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King of 2D: Vanillaware's George Kamitani
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King of 2D: Vanillaware's George Kamitani

August 3, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Japanese independent developer Vanillaware has created modern 2D game classics such as Odin Sphere and the upcoming Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and founder George Kamitami sits down with Gamasutra to discuss his company's roots, passions, and plans.]

There's a small but passionate group of people who still care about 2D gaming; the majority of the industry, and gamers, have moved on to 3D -- years ago, in fact, at this point. 2D is only routinely used on portable platforms.

However, somehow, Japanese developer Vanillaware has carved out a successful and critically-acclaimed niche creating 2D games. Its Odin Sphere was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2007 -- a gorgeous dark fantasy that, despite its apparent limited appeal, sold in the hundreds of thousands globally, surprising many.

The company's 2009 release is Muramasa: The Demon Blade for Nintendo's Wii. Released in Japan in April, the localized version of the game will reach North America in September via publisher Ignition, and Europe in November.

It's generating a lot of buzz -- fans who played the import version speak of a step up in gameplay quality from Odin Sphere; the game won several best of E3 awards from enthusiast publications.

Here, Vanillaware's founder, George Kamitani, talks about his ambitions for the company -- sticking with 2D, going to HD resolutions, and maybe even making an online game.

Can you talk a little bit about Vanillaware's origins?

George Kamitani: Well, it's not a simple tale, definitely. (laughs) Vanillaware was founded around the time I went to Tokyo. At the time, I was working with Square Enix directing the development of Fantasy Earth. It started as a small project, and I was just contributing to it on a personal basis, but it ballooned in size to the point where an entire team was established to complete it. In the beginning, the company was called Puraguru.

Before that you were at Atlus, correct?

GK: Well, directly before that, I was at a company called Racjin, a game developer. They worked on Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games most recently, I think. Largely I participated in their projects on an outsourced basis.

Princess Crown

How many people that are at Vanillaware now actually worked on [Vanillaware's 1997 debut game] Princess Crown?

GK: Within Vanillaware right now, there are three people who worked on Princess Crown, myself included.

And how many people are now in Vanillaware?

GK: Currenly, 21 people.

And what percentage of that is artists?

GK: Basically, 100 percent. (laughs)

That makes sense. It seemed like Vanillaware suddenly exploded in 2007 with a bunch of titles. How did that happen?

GK: Well, a lot of announcements did come out all at once, certainly. It wasn't our aim, really, because when it comes to consoles, we only have one development line going at any one point.

In the case of Odin Sphere, Atlus instructed us to have the game done within 2006. We completed the game fully within 2006, but sales on Persona [3] were going so well for Atlus around that time period that the publisher pushed the release date back a few months to keep from cannibalizing its own market.

We began serious development on GrimGrimoire after Odin Sphere was completed, but that wound up coming out in Japan about a month ahead of Odin Sphere.

Do you find that it's difficult to find hi-res 2D artists in Japan these days, because not many people are doing that?

GK: In terms of pure art, there are a lot of people out there with the talent. However, most artists these days are simply unfamiliar with the older styles of 2D animation, so our only option is to train them in that field.

Some time ago, I spoke to someone from SNK about King of Fighters XII. He said it was quite difficult to find people who already knew how to do 2D graphics at that level.

GK: Definitely so.

What do you think are the main challenges to getting to 720p-level of hi-res? Right now, Muramasa is 480 -- how big a leap is it from 480 to 720 -- what KOF accomplishes?

GK: Well, the original art we draw is all done in double-size -- in the case of Muramasa, the animation frames then get compressed down to the Wii's native resolution. As a result, producing a fully HD title would not be a great deal of extra work for us; it would just mean our original art is displayed in higher resolution. It wouldn't be a simple insert -- we retouch the compressed graphics here and there to make sure they look as good as possible -- but it's not restarting from scratch, either.

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Tom Newman
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Great interview! Keep up the 2D for sure, and hopefully we will someday soon see Vanillaware's outstanding artwork in full 1080p!

Pedro Silva
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The interview is too HD focused; that and asking for extras for it to boot. Why not asking for what we have at hand? it's a Wii game and if they have extra bosses then I'd like to see them on the Wii version rather than having a "directors cut" on a HD platform who nukes what I already bought.

Pedro Silva
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you guys fail to mention Wiiware as a viable online service for 2D games and ask non-stop for HD versions of the games they're developing. It's like you load the Wii as a platform.

