At Bimap we’ve always had a lot of enthusiastic questions from readers and those in the game industry about how we put our books together, from the visual design and writing process to choosing what projects to focus on and how to bring it all together.
Having just completed and released our most ambitious book yet, KING OF FIGHTERS: The Ultimate History, we felt it was the right time to give you all a little peek into Bitmap’s creative process, and answer some of those questions.
Before diving in to that, if you haven’t seen the book, it shares the previously untold history of one of the most important fighting game series of all time, and features all kinds of artwork from the creator’s archive, as well as exclusive interviews and a bounty of new detail about the series’ design and development. The standard edition alone is already a lavish beast, but for the special ALL-STAR EDITION we even included a slipcase sporting touch-panels that, when pressed, play in-game sound effects for fighters from the series. We’re not going to lie; we’re pretty proud of it.
The story of that book actually starts way back in 2015, when we were given a chance to partner with the iconic arcade developer and publisher SNK to produce NEOGEO: A Visual History. Previously we’d only created independent books (something we very much still do) but we were keen to explore the advantages a partnership would bring; like unrivalled access to archives of art and background detail.
“That was a steep learning curve, as it was the first time we had worked on a licensed book,” reveals Bitmap founder and creative director Sam Dyer. “It was also the first time we worked with a Japanese company. Luckily, the language barrier wasn’t too much of an issue and the process of working with SNK was – and continues to be – fantastic. The one thing that sets SNK apart from other similar companies is that they see books that include their IP as a great way to celebrate their games and even connect with new fans. Because of this, they are very enthusiastic and helpful when it comes to the creation of those books, and are keen to get involved.”
Things went so well that we worked with SNK once again on Metal Slug: The Ultimate History, which gave us a chance to go even deeper, getting unprecedented access to SNK’s archive of assets. That was also the first series-specific title we worked on, letting us learn a great deal about gathering research and putting together a meaningful narrative for the book.
“When it came to deciding what to do for our third book together, THE KING OF FIGHTERS felt like the obvious choice,” says Dyer. “Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot about doing a KOF book, so we proposed it to SNK, and got a resounding yes. This however came with pressure, as KOF is the jewel in SNK‘s crown. I felt incredibly proud that they trusted Bitmap Books to work with their most valuable IP and produce the book – we just had to deliver the goods.
Ultimately, SNK effectively had previously given us free reign in terms of coming up with the contents and structure of the book, with their team providing the occasional and invaluable steer as we unearthed long-forgotten information about Metal Slug. We took a lot of what we learned from that project and applied it to THE KING OF FIGHTERS: The Ultimate History, meaning starting with investigating and plotting out the linear history of the series, so as to identify where the narrative gold was. We quickly found that the birth of THE KING OF FIGHTERS was a fascinating story well worth telling. However, while information on Metal Slug’s creation, release and legacy can be found all over the place, THE KING OF FIGHTERS story would require a lot more digging; an exciting and intimidating prospect in equal measure.
“Because of this, it was felt that the best way to research the history would be to speak to the original development team,” explains Dyer. “The thing was, they had all long left SNK, so the challenge was to track them down online. After devoted searching, we made an initial approach and luckily managed to recruit three or four of the original KOF ’94 developers to get involved with the project. That was a real turning point – a moment when we saw just how amazing the book could be. One of the interviewees even gave us access to the original game design documents for KOF ’94 and KOF ’95; from a research point of view, you really can’t get any better.
Game design documents (often known as ‘GDDs’ in the game industry) are the foundation of a game and what it will become. Getting to see original KOF GDDs for the first time really was a striking moment.
“But before we could write the history, we set about interviewing each developer to try and get as much information as possible,” Dyer continues. “Those interviews were all done in Japanese over Zoom and then transcribed into English. We are very lucky to work with James and Joy Mielke who took care of the interviews from start to finish. From these conversation, the first key bit of information we had confirmed was that before KOF was a fighting game it was in fact a Final Fight-style scrolling beat ‘em up. Sadly, this never got into development, and was only every design proposal. We did, however, work with an artist to create some mock ups of what this game would look like, which was fun.”
That’s exactly the kind of thing we want a Bitmap Book to deliver – not only digging up such an amazing story, but bringing it to life through writing, design and original illustration.
