With the next Vanillaware game—Odin Sphere Leifthrasir—set to release in Japan in just a couple of days now, I wanted to look back on the history between Atlus and Vanillaware. Going all the way back to Princess Crown in 1997, both companies have more history together than one might think.
Context: George Kamitani (from 1992 – 1995)
George Kamitani is the founder, president and lead artist of Vanillaware. He starts working in the video game industry during high school, when a software company offers him a part-time job doing pixel art. He moves to Osaka from Hiroshima after college, and ends up working as a planner on side-scrolling action games at Capcom around 1992-1993.
Kamitani eventually leaves Capcom after feeling that he could never direct a game there, and joins a small adult game company in Kansai. Inspired by Princess Maker 2, Kamitani subsequently forms the idea of Princess Crown, which he shops to Sega who wanted an RPG for their Saturn console to compete with Sony’s PlayStation at the time. Sega accepts the game, becoming its publisher.
ATLUS Kansai (from 1995 to 1997)
Introducing strong RPG elements to the game because of Sega, the development of Princess Crown starts at the end of 1995. In 1996, however, the small development company George Kamitani is employed at goes bankrupt, halting the production of Princess Crown.
The project and Kamitani himself are saved when a friend at Sega introduces him to Atlus, who had a good relationship with Sega due to the “Print Club” arcade machine they co-developed in 1995. Atlus agrees to assume the development of Princess Crown—taking on part of the development costs as a Sega x Atlus joint project—and hires George Kamitani. To this day, he is very thankful for this.
Kamitani becomes a member of “ATLUS Kansai,” an “Atlus Osaka Development Office” where games such as Power Instinct were developed. Some members of ATLUS Kansai would eventually leave to form the development company Noise Factory.
The development of Princess Crown finishes and it is released for the Sega Saturn on December 11, 1997. The game is critically well received, however it has poor sales by releasing at the end of the Saturn’s life. This combined with the bankruptcy of Kamitani’s previous company causes Princess Crown to be labeled a “red ink project,” and those who worked on it to be looked at unfavorably.
Kamitani Wanders (from 1998 to 2001)
Despite George Kamitani being very attached to his Princess Crown team and wanting to remain with Atlus to continue making games (such as the idea for Dragon’s Crown he proposes in 1998), ATLUS Kansai is shut down and the development team for Princess Crown becomes scattered.
A studio named Racjin employs most of the former Atlus developers, including Kamitani. After the Princess Crown team is dismantled and due to past experiences, however, Kamitani feels rather isolated and finds it difficult to take work easily.
This is when Shigeo Komori (former ATLUS Kansai staff member who worked on Princess Crown, stayed at Atlus and is currently the Etrian Odyssey director) invites Kamitani to Tokyo, prompting him to work at Sony Computer Entertainment. His time there is confidential, however the team he assembled also dissolved soon after, leaving him jobless in Tokyo, in 2001.
Puraguru & Vanillaware (from 2001 to 2004)
Only George Kamitani and a programmer by the name of Kentaro Ohnishi (current Vanillaware programmer and director) are left from that SCE team, with little money to their name. Fortunately, Kamitani is introduced to a job that would become involved with Enix’s Fantasy Earth: The Ring of Dominion (later renamed to Fantasy Earth Zero).
The predecessor to Vanillaware, “Puraguru” is formed by Kamitani in February 2002 to work on the aforementioned MMORPG. Enix later merges with Squaresoft in 2003, resulting in the newly formed Square Enix taking the project away from Puraguru. This causes Kamitani to part ways on bad terms with the company.
This, however, gives Kamitani the freedom to work on projects that he wants to. Only composed of five members at the time—with George Kamitani and Takashi Nishii being the only original developers from Atlus—Puraguru is renamed to Vanillaware in 2004. The new company’s first project starts as “Princess Crown 2,” which would later be known as Odin Sphere.
Five additional team members still joined Vanillaware shortly after the company was formed, despite Kamitani only being known for Princess Crown at the time.
Publishing with Atlus and without (from 2004 – 2007)
Eventually, Kamitani proposes Odin Sphere to Atlus—his former employer—for funding. Atlus are reluctant to follow through because Kamitani has a poor reputation, with Princess Crown having been a commercial failure, and because he was a director that had not made a new game in 7-8 years. However, Atlus’ development director—Hideyuki Yokoyama—accepts the proposal and Odin Sphere would be published by Atlus. This was the second time he had saved Kamitani, with the first being in 1996 when he accepted the Princess Crown proposal.
The development of Odin Sphere goes smoothly, however there are internal delays which bring the game’s completion to 2006. This brings down Atlus’ trust in Vanillaware. Atlus delays the release of Odin Sphere because they do not want it cannibalizing the sales of the recently released Persona 3, and Atlus refuse to talk with Vanillaware about future projects until Odin Sphere is released and they see its sales performance.
This is a problem for Vanillaware since they needed money urgently to keep themselves afloat, so they visit other publishers for funding, with Nippon Ichi Software publishing GrimGrimoire or Marvelous Entertainment publishing Muramasa: The Demon Blade. This results in GrimGrimoire launching in Japan in April 2007—ahead of Odin Sphere which launched in May 2007—even though serious development on the game only started in 2006.
