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Q&A: Dimps' Tanaka Talks 2D Fighter Comeback, Japanese Market

Could the industry see a resurgence of the 2D fighting game? Gamasutra presents a rare interview with Dimps COO Mitsuhiro Tanaka (Dragonball Z: Budokai, Rumble Fish) about the concept, the peculiarities of being funded by several major competing Ja
Japanese development studio Dimps, best known for developing the Dragonball Z: Budokai games for PlayStation 2, was spun off of Neo Geo creators SNK after the latter was purchased by Aruze. It's now a work-for-hire studio with a unique business model, and Gamasutra got all of the inside info from Dimps COO Mitsuhiro Tanaka, who discussed the peculiarities of being funded by several major Japanese developers who compete with one another. Tanaka also talked about the resurgence in fandom for 2D fighting games, and what this could mean for Dimps' future development, on the heels of the Neo Geo Pocket's short-lived heyday. Interestingly, the studio has its own proprietary middleware, and Tanaka also discusses the state of middleware sharing in Japan -- and why it might be holding Japanese technology back. What percentage of Dimps is ex-SNK staff? Mitsuhiro Tanaka: Well our staff is increasing, but 70 people out of 200 employees. But [in those] 70 people -- mainly assistant directors, or managing directors. Junior level and high-end. In the early days of Dimps, were the graphic artists and programmers new hires, or were they from SNK? MT: At the beginning, probably from SNK. So, with Dimps, the idea for the company was to be work-for-hire, correct? MT: Yes. Why did you decide to be a work-for-hire developer instead of doing a lot of original titles for yourself with just the Dimps name? There were a lot of titles for Sega or for other companies. MT: We never forget about creating our own original titles. We want to do that. But basically, Dimps is a very unique company. When we started off the company, we were funded in full by major Japanese publishers. Number one was Sony Computer Entertainment, and number two at that time was Bandai -- currently Bandai Namco -- and Sega, and Sammy. They compete in the market, and they want more titles. That's why I think most of our resources are under subcontract to publishers. I think that's the primary reason why we do it. When the Sammy arcade hardware Atomiswave came out, Dimps made a lot of the early games for it, and some of them seem to have been done, shall I say, rather quickly. There's that 3D beat'em-up game... Demolish Fist? MT: Demolish Fist, and Rumble Fish. Those are two titles we developed as originals for Atomiswave. Rumble Fish was actually very, very good. I've been hoping that the sequel will get a console port. I don't know if that's possible. It looks like Sega has not picked it up yet. Do you know if it's going to? MT: We never discussed it. That's up to them. It seems like the 2D fighting market is rising up again in Japan, because of titles like Arcana Heart, Melty Blood, and some other arcade games that are starting to do really well over there. Do you forsee perhaps another 2D fighting game from Dimps? MT: 2D? Yeah, well... As you know, we were a pure 2D developer and publisher, as SNK. And still we believe a 2D market does exist. But, I think 2D... well, the users trend toward 3D, and this is happening in arcade and console. Still, in the arcade business, 2D's okay, but in the console side the hardware is evolving every year, and we have first-party issues. It's not up to us. It's up to the publishers' side to decide whether it will be 2D or 3D, but they will also follow the 3D trend. It's certainly true, and maybe it's just arcades, but 2D is becoming an interesting niche market for people again. Some people are getting interested in 2D again, especially with things like the DS and Xbox Live Arcade. It seems like an Xbox Live Arcade Rumble Fish 2 port would be good, or an original 2D title for Xbox Live. MT: Again, that's a good question and a good point, but that question is for the publishers, really. We're purely a developer. We always have to do what the publisher wants. I think you're right, though. Xbox Live Arcade is a great opportunity for 2D too. So you really have to wait for a publisher to come to you, to decide if it's going to happen? MT: Yeah. Dimps in the past was developing the Sonic Advance games. Has that gone back internal to Sega, or is Dimps still working on Sonic stuff? MT: Sonic for Gameboy Advance we did, and Sonic Rush for the DS we did. Are you also doing Sonic Rush 2? MT: Sonic Rush 2? Yeah. For DS. A lot of people say that the Dimps Sonic games are much more like real Sonic games than the Sonic Team ones these days, like Sonic for 360. It's much less like your normal Sonic game than Rush is, for instance. How did the company stay so true to the original concepts? MT: That's a good question. The whole direction came from Sega's side, so I think that's their idea. We were just a pure subcontractor. But you designed it, right? Dimps designed and developed it? MT: For the designing part and the game level part, designing how we do it is always at the publisher’s discretion. Even for design and stuff, that came from Sega? MT: That probably came from Sega, yes. But I don't know, really. Not for sure. Can you talk about your recent presentation at Austin GDC? MT: Basically, we have our own server engine. As you know in Japan, we did Universal Century: Gundam Online with Bandai Namco. But we have our own server engine. It's a very efficient performance engine. So we’re just introducing our technology to publishers. It seems like not enough companies in Japan have middleware and tools that they share with each other. It seems to me that's one reason why Japan's technology is a little lower than it should be, because people don't