When I think about Arc System Works, my brain can’t help but make the comparison to 1990s’ Capcom. And it isn’t because they are both the source of great 2D fighting games.

In the 1990s’, Capcom was the pinnacle of 2D art direction in the game industry. When word spread that the developer was working with the Marvel license in 1994, the reaction wasn’t the timid let’s-wait-and-see that Capcom fans adopt today. The reaction was automatic hype, because it was just obvious that regardless of anything else, Capcom’s art direction was going to blow our minds. And through that decade, it did.

Those days are gone for Capcom. But this isn’t really about them. It’s about those that have taken their crown.

Arc System Works is our modern version of 2D mastery; a developer whose 2D art direction is so strong that it’s just a given that their project is going to look fantastic. Like my reaction to Capcom working with the Marvel license back in 1994, when I heard Arc System Works was tinkering on a major Dragon Ball release, I knew the art direction was going to look crazy good.

So it can be understandable that I was excited to get a sit-down conversation with Arc System Works’ Chief Development Officer Toshimichi Mori and Chief Creative Officer Daisuke Ishiwatari. They were in town to show off their next release, BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle, scheduled for release in North America on June 5th on the Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation 4.

Above: Going for a pinch in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: What are you showing today?

Toshimichi Mori: As you can see, this is our newest BlazBlue title, Cross Tag Battle. It’s based on the BlazBlue 2D fighting game, but it uses characters from titles we’ve developed in the past – not just BlazBlue characters. To briefly introduce, we obviously have BlazBlue characters and Persona 4 Arena characters we developed, and also the Under Night In-Birth game characters, and finally RWBY characters.

In the past we’ve developed games that are released in the arcades, and they’re designed to use a joystick, but with this game we had a game pad in mind. The current trend for Arc System Works is to design for the game pad. This has been true for BlazBlue and for Guilty Gear, as well as the most recent Dragon Ball Fighterz.

All of those were designed based on using a game pad. It’s designed so you don’t need complex controls. You can just use a couple of buttons. The basic attacks are the square and triangle buttons. Just by pressing those, you can have fun. But since this is a tag battle game, the X button allows you to switch characters. Also, you can trigger a tag assist attack.

For new players, it’s probably easier and more fun to jam the square and triangle [buttons], but when you get used to the game and you’re trying to extend combos or deal more damage, there’s a lot more depth to the game. This is a new game, and young players — I want new players to come and have fun with a BlazBlue title.

With that in mind, the controls are much easier than in some of our past titles. You may have seen, at EVO last year, that in the finals, all the finalists were Japanese. We don’t want that. We want a global audience to have fun. We want to see more foreign players in competition. With that in mind, we kind of reset everything and re-created the controls so everyone can have fun.

Above: Someone’s about to get cut up in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: Do you feel that there’s a way to design controls with Japanese players in mind that Western players may not quite grasp?

Mori: I feel that controls are something that everybody can understand regardless of nationality. But I just wanted to make it easier and bring down that hurdle.

At the same time, I feel like dexterity … Japanese players may be better at that. In my mind, games like Smash Bros. are where Westerners are much better than Japanese … that kind of game you jam buttons a lot, right?

To bring more balance to the arena, there should be some of that sense of button-jamming, but at the same time, some more complex controls to put everyone on the same field. I do understand that there are differences between each player. Everyone is good at certain things. It’s hard to generalize.

GamesBeat: We seem to also be pretty good at Marvel vs. Capcom, and there’s not a lot of one-button jamming there.

Mori: I feel like it’s a difference in strategy. In the Street Fighter games, there’s a lot of strategy in predicting what the other player will do. In games where Westerners do very well, it tends to be a more one-sided competition, if you see what I mean?

This is very subjective. I don’t know if I want to talk about other titles and make them sound bad? But this is hard to put into words. Another example, it’s like comparing shogi to chess? They’re both strategy games, but they’re different in nature.

    Guilty Gear Xrd

GamesBeat: I like the design of Arc System games — I like Guilty Gear, I like the ideas behind it — but I’m more of a Street Fighter player. What’s kept me from diving deeper into Guilty Gear or BlazBlue … there’s a lot of systems to learn and a lot to those systems. It’s less about the control to me and more about things like … for example roman cancels.