With the interviews concluded and transcribed, the writing work could begin, so we turned to Robert Jones, who had worked with us on the Metal Slug book, and who was a deeply informed SNK super-fan. Working with Rob, we pieced together the story of KOF from the interviews and further research, and saw that it could be neatly broken down into three acts. We were also extremely lucky to have SNK and the interviewees on hand should we want to clarify any details.
By far the most interesting aspect of this process was unearthing unknown facts from the series, SNK and the fighting genre. For example, we learned that the blond fighter in the intro of Capcom's Street Fighter was an early Terry Bogard. And then there was finding out about the aforementioned scrolling beat ‘em up THE KING OF FIGHTERS never was. In those moments it really feels like you're documenting something historical.
We also had another SNK devotee and writer in the form of Christopher Rasa, who went through providing numerous picture captions. We wanted more than just descriptions of what was in each image, so armed with Rasa’s knowledge we were able to infuse the picture captions with trivia and facts.
Through that process we’d also realised that to give the book focus, we'd best largely stick to the main KOF series, and resist the spin-offs and related titles. With the history plotted and the big decisions made, the visual process could start. That ultimately meant amassing a wide array of suitable images.
“We worked with Paul McNally who did an amazing job ripping sprites and intro sequences and cut-scenes from each game,” Dyer points out. “The challenge here was working out what to include, as we had far more than we could reasonably fit in a single book. It was a great problem to have, but a far from easy one to solve. To focus and streamline that process we took it one game at a time – always aware that we needed as diverse a spread of images as possible.
“The second curation job was around screenshots. We worked with Gonçalo Lopes who played through each KOF game with each team and took literally thousands of screenshots. This in itself was a massive task; and then there was the editing down and choosing which screenshots to show. Here we focused on ensuring that – beyond visual diversity – and we were representative in sharing all the different moves and game dynamics.”.
The next phase of the curation, and probably the most time-consuming, was selecting the character art, sketches and drafts that are featured throughout the book. We wanted to be thorough while also finding some way to divide up all the available artwork into manageable chunks. With that in mind, we picked up a range of KOF art books from across the ages from eBay. Each art book typically contained a wealth of sketches and drawings, so we would go through them and highlight the images that we wanted to use, before scanning them individually and then turning to SNK to secure the originals. All of those books were Japanese, so included Japanese annotations. We were able to use an augmented reality Google Translate app to see those in English, letting us unearth even more fascinating details to include. The final and most straightforward stretch in terms of images was finalising the key art section, which required a very similar process to zeroing in on character art.
“At that point we had our first proper draft; a really exciting moment,” Dyer enthuses. “Once we had a draft of the book, it was then run past a series of trusted KOF experts to pool their thoughts. When working on a project like this, it’s very easy to get blinded by the volume of imagery and your own relationship with the subject matter, so it’s really important to get someone that can bring fresh eyes and an external opinion. Doing this often throws up some really obvious omissions and is a key part to the process in any book we do.
“The biggest task in creating the book, however, was condensing down all that we had into a 500-odd page book; hardly a modest page-count, but we could have filled plenty more,” Dyer states. “At a point, though, a book needs a limit to its size to give it focus, keep it consumable, and work to a budget. I think we did pretty well and the feedback from customers has been very positive. One criticism has been that we missed out some characters in the character art section. Being frank, that was purely because it would be effectively impossible to include every single KOF fighter that ever existed. So apologies if we missed out on your favourite! Additionally, in hindsight we could have covered the later KOF games in more detail, rather than focusing on KOF ’94 and the earlier entries in the series. But these are small areas where we can improve things – and the process doesn’t end with a book’s release.”
The ‘post mortem’ method of considering feedback and the reality of the released product is a mainstay of publishing, from monthly magazines to lavish gaming books; and it’s critical to informing what we at Bitmap do next.
“Overall I’m thrilled with how the book turned out and so is SNK,” Dyer concludes. “From start to finish, it took over a year to design, research, write and finalise. Seeing it released gives me a massive amount of pride, and all that hard work seems worth it. The icing on the cake was seeing a photo of Yasuyuki Oda proudly posing with the book at SNK’s offices.”
Yasuyuki Oda, SNK Lead Producer with KING OF FIGHTERS: The Ultimate History
There is one more part of publishing a book, of course. Everyone at Bitmap wants to say a huge thank you to SNK and all the collaborators that worked on the book. Without that input, it simply wouldn’t have been possible. And to everyone that bought a copy, we can’t thank you enough. Because you reading our books is what it’s really all about.