An American in Tokyo

Eric Pickett | 8 Nov 2005 07:05
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I've been living in Japan for the past three months, and I'm here to tell you that it is not a place for the faint of heart. I'm sure many readers of this magazine dream of crossing the Pacific and breaking headfirst into the land of samurai and ninjas, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball. This is a dream which usually doesn't survive past the first encounter with a Japanese train station. Forget about blazing trails in the Japanese entertainment industry. Managing to make correct change at a grocery store is considered quite an achievement.

In spite of challenges, breaking into the Japanese gaming industry is not impossible. Gregg Tavares is someone who has managed to do precisely that.

Building on a career in the U.S., which began with programming BASIC alongside school friends on Atari 800s, through a port of Centipede from the Atari to the Commodore 64 for Atarisoft (for a whopping $3000), on up to programming for Naughty Dog's Crash Team Racing, Gregg has built a massive portfolio. These beginnings eventually led him to his current digs with Sony Japan, programming for the upcoming hit Loco Roco for the PSP. You can check out his blog at greggman.com for a sample of his work and observations on Japan. Be warned, calling Gregg prolific is an understatement. It would take weeks of reading to get through half of that site.

I managed to catch up with Gregg while I was visiting in the U.S. Here's what he had to say:

Ok, I wanted to start off by asking you what you were doing before you came to Japan and what led you to come over.

Well, originally I had my own company called "Big Grub" with three other partners and 12 other employees. We were doing a PS1 and PC game but it didn't work out, and I decided to leave. At the time I was pretty seriously studying Japanese (or so I thought at the time), and so, deciding what to do next, I thought, "Hmmm, no wife, kids, girlfriend or other responsibilities. If I really want to learn Japanese, then I should go to Japan. Now's my chance!"

That was actually eight years ago. This is my second time in Japan.

Really? How did that happen?

Well, once I decided to come, I actually talked to Mark Cerny at Crystal Dynamics (with whom I used to work), and he helped me get a job at Sega of Japan. I was only there for eight months, because some opportunity too good to ignore came up at Naughty Dog. I took that opportunity, and then used the money from that to come back to Japan 21 months later and study Japanese full time (no job) for about 21 months.

One thing I'm curious about is how your gaming aesthetic has changed. You've been in Japan the better part of a decade; it must have rubbed off on you.

That's a hard question, because I've also gotten older and am more selective just in general. So how much of the changes are because I've been in Japan for five-plus years or how much because I've just become more jaded, I'm not sure. I don't play nearly as many games as I used to. I think that's true for most people as they get older. They just have more things needing their time.

I generally prefer shorter games. Well, maybe that's not true, but the game just has to be really awesome or I won't put up with it. I did spend 80-plus hours on GTA: SA this July. I'm not sure Japan has really changed my taste in what I want to play. I was disappointed with Half-Life 2, as it was basically just more of the same. I'm sure the Burnout series keeps getting better, but three was enough for me. On the other hand, I think my design sensibilities have changed at least a little, having noticed what my fellow designers concentrate on.

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