I like the ideas, but it’s a lot to learn and practice in order to be competitive. When I think about why players might not put as much time into it, it’s because it feels intimidating. There’s so much you have to know to be good at these games.

Mori: Even for us, the system can be a bit difficult.

With this new game, we’ve tried to get rid of complex systems as much as possible, so people can just dive into the game and play. Aside from us feeling that the systems were a bit complicated, Mr. Harada from Bandai Namco, the producer for Tekken, he also said, “These systems are too difficult, don’t you think?”

That stuck in my mind while I was planning for this game, so it’s not as complicated. But at the same time, we did want to keep the unique character designs we’re known for. You should be able to feel that strongly through this game.

GamesBeat: Would you say the system here is simpler than, say, the last BlazBlue or Guilty Gear?

Mori: Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s easier to understand.

Making the system easy would be easy for us as well. We just have to take things out. But that would kill the game, so to speak. What we’ve done is, kind of like in poker, everyone understands a deck of cards, but the game has so much depth that when you have certain combinations, it’s very powerful.

We’ve tried to put that in the game. People understand what the system is. The controls are intuitive. In certain cases you can do certain things to overcome your opponent.

Above: Dragon Ball Fighterz.

Image Credit: Bandai Namco

GamesBeat: I run a weekly tournament on Tuesdays. On the first and third weeks of the month I run Street Fighter and the second and fourth I run Dragon Ball Fighterz. I guess this is more of a statement than a question, but the people at my event who were really excited about Marvel — they saw Dragon Ball Fighterz and they said, “Oh man, forget Marvel!”

But these same people, when I talk to them and ask if they want to play Guilty Gear or Blazblue, the feeling is always … that’s a little too complicated. For some reason, I have more people wanting to play Dragon Ball than Street Fighter or anything else. I don’t know if that comes down to complexity or anything else.

Daisuke Ishiwatari: One thing I can say is the IP is very strong. It’s Dragon Ball! A lot of people love that.

At the same time, we’ve learned a lot of things through so many Guilty Gear and Blazblue titles. Dragon Ball was developed on top of that. Some of the complexity may not be there. It may be easier for gamers to get into and start playing.

GamesBeat: While you were demonstrating BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle, I noticed you were using a similar ‘hit square to do an auto combo’, just like Dragon Ball Fighterz. Is that something that started with Dragon Ball, or did that start earlier?

Mori: It was actually present in the first Blazblue game, Calamity Trigger. That title had a system called Stylish Mode, where it’s easier for players to attack. This was further polished when we were developing Persona 4 Arena.

Traditionally, Persona players are good at RPGs, not fighting games. We wanted to design a control system where RPG players could easily play a fighting game. So to go chronologically, we put that in Guilty Gear as well, where we also called it Stylish Mode, and all of that combined and evolved to become Dragon Ball.

GamesBeat: Where would you put Cross Tag Battle as far as skill requirements? In my mind, I think of Guilty Gear and Blazblue as the hardcore side, and Persona is a bit kinder to less skilled players. Dragon Ball Fighterz is over there with Persona as well. Would Blaz Blue Cross Tag Battle be somewhere in the middle, or closer to one side?

Mori: Cross Tag Battle is easier, actually, for players to play than Persona. Probably Dragon Ball is around that same range.

Above: A lot of slashing going down in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: I was also reading up on BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle, and there was a bit of a controversy with DLC characters. I noticed that at one point you mentioned the DLC to get all the characters won’t cost as much as the retail game. Do you have any plans about that pricing?

Arc System Works’ PR Rep: We’ll be announcing the pricing  — digital/physical, will be $49.99, and all the DLCs will be $5 each. We’ll be offering the complete bundle at $20. Blake and Yang are free, and the first DLC pack will be free. It’ll be these three characters, Platinum, Orie, and Kanji.

GamesBeat: I’m glad about that pricing, because since I run a tournament, I have to buy multiple copies of the game, and then I have to buy multiple DLC. The thing that killed me about Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, I spent more than $100 just to support it on one or two consoles, and when it died — great! I’m out all that money! I’m glad you’re thinking about pricing in this way overall, so I’m not spending more than the game itself just to support it.

