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Interview: Rodney Greenblat, The Mother Of Sony's Almost Mario

July 5, 2005
 

Rodney Alan Greenblat

Ten years ago, Sony brought three dimensions, as well as the concept of "maturity", to the video gaming masses. And yet, when many people think back to the "PlayStation era", a hyper realistic character in a 3D landscape doesn't necessarily come to mind. Instead, they think of a flat cartoony dog that could rap.

We're referencing, of course, the PaRappa The Rapper series of games for the PlayStation 1 (and subsequently sequelized on PlayStation 2), created by Masaya Matsuura and his team at Japanese developer Nanaonsha. The original PaRappa took Japan by storm in the late '90s, selling over a million copies and birthing a significant cult following in the West for the series' brand of goofy humor and good-natured Daisy Age-style rhythm action, which pre-dated the rhythm game crazes of Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution.

So, to help illuminate the world of PaRappa and friends, Gamasutra recently talked to one of the true pioneers of the world of modern video game art, and the rarely-interviewed man who almost birthed a Mario for Sony: the graphic designer for the PaRappa series, New York-based visual artist Rodney Alan Greenblat. In this exclusive interview conducted at his studio, Greenblat discusses the genesis of the games from his perspective, his work on the sequels and resulting Japanese animated series, and just why Umjammer Lammy looks like Natalie Imbruglia.

Gamasutra: How did you get your start working at Sony?

Greenblat: I met this agent, who's still my friend, Taki Wayoshi who has a company called Interlink in Japan ; he was [representing] American illustrators. I started doing that and they just loved my stuff. One of my very first jobs was a poster for Sony, even before I knew anybody there. It was a poster for Handicam. So I did this ad campaign, and it was big; the posters were everywhere in Japan and I had no idea, I just thought it was a job and I got paid well. But they loved it and I got more jobs.

I went over there to show Dazzeloids at a Mac conference in Tokyo, and I had all these fans where I got there. It was crazy! They loved Dazzeloids, so they wanted me to do a Japanese version, which I did. Then this guy from Sony who knew Tak was thinking of hiring me to do some product designs for a licensing branch of Sony (Sony Creative). So I designed licensed goods like lunch boxes, t-shirts, all kinds of products; I had no background in that either and just fell into it, but I made some really cute characters. Cute characters were really big at the time. This was '94.

So we were doing these products and that was going well, and another branch of Sony that was connected to the licensing group said that they wanted us to meet these people who were designing a PlayStation game. The system hadn't come out yet, so I didn't know what it was. So I got to go to this top-secret lab, almost like a movie, and saw the guts of PlayStation blasting out 3D models onto a screen. I remember it very specifically; a T-Rex's head rotating around. You couldn't do that on a computer at the time!

But the great thing was that I really didn't have to think about it that much, because the team that were trying to do this game already knew they wanted to a music game. So they were just looking for someone to do the art.

Gamasutra: The game already had a direction?

Greenblat: Well the guy, Masaya Matsuura.... he's the father of PaRappa. I always think of him as the father and I'm the mother [laughs]. He knew what he wanted to do, and he was working on the Mac making on a rap music game where you could plug in different samples and play to them to a rhythm, like a DJ box. Rap music was pretty new at the time, especially in Japan. It was like a sequencer but for little kids. It wasn't a commercial product, just something he created on his own.

He's a big successful pop star actually. Sony loved him, and he had the whole company at his disposal pretty much. He's a genius.

Gamasutra: So here's this pop star who happens to design games. And he asked for you specifically?

Greenblat: Yeah. His wife at the time was an artist and had seen my children's books, and he had seen Dazzeloids, plus I was already there! I was just in another office, literally down the block, so I just walked into this office and met all these cool people. And they told me about the game idea, and I was like "yeah, okay". I had no idea what it was going to be, and neither did they really. And Sony didn't have much hope that it would be successful.

Gamasutra: What did they tell you? What was your introduction to the game?

Greenblat: They wanted it to be about these characters... they wanted a main character who was going around to different teachers and they would teach him how to do a rap, and that was the basic concept. And it was going to be like that game from the '80s, Simon with the electronic lights; they were going to do that basically with the PlayStation, but the character are going to be animated to the rhythm. And I was "I'm there, that sounds great." So they asked me to come up with some character sketches; they had already taken my characters from Dazzeloids and put them in the PlayStation. They just took the actual graphics from the CD-ROM and made a little experiment of these guys moving around in the PlayStation environment. And that was only two weeks after I had said I would do it, they were showing me these amazing tests.

Gamasutra: Did it feature the paper cut-out look?

Greenblat: Yup. That's why he wanted to call it PaRappa the Rapper; he had the rap idea and the cut-out thing in his head already. All they needed from me was to draw the thing, so that's what I did. They told me what kind of teachers would be in each level and what the levels were like. And then I just did tons of sketches of what they might be, so in that way I collaborated on the story because some of my characters were better than what they were thinking, so they changed the story to adapt to what my characters were, which was great.

