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Analysis Game Dev GAF Developer Spotlight #2: George Kamitani & VANILLAWARE

Komatsu

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Hello, fellow GAFers. Since my old GAF Dev Spotlight thread for Yasumi Matsuno was recently necro-bumped, and it's been a while, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do the #2 thread in this series, this time focusing on Vanillaware's George Kamitani.

A few ground rules I would appreciate if we all could follow:
  1. Discussions about technical aspects, plot beats, etc. are more than welcome, but let's try to keep it insult and politics-free;
  2. I have purposefully avoided listing mobile titles and not yet released games - I believe it's better to focus on their dedicated gaming console catalog;
  3. Feel free to add your content (videos, screenshots, etc.), but let's credit all content creators we mention; and
  4. I am an adult, gainfully employed enthusiast with just a tiny, tiny bit of experience in the industry and in Japan. I am not a journalist. I do this on my free time to keep this board interesting and engaging - we all love games, after all. No need to drive by and criticize X & Y parts of the write-up if you believe they are inaccurate. Just message me and I will fix it.
With that out of the way... Let's get to it.


As a child, Kamitani enjoyed movies, particularly those with special effects and dreamed of filming. However, he was unable to get a camera so he focused instead on video games. The fantasy of the Norse mythology presented in NEC PC-8801 RPG game The Black Onyx impressed Kamitani. This was the first time that he saw anything related to fantasy. As such, it deeply affected the way Kamitami represents the fantasy worlds in his games.


The Black Onyx, the 1984 game that captivated teenaged Kamitani

Kamitani has continued to work in the game industry since high school. Kamitani got into the video game business when he was a senior high school student. One of his friends helped him to get a part-time job as a subcontractor for a video game company and Kamitani continued to work there while going to college until he graduated. As a subcontractor, Kamitani was a 2-D pixel artist for several Famicom games and as a programmer in some MSX games. He convinced his parents to allow him to work part-time by saying it would improve his math skills.


After graduating from college and moving from Hiroshima to Osaka, Kamitani joined Capcom around 1992 because he wanted to learn how to direct a game project. In Capcom, Kamitani was a subordinate of Yoshiki Okamoto, producer of the original Street Fighter II. Akira "Akiman" Yasuda was also Kamitami's boss at Capcom's design department. It was in Capcom where he developed a profound attachment to 2D games as it was the height of 2D arcade games such as Capcom's Vampire, Alien vs. Predator and Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom. Kamitami worked in the last one and it had a lasting effect on his future works. Kamatami's departament worked mostly on action side-scrolling games. He decided to left Capcom because he felt he would never be able to direct a game in the company due to the great amount of talented people that were there already.

After his stay in Capcom, he joined a small game company at the invitation of a former senior classmate. At the end of 1995, while working on Princess Crown, the development company went bankrupt, but thanks to a friend at Sega that introduced him to Atlus, the project was saved, an action for which he is still grateful to Atlus. Atlus would repeat this feat with Dragon's Crown years later. Kamitani then joined Atlus Kansai and was very attached to the Princess Crown team, but, despite being critically critically acclaimed, Princess Crown was not a commercial success due to having been released at the end of the Sega Saturn life cycle and the staff that worked on it wasn't looked upon favorably. Atlus Kansai soon after closed. and the Osaka company Racjin took many of the team members, effectively dissolving the team that worked on Princess Crown.


Princess Crown, SEGA Saturn

Invited to Tokyo by Shigeo Komori, the scenario writer of Princess Crown, Kamitani went to work at Sony Computer Entertainment in confidential projects, where he unsuccessfully tried to do game planning. Kamitani's stay in Tokyo was a bust - steady jobs were hard to come by and he and future Vanillaware programmer Kentaro Ohnishi lived hand-to-mouth as they sought their big break. Eventually it would come: Kamitani would get hired to work on an upcoming MMORPG to be published by Square, Fantasy Earth, and he made enough of an impression to shift the scenario from one of a battle between vampires and humans to a more traditional fantasy setting. Soon after wrapping up the game, he found out that fellow programmer Shigatake was a huge fan of Princess Crown, and invited him to join this new company he was creating.


Fantasy Zero, the game that saved Kamitani from going broke.