Mori: Our intention was originally for the user to buy the game and all the DLC, and for the pricing to be about one full game.

GamesBeat: This is using the Unreal engine, I take it?

Mori: It’s an in-house engine, actually.

GamesBeat: Is it the same engine as earlier Blazblue and Guilty Gear titles?

Mori: This was originally used for Blazblue Chrono Phantasma. We made some tweaks to that. Persona 4 Arena uses the same engine.

GamesBeat: Why did you move away from Unreal to go back to your own in-house engine?

Mori: For Blazblue we never used Unreal. It was only Guilty Gear that used Unreal, and Dragon Ball Fighterz.

Above: Arc System Works using polygons to enhance 2D visuals in Guilty Gear Xrd

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: In Dragon Ball and Guilty Gear, I know they’re using polygonal characters, but what I’ve always wondered—are you using polygonal characters during the fight itself, or you using The Rumble Fish style, where you create 2D sprites drawn over a polygonal character where you get a 3D look out of 2D sprites?

Ishiwatari: For Guilty Gear and Dragon Ball, everything is polygonal except the VFX. For the VFX we use sprites.

GamesBeat: When Guilty Gear Xrd came out … I was staring at footage of that for a long time. It was really cool to see toon shading done that well … because when I was in art school, I was a big proponent of toon shading over traditional shading, and nobody around me wanted to do that! I kept saying that in the future, we’ll be able to do things that look exactly like they’re hand drawn, and to see that happen with current Arc System Works games … I love it!

When Dragon Ball Fighterz came out I was just staring at the same video for hours trying to study the explosions … trying to figure out if you used a sprite or actual polygonal toon shading for this cloud, or that fireball … .

Ishiwatari: For us, when we started using toon shading, there were already games out there, like the Naruto games, that extensively used toon shading. So it was a process of catching up with our competitors, and seeing how much we could catch up.

GamesBeat: You did it so much better though. You guys trick the eye better than anyone else right now – am I looking at 2D or 3D?

Ishiwatari: Thank you very much!

GamesBeat: Is BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle using the same technique? Is it a combination of 3D polygons and 2D sprites?

Mori: For Cross Tag Battle, we started off with 3D polygonal characters, and then we convert that into 2D.

Above: Ragna from BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: Is there a reason to go that route, like the engine itself? Or is it just more efficient to go that way?

Mori: Originally it was a technical issue, where character animation couldn’t be accurately expressed in 3D.

When I want to do a throw animation, for example, the twist of an arm couldn’t be expressed the way I wanted it to be. So I’d take that from 3D and convert it into sprites. That way there’s a sense of “drawing” left in the design, and I still wanted that. But if you look at Guilty Gear Xrd now, animation has come a long way since then. In our next implementation maybe we’ll go the 3D route.

GamesBeat: Are there any things about going straight 3D that you find solve problems that you have with the 3D/2D style of development?

Mori: It’s really not that different. If you go 3D you have to make high-poly models for up-close scenes, and then you also have to have the in-game models. The nature of the difficulty is different, but as far as the level of difficulty itself, it’s not that big a difference.

GamesBeat: What made you decide, when you made Guilty Gear Xrd, to go with 3D? What pushed it over to where you were going to do toon shading in some of your games?

Ishiwatari: Guilty Gear first came out in the arcades. At the time, we had a lot of feedback from users, and then three years later we decided to come out with a new Guilty Gear, but we didn’t want to release a game that looked similar to the last Guilty Gear, especially after three years. Users would expect a big change. So with that, we decided to go 3D.

GamesBeat: What kind of networking technology are you using?

Mori: It’s in house.

Ishiwatari: As much as we’re tired of hearing about GGPO, we are interested, and we’re researching that. But for this title we used in-house technology.

Mori: With our in-house technology, if players are within a close distance, there’s no latency. However, with longer distances, we’re still testing, because there’s a possibility that players will experience some latency. But in any case, we do have the American and European audiences in mind. Latency is a problem we’re working hard to solve.

What we’re trying to do is, obviously we’re using our in-house technology, but we’d like to take some of the good stuff from GGPO and create a combination out of that.