actually share these technologies and things with each other. Is that something that you've found to be true? MT: There are several companies in Japan who own server engines, and they pretty much don’t share -- I don't know with overseas companies. But I agree with your point. Most companies don’t share, so anything we can't resolve, that’s just it, we don’t know what to do. And not just server engines, but middleware and backware -- the backbone engines of games -- there's no conference like GDC in Japan, where people can share their ideas. MT: Well, server engines always have a database, and also server engines need cheat and hacking protection. And that technology is more advanced overseas, like in Korea or the U.S. So I’m learning a lot about others’ technologies and how we can improve. And quite often that has to be done, it seems to me, outside of Japan, because people in Japan don't want to tell each other. Do you think that that sort of change can happen, just speaking for your perception of the Japanese industry right now? MT: I think they will, but I don’t know exactly when they will. The Japanese market is changing now, so more demand is going to mean more technology. That way, that will be changed. When did you set up an office in the U.S.? MT: Last year in November. Is it just a business office, or development too? MT: Only business. How many people do you have in your office? MT: Just myself. Oh, just you? MT: Yes. Oh, that's nice. You are Dimps! MT: Yeah! Torrance was a really big area for... MT: Actually, it's not Torrance, my business card is wrong. It's Irvine. Very close to Blizzard and K2 Network. Right, right. Because Torrance was a big center for Japanese satellite companies for a long time, but that seems to have gone down over the last years. MT: Right. That's why I just moved out. No console anymore! That's funny. MT: That's why – well there’s one mall in Irvine called Spectrum Center. Spectrum is a big mall, and all the companies at lunchtime, like people from Blizzard, and people from K2 go there. It’s a good opportunity to talk to people. So you moved there because it had a nice place to eat lunch? MT: Indeed! Are you guys working on any Wii titles yet? MT: Currently, no. But we are ready to go. You guys seem to have a similar model to Tose, except you put your name on the box. Do you think that Dimps will ever produce its own games without publisher direction? I assume that some creative people at Dimps have ideas for games that they want to make. MT: Right. Well, always we want to. Again, currently, we are subcontractor workers, so we have to do some things. That doesn't mean that we don't have our own ideas. If a publisher accepts it, that’s good! So do you sometimes pitch your own ideas to publishers? MT: It depends. That's the mutual profit and benefit, if the idea is good. But you do sometimes have your own ideas and take them to a publisher and say, "Can you make this?" MT: We are wanting to do that. We are also just ready to go with next-gen titles -- the PS3, 360, and Wii. Did you have to staff up a lot for next-gen? MT: Well, it has to be. Are you working on any now for next-gen, or are you still waiting for a publisher? MT: I can't mention any titles now, but yes, we are. A lot of companies in Japan have had a really hard time transitioning to this phase of console, because the art assets are so demanding. Only a few companies are attempting it right now. Capcom does well. Square Enix is doing it. AQI and all their companies...they have Cavia and Artoon and these people. MT: You are very...you know everyone! Can I ask you some old SNK questions? MT: Yeah. Do you know what happened to Yumekobo? MT: I don't know. I know Yumekobo, they worked on the Neo Geo Pocket. They made Dive Alert, some other interesting titles. I don't know what happened. Are they gone? Did they disperse? MT: Basically, I think maybe someone acquired Yumekobo. Someone acquired them? MT: When we had the Neo Geo Pocket, they were developing some titles. But actually, I don't know. I was a very big Neo Geo Pocket fan. It was very disappointing when it really didn't succeed in the market here. Why do you think that happened? MT: Why we decided to discontinue it? Yeah, and why it didn't take off the way it should have. MT: That was 1999, when we marketed the NeoGeo Pocket in the U.S. We got a lot of support from retailers, basically, like EB and GameStop. Or other retailers. The users were really Neo Geo freak users -- they really supported us too. But I think that the revenue just wasn't big enough for the company's expectations. I see. A lot of us were sad to hear that a lot of games that were in development like Ikari Warriors and King of Fighters R-3 never came out. I hope that someday, the prototypes of those show up, so that people can actually play them. That probably will never happen. MT: I still have a Neo Geo Pocket and every single title. Every title? Even the ones that didn't come out? MT: Well, no, I don't have them. As far as the structure of SNK post-Aruze, as far as I understood it, Kawasaki brought everyone back that he could, right? And then he had several other satellite offices like Noise Factory and Brezza. Do you know if he brought them all back? It seems like Noise is on its own now. MT: Actually, I don't know. Basically, KoF: Maximum Impact, that's Noise. I'll ask you about this -- KoF: Maximum Impact -- what kind of opinion do you have? Like you mentioned before, some people like 2D, but the market is now 3D. People are trying to change the art style into 3D, so now they have to motion capture images and movement, response and speed -- everything. Everything is changed. But a lot of these changes they're making to KoF... I mean, 2D turning into 3D like they did to Maximum Impact.

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