Gamasutra: Any examples?

Greenblat: In the case of Chop Chop Master Onion, he was just supposed to be a karate teacher. I came up with lots of designs of what a karate teacher might be, but the onion thing they just loved, so they changed the whole thing so he was the onion master. It just worked out perfect. I don't think they had an idea of what the driving instructor might be, and I just thought it would be so funny if she were this big moose, and I was thinking of Queen Latifah in a certain way. There were very few things that didn't work or that they didn't like. And I don't think there was very little pressure, we were all just very happy to be doing it. We didn't know if the game would sell or not, but we really liked it.

Gamasutra: How big was the game's team?

Greenblat: I think the original PaRappa team probably about 10 to 12 people. It was really small. I guess there was a core of 3 or 4 programmers who wrote the whole flat character motion thing. And Matsuura, he's like a whirlwind; he wrote the music, recorded it, and then with this other guy Ryu, who's Japanese but grew up in LA... he was this Japanese rapper... he wrote all the lyrics. I'd just go in there cranking out art; they'd make a list of stuff and I'd just blast it over to them.

Gamasutra: And there was never any pressure from Sony to justify the product?


PaRappa the Rapper and the driving instructor.

Greenblat: No, not on PaRappa. Sony just wanted games; the PlayStation was new and they wanted a variety. And they already had tons of people working on [FPSes], racing games, flying games, role-playing games. They already had that going, tons of them. So they had another division, we were called Division Zero, where we just did whatever. There were some other people doing some weird Sim City-type game, I didn't know who they were. Our thing was just happening and everyone loved it at the company. We didn't know if it was going to be a big hit but we were all very positive about it. And then it became a big hit.

Gamasutra: It was a big success in Japan was it not?

Greenblat: It was a big hit in Japan; it sold so quickly. This was in '96... we sold a million copies in no time, and I was so surprised.

Gamasutra: As you might recall, when the PlayStation came out in America, the President of the SCEA at the time had a very staunch anti-2D, 3D-only game policy for all software releases. It seems as if Sony of Japan was a lot more open.

It was a lot more open. We weren't connected at all with what was happening in the U.S. When they decided to sell the game here [in the U.S.], and that was only because it was a huge success in Japan; I don't think the U.S. PlayStation people were all interested in our ideas at all. But then we sold a lot of copies and they woke up. But even so, they had no idea how to market it when they got it here; it was like, they didn't get it either.

Gamasutra: Were you disappointed then with how they released it?

Greenblat: Well they did a pretty good job; they had TV commercials, billboards, and they really blasted it out there to the best of their ability. But they were marketing it towards little kids and I knew that wasn't going to be good, because it was a little too hard for little kids. Our audience in Japan was [made up of] teenagers and college kids... but here it was little kids which was a mistake. Which they tried to change with UmJammer Lammy; they pointed that directly at teens, but they overshot. [laughs] The U.S. Sony never got me, never figured out what I was doing, never figured out Matsuura's thing.

Gamasutra: Did you have any direct contact with someone at Sony America?

Greenblat: Only with marketing people after the game was slated to be sold here. I went to the opening. we had a big roll-out for the game here.... and did some interviews and press conferences. Mostly press people; they were all very nice and did the best job they could, but they really didn't have much support from corporate Sony.

Gamasutra: Many folks don't know that PaRappa became a mascot for the PlayStation in Japan.

Greenblat: That was what I was really hoping and really fighting for. I think Sony could have made PaRappa into their Mario. Nintendo has a Mario, and Sony didn't have that kind of identity; I was thinking that they needed a face for that company, and PaRappa was the perfect face. He's about music, he's about energy, and he's cool... he's like a happening little guy. He's not like an Italian plumber that you never figure out why that makes sense [laughs]. It was so perfect; I was really hoping that was the direction PaRappa was going.

Gamasutra: Did you folks push for it that heavily?

Greenblat: Well I was always talking about it and pushing forward in the little division I was in, but I didn't really realize exactly how many different divisions there are in Sony and how big it really is, and how little our division was in the scheme of things... my voice just wasn't heard. But I think, for them to end up selling three million copies of PaRappa, our voice was heard in that way. It went as far as it could go, and I was just excited about that, and hoping that they would just pick it up and really run with it, but that just didn't happen.

Gamasutra: How did you feel about the end product? Did it meet expectations? Were there any ideas that didn't come to be due to time or technical constraints?

Greenblat: I think the first PaRappa game is perfect. It's just so simple and really took advantage of what you could do with the PlayStation. I don't even know what I could criticize; the criticism that it got was that it was too easy, that gamers could go through it pretty quickly.

