involved playing games as ‘research’, and required an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Nintendo and NES. “I grew up one town away from Nintendo of America. My best friend’s big sister got a part-time job there in customer service in high school, right about the time I was calling the Game Counsellors for help on Legend Of Zelda. I was like ‘You can work there?’ And the day I turned 16, I put in my application. I was there for two years at the heyday of the NES, and played so many NES games it would make your head spin,” says Kazdal.
From every kid’s dream job, he hopped over to Irem, a publisher that’s all but defunct now, but did fairlywell for itself in the Eighties and Nineties. “I had a friend at Enix (where I really wanted to work, and eventually did) who put me in touch with the boss at Irem right after I got back from my college semester in Kobe, Japan, where I realized once and for all, all I wanted to do with my life was make videogames,” he continued, “I played potential games they were considering localising, to see how a typical American gamer would view the games. Lots of weird stuff; most of it didn’t make it.”
After Irem, Kazdal moved onto Enix, where he earned his first game credit on Illusion of Gaia, a SNES RPG. After Enix, he studied at the Art Institute in Seattle for a year and eventually graduated from the animation program in the Vancouver Film School. He bounced around game studios for a while, working on Spider for the PlayStation and Twisted Edge Snowboarding on the N64.
Kazdal wore his love for Japanese culture on his sleeve during the Nineties, and it ended up paying off. “I had spent a few months in Kobe in college and just loved it. I had a girlfriend from Kobe when I was back in Seattle, and I used to go visit her family every year and stock up on Virtua Fighter and Street Fighter toys. I had a bunch on my desk while I worked at Boss Game Studios in Seattle in the late Nineties, when a visiting engineer saw all the toys on my desk and commented on them. Out of the blue I said, “Yeah I spent a little time in Japan and it’s my dream to go work at Sega there someday.” He replied with, “Oh, I used to work there, I think Tetsuya Mizuguchi, my old boss, is going to be at E3 in a few weeks, would you like to meet him?”
Kazdal met Mizuguchi at E3 in 1998, and was eventually hired on at Sega where he worked as a concept artist, modeller and animator on both Space Channel 5 and Rez. While fans might consider working at Sega a dream job, Kazdal wanted to take what he learned in Japan and apply it elsewhere. “Surrounded by some of the top talent in the game world, particularly the Rez team, I felt I really wanted to understand design as a process much more than I did…working with those Rez guys was an incredible experience, particularly Yokota-san, the art director (lead artist of Panzer Dragoon Saga, now at Q Entertainment) Hotta-san (now Art Director at start up G-Rounding in Tokyo working on that Panzer Dragoon like game for Kinect) Takamura-kun (also working with Hotta-san) and Matsuzaki-san (now lead artist on the Super Mario Galaxy games).”
Kazdal’s fondness for his time at Sega comes through in his use of the honorifics san and kun to refer tohis co-workers. Both words correspond to the English words Mr or Ms, but convey slightly different levels of familiarity. He continues, “These guys had such a design thought process, and were so effective in brainstorming new ideas and really designing with a goal in mind. I was blown away. They taught me a bunch, but I decided I wanted to go back to school and really fine-tune my own design process, and ended up at one of the top design schools in the world, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Right after that I went to work at EA on the LMNO project.”
As fond as he his of his time in Japan, ten years on he sees that things are different, or rather that things are still the same as they were ten years ago, and that’s a problem. “Back then 90 per cent of my games were Japanese. Now it’s the other way around; maybe 10 per cent of the games I play now are Japanese, and most of those are from Nintendo. I really feel the whole industry there is really stagnating, the market is shifting and they are having a harder and harder time competing with the big budget games out of the West, namely the US, Canada and the UK.”