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[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.
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  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.