Me? I want more games like Muramasa on my Wii, thank you. And hence why journalism on Gamasutra is getting ridiculous from what I expect from you guys. Journalism is not feeding your opinion through their throats, any of us can do that... it's asking questions everyone wants asked... Not just PS3/X360 owners/fans, but also Wii owners, which you totally ignored.

Second rate gaming journalism, I say.

Brandon Sheffield
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Pedro - usually I wouldn't respond, but I feel like taking the flame bait today. Journalism to me is more about rooting out the information, which doesn't necessarily mean asking obvious questions. Would you have known about the extra bosses or cut story if not for this interview? Would you have known that the art is already done at a higher resolution and downscaled? Neither would most people, and the point is to get that information out there. 480p will not always be the standard, so it makes sense to ask about the future.

I don't care about platforms. I care about getting the most information out of a subject possible, especially the information they haven't thought to reveal yet. To me, that's journalism. Focusing on one game, or one platform, or catering to people who want more games on one platform or another would be pandering to an audience. If you want that sort of interview, this is probably not the place for it.

Pedro Silva
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Thing is, it isn't flamebait, it's my opinion. Thanks for answering to it though, I really appreciate it.

The whole interview comes across to me as someone trying to forking/forcing some kind of Muramasa conversion or confirmation for it after the Wii build releases. But you have to understand that, "if" you achieved that, multiplatform owners would now have a excuse not to buy the Wii version for the game. That's what's at stake now.

One user on another board said this:

"Seems the interviewer was trying his hardest to get a 360/PS3 port confirmation, most likely so people can avoid the English Wii game. So much bias in this industry."

And I actually agree with it and can't convey it much better. I can believe it wasn't intentional, but it is still how it comes across. As a Wii owner I must say I actually can say that we must be becoming weary of the whole gaming journalism entity as a whole (which is something Gaming Journalists have to be weary of). When there's a good coming we hear the "why on wii? do you know it's a casual platform for grannies, don't you?" which is a question with the opinion of the interviewer already implied... and that opinion is that they clearly don't want good games, or that good game in specific to be on it.

You didn't do that, but just the fact I'm used to stuff like that now, means my patience for the whole way the interviews are done is decreased; not just me though, otherwise I wouldn't be quoting what other users said in the matter. And I apologize for that "weariness" but it's still there and I still have the opinion that the interview was conducted too much towards the HD. I mean not once it goes over the Wii as a platform, if they're gonna develop further games for it or not, and yet... their most recent game is for it; it just feels too cold towards it.

You say you don't "pander" audiences, but I can't help but feel PS3/Xbox were the ones pandered in this interview, because I don't think it was "impartial" in the way it was driven. Sorry, that's my opinion; which from the beggining wasn't that questions towards HD consoles shouldn't have been done... but that the interview was overly geared towards it.

Again, I appreciate the answer, and hope I have clarified my opinion towards the matter.

Amir Sharar
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2D HD visuals are the brand new frontier that has yet to be fully explored so I can completely understand why the interviewer was excited in asking about Vanillaware's thoughts on the subject.

I'd argue that the interviewer is a fan of 2D gaming, rather than HD consoles, and would like to see it progress rather than stagnate. The fact is the Wii as a hardware platform does little to progress 2D gaming. The Wii's main strength is it's revolutionary control scheme, something that can positively impact 2D games but I'd argue most 2D fans are quite fine with traditional controller based control schemes. So if there was any pandering to, it was done to hardcore 2D gaming fans rather than fans of any particular console.

Already I'm seeing an XNA game made by only one person that is looking nearly as good as Vanillaware's efforts on the Wii. Much of this has to do with the hardware abilities. So it would be very exciting to see a large developer (in comparison to a one-person dev team) competent in 2D titles take a crack at next gen hardware.

Kevin Campbell
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This saddens me a little. Why are Japanese developers so afraid of doing things different? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Castle Crashers, Braid and Aquaria are all indie games made by less people sold independently and probably made just as much money overall if not more. Until Japanese developers adapt to the way games are made and sold now and in the future they will always be behind the US.

Ed Alexander
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Well, that may be why they've fallen behind Western developers. Square seems to think that buying Western developers will help them tap further into the Western market (which is faring better than the Japanese market) but in reality, they could probably import Western developers to Japan and let them make Western games from there. I know I'd go! ;) Just too much traditional business same-as-it-ever-was.

The gamer inside me is calling you out as a Nintendo fanboi, Pedro.

I'm not sure where the "Wii attacks" came from. I certainly didn't take it that way. I'm not sure anyone else who has commented has seen it, either.

