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Go To Synesthesia… Jake Kazdal’s Journey Through The Heart Of Rez

May 6, 2005
 

To the uninitiated, the Dreamcast and PlayStation game Rez, published by Sega and developed by its UGA (United Game Artists) division in 2001, is near-impossible to describe. The title, which had a very limited release and relatively small sales, has since become a distinctly cult classic.

Some of those who noticed the game on its release and gave it a spin felt that it was just a simple on-rails shooter with music game elements. But a small and dedicated fanbase has argued that the first group doesn't "get it", and believes the title defies simple classification, even to the point of transcending the idea of what a video game can be.

Whatever the reality, it seems that the finer details behind Rez, much like the game itself, are quite enigmatic. Most know that it's the brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, yet another subdued, but inspired game designer from the East with an eclectic catalogue of games, from a classic cross-terrain racing title (Sega Rally) to a rhythm title starring a spunky intergalactic news reporter (Space Channel 5).

Mizuguchi has explained his rationale behind Rez's development a number of times, and provides the compelling viewpoint on its construction, as the game's primary creator. But a little-known fact is that, despite its Japanese origination, there was at least one Westerner working on Rez, and his story is a fascinating one. Jake Kazdal was the only American to work directly on the game as an animator and designer, and he spoke to Gamasutra about his game development background, as well as his time working on Rez and his experiences as a foreigner working at Sega Japan.


Rez

Kazdal's Progress


Jake Kazdal

First, a little background: Jake Kazdal started working in the world of gaming at the age of 16, as a game counselor for Nintendo during the heyday of the NES. Not too longer after, Jake realized that his talent for art could be used towards the creation of games, so went on to study art in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia . Immediately after graduating in 1996, Jake got his first professional gig at noted Sega Saturn developers Lobotomy Software, and then migrated to Boss Game Studios.

In 1998, an Alias representative who was on-hand to demonstrate the latest version of the company's software noticed the abundant amount of Sega-related toys on Jake's desk, and asked him if he was a fan of the company. A rather enthusiastic response led the rep to reveal his past working relationship with Sega, and offered to introduce Kazdal to Mizuguchi (the representative was the person who performed the voice acting for the game Sega Rally, such as "Right Turn. Maybe.").

Soon thereafter, Kazdal and Mizuguchi met, and Kazdal was then asked to come to Japan, where he hung out in Tokyo for a week (it was Jake's first introduction to psy-trance at "some crazy rave way out in the forest" - Mizuguchi's affinity for the club scene has often preceded him). Kazdal soon discovered that Mizuguchi was starting a new Sega development division for the company's new system, the Dreamcast, which was a few months from launch, and was looking for some fresh outside talent. Jake was then formally asked to join United Game Artists.

In a few months, Kazdal arrived in the thick of things, though the transition was not completely smooth. In addition to his inability to speak Japanese, Jake explained: "As far as I know, I was the only gaijin [literally "outside person", a Japanese term for non-Japanese people] artist at Sega ever. I know a handful of other programmers and other personnel at AM2 doing motion capture, but no other artists." But despite the language barrier, and the significant cultural barriers, Kazdal gradually acclimated himself. It's possible that it helped that UGA was not like the other Sega development groups; whereas Sega's other teams were all located in Haneda, which is the industrial suburbs, Tetsuya's small team was smack in the middle of downtown Shibuya, the hip urban center of Tokyo. UGA's location, where the art and culture of music and fashion meet, was a strong reflection of the team itself.

Kazdal and Mizuguchi had already talked about doing a game that was inspired and influenced by music and art, and by the time Jake arrived, a few tests had been done, going under the name of K-Project. So Jake started out doing character design and animation for music action game Space Channel 5 instead. After Space Channel 5's completion, K-Project began finally taking shape, so Jake then joined up with its team. He explains: "I did character design and animation, and wrote all the English text in the game. I was the one who showed Mizuguchi-san the Winamp plug-ins [that were a partial inspiration] and got the ball rolling in that direction."

The Rezvolution Of Rez


Kazdal's published Rez concept art.

The early versions of Rez took many strange forms, according to Kazdal: "Hip-hop dudes riding these huge speaker chariots, Space Harrier type characters running and jumping, super abstract shapes and characters... when we showed it, no one could understand it, it was really abstract, but man, was it ever cool? After that it started becoming more traditional with 'enemies' and a player 'character', but for a while, it was way out there."

