- ['GDRI Wisdom' is a bi-weekly column presenting highlights from select interviews with overlooked game developers of years past, as seen on Game Developer Research Institute (GDRI).]

Our interviewee in this edition is a bit younger than the people we usually talk to at GDRI. But like Daniel Auld, he was a Westerner working in a strange land.

Meet Steven Dwyer, a native of Scotland. He worked briefly at Osaka, Japan-based Now Production as a game programmer, working mostly on the original Sonic Riders. You can also hear his voice on Mario Superstar Baseball for the Nintendo GameCube.

Now Production ("NowPro") has been a company of particular interest to GDRI. Like the infamous Tose, it has done many games for big name publishers such as Namco and Hudson. Unlike Tose, it has been publishing and developing more and more of its own games over the past decade. But enough about that - on with the interview!

GDRI: First of all, please tell us about yourself (basically anything leading up to your working at Now Production).

SD: Well, it all started back about eight years ago at University. I took up the Computer Games Technology course (with a minor in the Japanese language) at Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland, which at the time was (I believe) the first dedicated UK-based Games course. I arrived as part of the second year of the course, and it was still quite rough around the edges.

However, it was amazing in the respect that a lot of us went from knowing little about programming and the construction of games to advanced theory in just four years. Nearing the end of my time there, I found out about an internship system (the name of which I forget right now) that took a few hopeful candidates and put them in a computing-based work placement in Japan.

Naturally, I felt this too good an opportunity to pass up, and I also felt it was really important to throw myself at as many different options as possible, knowing that no doors would open if I just let things come to me. In the end, I was very lucky to be one of the selected ones to go.

My placement took me to NTT Communication Sciences Lab (a research division of one of the largest telecom companies in Japan), and there I worked on speech recognition in English. The placement was for a full year, and there were a lot of other English speakers around (both Japanese co-workers and others), and I was primarily responsible for using current systems in place to create a version of their program that recognised English speech.

When that year ended, I had the feeling that I wasn’t quite ready to leave Japan yet and while speech recognition was rewarding, it wasn't exactly the field I had been trained in. I therefore applied to several companies in Osaka (close to where I lived at the time) and a few in Tokyo. I wasn't holding out too much hope for a job, as my Japanese skills at the time weren't exactly strong enough to talk about overly complex subjects, but to my surprise, I still received two interviews by interested parties, one being Now Production in Osaka, the other being a Tokyo-based company. I accepted a place in NowPro, when it was offered, as that allowed me to stay close to all the friends I had met in Japan so far.

GDRI: Why did you get into game programming? What kind of games do you like/have you played in the past?

SD: I have played games ever since I got my first LED Pac-Man machine. It was like a big Pac-Man shaped brick with a screen on it. My mother couldn’t tear me away from it and so instead of pushing me out into the sun with all the other kids, she got me a Commodore 16, followed by each upgrade until it became time for me to buy my own computers.

I’ve always loved games, from Dizzy to Mass Effect, long before it came into the mainstream. I'm glad I was one of those 8-bit kids. I'm naturally quite technical, so it seems only natural to me that I wanted to choose programming for games as a career.

I'll play anything except common sports games and first-person shooters without a story. They just aren't interesting to me. Role-playing games of all genres I like especially, whether it be World of Warcraft or Half-Life 2. I’m also a bit of a lore junkie, so anything with a massive universe I adore like Warhammer or god sims like Civilization (where history is its lore). I basically like most of the games that you can define as having a point, rather than just showing off technology with no evolution or just button bashing.

GDRI: Could you describe NowPro?

SD: NowPro has a rich history in the creation of games, their portfolio including titles way back to the NES, I believe. At the time, they seemed to be working on some outsourced projects given to them by larger companies as well as working on a number of their own game projects. The building itself was set on a number of levels in a high-rise, and each floor had at least one separate project running. Everyone in the company was really supportive of a "Westerner" joining the company and on occasion, it did feel a bit like celebrity when people were really interested in meeting me.