Gamasutra: These gamers who complained, were they American or Japanese?

Greenblat: Both. It was the main complaint, but everyone loved it except for that one thing. So in Umjammer Lammy, [Matsuura] made it so hard to play...

Gamasutra: How did that game come about?

Greenblat: Well it was supposed to be the sequel to PaRappa. But Matsuura doesn't think in a linear way [laughs]... I actually do; I'm very strategy oriented, sort of progressive about the way I do things. But Matsuura always wants to turn everything upside down and do it backwards. He didn't want PaRappa as the main character; he wanted a new character where PaRappa was just a friend who would appear later on. I was like "I don't know about that, I think we should do a PaRappa game!" but they were like "No, no. Matsuura knows what he's doing; he's a genius." [laughs]

So he made me design this game about this girl who plays the guitar. It was going to be rock music, and I wondered how he was going to do that, because really, what is rock music? I mean, is it Aerosmith? Is it Lynyrd Skynyrd? Is it Elvis? Elvis Costello? Where are we? What are we doing exactly? And how are you going to do the rap kind of thing, with the call and response? Because that's what PaRappa really was, a call and response game; teacher says one thing and PaRappa repeats it. How are you going to do that with a heavy metal song? I didn't get how he was going to do it, but I trusted him. He did manage to achieve it, but it was quite a process.

Gamasutra: Was the process of creating the game that much different than from PaRappa?

Greenblat: Yeah, [the process in] Umjammer was much harder. And they were pushing the PlayStation to its limits with that game, to make it that more involved. And the story was crazy and wild... I wasn't even sure if that was going to work. And the whole thing started to look really psychedelic, and not heavy metal or new wave; I was thinking that we should do more of a goth thing, like The Cure, but they didn't go for it. Though they did end up incorporating every genre of rock in the game.

Gamasutra: Were more people involved this time around?


Um Jammer Lammy

Greenblat: Yeah, the team got bigger and there was a much bigger budget. Sony wanted more sales - they wanted another PaRappa . But things just got messed up. It was a lot of pressure and I think the fun and sort of the magic that happened with the original game was starting to get a bit lost. We were trying so hard to make this challenging, convoluted, psychedelic game to really outdo PaRappa , and I think went a little too far because its really hard to play.

So in PaRappa 2 they devised what they called "the Rodney Level" which was the training level (before the start of each level there was a very brief practice/tutorial round) because I couldn't make it through the Lammy levels. [The game is about] learning patterns, and if you can't figure out where Matsuura's head is with these convoluted patterns, its really hard. So they invented this thing so you could practice the skeleton of the basic pattern, which was a great idea. I'm not sure of what people thought of it, but it was one way to give kids a chance to learn how to do it because Lammy was way too hard for little kids and they wanted that game. It was Matsuura's compromise.

Gamasutra: What was the process of creating characters like? Did the team ask for very specific things was asking for a character or just a general idea? Was there much back and forth, or tweaking?

Greenblat: Most of the time I would give them a series of sketches, maybe three or four choices and they would choose one or two, then I'd do another two. Sometimes I'd hit it right away and sometimes I'd have to do it over and over again. The best example is Lammy herself, which took me forever; I did four or five different Lammys and #2 was put in the game.The first fully finished level that they were testing had this other Lammy... they had gone all the way to the animation and then they asked me to go literally back to the drawing board.

And designing the main character is the hardest part; the main character is the logo basically. [I had done many others but] they went through four official Lammys that were approved but rejected later on. [The final design was] so far from my original plan that I was a little disappointed, because it's supposed to be a lamb. I had a curly haired, lamb-looking character. And then the whole Natalie Imbruglia thing came, the Australian pop star, where they wanted it to look like her.

Gamasutra: What was the public's response to Umjammer?

Greenblat: It didn't make the same explosive sales as PaRappa did and that was pretty disappointing to everyone because we put a lot more effort and time and money into the game.

Gamasutra: Did the difference in the landscape of PlayStation games at the time, in relation to what was available when PaRappa 1, make a difference?

Greenblat: Yeah, we took too long; we spent two years working on Umjammer and we should have blasted out another PaRappa game in a year to keep the ball moving. By the time Lammy came out there was already lots of other music games coming out, like dancing games, and we were sort of little behind, I thought, by the time Lammy finally got out there.

Gamasutra: When it came to PaRappa 2, was the team disappointed by moving back or were they just happy to return to what worked?

Greenblat: Well, that's what I thought was going to happen, but once again Matsuura wants to do everything in a freaked out, backwards upside down way. And I love him for that, he's an artist who's constantly trying to beat people's expectations, to trick them out with that they think he's going to do. So it was another case of that with this R&B thing instead of rap. I was happy that it involved the same characters (from PaRappa 1), but the way it was all going to work, the storyline, the animation was all turned around.

