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Feature Interview: Smilebit's Akihiko Mukaiyama 01/22/03
An exclusive interview with the leader of Orta

TNL's European Correspondent Ali doesn't write very often, but when he does it's worth its weight in gold. On a recent trip to Japan, Ali and his associate Heidi Kemps (aka Zero-chan) conducted several interviews with a couple of Sega developers, namely Smilebit and AM2 (along with as a few others). Their first stop was Smilebit's studio, where they interviewed Smilebit's Overseas Marketing Director and translator Hiroko Yokosuka (who's quite the beauty!) and the man himself, Panzer Dragoon Orta project leader/director Akihiko Mukaiyama. After some small chitchat which resulted in an exchange of business cards and a signing of a certain Panzer Dragoon Orta Xbox (!), the two sat down with Smilebit's duo to duke it out.

Q: What games have you previously worked on and which of those did you like the most.
A: Sakura Wars, Panzer Dragoon AZEL, Hundred Swords, and waaaaaaay back, Magic Knight Rayearth, Mega CD 3X3 Eyes, MD Ragnacenty. (Note of interest: the Dragon morphing system from PDO is derived from character changing in Magic Knight Rayearth.)

Q: When did work on Orta start?
A: April 2001. (18 months in total)

Q: Was Orta originally planned to be a sequel to AZEL (Panzer Dragoon Saga in the US)? If so what made you decide to make it a sequel to Zwei rather then AZEL and did it mean an expansion to the original plans or rather a cutback for your ambitions?
A: The first decision was to revive the series, but we didn't know what sort of genre it would be. We considered shooting, RPG, simulation, and an online game. We originally hoped this would be an early game for the Xbox, and considering that situation, we decided to make it a shooter.

It's not that we were thinking of making a sequel to a specific Panzer, we just wanted to make a new Panzer with elements from old games. Storywise, it's the AZEL sequel.

Q: Orta is the first dragon rider that is a woman. Besides Azel, the series has mostly had male lead characters. What made you decide to make the newest rider a woman?
A: A moment of inspiration, I guess. Everyone thought the series ended with AZEL, and since this is the "rebirth" of the series (fun trivia: Orta means "rebirth" and "dawn" in the Panzer language), we wanted to start with something fresh... leading to a female lead.

Q: I noticed one major change from the E3 demo version: the dragon morphing time was shortened. What caused this change to be made?
A: Actually, this was the hardest part of developing the game. For the dragon morphing time, I wanted it to be long originally, but when I considered the game's control and interaction levels, it would be better to be shorter and less stressful.

Q: Azel really pushed the Saturn to its limits, but I'm sure there were things the original Panzer desginers wanted to do but couldn't because of the Saturn's system limitations. Did any of these ideas come to fruition in Orta?
A: We wanted real-time dragon morphing for Azel, but the Saturn couldn't handle it. For the graphics, we could finally go into the fine details we wanted. For example, on Saturn we could only create flat environments, but with the Xbox we could create truly dynamic environments. Also, on the Saturn we had to often use 2D objects in 3D environment. Not so on XBox.

Q: New labels have been established to revamp and re-release Sega classics for the new platforms. As you probably know, AZEL is one of the rarest Saturn games in the West, and still highly regarded in Japan. Is there any chance the game might see a re-release for a newer platform so more people will be able to enjoy it? It certainly deserves it.
A: I'd love to, personally. (My Saturn's broken, too. *laughs*) Since AZEL has so many unqiue game elements, it might be hard to convert to a different platform, but I would love to see it.

Q: The game has many extra unlockable options, bonuses, and sub-games, including a set of scenarios seen from a young Empire soldier's point of view. What inspired you to include this sub-story in the game?
A: We were thinking of our previous game Hundred Swords. People liked the different viewpoints available in that game, so we wanted to include the element in Orta. My very first work was the sub-scenario of the Mega-CD game 3x3 Eyes, so I think that might have had a role in it, too.

Q: The original Panzer Dragoon is an exact port from the Saturn original. The Saturn hardware was notoriously complex and difficult. Was the game hard to re-create on the Xbox?
A: Some Smilebit staff converted the game to the PC long ago. The programmer who did the PC conversion did most of the work converting the game to the XBox.

Q: Was there ever any doubt as to whether Orta would make it to North America? Is it because the sales of the original trilogy were positive enough or because there was the strong cult following that cemented the decision?
A: Just by looking at the sales units for the US market, it was dissatisfying. However, we were surprised that the level of feedback we have received from outside Japan is perhaps bigger than within. Sales in Japan are somewhat dependent on timing. Rather on being concerned with timing, we wanted to make the title the best we could, quality-wise. Also, no matter how the market reacts, we wanted this series to be revived.

Q: Can you envision the appearance of another handheld Panzer Dragoon, and who was responsible for Panzer Mini and does he/she still work for Sega Japan?
A: It might be possible. Some of our staff would like to see it. Who knows?

Q: What other genre besides the shooter and the RPG would you like to see the Panzer Dragoon universe fleshed out in?
A: A simulation game would be fun. Maybe an RTS.

Q: Can you give us any hints as to what to expect in the future from Smilebit?
A: We are studying the possibility of what we want to do for the future. We can't really say anything at this time.

Q: Do you have a special message for our readers?
A: There's nothing really like Panzer on the market. We would be happy if any many users as possible would be able to enjoy this game and the original Panzer as well.

Feedback and flames (as always) is welcome at ali@the-nextlevel.com. Note: This interview was conducted for TNL and BeGN (http://www.the-nextlevel.com and http://www.begn.be) by Ali and Zero.

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