But what exactly led the move from abstraction to more identifiable game aspects? Was it a conscious decision, perhaps due to outside people's reactions, or did it just happen naturally? "Well, internally we were really into its abstractness, but people from the outside playing it had a hard time knowing what to do, or indeed just what the hell was going on. You know how it is when you are too close to a project: a painting, a music track, a game, anything. You [yourself] understand it, but maybe others won't. So I guess it was both a conscious decision that happened naturally." However, the game does go back to its roots to an extent with the TranceMission mode, which is just bold colors and shapes, with no identifiable player or enemy character on-screen.

Despite the small size of the Rez team, it had some intriguing characters from the world of Sega. "For being so small, it had an insane ratio of killer designers and artists", Kazdal comments. The staff included Katsumi Yokota, who served as the art director and lead artist, and was previously the lead artist of Panzer Dragoon Saga: "That guy is a total trip, way into hardcore sci-fi novels and zen existence. He's hard to understand and harder to please, but man, that game wouldn't have been the same without him." Yokota is currently part of Mizuguchi's new production company, Q Entertainment.

In addition to game designers, Kazdal notes that graphic designers comprised key members of the team, including Noboru Hotta, who is also currently at Q and has just completed Meteos, and Yasu Matsuzaki, who now works for Nintendo. Again, Mizuguchi had surrounded himself with an eclectic mix of talent, including designers, VJs, and "mimes." You rarely hear of so many artists working on a single title, though as one might expect, it was never easy sailing: "There were disagreements, it wasn't always smooth... at all, actually." What exactly was in constant debate? Aesthetics. "The lead artist had his style, and everyone else had theirs, and we went through so many versions of things, although I do have to admit it could have been much worse - things did all get settled in the end."

Another element must be discussed with talking about Rez is the sound design. "A guy named Ebizoo-san, a Tokyo DJ, kind of led the evolution of things and was the main guy early on. Later we got another guy on loan from Wave Master." [Wave Master is the internal Sega's studio dedicated to sound and music production.]

"Ebizoo-san spent time in Africa researching tribal music, the call and response theory that made it into the game." What exactly is call and response theory? "African tribal music often has a guy sing a word, or tone, and the audience calls something back. It's like interactive music... hard to explain, but it became a real part of our theory. You call out, and earn a response from it." This concept is rather inherent to video gaming itself, a fact that was not lost on the team.

But the game's signature sounds were in a constant state of flux it would seem: "We used Underworld for our demo, and [even] talked to them... in the end they passed on the project, not wanting to be part of a 'violent' game, because we were shooting stuff." Two other notable names from the world of electronica, Fatboy Slim and Aphex Twin, were also involved, but Sega also couldn't reach an agreement with them for various reasons. However, the changing of the music did not dramatically alter each level, oddly enough. In the case of the first level: "The Underworld track worked so well with the first stage, although the guy from Wave Master who was responsible for the final version [ Keiichi Sugiyama] that's in the game did a really excellent job." Along with Sugiyama on the final soundtrack are other, more recognizable names, such as Adam Freeland, Joujouka, and Ken Ishii.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of Rez, here's how the graphics and the sound worked for any given level: things begin barren and quiet. As you shoot enemies and objects, noises are formed. As you pass checkpoints, the sounds become more complex and the backgrounds begin to form. Kazdal comments: "That was always part of the theme, to go from nothing up and evolve into something very different. I don't know if this has ever been talked about, but I guess it's pretty obvious that we used ancient cultures as a design inspiration for each level." The last level is different from the rest, with no particular human culture being empathized, but simply the creation of all known life itself.

"The last stage was Yokota-san's personal trip out level, also my favorite." Each transition between each subsection has a vague narrative that Kazdal translated. What was the intended message behind the words and the last level itself? Jake simply relays: "You'd have to ask [Yokota] yourself."

As for the primary goal behind the creation of the game: "Synesthesia - the combination of visuals and audio to form something new, the merging of two senses to overpower you." Mizuguchi was most influenced by the artwork of Wassily Kandinsky, hence the name K-project - Kandinsky is regarded as one of the founders of abstract art.


Rez's Japanese PlayStation 2 box art


Even though the game's concepts was hard to wrap around one's head, and the various aspects were constantly changing, the level of enthusiasm managed to stay consistent, even when the upper management at Sega initially didn't know what to make of it. Kazdal comments: "I never went to any of the upper level presentations, I was just a pixel peon. But there was some doubt, I think, it was in pre-production for such a long time, people I think really wondered whether it was a good idea or not... But Mizuguchi-san just kept fighting; he really wanted it to happen. It was his baby."

