You could say that Jake Kazdal stands out as he walks the streets of Kyoto on the way to the office of his company, 17-BIT. Thanks to his towering presence and a look that wouldn't be out of place in a metal band, he's not what you would call your "typical" Kyoto-based games developer – but then this is an individual whose career has been more eventful than most, and after more than a decade of life in Japan, he's assembled a team which creates that most unique of beasts: software designed with both eastern and western sensibilities in mind. While he might not look like your traditional resident, he insists that Kyoto – once the seat of Japanese imperial power – is a truly wonderful place to live.
"My spoken Japanese is pretty decent these days, at least casually, and if you can communicate here, people are just fantastic," Kazdal tells us. "They are even if you don’t speak Japanese too, but the ability to have conversations and communicate well is just such a joy. It’s been more than 10 years now and I love it as much as ever. There is a strong sense of community here, and not using a car in your daily life means much more interaction with neighbours, you run into friends all the time, and the small-town feel is very present even in a city as big as Kyoto. I honestly think it's one of the nicest places to live in the world. There is a thriving independent game design scene here, and close proximity to Nintendo and Capcom leads to many great nights out."
Kazdal might have come a long way from his North American roots, but even as a child, his connection with gaming seemed almost pre-destined. "My Dad had pizza parlours when I was growing up, that always had at least a handful of arcade machines, so I was kind of the luckiest kid in the world back in the late ’70s and early/mid-’80s. When both my parents had to work it was easier to give me a cup full of quarters than secure a babysitter, which worked out just great for me! I had plenty of time with all the classics back then; Asteroids, Zaxxon, Super Mario Bros., all the Donkey Kongs, Centipede, Tempest, Battlezone, Star Wars, Ikari Warriors, Ms Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Missile Command... all those amazing masterpieces of the era! Obviously those were super formative years, when games had to feel amazing because the graphics were so limited."
With a strong affection and interest in gaming assured, it was only natural that Kazdal would move into the industry – and his first role was every NES owner's dream position: a Nintendo games counsellor. "It was awesome," he beams. "The pay was good, the work was fun, and I had full access to all the NES games I could play. We could buy them cheap from the company store, but we could just check out any game we liked, they encouraged us to play as many games as possible so we could speak about them authoritatively as game counsellors. I made some lifelong friends and discovered early on I loved the video game industry." He would then join Enix and get his first game credits, working as a game counsellor and QA on Enix's SNES RPGs Illusion of Gaia and Brain Lord and also worked at Irem during this early period, play-testing games to evaluate their suitability for western release.
I had full access to all the NES games I could play. We could buy them cheap from the company store, but we could just check out any game we liked
Via his connections at Nintendo, Kazdal would neatly transition into games development proper via Lobotomy, a small studio formed by former Nintendo of America staffers and perhaps most famous today for porting Duke Nukem and Quake to the Sega Saturn. "It was the Wild West back in then for small independent developers," Kazdal recalls. "I remember the three founders Brian Anderson, Dane Emerson and Paul Lange literally pitching SNES prototypes on the show floor of CES; it was so much harder then than now. I have a ton of respect for those guys. Lobotomy was a total frat house, a bunch of dudes brought together by sheer passion and willpower – it actually reminds me a bit of 17-BIT these days!" Next up was Boss Game Studios. "Boss was my first big corporate job with proper cubicles and a $30,000 SGI workstation, a far cry from the PC-based, shoestring independent work at Lobotomy. Both experiences were very formative and led to lifelong friendships."
However, Kazdal's heart told him that his future lay outside of North America. The seeds were sown in 1993, when he first visited the island nation he now calls home. "The fascination with Japanese video games was always obviously present, but it was the study of the language and its history in college that led to a semester in Kobe during my sophomore year." He certainly landed on his feet when he eventually moved over to Japan properly; his first role was a job at Sega subsidiary United Game Artists, run by the legendary Tetsuya Mizuguchi.
"I was a big fan of the UK magazine EDGE, and they had published a big interview with Mizuguchi-san that I had recently read when an American guy from Alias, Kenneth Ibrahim, came by the Boss Studio to update the artists on the most recent release of Alias PowerAnimator. I had been to Japan quite a few times by then, and my desk was littered with Virtua Fighter toys and the like. Kenneth mentioned 'Wow, big Sega fan, eh? I used to work at Sega in Tokyo for Mizuguchi, ever heard of him?' It was fate. I was such a huge fan of Sega Rally I couldn’t believe my luck. Kenneth introduced me to Mizuguchi-san at E3 a few weeks later, and my life was forever changed."