Personally, I'm kinda glad it was asked about HD assets, I've been curious as to what is on the horizon for sprite work. I mean, I absolutely adored sprites from back in the 16bit era, but as someone who wants to see the old school style games make a return true to form, I'm curious how much further they can go with how far technology has advanced since 1995. I really, truly support Vanillaware's quest to fight the good fight. Making 2D games has been a crusade I really want to fight for.

And whether or not Muramasa is coming out on the PSN is a question I valued as well. I now know I can stop holding my breath. A shame, though, because I will never own a Wii but I actually have interest in owning this (Wii) game. Oh well, c`est la vie. Can't always have your cake and eat it too. Platform exclusives have always been a pillar of the console wars, so that's just the way it is sometimes.

This interview definitely did not coming off as attacking the Wii, though. Not sure why you thought it did...

Pedro Silva
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I didn't say it attacked it, I said it ignored it, which it did, specially considering their very last game and the game they are supposed to be hyping... it's a Wii title.

Regarding the game, they only ask repeatedly what's the chances of it getting ported and whether their next games will be in the so called HD platforms (I say so called becayse I still remember 640x480 being high resolution), and after the developer says "well, perhaps" you get the feeling the interviewer is saying "THANK GOD" which, I repeat, is not impartial.

Like said above, that's my opinion, but I really don't think they've gone the right way about it, seemed like the interviewer was trying to force a port into existing HD platforms instead of focusing on the game, asking it as a off-question in one thing, another completly different is that this was a interview focused on that. I mean, Odin Sphere was already done with HD resolution down to the assets, he could have asked "Is there any chance down the road you'll get Odin Sphere and Muramasa re-compiled in HD resolution" or something, no, the interviewer went straight for XBLA as a platform and regarding a Wii game that is not even out in english already. And when such confirmation, if it ever happens... would effectively kill the product sales for those who have multiplatform.

In short, he was doing a diservice for the game itself, as well for the platform it is on.

Sometimes "silence" is worse than dissing something, I think.

Steven Birkes
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I really wish they would port their titles to other platforms. I don't have and really don't want a Wii at this time, but I would love to play Muramasa. I am a huge fan of 2D game-play and am happy to see it making a small resurgence on the console in games like this and Shadow Complex.

John Bliton
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I agree with Pedro's sentiment, though my biggest qualms are different than his. I can't figure out why anyone would ask the man who wrote Odin Sphere a half-dozen questions about hi res and 0 about writing. Certainly, it was appropriate to ask about HD, but 6 times? I think Mr Sheffield made an effort to get a view of Kamitani's creative process, but I wish he had put as much effort into that as he did into asking about resolution.

It might just be that I can't relate very well to the attraction to HD graphics- I've always thought that visual beauty in games is 70% animation, 20% atmosphere and 10% everything else. Obviously such numbers are inherently silly, but I think they express my point of view. Think of knytt to see the importance of atmosphere despite everything else. Think of Shadow of the Colossus to see the primacy of animation- did anyone really care about how many Colossus hairs they could see as they watched the hero lose balance and roll around so naturally? For related reasons, Madden games can only be pretty in screenshots, I think.

Amir- the idea that any hardware does not "progress" 2D gaming is confusing to me, because I think that the quantitative improvement of graphics that stronger hardware enables is kind of a puny part of progress in game design at large. The qualitative improvement of graphics, like what Vanillaware did in Odin Sphere, strike me as more important but still a small fraction of game design as a whole. If your argument is about ease of distribution and the opening of the indie market as opposed to processing power, then I think it makes a little more sense.

I'm also confused about why anyone would not want a Wii- to not want to pay for it is one thing, but to not want it period is a pretty clear sign of bias, I think.

I really appreciate being able to read the interview, though- as Brandon mentioned, there is definitely some great information that he got from Kamitani. "Second-rate journalism" is way too strong, especially in light of what is considered acceptable by the game journalism industry at large.

Tom Newman
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I would have asked more HD questions... Anyone who has a Wii hooked up to a HDTV would know why.

Billy Bissette
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Should the question about the leap from 480 to 720p really be praising KOF? Going by 1280x720 unfiltered screenshots of KOF XII, while the backgrounds are at the displayed resolution, the character sprites (the bulk of the work) look to be scaled upwards 2 to 3 times.

As for anti-Wii bias on the part of the interviewer, to me it reads more like the interviewer wants 2D artwork in the HD era, and finds the Wii's max 480p resolution to be too little for that cause. You can read the result as either legitimate questions of "What about 'real' hi-res?" or as anti-Wii "What about 'real' hi-res?"

Emmanuel Henne
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This is a very interesting article.I like Vanillaware and their attitude towards the business.