An American in Tokyo


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.

Have you noticed any broad differences between the typical Japanese gamer versus the typical American?

Well, the obvious is: They like different games. You can just look at the charts and see the difference. Halo was a non-event here. Half-Life, non-event. RPGs are still popular, as are choose-the-answer story games. The most famous right now outside Japan is probably Phoenix Wright (gyakuten saiban). They also appear not to be into net games as much, although they might just be late bloomers. The internet started slower here (although it’s well past the U.S. now), and PCs didn’t become popular until the internet became cheap, which was only about four years ago.

What kind of interest have you seen in MMOGs?

Other than FF11, I really haven’t seen any. I see ads for Ragnarok, but I’m not sure it actually has that much of an audience. PC games seem mostly non-existent here.

So the PS2 is by far the platform of choice?

Currently, yes.

Have you had the chance to play online with Japanese gamers? Or in an arcade, or any other social setting?

Not a lot. I dated some girl that was really into Lineage and watched her play. I didn’t really notice a difference between watching her play and watching my friends in the states play EQ.

You were in Japan when Ultima Online hit, right?


Did it generate any notice in Japan?


Do you think there’s any cultural resistance to online gaming?

I don’t think so. I think it’s just a matter of getting them wired and ready. Most people don’t have gamer PCs, and the internet didn’t happen in Japan until 2001, after the PS2 came out. There’s no “Live” on PS2 and no built in networking, and Xbox didn’t happen here at all. So, I think if Sony has an “Xbox Live” like service for PS3 out of the box and PS3 does well, then I think Japan is ripe for a huge online market.

Now, everyone in Japan has fast broadband, usually 24 megabits or faster. And they pretty much all have routers, which are down to $40 now, so they are ready to plug in a system that is setup for online gaming. They just need one.

So the competitive/cooperative urge is there?

Probably cooperative more than competitive, but, yes, I personally think it’s there. I know some famous Japanese designers that disagree; but, personally, I think they are just too old school to “get it.”

What are their grounds for disagreeing?

Generally, they don’t personally like online games. Of course, if you press them on it, they’ve never actually played one; and/or, if they have, it was like Dreamcast on a modem or something, not Xbox Live with headphones.

Is there perhaps a desire for an unblemished microcosm?

Well, Japan is not going to be like America with all the screaming, cussing kids in my opinion. It’s just a different culture. I’m sure being anonymous might encourage them to be a little more in-your-face, but I don’t think that type of behavior is really in their character.

What type of behavior is in character?

Cooperation, working together toward a common goal. Socializing in a relatively safe way.

One difference someone pointed out to me. When the Americans were let into FF11, my Japanese friends complained they were all too lazy to read the manual. The typical Japanese person, I guess, will read the manual to learn how to play. That probably comes from a basic guideline of Japanese culture: Never bother anyone if you can avoid it.

The American players would just log in without reading the manual and then “shout” in the game to everyone, “How do I do _____?” “Where do I find ____?” bothering everyone in shouting distance.

Yes, I’m familiar with the behavior. What about the demographic of Japanese gamers? Given that it’s a relatively solitary activity, is it mainly young guys?

Hmmm, I used to think there were more girl gamers here than in the U.S., but I’m not so sure anymore. I think, actually, it changed. Famicom->PS1 the girl gamer population grew, but it like completely died at PS2. So, yeah, it seems about the same as the U.S. Young guys. I think it might actually skew younger here. It feels like there are more titles squarely aimed at kids vs. America (although I’ve never actually counted to be sure). But, for example, if a Spongebob game comes out in America, we know it’s aimed young, but it’s also a non-event. Here, though, Bandai releases kid license after kid license that sells 1 million plus units.

This is also something I noticed on my own team, and I guess I can’t really generalize, but our lead, Tsutomo Kouno-san, often designs with children in mind, whereas I design for me mostly. I’m not sure many American designers directly consider kids in their design, unless their game is directly targeted at kids.

I’m curious about gaming’s impact on society. I saw that Advent Children was the #1 DVD sale in the country for a while. Is gaming something that brings people together? A shared experience? It’s just now becoming a social thing in the U.S., along with the geek fad. For example, water cooler discussions: Instead of discussing sports, a discussion could revolve around a game of Madden, or a map in Halo, or whatever.