Kazdal's first project was the cult classic Space Channel 5, and he then moved onto a little game called Rez. You might have heard of it. "It was the coolest project ever," he remembers. "I couldn’t believe my luck and my place on the project. Imagine my shock when I discovered a big chunk of my teammates came straight from the Panzer Dragoon team. It was almost too much. I had already finished my work on Space Channel 5, and was getting used to working on weird projects without much precedent, which went on to really define who I became as a creator, really enjoying life on the creative frontier."
During the development of Rez, Sega made the difficult decision to exit the home hardware arena and become a software-driven company. Kazdal was there to experience this dramatic shift first-hand. "It was sad, and easy to recognize it was the end of an era, but it was much more of a shock to the long-timers who had been there for many years; I remember the meeting when Mizuguchi-san broke the news to the entire team, it was the most sombre, deathly silent room I’ve ever been in with that many people. It was interesting for sure; Rez ended up being the very first PS2 game Sega ever published, so I'm obviously proud of that too, but I was a huge fan of the Dreamcast and very disappointed people didn’t react to it the way it deserved."
After leaving Sega, Kazdal returned to America and joined EA, where he would work on the unreleased adventure game LMNO with none other than Steven Spielberg. "The team was full of crazy talent, and I made a bunch of lifelong friends there too, including Borut Pfeifer and Ben Vance, who went on to create Skulls of the Shogun with me. I learned a lot about a long pre-production phase before going into production, a lot about concept art creation and prototyping in general. It’s a shame the game never made it to production, but the lessons I learned were quite valuable and I really enjoyed my time there. After that game stalled, I moved to the Command & Conquer team, and met my future 17-BIT COO Raj Joshi, as well as our main musician at 17-BIT, Sam Bird."
My two favourite strategy games are both quick, snappy, tactical turn-based series: Shining Force and Advance Wars
With the contacts needed to strike out on his own, Kazdal decided to form his own studio, initially called Haunted Temple Studios and then 17-BIT, in Seattle. However, Japan was once again calling, and he decided to set up an office in Kyoto – which just so happens to be where Nintendo is based, too. The aforementioned Skulls of the Shogun was the first fruit of the team's labours.
"My two favourite strategy games are both quick, snappy, tactical turn-based series: Shining Force and Advance Wars," says Kazdal when asked about the inspiration behind the game that out 17-BIT on the map. "I wanted to make something in that vein, combining a flashy, quick fun interface and goofy world with lite, quick, juicy tactics." He thinks that the game typifies the studio's approach in many ways. "With a lot of new mechanics and novel approaches to how things work, I think it's a strong example of the design ethos at 17-BIT. Take something classic, update it in ways that make sense and takes some risks, but polish the hell out of it. That’s what we do."
Skulls of the Shogun gained plenty of critical acclaim when it launched in 2013, during what could perhaps be seen as the fading days of Xbox Live Arcade's indie gold rush. It has since found an even wider audience thanks to releases on iOS, PS4 and – last year – Nintendo Switch. It would be 17-BIT's next game that would allow Kazdal and his team to truly stretch their wings, although it wasn't quite the resounding commercial success it was expected to be.
Galak-Z was initially announced as a PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2013, and much was made of the sharp enemy AI, procedurally-generated environments and realistic deep-space physics engine. Fans of Japanese pop culture were also keen to note that the game clearly owed a debt to classic anime, with its stylised character portraits and sleek, appealing ship designs – oh, and that trademark lock-on missile barrage, inspired by Ichiro Itano's work on the seminal Macross series. A few delays dampened the hype, and when it did eventually arrive in 2015, it was met with positive reviews but disappointing sales. 2018's free-to-player spin-off title Variant S found a more receptive audience, especially on Switch – but there's no avoiding the fact that Galak-Z didn't secure as wide an audience as 17-BIT wanted.
"The game was an absolute joy to create, has a lot of rabid fans but never was a critical success in the way we would have liked," Kazdal says. Despite his obvious disappointment, it's impossible to doubt his enthusiasm for the project which has come to personify his studio, and if he could do it all over again, he's not sure he would change anything. "I’d rather create something that challenges me daily, and is constantly fun to play and tune and discover. I’d much rather be on that side of the fence than working on mega-franchises where you just rinse and repeat the same established mechanics, not mixing anything up. Obviously someday we’re hoping to create something novel and fresh but hit that critical success. We’ll keep swinging, regardless."