Vanillaware was running out of funds before the release of Odin Sphere, unnerving Kamitani and forcing him to personally borrow 20 million yen. After it came out, however, Atlus set high royalties for the project which allowed Kamitani to pay back his debt and award bonuses for Vanillaware staff members.
Dragon’s Crown (2008 – 2013)
Vanillaware continues to make games published by publishers other than Atlus until Dragon’s Crown. In 2008, Vanillaware approaches UTV Ignition Entertainment who accept the proposal on Dragon’s Crown because of their respect for Kamitani’s artwork and unique style. Ignition later pushes Vanillaware to develop a PlayStation Vita version of the game in addition to the PS3 one.
Mass layoffs and restructurings, however, causes Ignition Entertainment to search for a company to sell the project to in 2011. They allow Kamitani to consult on this, so he begs Atlus for them to save his game for the third time. His wish is granted, and all rights and publishing duties for Dragon’s Crown are transferred over to Atlus in 2012, along with a statement that Atlus would assume an active role in the game’s development as producers.
Dragon’s Crown is released on July 25, 2013 in Japan, to great critical and commercial success.
Atlus x Vanillaware (2014 – now)
That all leads to the announcement of an “Atlus x Vanillaware” project on July 17, 2015, which turns out to be Odin Sphere Leifthrasir. The director, Kentaro Ohnishi, states that even though the original game was meant to be a successor to Princess Crown, Odin Sphere betrayed its original form and they sought to rebuild it with a remake.
13 Sentinels: Aegis RIM is subsequently announced at TGS 2015 as being part of the Atlus and Vanillaware initiative, as well.
After Dragon’s Crown, the creation of an Atlus-Vanillaware hub website, and the backing Atlus has had for recent Vanillaware games points to Atlus being the primary partner for Vanillaware in the foreseeable future. This is after an unstable path, back when Atlus were the first to publish Kamitani’s game in 1997, and then published the first Vanillaware game a decade later in 2007.
Essentially, the ties that bind Vanillaware and Atlus (and Sega) all started with the development of Princess Crown in the beginning.
- 1995: The development of Princess Crown starts at a small development company, which subsequently goes bankrupt in 1996.
- 1996: With Sega desiring an RPG and publishing the game, a friend at Sega introduces George Kamitani to Atlus in order to save the Princess Crown project.
- 1996: Kamitani is hired at ATLUS Kansai and Princess Crown becomes a joint ‘Sega x Atlus’ project, with Atlus agreeing to take on part of the development costs.
- December 11, 1997: Princess Crown is released and critically well received, but it has poor sales.
- 1998: Princess Crown is branded a failure with Kamitani looked upon unfavorably for it.
- 1998: Kamitani has a strong attachment to his team and proposes the idea for Dragon’s Crown, but ATLUS Kansai is soon dissolved and the development team scatters.
- 2001: Etrian Odyssey director and ex-ATLUS Kansai team member Shigeo Komori invites Kamitani to Tokyo.
- 2004: Vanillaware is created by George Kamitani with an initially small team and only two former developers from Atlus, with their first project set to be Princess Crown 2 (later becoming Odin Sphere).
- 2004: Kamitani proposes Odin Sphere to Atlus, who are reluctant because of Kamitani’s history and the failure of Princess Crown. Like in 1996, however, Atlus’ development director Hideyuki Yokoyama accepts the proposal, saving the project.
- 2006: Odin Sphere finishes development after some internal delays, which brings down Atlus’ trust in Vanillaware. Atlus delays Odin Sphere by several months so that it does not conflict with Persona 3, which was selling well at the time. Atlus also refuses to talk about future projects with Vanillaware until they see Odin Sphere‘s sales.
- 2006: Being put in a tough spot, Kamitani seeks other publishers (e.g. Nippon Ichi Software, Marvelous) for Vanillaware games as they need to be able to proceed with development to keep the company afloat.
- 2007: Odin Sphere is released in May 2007, one month after GrimGrimoire (published by Nippon Ichi Software) is released in Japan. Atlus is satisfied with the performance of Odin Sphere, which has them set high royalties for Vanillaware.
- 2008: Publisher Ignition Entertainment accepts the proposal for Dragon‘s Crown, which had been originally proposed to Atlus a decade earlier in 1998.
- 2011-2012: Mass layoffs and restructurings cause Ignition Entertainment to seek a buyer for Dragon’s Crown. Kamitani is allowed to be part of the process, so he pleads to Atlus for them to save his project for a third time. Atlus accept the proposal.
- July 25, 2013: Dragon’s Crown is released to great commercial and critical success.
- September 18, 2013: Sega acquires Atlus.
- July 17, 2015: The Atlus x Vanillaware partnership is put forward, with Odin Sphere Leifthrasir and 13 Sentinels Aegis RIM announced later on in 2015.
With George Kamitani having been a previous Atlus employee leading the Princess Crown project that would be published, developed and released by Sega and Atlus in 1997; to Odin Sphere Leifthrasir (a remake of the original successor to Princess Crown) that will be published, developed and released by Sega and Atlus in 2016 after the twists and turns for Vanillaware over the years, it makes for a fun history.
— 4Gamer (via The Madman’s Cafe; NeoGAF), Gamasutra, Forbes