In February of 2002 Kamitani founded the video game company Puraguru, the predecessor of Vanillaware. Puraguru worked in Fantasy Earth: Zero. After moving the company to the Kansai area, in the autumn of 2004 Kamitani decided to rename the company to Vanillaware, inspired by the enduring popularity of the ice cream flavor. At the beginning, Shigatake, Kentaro Ohnishi, Takashi Nishii (the only other original member of Princess Crown) and a newcomer from the Fantasy Earth: Zero project joined Kamitani in the new five people company. Five more members later joined the company despite Kamitani's slim reputation at the time.

Due to the reputation gained by Princess Crown by unsuccessful commercially and the fact that Kamitani hadn't made a new game in several years, Kamitani faced difficulties to get funding from Atlus for Odin Sphere, the first game developed by the recently renamed Vanillaware. On top of that, sales of Persona 3 were so strong that Atlus deleayed the release date of Odin Sphere, which was already completed, from 2006 to 2007 to avoid cannibalizing the market. This forced Kamitani to seek new funds, which eventually led to GrimGrimoire with Nippon Ichi Software and Muramasa: The Demon Blade with Marvelous Entertainment. Even so, Kamitani had to personally borrow around 20 million yen by the time GrimGrimoire was completed (which ended up being released before Odin Sphere despite being developed much later), as the company was almost without funds, which caused him great worry for some time.



With the release of Odin Sphere and its success, Kamitani was finally able to embark on what he at some point called the project of his life: 13 Sentinels - Aegis Rim, which was released last year to widespread acclaim. After two decades in the business, one can say that most Kamitami games have a couple of design and gameplay points in common, regardless of genre:

  1. All Vanillaware games make use of rasterized line-art instead of sprites. Without exception. They all look amazing, but this is a bit of a pity - his pixel art in Princess Crown was amazing.
  2. With the notable exception of Grand Knights History and Dragon's Crown, most VW games have fixed protagonists over which the player has a very limited degree of customization.
  3. Genre-bending and mix-and-matching are his forte: you have Action RPGs mixed up with platformers, Tactic RPGs with an online "capture X flag" mode, Visual Novels with Tower Defense as an integral part of the gameplay.
  4. Finally, most of his games feature female characters either as protagonists or as prominent characters in the story.

[SOURCE: DRAGON'S CROWN WIKI, WITH INTERPOLATIONS BY KOMATSU AS WELL AS ADDITIONAL RESEARCH]



The list below does include re-releases, remakes or ports.
[/size]
















Unlike most other game planners, directors and scenario writers, Kamitani is an extremely accomplished artist, perhaps one of the best in the industry still working regularly to this day. His style is, like that of other giants of the medium such as Akira Toriyama and Tetsuya Nomura (setting his awful fashion sense aside), immediately recognizable and very frequently emulated by the other Vanillaware artists. Here is a sample of some of his work.






Kamitani is a fairly divisive figure among gaming journalists in the West. In Japan, his sheer sense of style and flair for the dramatic is viewed as endearing but here in the lands of setting sun, he is often accused of oversexualizing his female characters. This was particularly the case after the release of Dragon's Crown, for which Vanillaware got a rap to the knuckles and some tut-tuting from the usual gaming journalism watch dogs:



Kamitani seems to have been amused by Schreier's complaint, so he shot back a light-hearted sally:


Unfortunately, this triggered a firestorm of controversy and he ended up apologizing to Kotaku: "While the picture of the dwarfs was meant to be a lighthearted joke, after it became bigger than I thought it would, I reflected on the rashness of it. I am sorry. I have no hard feelings about the article."

Atlus/SEGA seem to have taken this criticism to heart, so not all of his art is brought over when his games are localized. There was a particularly risqué PS4 theme for those who pre-ordered 13 Sentinels in Japan which was not to be found in the West:




Questions:
  1. So, GAF, what are your favorite Kamitani games?​
  2. What memories do you cherish?​
  3. What do you think of his career?​
  4. What do you believe the future holds for him?​
 
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PropellerEar

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Nice thread start!

1. Only played Muramasa and Dragons Crown, DC being my fav, will buy Sentinels at some point.
2. 🤷‍♂️
3. 🤷‍♂️
4. 🤷‍♂️
 

Danjin44

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George Kamitani and his team has become of one my favorite developers and 13 Sentinels is one my favorite games in PS4 era.

