Dan Dickinson Interview Part One

Dan Dickinson

I was fortunate enough to be able to get in contact with Dan Dickinson, the founder and former moderator of the site VJ Army (now Solid State Squad). VJ Army was an online Beatmania IIDX scoring community. He agreed to an email interview, which I am pleased to have transcribed below.

How old are you?

I'm 30 now. When VJ Army first went live, I was 23.

What do you do for a living?

I'm an IT manager for a medical college in NYC, leading a team of software developers.

Where are you from/where do you live now?

We moved around a fair bit when I was young, but Ithaca, NY is the town I most identify as my hometown - lived in the area for a combined 13 years. I've been living in the NYC area for the last 7 years, though.

How and when were you introduced to Beatmania IIDX?

I picked up DDR my senior year of college. Because of the sort of obsessive-compulsive social nerd I am, I dove into the community and ended up talking to a lot of people from around the country on a regular basis. A lot of this community was in California and played IIDX in the arcades pretty regularly. I was interested, but there has never been a plethora of IIDX machines in the northeast.

A few months later, I started playing 5-key Beatmania, which I imported a IIDX controller for. A year after that, I had a PS2 and decided to flip-top mod it and import my first IIDX title, 6th Style. Most of the rest fell into place from there.

What is your favorite style from the series? I won't ask for a favorite song since it's such a rough question, but feel free to include one if you'd like.

I have to go with two styles: 6th was my first, and it's hard to not have sentimentality for where you started with the series. It felt very exciting and polished compared to the 5-key games I had been playing, and had a pretty fantastic song list.

But past that, I've always loved 9th. Coming from a 5-key background means the remixes had extra value for me, and most of the rest of the song list was pretty solid too. And the interface was gorgeous! Oddly, 9th was the first arcade style I played.

The song question is not actually so bad - one of the reasons I got drawn to IIDX was the array of music. You've got some great, fun hip-hop next to hardcore trance next to piano jazz. It's definitely not an easy pick, but to go by "eras" (which I'm making up)...

  • "Early Era" (1st-4th): Junglist King
  • "Middle Era" (5th-8th): Giudecca
  • "Renaissance Era" (9th-Happy Sky): Bad Boy Bass!!
  • "Modern Era" (DistorteD-Empress): Watch Out!!
from IIDX 16 Empress

What is it about the games that drew you in at first?

Mostly the music. Some great stuff is scattered across every style, and it's a far wider range than something like DDR provided.

What do you like about the games?

Again, the music played a big part in my love of it, and it wouldn't have stuck with me as long as it did without some fantastic tunes.

I've also always loved the series visually. Konami has a great art team who makes each game feel unique. It took until this year for me to find another music game with the same level of visual flair that the IIDX series has had. (Editor's note: A follow-up email clarified that the game referred to is DJ Hero 2).

One last point of enjoyment is that it's very easy to play hours upon hours of IIDX because it's not a physically demanding game. The equipment and noise footprint is fairly small in comparison to other music games.

What about the games do you dislike?

I've been fairly fed up with the push towards more and more insane difficulties over the last handful of styles. I have tried multiple times over the years to break in new players, but when there aren't any low difficulty songs on Normal to break them in on, it's not the easiest series to get someone hooked on. Beginner mode is a travesty.

As a primarily home player, I've also been miffed about the stagnant feature set the games have had. I realize there's not a ton of evolution that needs to be done for the game from style to style, but everything from 10th Style on has been pretty much the same engine with different skins. I miss some of the stuff from 6th, like Drill Mode or Tatsujin Mode.

When and why did you decide to start up VJ Army?

When I started playing (February of 2003), I picked up all four of the CS releases in pretty rapid succession - 6th, then 3rd, then 4th, then 5th. But I got frustrated by the inconsistencies in scorekeeping - only 6th had grades, for example. There were also duplicates across the styles that I wanted to see how I was scoring on.

About three months into playing, I wrote a pretty simplistic PHP application to display my scores. I did all the data entry through direct MySQL changes, and that was the seed of life for VJA. The "View User" screen in VJA3 was still using a good chunk of that code. Session mode came three months later as I needed a way to figure out what songs I needed to work on.

By that point, I had IIDX-playing friends begging me to let them use it. I tried packaging up the code but it was fairly horrible to install on their own. So about a year after I started playing, I took a week, hacked in some multi-user support, and opened the site up to friends as a "beta". A week later, after realizing that about four times as many people as I had sent the site to signed up, I opened it to the public on January 26th, 2004.

Was it difficult to build a community around such an obscure (for the Western market) game?

In one sense, no - the community grew naturally. Word of mouth carried us at first. A bit too far, actually, as we got troublemakers before I was really ready for them and had to shut down registration for a month or so. The only bit of advertising that occurred was the signature images; most people threw them into their forum sigs on DDRFreak or Bemanistyle and interested people clicked through. It was a very self-selecting crowd.

That said, I don't think VJA did much to expand the US IIDX community. People got into the game because they liked the game, not because there was this community. Although more than a few people have stated that the community did keep them playing.

Part Two

Photo of Dan Dickinson belongs to him and is used with permission.