I don't have a bad word to say about everyone I met there. The management was more than accommodating. They clearly had the patience of saints, due to my initial difficulty conveying principles and problems in natural Japanese. All the co-workers I had working on the Riders project seemed initially fascinated that I was there, and we had a lot of fun over a year and a half.

Getting used to cultural differences and sharing our love for games and game creation bonded us together, so it turned out to be really fun on a daily basis. Everyone in the company had what may be described as a typical Japanese work ethic, in my opinion, as they were all working really hard to expand the company in positive directions. Everyone's will seemed to be bent to the same goal, and that was making top-notch games. Walking around the building and seeing finally a game studio in action was a little overwhelming at first, but awe-inspiring also.

GDRI: Stories of non-Japanese people working in Japan can be interesting. How did you get hired by NowPro, and what was it like working there?

SD: When I went to NowPro, I had done a little research on the company and was surprised to find that one of my interviewers was the CEO, Toshiaki Awamura, himself. I had the strong feeling that the company was on the cusp of expanding to a much larger global market and as such, they seemed very eager to have me on board on some of their projects.

After the interview, Mr. Awamura showed me their vast portfolio of games stretching back to what seemed to be the dark ages and so with such a rich history, I accepted the place and worked from start to finish on Sonic Riders for a year and a half. I also got involved in other little projects that required some English-speaking talent (such as singing the theme tune to Mario Baseball and localising some things to natural English text).

In a more day-to-day sense, it was good working there. While I worked a lot longer hours than I had been previously used to (it taught me a lot about the pressures of game development), I found it ultimately rewarding. As time went by, my Japanese had improved somewhat, which made social interactions and general day-to-day work infinitely easier. Everyone on the Riders team was very supportive of my work and when the project came to an end, I decided I had reached a place where I had met all the goals I had wanted to achieve and felt it was time to leave Japan.

GDRI: You were involved with the songs on Mario Superstar Baseball (which I guess were reused on the Wii follow-up since you are credited there). You say on your site, "A bit of fun while working in Now Production actually ended up in the final game." Can you elaborate?

SD: I'll be the first to admit that other than a few rounds on the karaoke booths in Japan, I didn't see myself as the next big Pop Idol. But while working on the Riders project, I was called down to help in the creation of the main and ending themes for Super Mario Baseball. While they utilised the talent of people already in the office, they were trying to go for the "sound of a crowd" effect within the songs, and this professional vocal talent wasn't seen as too important (just as well, I thought, as I saw images in my head of TV screens and monitors being shattered by my warbling voice!). Basically, I had to sing a few lines and spent a little while trying to get the others making up the vocals on the track to enunciate their Rs and things like that.

It was a lot of fun. We just let loose and got into the swing of things. When I say I was surprised it was used, it turned out that my voice became used as the main vocal on the track, due to my natural English pronunciation, and it was layered by all the others. I was amazed at how professional it all sounded, and I take my hat off to the audio guys that worked on it. It was a nice break from working on Sonic Riders, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

An interesting point of note is that after its release, it was really weird hearing my voice when going into game stores and they were playing the demo reel. Almost like hearing yourself on tape recordings.

GDRI: Why did you leave NowPro (and Japan)?

SD: Sonic Riders was an exceptionally time-intensive project, and I must admit it did wear me out quite a bit. As mentioned before, I did work some very long hours, but it was ultimately rewarding and did fill me with a sense of pride when it was completed.

Also, after about two and a half years in Japan, I had seen all I wanted to see and had an amazing time that I’ll never forget. As the project ended and we went gold, I decided it was time to return closer to home and look for jobs around there. It was basically a move back to Europe to be closer to family and friends after being almost inaccessible for two and a half years.

GDRI: What are you doing currently?

SD: At the moment, I am working for Blizzard Entertainment's France office in their Customer Service department for World of Warcraft. While this seems like a departure from programming, I decided to take this position as I wanted to try out different aspects of the games industry, and to see how things work. I worked my way up to Senior GM after about two years with the company, and that’s where I am now. At the moment, I am looking at options for moving back to my programming roots.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: More from this interview can be found at the GDRI website.]

[Game Developer Research Institute is a website dedicated to finding out more about game development companies and people in the industry.]