Galak-Z is something of a bittersweet project for Kazdal in other ways, as it afforded him the chance to work with one of his dearest friends in the games industry, Jason Brookes, who sadly passed away in late 2019 after a long illness. As well as being a close pal, Brookes was instrumental in shaping Kazdal's career for reasons we've already mentioned. "It was Jason who wrote the EDGE interview with Mizuguchi-san all those years ago, the one that changed my life," Kazdal says. "We later met and became very close friends. I ran everything by him, and he being the crazy R-Type fan he was, insisted on being a part of the team for Galak-Z. He did our poster, a bunch of marketing assets, he made our web page, and was a constant champion for the game. We had such similar loves of design, music and gaming it was always a pleasure collaborating with him. He was a dear, dear friend and his loss has been both hard to believe as well as very painful. I try to remember him with a smile though, he was such a good influence on the team; he will be missed. His poster hangs right in front of my desk, I see it and think of him every day."
I would love more than anything for Nintendo to properly enter this space and just own it... I really miss the extra dimension available in 3D
17-BIT's next swing for the fences is taking place in Virtual Reality, a platform which Kazdal believes isn't anywhere close to its full potential yet. "I think there are a lot of misconceptions about VR; people somehow think you need a dedicated room in your house, and I thought so too at first, but it turns out I do most of my VR sitting down on a stool or on my couch, fully engaged in the world but safely settled in the real world not knocking things off the shelves or banging around. With the perfect camera control (humans, it turns out, are very good at using their necks and eyes as cameras) you can focus 100% on playing the game, and being inside the game world as opposed to peering into it through a little 2D window, is just a different world. The experiences are just exponentially more than you can experience on a flat-screen TV."
According to Kazdal, 17-BIT's focus on VR means that its next game ("the biggest game we’ve ever done and a very special project for many reasons") sadly won't be Switch-bound, despite the arrival of Labo VR – something that he's slightly regretful about. "We’re huge Switch fans and hope to do something that works both there and in VR for the next-next title!" he laughs. "I’m a huge Switch fan. I’m a lifelong hardcore Nintendo fan. I play my Switch almost every day; it's my favourite Nintendo platform since the SNES."
A love of both VR and Nintendo has created something of a dual-personality in Kazdal, and he hopes that in the future, Nintendo will find a way to leverage the promise of immersive gaming a little more convincingly than it did with Labo VR. "My gaming time is literally split in half – I love the first-party Nintendo stuff and all the great indie games I play all the time, and when I have time to jump into something really juicy I break out my Oculus Quest and Rift, and my PSVR. I would love more than anything for Nintendo to properly enter this space and just own it; their experiments so far are fantastic, and I really miss the extra dimension available in 3D. In fact, I’m playing Super Mario 3D Land again right now on 3DS. It just is so much more satisfying than playing on a flat 2D screen."
With his experience of working with both western and Japanese game developers, Kazdal has a unique perspective on modern, global games design – but how has his career shaped the way he runs 17-BIT today? "I was lucky to work in small, passionate teams working on bold, innovative and daring software on almost every project," he replies. "I’ve never worked on a mega team, so I can’t compare. I truly enjoyed my time on all the teams I’ve been a part of. I can say I think the Japanese work too much and I saw a fair amount of burn-out because of that, so we are really careful to stick to reasonable working hours at 17-BIT, which keeps people motivated and engaged, even if it does lead to delays in shipping... But we’ve assembled an amazing crew and its important everyone is operating at full efficiency and proper breaks are not to be underestimated. From both sides of the planet, I learned to embrace the unknown and to spend your time doing something that hasn’t been done before, feeling comfortable taking on new challenges and being proud of pushing the medium forward, even without the big bucks. Rez didn’t sell very much at all that first time out, but it has become a legend in time, and I wouldn’t have it the other way around."
With two solid games under its belt and a wealth of combined experience to call upon, is the time right for 17-BIT to expand and challenge the big boys of the games development world? Kazdal maintains that the studio is right where he wants it to be now, and that's not likely to change. "We’re about 15 people now alongside a couple of contractors, and this is definitely our sweet spot. Small enough to be nimble and daring, without needing a massive budget. This is where the magic happens, and I can’t wait to share our next title with the world!"
Even though it's not destined for Switch, we can't wait, either.
We'd like to sincerely thank Jake for giving up his valuable time to speak with us.