Hmmm, well, video games are 25 years old? So, there’s lots of adults who grew up with games. I haven’t really noticed that in general company. Of course, at a game company, that kind of discussion happens all the time. What I have noticed is either the Japanese have slightly less stigma toward games or the people who run the media have more respect or rather more interest in games than the same people in the U.S.

What I mean by that, is that there are lots of TV programs on TV that use music and sound effects from famous video games – mostly quizshows or gameshows.

And in the same way that, say, the Atari symbol is a popular cultural icon in the West, the Famicon, Mario, Pacman, Space Invaders, and many other games (and old Anime) are huge cultural icons here. More so than in America, I think. Here, new Mario goods come out like every month or two. You’ve probably seen the Pepsi bottle caps, the gachapon old-game systems, etc.

They are hugely popular campaigns. As another example, the Japanese actually have the slang “ping pong” and “boo boo.” “Boo boo” is the exact sound of trying to do something you can’t do in Zelda SNES. “Ping pong” is the sound of doing something correct in a gameshow or a video game. That type of influence from games and gameshows is all thoughout Japanese modern culture.

Other than RPGs, which genres are popular?

Like the U.S.A., licenses and sequels are popular. One Piece games, Dragon Ball Z games and Gundam Games always sell. Also DQ, FF, The Dragon Warrior Series (sangokumuusou), Winning 11 and Gran Turismo are popular. There are no FPSs on their charts. No basketball, no football and only sometimes a baseball game appears.

There are several (probably Japanese-only) games that have done well. First off, there are the turn-based, strategy games. The most popular one in America is Advance Wars, but that wasn’t even released here in Japan until two to three years later, because there are so many of those types of games here. Others are games like My Summer Vacation, which is a very casual game about spending time, as an 8-year old kid, in a country-like area (non-urban), near the ocean on summer vacation with your family. It sold over 1 million units. I would never have expected that. Ka, a game about mosquitoes, also sold a ton – partly because of a great ad campaign, but also partly because mosquitoes are part of the national … tradition. Or rather not mosquitoes directly, but dealing with them in the summer is almost like something you expect to do … like even though you might hate shoveling snow, the memory of it is kind of comforting.

Does that make any sense?

Yes. These all sound like single-player games.


In the U.S., gaming is pretty social/competitive. Is there any of that in Japan?

This is just my impression, but competition pretty much mostly happens in game centers, i.e., fighting games. I’m not sure why, but my impression is that in the U.S., it’s common to invite your friends over to play; but here in Japan, it seems like kids play outside when they are together. They don’t come over to each other’s houses. Even as adults, that lifestyle continues. I’m sure there are many reasons for that. Here in Tokyo, people live far apart. If you co-worker lives on the other side of town, it’s an hour or more by train to get together.

Also, Tokyo apartments are small, so there is less room to party.

So this is why arcades have continued to flourish?

Well, I’m not sure they are flourishing, but they do still exist. There’s many things different about Japanese arcades than American, though. The typical arcade is 25% redemption games, like UFO Catcher and Purikura; 25% “arcade games”; and 50% gambling games (not pachinko). So the arcades are not just running on what we consider arcade games. In fact, I suspect arcade games are making the least money compared to redemption games and gambling games. Some of the gambling games are amazing! Like Sega’s newest horse racing game. There are lots of those types of things from every developer (Capcom, Konami, Sega, etc.)

So what kind of community is there around gaming in Japan? Forums?

The biggest forum in Japan is called “Channel 2,” pronounced “nee-chan.” It’s kind of considered the slashdot of Japan, although it’s a forum, not a blog; but all the news in Japan, especially “geek” news, happens there first. If you want to find out what the fans are talking about, that’s the place to check

How would you compare the attitudes and opinions and how they are expressed to an American gaming forum?

This is a generalization, and I know there are exceptions, but Japanese culture is known for being more polite. So I have a feeling, the “my favorite game rulez and your favorite game suxors,” type of thing is a little less common on average here.