Gamasutra: How did you feel about PaRappa 2 in the end?

Greenblat: I liked it, but all the criticisms I had all along were still the same; it was very complicated... the music didn't get to me as well, it didn't connect as well as the other stuff. I think we were behind the curve again... it also took us another two years, which was too long.

Gamasutra: Did the fact that it was on a totally different system, the PlayStation 2, attribute to this in any way?

Greenblat: They had a lot of trouble with the new platform. I remember them trying to get the shadows of the characters to work and for some reason it was a real problem, though I forget why. And Matsuura had [an even more] complicated play system set-up; originally I think there was going to be a way to edit the animated vignettes, to mess-up, play backwards or forwards, or re-order the segments because it's all live, not pre-rendered. He was trying figure it out and ran out of time, and I think he got really frustrated with all that. He wanted to do a whole thing with the animation, but it was just too much. The game adapts to the player's ability, and that's tough stuff to work on.

Gamasutra: After PaRappa 2, were there any other game projects you were presented with? How did you feel about working with games in general at that point?


A Parappa toy

Greenblat: It wasn't so much about video games as it was PaRappa. When PaRappa 2 came out, the animated series came out in Japan, and [there were] too many people involved for me. I really lost my voice because there were so many other people. [The show's producers] decided that they wouldn't let anyone from the game team side work on the TV side, they didn't want to pull anyone from the game development for the TV show development. And then they wanted to slate the show for little kids, 5 year olds or something, mostly to sell toys.

And I wasn't into that, because I was like "Everyone knew teenagers loved PaRappa, so let's do a teen show." But [Sony] wanted to sell toys, so [the show's producers] made a little kids version of PaRappa. Then they wanted me to design other characters for the show. And I was "okay, but let me write some of the episodes that these new characters will be in" and they didn't let me do that. They only let me design characters, they didn't let me write or be part of the show's production, and I felt as if I was kicked, in a way, out of something I always wanted to do. I always wanted to work in animation, to see my characters on a TV show.

So the TV show was not a success, it was not a good show. I don't know about the writing because it was all in Japanese, but apparently it didn't connect with the kids, they didn't like it. And the time-slot it was on turned out to be a disaster. A big deal was made, it had a prime slot for little kids, but it kept on getting preempted by baseball games. There was two different animation houses doing the show and each had a slightly different style and that was really bugging me; my characters looked a little different in one episode to the next.

[The show's producers] also took all this copyright space; in order to put it on TV and pay for all the animation, which was expensive, they wanted to be part owners of the copyright, which we [Sony Creative] had been clinging to. Sony Creative owned the copyright, and Sony Computer had ownership of just the game... they didn't care, because it was raking in all this money for Sony even if it was just two different divisions... but when the animation people came in, and then Fuji TV... it just got [to be] this whole mess. Just too many people...

Gamasutra: Did it burn you out?

Greenblat: Yeah... I didn't even know where I fit in, who I was really working for. I was doing so much work on the show, especially because they kept on adding new characters every week. I had to create a whole new PaRappa world and check things; I would get rushes for each episodes and make corrections, and they wouldn't even do anything about it! Characters kept on changing and messing up... in the game PaRappa could drive a car so you figure he's 16 or 17, but in the show he's sitting in the third grade and his antics were based on what 8 or 9 year old are doing? It just got all nutty... and then I think [all the various parties] all fell apart. It wasn't my burn out that was the problem; all those companies just scattered and did their own things.

Japan is so different; when the project is over, it's over. That's all; they go onto something completely different.

Gamasutra: Is that something that you found admirable? Frustrating?

Greenblat: Frustrating. Here we build character franchises... if a character starts to become popular in America, we blast it out and do lots of stuff, whatever they have to do if people like the character. But in Japan, everything was a separate project. There's wasn't like a master plan.

So when the show was not a hit, I guess the corporate guys thought against [extending the franchise]. Or maybe Matsuura just didn't want to do it anymore, I don't know. Matsuura was the father of the game, but it sort of felt like he wanted to do other things, have a different family with different kids. And I don't blame him, but for me as an American, I wanted to do the same thing over and over again. [laughs]

Rodney Greenblat in his studio, 2005.

Gamasutra: Were you involved in any other game projects since PaRappa 2?

Greenblat: No. I basically decided to retire from games after the television show. Because I knew I had to come up with something really great and I couldn't find the team. It just wasn't happening, so I decided to get out while things were still basically popular. I actually quit doing advertising jobs and just got out. For the past two years I've just been doing paintings and sculptures, redeveloping my art and ideas.

Gamasutra: Do you still hear from people who know you from your video game work?

Greenblat: I do. And since PaRappa is kind of a legendary game now I do get email from people who are either discovering it or remembered playing it when they were younger, since almost ten years have gone by. And I love that, it's great when people find it.

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