Above: A long way from Guilty Gear.

Image Credit: SEGA

GamesBeat: Coming up on 30 years of Arc System Works now — have you both been with the company since the beginning?

Arc System Works’ PR: Mr. Ishiwatari has been here 20 years, and Mr. Mori 15 years.

GamesBeat: What was the first title you worked on?

Ishiwatari: For me it was probably Paddington? There was a console called the Pico, an educational one, and one of the titles they worked on was Paddington. That was my first.

Author’s Note: Yes. THAT Paddington Bear. Daisuke Ishiwatari is referring to Paddington No Sekai Ryokou, published by SEGA for their Pico edutainment system.

Mori: For me it was Guilty Gear X.

GamesBeat: What was your favorite project to work on in that time?

[Everyone in the room glances towards BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle playing on a screen in the room.]

GamesBeat: Excluding this one!

[Everyone laughs]

Ishiwatari: Without thinking about the quality of the game or how well it sold, it was probably Guilty Gear X to XX. Maybe this doesn’t happen as much in the west, but we created the game with a really small team. We had to release it within a year or two years. The entire team was in the office 24/7 that whole time.

The team really got good after a while, to a point where we weren’t just working together. We were spending time over the weekends, going to dinner together. That kind of brotherhood was really good for me.

GamesBeat: When I think about Guilty Gear, the first game was really cool, but it was seen as very niche here. But around the time of X and XX was when people really said, whoa, this isn’t just a one game thing. This is something with a lot of quality.

Ishiwatari: We were working together at the time, actually.

GamesBeat: [Looking at Mori] Was that a favorite of yours to work on as well?

Mori: Yeah, I do have good memories from there. And also some bad memories.

Since then, I’ve been involved with the Blazblue titles — I’m the producer for that franchise. From that perspective, my most memorable would be Blazblue Chrono Phantasma. We’d just come out of the previous project, and I had a lot of time to prepare and plan for that game. I ended up doing some of the character design and writing up the plot.

As a creator that one would be my most memorable.

Above: Baiken from Guilty Gear Xrd … one of the author’s favorites.

Image Credit: Arc System Works

GamesBeat: As a character designer, what’s your favorite character to design, or the most personal character?

Mori: Because it’s the main character, Ragna is my favorite, but at the same time, Hakumen is something I had in mind ever since I was a student. Getting that into the game was really satisfying to me.

Ishiwatari: For me it really depends on when you ask me. But thinking about character design and not needing to update it, in the next decade or in 20 years, it’s probably Zato-One.

GamesBeat: You’re some of the bravest people I’ve asked that question to, because most designers won’t answer that.

Mori: Well, what I’ve said about Hakumen, I’ve said that in previous interviews as well. But the message I’d like to send to the younger generation is that what I did with Hakumen proves that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams. You shouldn’t just give up.

GamesBeat: Are there any tips you’d give to future character designers about how to create something timeless, that can last that 10 or 20 years?

Mori: We’d like to know that too. [laughs]

Ishiwatari: A lot of media ask that question, and even users ask that question, but what I always say is I’m never satisfied with what the users are really impressed by. When I look back at my idols, what I’ve done doesn’t achieve their quality.

From that perspective, I’d say that if you do it, there’s a possibility that you can achieve it.

GamesBeat: For the longest time I was a fan of ‘90s Capcom, and I feel one of their best games from a character design standpoint was Darkstalkers, known as Vampire in Japan. It feels like you’ve taken that plateau and made something even better. Guilty Gear and Blazblue, the character designs are so interesting, but — unrealistic, but not unrealistic in a way you dismiss as silly. It clicks together, if that makes sense.

Ishiwatari: Yeah, Vampire is the best Capcom game!

Mori: Me too. ‘90s Capcom character design work was the best. I’ve referenced a lot of that, so I can understand where you were coming from. There was a character I really liked in Vampire, Phobos.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that’s related to Cross Tag Battle?

Mori: Blazblue Cross Tag Battle is a game where I’ve tried to reset my perspective on fighting games and create the game anew. Hopefully players will play it in the same way, without expecting a new Blazblue game.