DigiPen graduate Elliott Davis has an interesting metaphor to describe the path he’s taken in life.
As a game developer working and living in Japan, Davis says he’s like a salmon that has journeyed back from the ocean to the place it was born.
“I grew up playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and most of the games that I played were made in Japan,” Davis says. “So to be able to be a part of the game industry that specifically created the games that had a large influence on me, and made me want to create games, is very rewarding.”
Specifically, Davis works at video game studio tri-Ace — developers of the Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, and other series of role-playing games — as part of its research and development team. Davis helps program the in-house tools and graphics engine that powers and enables the studio’s stellar-looking titles.
But Davis’s great opportunity didn’t fall out of the sky, nor did it happen overnight. In fact, his first foray into game development turned out to be a crash course in the harsh realities of the game industry. After graduating from DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program in 2005, Davis quickly landed a job at California-based studio Concrete Games. Unfortunately, that studio’s project was cancelled before it was even announced, and THQ, Concrete Games’ parent company, made the decision to disband the company shortly after.
Davis was disheartened. “Everybody in the studio had invested multiple years of their time, energy, passion,” he says. “So it’s natural to be disappointed when your hard work doesn’t see the light of day.”
Davis fared somewhat better at his next job. He joined another subsidiary of THQ, Incinerator Studios, and worked as a programmer on two projects, SpongeBob SquarePants featuring Nicktoons: Globs of Doom and Cars: Race-O-Rama, for which he was also credited as an additional designer. By the time the latter game was released, however, Incinerator had parted ways with THQ. As a cost-cutting measure, the studio laid off almost the entire Race-O-Rama development team.
This time, Davis had a plan. While working at Incinerator Studios, Davis had finished approximately four college semester’s worth of Japanese language classes. He also had taken a three-week trip to Japan, all with the intention of eventually pursuing employment at a Japanese studio. After wrapping up his most recent project and receiving a severance package from Incinerator, Davis decided to make the move. He arrived in Japan, rather auspiciously, on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Although his initial goal was to enroll at a language school and become fluent in Japanese, Davis started sending out his resume and cover letters in Japanese to companies that didn’t require fluency. After only three months of study, he had landed a job and started working at tri-Ace in Tokyo.
“I really tried to use Japanese as much as possible with my coworkers. People saw that I was making a legitimate effort and were very warm and welcoming because of that,” Davis says. “I also started a board game club at my company that meets once a month, and so that’s a great opportunity for people from different teams to socialize.”
Although he isn’t working directly on game projects, something he thought he wanted to do upon graduating from DigiPen, Davis says his perspective has changed for the better. By improving the core technology behind the games themselves, the game teams are able to make a better quality product within their allotted budgets and production schedules.
“The work I was doing at tri-Ace originally, part of that was focused on making the tools easier to use for the artists and to improve their efficiency,” Davis says. “And I’ve seen an impact with that.”
Outside of work, Davis occasionally rehearses and performs with the Tokyo International Players, an all-volunteer English-language theater troupe. A resident of the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo, a cultural and tourism hotbed, Davis enjoys experiencing what he describes as the many “extremes” of Japan, such as the wide spectrum of modern fashion, and the tranquility of Shinto Shrines. And, of course, Davis says he still enjoys playing video games, including those by tri-Ace.
As someone who attributes his creative impulses to the likes of Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy, working in the Japanese game industry is not only a chance to return to his roots; it’s an opportunity to inspire others.
“It’s a fulfillment of a lifelong dream of mine,” Davis says. “I’m returning to my source.”
UPDATE: In 2013, Davis and two co-workers spoke at the Computer Entertainment Developers Conference (CEDEC). They presented on their work developing smartphone graphics technology (OpenGLES 2.0) for tri-Ace’s in-house game engine.