People seem to offer lots of design ideas. Like “I hope it has this feature,” and “I would rock if you could do ___ in some level.” My impression is that’s a little different compared to American discussion.

How practical do you think Nintendo’s aim is at expanding the gaming population in Japan? Are more people open to gaming than are now involved?

Well, it certainly seems to have worked with DS and Nintendogs. Lots of the women that got out of games from their PS1 days got back in with Nintendogs. I don’t know if they are playing anything else, though. My impression is if anyone can do it, it’s Nintendo. They seem to at least have the will. I don’t see that kind of will from any other company, Japanese or Western.

Is there any stigma around games as not being feminine? Or as being socially disadvantageous?

Not as much as in the West, but yes. There is also the same “games are for kids.” Met lots of woman, and I always ask them about games. Only about one out of 15 or so plays, as far as I can tell.

I’m curious about ninjas and samurai. That’s a huge thing in the West. Is there similar interest in Japan? Also, is there an analogous interest in feudal Europe?

There’s a pretty huge interest here in ninjas and samurai. It’s not just games; there are dramas on TV about samurai pretty much constantly. I don’t see any interest in feudal Europe though. And, maybe only slightly related, but there is no interest in elves, dwarfs, orcs, ogres, etc. That “Middle Earth” type of stuff is not part of Japanese culture in any way shape or form.

Have gamers there developed lingo the way they have in the U.S.?

Yes. Unfortunately, I don’t know much of it. Japanese seems to have less slang than English, in general; but, at the same time, they have to take English for lots of new concepts and make up a word for it. That word usually starts like the English word but then it gets slangified. For example a “thread” in a forum was “suredo,” but, now, it’s just “sure” (suu-ray). That’s the only one that comes to mind. I need to start reading more 2chan.

Can you compare Japanese development to the American approach some more?

Well, it’s quickly changing, but, for example, you can read a good description in the latest Game Dev mag. The Resident Evil 4 postmortem. They talk about their old system where to see the art in the game, a programmer was required. In other words, the artist could not check out something in the game without giving their data to a programmer and waiting for an hour or so for him to compile it into the game. My division at Sega was this way when I got there. I fixed that for them.

Yeah, I read your gamasutra article about that.

It’s still that way to some degree. They are just not very tool-oriented. Things like the Half-Life 2 engine, and now especially the Unreal 3 Engine. I don’t mean just the engine, but the entire development environment, that’s kind of turning them on to better processes, but it’s still got a ways to go.

Many of the programmers are very stubborn and want to do everything their own way even if it means they have no tools and have to do everything by hand. I’m not sure where that attitude comes from. I can only guess different things like

1) Japanese colleges don’t teach that much programming. A programming major may actually graduate without having ever programmed.

2) Also, generally, Japanese employees have that whole “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” thing; so speaking up about a better way might be slightly harder to do than in the West.

As far as the no programming in college thing. I’m sure that’s not always the case; but from what I’ve gathered, it’s not uncommon, or at least used to be not uncommon, for it to go like this: You cram your ass off in junior high school/high school to get into a respected college in your chosen major. You then party at college for a couple of years, because having gotten into your college of choice in your major or choice, guarantees you’ll get a good job. You then get your job, which you expect to keep for life. The company takes you untrained, but with the piece of paper (diploma) that says that you worked really hard to get into your college; therefore, you’ll work really hard for them learning how to do what they teach you. They then assign you to someone, your sempaii, to train you. And so, that’s how you learn your skill, not at college. That also means they can pay you complete shit, because you come with no skills.

Well, I haven’t noticed too many shortcomings in Japanese games. What do they bring to the process that allows them to make such good games?

Perfectionism. It’s surprising all the little details they concentrate on that an American developer would just ship with. That’s not to say they are implemented in a well-designed and flexible way from a code point of view, but from an end user point of view, they are very polished.

What about from a design perspective? I’ve noticed that Japanese games seem to take good care of you as you play them.

Yes, that’s a conscious design decision and something I butt heads with them on. They claim the Japanese like to be hand-held. The player wants to know what to do. They want it spelled out. Whereas they believe a Western audience can handle more freedom, less hand holding. My point of view is that perfection is in the middle. I always hold up Miyamoto. Both Japanese and Westerners think he’s one of the best designers ever, and his games have both more freedom than most other games, and at the same time give the player direction.