1. 13 Sentinels
2. Odin Sphere
3. Muramasa
4. Dragon's Crown
5. GrimGrimiore
 
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bender

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Never played Grand Knights History and my copy of 13 Sentinels is still in its' shrink wrap. I want to love Vanillaware games as they are so lush and vibrant to look at but usually lose interest as they are dull to play.
 

Komatsu

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Never played Grand Knights History and my copy of 13 Sentinels is still in its' shrink wrap. I want to love Vanillaware games as they are so lush and vibrant to look at but usually lose interest as they are dull to play.

13 Sentinels is a good place to start. It appeals even to those who find Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown boring.
 

bender

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13 Sentinels is a good place to start. It appeals even to those who find Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown boring.
Not really a starting point, I've played most of their games. :)
 

MagnesG

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I like Dragon's Crown a lot, will play 13 Sentinels one of these days.

Really hope he could go on making games for a long time, his art is irreplaceable at this point.

At least 13 Sentinels sells well right? Or maybe Vanillaware could try releasing their past titles(Grand Knights, Muramasa, Dragon's Crown) on Switch for once. I'm sure they could grab up sales for a lot more.
 

Hudo

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What about letting Vanillaware make a Valkyrie Profile game? I think their 2D art would mesh well with the gameplay.
 
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Bought the PS4 versions of Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown recently but haven't played them yet. I've become pretty bad at playing and finishing games lately. I am keen on playing Dragon's Crown as it looks kinda fun.

I wasn't aware that 13 Sentinels was Vanillaware as the art feels very different, but I suppose that's due to the sepia tone. I hadn't considered it before, but I might look at 13 after I play Dragon's Crown.
 

killatopak

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Probably my favorite artist.

I have played every George Kamitani game except for the mmo.
 

Saber

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The artwork from his games is...sublime. Its art at its finest(the artwork from this Fantasy Earth had me looking at it for a time).

I will eventually play more games from him in the future, as DC is basically a piece of art.

Now I'm curious about this Grand Knight History. How it plays? Does they have any intention to re-release the game?

Future for him? He looks like a brilliant person, not many exist nowadays.
 
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yurinka

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  1. Darkstalkers, Alien vs Predator or Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara and Dragon's Crown
  2. He did work in some of the best beat'em ups (and some fighting game) ever at Capcom, and Dragon's Crown is one of the best beat'em up in the recent years. Vanillaware games are trully awesome thanks to his unique art style, I enjoyed many of these games in Vita.
  3. A master. I'd like to know a complete list of the Capcom game where he did work
  4. As I known Dragon's Crown sold particularly well and I'd bet the other Vanillaware games also performed great (for the scale of the team) in sales and reviews. So I see him making more awesome games at Vanillaware -hopefully more beat'em ups-. If they ever need to sell the company or to grow in the west, I'd like them to join Sony. If not, I'd like to see Vanillaware working with Capcom to revive some classic beat'em up brand that fits. Like making a new Dungeons & Dragons game or maybe even an Alien vs Predator 2.
 

drganon

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The man is great. 13 sentinels was my goty and Odin sphere is another fantastic game. I've also got muramasa and dragons crown, just haven't gotten around to playing them yet.

Oh, and fuck Jason schreier.
 

Zeusexy

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I wish they stopped publishing on Soystation and dump all of their titles to Switch or Steam.

I really wanna play 13 sentinels.
 

Manji Uzuki

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Great studio and amazing visuals consistently in everything they do. Currently playing 13 sentinels and its becoming my favourite title from them and honestly one of the best surprises I had in PS4

Odin Sphere and Muramasa were amazing as well. I wish they would re-release somehow princess crown and grand knight story as they seem really good as well
 

mejin

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Grand Knight History and Crown Princess are the only I didn't play.

Hope the new game is coming sooner this time.
 

sublimit

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What about letting Vanillaware make a Valkyrie Profile game? I think their 2D art would mesh well with the gameplay
I like Kamitani's style but Tri-Ace has a very different style IMO. I don't think it would feel like Valkyrie Profile with Kamitani's art.
 

Celcius

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His artwork is amazing. Muramasa is my fav Vanillaware game, although I’ve also played Dragons Crown Pro. I wish they could team up with Capcom and make a Darkstalkers 4 with his art style.