When it comes to the world of game development, few studios have the pedigree that Vanillaware has. Renowned for their gorgeous 2D, hand-drawn, storybook inspired games, the studio boasts a level of prestige that allows them the freedom to make almost whatever they want. Since its inception, Vanillaware has been seen as something of a novelty for its use of 2D in an era where 3D is the norm. This perception has only grown with time, but that has done little to impede studio founder George Kamitani’s vision, continuing to produce some of the most unique experiences in games to this day.
What fans of the studio may be shocked to hear; however, is that despite all of their success, Vanillaware has come close to closure on many different occasions. Beneath the success is a story of debt, corporate mismanagement, and many other problems. It is solely the combination of unbridled passion and luck that has allowed the studio to endure and become what it is today.
The “Original” Vanillaware
A common misconception regarding Vanillaware is that it is comprised entirely of the same staff that developed 1997’s Princess Crown. The truth is that the Vanillaware of today and the “Vanillaware” of the ’90s are almost two different teams entirely.
Before the official formation of Vanillaware in 2004, George Kamitani worked for several different companies. He got his start in games doing pixel art for a small software company in Osaka, he later moved to Hiroshima and landed a job at Capcom as a Planner. His goal was to learn how games were built from the ground up. After working on a few projects, most notably Muscle Bomber, and D&D Tower of Doom, he left the company, feeling he’d never have the opportunity to direct there.
“I felt I couldn’t be a director even if I stayed at Capcom. Capcom has had a large number of employees since then, and there are very talented people there. I was worried about what to do”
Kamitani would later be invited by a colleague to join a small game company in Kansai. The studio primarily developed adult games, but was seeking to branch out into different projects. It was here that he would begin developing the foundation of what would become his debut title, Princess Crown.
Princess Crown, as Kamitani originally envisioned it, would be closer in style to the Princess Maker series, where the player “roleplays” a character, and featured a story with multiple endings.
However, when he pitched the game to SEGA, there was an assumption that the game would be an RPG. In response to this, Kamitani told them that it would be a proper RPG with 40 hours of content, even though this was far from true. SEGA was in the market for RPGs for their Saturn home console, and this assumption was the push Kamitani needed to get his project through the door. He would immediately tell his programmers that they would need to turn the game into an action RPG.
The project would enter full development in 1995, but ran into huge troubles as the company Kamitani worked for went bankrupt in 1996. This would be the first of many instances in Kamitani’s career where luck would be his saving grace. He was introduced to Atlus through a colleague at SEGA, and they would come to fund his team after his company’s bankruptcy. They would join Atlus’ Kansai branch after this.
Princess Crown’s release was met with very positive critical reception, but positive reception alone doesn’t equate to success. Due to releasing at the end of the Saturn’s life, the game had very low sales, resulting in a net loss in profits for Atlus. The bankruptcy of Kamitani’s former company also incurred a loss for them as well. This led to Kamitani and his team garnering a negative reputation as a money-loser that has persisted to this day. Princess Crown itself was branded a “red-ink project” after this.
Kamitani grew attached to his team during Princess Crown’s development, but after it finished, Atlus Kansai would dissolve as the members of the team would all leave the studio to pursue other ventures. Despite wanting to keep his team together, Kamitani lacked the resolve to start his own company. He would later be contracted by game developer Racjin to work on an outsourced basis.
Kamitani in Dire Straits
After some time working as a freelancer, Kamitani would be approached by Shigeo Komori, a former Atlus Kansai staff member who worked on Princess Crown. Komori ended up working at Sony after the Princess Crown team disbanded, and he invited Kamitani to Tokyo to work for Sony. Kamitani wished to do game planning there, but many of the projects he worked on at Sony never got off the ground. The team he’d assembled during his time there also fell apart, leaving only himself and programmer Kentaro Ohnishi, a former Racjin colleague.
This would prove to be one of the most difficult points in Kamitani’s career. He did not have much money to his name, and would live off of 200¥ (approx. $2USD) a day. His diet consisted mostly of bread ends during this period.
Rather than going back to Osaka jobless, he chose to remain in Tokyo. By some stroke of good fortune, he was contracted by Square Enix to work on their Fantasy Earth Ring of Dominion MMO project. His contributions steered the MMO away from being a game about humans and vampires, to a game about fighting princesses, one of his signatures. The project grew so large that he established an entire team to work on it, named Puraguru. Kamitani met Shigatake during this time, and convinced him to join the fledgling team when he learned that he was a fan of Princess Crown.
Puraguru would become the early foundation of Vanillaware.
Due to Square Enix “taking” the project away from Puraguru, Kamitani would leave the project on less than amicable terms with the company. It was at this point that he would finally take it upon himself to officially establish Vanillaware. At the time of the studio’s formation, there were only 4 developers on staff:
- George Kamitani (Director)
- Takashi Nishii (Programmer)
- Kentaro Ohnishi (Programmer)
- Shigatake (Illustrator, Animator)
Kamitani and Nishii were the only members who were from the original Princess Crown team. Another former staff from the Princess Crown team would later join the studio. Once they’d reached 5 members, Kamitani immediately began planning his next project: Princess Crown 2. During this time, Kamitani continued to recruit staff, which proved to be difficult due to his reputation. The fact that he hadn’t shipped a game since the niche Princess Crown didn’t help either. But, against all odds, he managed to expand Vanillaware to a team of 10 members (By the time of Dragon’s Crown, it ballooned up to 24 members).