How do designers feel about American games? Are there any that really stand out in their minds?

Well, nothing really comes to mind. I did have several Japanese friends mention the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers PS2 game as evidence that American artists had finally caught up with Japanese artists in terms of quality of art. It was definitely a pretty game, but it was still an exception. Most Western games on average have pretty poor art – especially when it comes to characters. That’s something that often comes up in discussion. It seems like most Japanese game art appeals just fine to Western players, but most Western games are actually turn offs to Japanese players. Of course, there’s always a few people that like Western game art, but, overall, they find it a turn-off.

For example, last year when WoW came out, I saw the gamespot review and the reviewer was gushing more than I’ve ever seen any reviewer gush. It looked interesting and the art is above average, at least for an MMOG. I showed it to a co-worker, one that is actually into MMOGs and he was like, “That art sucks, the Japanese won’t be into it.”

So the looks of games are very important to the Japanese?

Yes, aesthetics are very important to the Japanese in pretty much all things – more so than for the West for sure. Everything: clothes, furniture, food and games.

Let me rephrase that, is art style considered above photo realism?

As far as realism, I’m not sure. What’s real? Is GTA real? Or is Resident Evil 4 real? For me, games like The Sims look like crap (Sorry, Sims artists, but those characters turn me off). They don’t look more real to me. Maybe their proportions are more real? But maybe because they are not actually real people, but lo-res 3-D representations, they need something extra to make them feel real. I think the Japanese might be more open to more stylized characters than the West, but I don’t think they are less into reality. Resident Evil 4, Dynasty Warrior, etc.: There are plenty of popular games that look more real than most Western games.

That reminds me, the Japanese seem to not only accept innovation, but demand it to a certain extent. Is that acknowledged by developers over there?

I don’t think the Japanese audience demands innovation any more than the Western audience. I think that’s just a matter that from a Western perspective, it’s only news if it’s different; so all the sequels and non-innovative games are not news in the West, but they are still the largest part of the market here. The perfect example is Dynasty Warrior. What’s the difference between Dynasty Warrior 1 and Dynasty Warrior 5? They all sold like crazy, but they are probably less different than the five Burnouts.

Japan has the reputation in the U.S. for being the place that the next crazy thing is coming from. How was that earned?

By ignoring all the me-too products and only noticing the new titles. There is some innovation. Both Sony and Nintendo spend a lot of money on trying new things.

Nintendo seems to have had a few more hits there. Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, Pikmin, Donkey Konga, etc. Sony has had Parappa, KA, Ape Escape, Vib Ribbon, My Summer Vacation and many, many titles that tanked. One other thing that might contribute is that, for whatever reason, it seems like the Japanese retail market supports smaller titles. In America it’s like it’s gotta make it to Wal-Mart or forget it. In Japan, though, you can go into a computer software store and find a few aisles of small, nearly no-market titles, like desktop background CDs, or train picture CDs. In the West, that would be considered wasted retail space. I don’t know why that difference exists, but it does, which means a smaller title still has a chance to be put on the shelf.

Ok, I think I’ve gone through most of what I wanted to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Hmm, off the top of my head, directly related to games, no. To tech in general, well, I find it frustrating how behind the U.S. is in terms of net tech. They don’t realize it, because they can’t read Japanese or Korean, so all the things happening on this side of the world months or years before they happen over there are basically ignored; and they (the Western media) get all excited thinking something new is up, when, in actuality, its been there, done that. I don’t know how that will translate into the future though. It could be this generation of consoles, with pretty much all of Japan having cheap broadband really shakes up the market. Twenty-four megabits for $20, 100megabits for $40 a month.

A huge thank you to the gman, Gregg Tavares for taking the time to talk. All the PSP owners out there need to sit up and take notice of Gregg’s current project, Loco Roco. You can read up on it here, here, or here.

Eric Pickett is currently residing in Tokyo where he is slowly, but surely mastering his pronunciation of “Gome nasai, nihongo ga wakarimasen.”

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