Kazdal continues: "The atmosphere at Sega when the game started, which was during the height of Dreamcast development, was much different by the time the game actually came out, when the DC was floundering, and thus the decision was made to go multi-platform. I remember the only time I saw Mizuguchi-san really bummed out and feeling defeated was the day the PlayStation 2 specs came out. Everyone was oohing and awwing, the tension was in the air!! Even if the PlayStation 2 didn't ever deliver on all of those early promises, it was enough to fatally puncture the Dreamcast's heart."

Sega's choice to go multi-platform was not only a blow to Mizuguchi, but to the whole team as well, including Kazdal. "We were all summoned to the meeting room and he dropped the bomb. I distinctly remember a bunch of the old timers jaws just dropping. It was the end of an era... Sega hardware had just been so beaten down by Sony... everyone knew it was an uphill battle, but how could you not root for the underdog? Especially when you worked for the underdog."

So with Sega's new strategy, and with Rez suddenly becoming an opening salvo on non-Sega platforms, there was a whole new level of pressure to perform, as well as the already-looming problem of the public "not getting it." Despite its uniquely abstract qualities, the team felt there was still hope for sales success. Kazdal comments: "Well, it felt different... so much what was coming out of Japan at the time was the same formulas, the same things. This game was [different]. I thought it would be the next Wipeout."

Unfortunately, Kazdal considers the U.S. ad campaign for Rez underwhelming at best, basically amounting, in his view, to a vinyl single, and some basic print advertisements. This, combines with the abstract nature of the game, meant that on almost every front, the game received extremely disappointing sales. The situation was made worse by the game's lack of licensing potential, which is where Sega had made good money in the past: "We had all kinds of licensing deals with Space Channel 5 for toys, music, and so on. But Rez collectables never really made it, besides the T-shirts and some record singles."

After Rez, Kazdal moved onto a GameCube project, which lasted over a year. Meanwhile, a sequel to Rez was actually being developed for a while - Kazdal comments: "Man, it looked cool, but never made it". But the GameCube project was eventually cancelled, so Jake moved onto the PlayStation 2 Astro Boy game right before leaving UGA, which was shortly before it was merged into Sonic Team and Mizuguchi himself parted ways with Sega.

Kazdal was not the only one who was concerned over the merge with Sonic Team: "It was depressing. People started leaving, the spark was dying out - it was rough. UGA was really tight; for a long time, everyone was friends. we had a lot of good times together. [And] when everyone started leaving it was like, whoa, party over."

A number of other factors played into the UGA exodus, Kazdal contends: the death of the GameCube title which killed morale, the lack of interest in the Astro Boy project, the belief that Mizuguchi and the head of Sonic Team, Yuji Naka would not be able to work together effectively. Some members of the UGA team went to Microsoft and Nintendo. "A handful of other guys just wanted to move on to something different. Some even left games." However, the rather bleak situation did help Kazdal come to terms with his desire to move back to America . "I had learned so much about design theory and been doing a lot more digital painting, I was really itching to get away from 3D production work."

He continues: "I was almost 30 years old and living month to month, no savings whatsoever, married, and I felt maybe I should plan out my next steps, to really follow what I had found to love doing, conceptual design, and digital painting. This meant no more 3D. I wanted to get a good education in design by this point: the flame had been awakened in me, largely by those few members of the Rez team I keep talking about. School in Tokyo was out of the question and I was starting to get cranky with all the cigarette smoke, crowded trains, and limited paychecks. So, over Christmas 2002, I spent some time in Los Angeles looking at the top schools, and once I found exactly what I was looking for, I told Mizuguchi-san in January 2003 that I would be leaving in a few months time. He was supportive, and said he looks forward to working me with again in the future... and I really plan to make that a reality as well."


Rez


Today, Jake is on sabbatical studying concept design at the Art Center in Pasadena. But to this day, he's quite proud of his contributions to one of the most consistently talked about games in the past four years, which over those years, did manage to find its audience after all. Kazdal comments: "Well, people who like that game love it. People still come up to me all the time and freak out when they hear I worked on it... a total cult following. I doubt I will ever work on anything cooler, which is actually depressing in some ways. But it's my goal to work on something as memorable as Rez again someday."

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