Kamitani would later pitch the concept for Princess Crown 2 to Atlus, but was met with consternation. Nobody wanted to support a sequel to a project that was already looked at as a commercial failure. There was also a lack of faith in Kamitani himself as he hadn’t directed a game since Princess Crown. However, Hideyuki Yokoyama, the then general manager of Atlus’ development department supported him, and the project was greenlit.
Princess Crown 2 would later be renamed Odin Sphere to distance it from the stigma of its predecessor.
Development went smoothly on Odin Sphere, but Atlus’ faith in the project was shaken by Vanillaware cutting it close to their deadline. This, coupled with the huge success of Persona 3, led Atlus to delay the release of Odin Sphere. They refused to negotiate funding for a new project until they saw how well Odin Sphere performed.
“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.”
During this period, Kamitani took on other projects to keep the studio afloat. The team worked on Grimgrimoire for Nipponichi Software, and Oboro Muramasa for Marvelous AQL, but these projects would completely drain their funds. The studio was in such bad shape financially that Kamitani would have to personally borrow 20 million yen (approx. $188,000) to keep from going bankrupt. Kamitani said that his mental health deteriorated to the point where he felt the ceiling would morph whenever he lied down.
Odin Sphere would release to huge critical and commercial success, and the royalties negotiated with Atlus were set high enough that Kamitani was able to pay back his debt and give bonuses to all his staff. Unfortunately, by the time development concluded on the Muramasa project, Vanillaware would be in yet another financial predicament.
Kamitani acknowledges that his poor business acumen is the direct cause of the fluctuating state of Vanillaware. He gets so caught up in his love of creating games that he neglects deadlines and works until funds run out. It’s not a sustainable practice, and it does nothing to help his reputation, but somehow it’s worked out for him. His studio continues to remain profitable, and he continues to secure funding for his more ambitious projects.
Hopefully, he’ll find a safer alternative to his approach to game development one day…
Amidst the ups and downs of the studio, Vanillaware’s passion for creating video-games has never wavered. Kamitani and his staff have continued to produce some of the most unique gaming experiences in the industry. The central philosophy behind Kamitani’s work ethic is that he prefers to put all of his ideas into one game, leaving no room for regret over things left on the cutting room floor. This approach to game design is why, instead of producing sequels to improve on his older work, he can always seek to produce wholly original titles.
Vanillaware’s status as an independent studio is also what allows their catalog to be as experimentally diverse as it is. This freedom allows them to create what they please, without feeling pressured to chase trends.
“I have a bunch of ideas buzzing around in my head, and I know I’m never going to have time to make them all a reality […] Vanillaware may be a pretty poor company, but I’m happy with it because it gives me a chance to create what I want to create.”
From Princess Crown to Dragon’s Crown, you can see the innovations in design between each of Vanillaware’s games. But, the greatest example of their freedom as an independent developer is most present in their recent title: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. It is a game that is the complete culmination of Vanillaware’s experiences. It’s an interactive visual novel that features the studio’s signature 2D style, an RTS combat system (Evolved from Grimgrimoire), and a massive story featuring 13 different characters. It’s also the first Vanillaware title to use 3D backgrounds.
“My definition of the ultimate goal would be [to create] a game that implements everything I like about video games — a little RTS, a little action, a decent story. If I can find the perfect mix of every aspect I like, and be happy with it all, that would be my ultimate title.” – Excerpt from Kamitani’s 2009 Gamasutra Interview
Aegis Rim is a game that Kamitani believes is powerful enough to transcend generational barriers. Such a massive effort was put into it that even if it were to become a massive success, they would not be able to create a sequel. Kamitani literally put his mental health on the line during development, he rewrote the scenario constantly for three years to the point that he would scream in the middle of the night.
What’s Next For Vanillaware?
Now that Aegis Rim is completed, the studio have their sights set on new projects. The staff is considering reusing assets from Aegis Rim to make a new game, possibly an action game like Final Fight, or something like the Japan-only PS1 horror title Yuuyami-doori Tanken-tai.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim released in Japan in November 2019 to paltry sales, but its sales figures skyrocketed as word of mouth spread. It is Vanillaware’s largest scale production since Dragon’s Crown and took over 5 years to develop. It was so well received that it was the only video-game from 2019 to be nominated for a Seiun Award. It has also won the 2019 Dengeki Awards for “Best Scenario” over Death Stranding, and “Best Adventure Game” over AI: The Somnium Files.
Video-game Auteurs Yoko Taro and Masahiro Sakurai had nothing short of high praise for its story and unique design. You should absolutely consider putting this game on your radar. Aegis Rim will release worldwide on September 22, 2020 for the Playstation 4.
Studios like Vanillaware are a rarity in the video-game industry. With as much corporate meddling that goes on, with as many cookie-cutter gaming experiences that are being produced, it’s nice to know that a small Japanese studio is leading the charge in producing high quality, original games. Time and again, Kamitani and his team have proven that their love for their craft supersedes all else. This is Vanillaware’s legacy, and it is why their work will stand the test of time.