Meet Jake Kazdal, the Rez artist who became a game designer in his own right

Jake Kazdal

Kazdal founded indie 17-Bit in 2009, having worked in the industry since the early nineties on games as diverse as Spider, Twisted Edge Extreme Snowboarding, Space Channel 5 and Rez.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Jake Kazdal would grow up wanting to make games. His father owned a chain of pizza parlours across Seattle throughout the ’70s and ’80s, each one lined with arcade machines. “For a five-year-old looking up at these monolithic black altars, it was almost too much to handle,” the designer recalls. “I had an immediate absolute respect and passion for these games.” Kazdal’s father would fill a Styrofoam cup with quarters and send his son off to fill a Pac-Man, Asteroids or Tempest cabinet with credits to while away the hours. “It was like having my own arcade in many ways. All those gameplay moments and lessons were etched into my young brain.”

If having his own childhood arcade wasn’t enough to set him down a career path towards videogames, Kazdal’s family home was 15 minutes from Nintendo Of America’s offices. At the age of 15, his best friend’s sister landed a job there working the phones. She told him about the so-called Gameplay Counselors that Nintendo employed, who would answer callers’ game-related questions and provide hints. “You had to be 16 to apply,” he says, “so on my birthday I had everything lined up and applied for the job. This was the NES heyday. I played probably three-quarters of all NES games. It was fantastic.”

Later on, Kazdal decided to study art to provide him with a formal way into the game industry and enrolled on an animation program at Vancouver Film School in British Columbia. The Monday after he graduated, he started work at Lobotomy Software, a studio set up by three of his former bosses at Nintendo. From there, Kazdal joined Boss Game Studio and worked on N64 title Twisted Edge Extreme Snowboarding.

It was while working at Boss that Kazdal’s life took an unexpected turn. One day, a specialist in 3D animation program Maya visited the office to offer some advanced training. “I had spent a semester of college in Kobe, Japan, and had a ton of Japanese Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter toys on my desk,” Kazdal recalls. “This guy, Kenneth Ibrahim, immediately asked me if I had been to Japan. Out of nowhere, I said, ‘Yes, and it’s my dream to work at Sega someday.’ Kenneth told me that he used to work at Sega in Tokyo. He asked if I knew who Tetsuya Mizuguchi was.”

It was Kazdal’s dream to work at Sega one day – one he achieved when he was invited to move to Japan by Mizuguchi himself to work on the seminal Rez. You can read our Rez review from 2001 here.

Kazdal knew all about Mizuguchi, the creator of Sega Rally, having recently read a profile in Edge featuring the designer. Ibrahim explained that Mizuguchi was coming to America soon and invited Kazdal to meet him.

The pair met at E3 in 1998. “I had prepared a demo reel of my paintings, animations and drawings to show him,” Kazdal explains. “We went out for drinks and dinner the next day to continue our discussion, and Mizuguchi asked me what my biggest inspirations were. I told him I had seen this crazy psychedelic club music concert scene in the latest Macross movie. It had been drawn by Koji Morimoto, one of the lead animators on the seminal film Akira, who I said Mizuguchi probably hadn’t heard of.”

Mizuguchi started laughing. Then he replied: “Know him? Koji Morimoto works for me. Would you like to meet him?” And Mizuguchi told Kazdal about a game he was planning that drew upon house music and the clubbing scene. He asked the artist if he would be interested in moving to Japan to work with him at United Game Artists. The game was Rez.

“When I told my friends I was moving to Japan, they were incredulous,” Kazdal says. “I didn’t speak Japanese. But I am a hopeless optimist.” Despite his optimism, he realised the gravity of his decision when he arrived in Tokyo: almost nobody spoke English. “The art director, [Yumiko] Miyabe, had watched a load of Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he recalls, “and was able to use some Starfleet-esque English to communicate with me.”

Kazdal would write down words that were used repeatedly in meetings and later find out their meanings. Within a year, he could converse in Japanese, even if he mostly let his “pen do the talking”.

Kazdal worked on the glitter-pop music game Space Channel 5 before joining the Rez team. “The project was phenomenal,” he says. “That feeling of absolute challenge; there was no game to look at for inspiration.”

After his time with Sega, Kazdal worked on Steven Spielberg’s abortive LMNO project at EA. Also at EA during that time were eventual Skulls Of The Shogun co-creators Borut Pfeifer and Ben Vance.

The team would go clubbing with Mizuguchi on weekends and dance through the night. Kazdal would carry a pocket Moleskine notebook with him at all times to jot down ideas. One night, he saw a VJ using a Winamp plugin that displayed sound waves moving to the beat. “I asked my best friend, Hideto Yamada, who worked at Namco, if he knew what the software was,” he recalls. “He told me he had it at home. That night, we went back to his house and I videotaped the Winamp player. I showed it to Mizuguchi the following Monday. That’s where the wireframe look for Rez originated.”

After completing Rez, Kazdal worked on a GameCube adventure for a year, a prototype that was never released. Then the news came that Sega planned to incorporate United Game Artists into Sonic Team. As many of his friends at the studio departed, Kazdal also decided to leave in order further his studies in industrial design and concept art. He returned to America to study at the Art Center College Of Design in Pasadena.

Later, while working at Zombie Studios on Blacklight: Tango Down, Kazdal began spending his evenings and weekends on a hobby project with a designer he knew called Borut Pfeifer. Kazdal soon decided to go indie and founded what would become 17-Bit in order to work full time on the game. Skulls Of The Shogun, released earlier this year for Xbox Live Arcade and PC, was a chance for Kazdal to take back creative control more than anything. “I had worked for many years on large teams, and was tired of the big-budget, full-3D game experience,” he says. “I wanted to do something I could largely control with my own two hands, some sort of art that I could realistically do the entire art production myself, as well as try my hand at being a game designer, not just an artist who secretly wanted to be a designer.”

Despite now having a wife and young children, Kazdal’s adventurous spirit has not left him. Recently, he has convinced the 17-Bit team to relocate to Japan. The studio settles in Kyoto next year to continue working on Galak-Z, a 2D space combat game that Kazdal describes as “a love letter to my childhood and those arcade games I grew up with in my dad’s pizza parlours”. It’s part of a continuing affair with the medium. As Kazdal explains: “This is all I have done with most of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am a very lucky man.”