Hearts And Minds
Inside the decade-long development of Kingdom Hearts III – a tale of how collaboration and determination can achieve the impossible
Inside the decade-long deca making of
Kingdom Hearts Hear III, a tale of two very different perfectionist p creators
Thank Buzz Lightyear that Kingdom Hearts III exists. That’s a bizarre sentence – and as such, entirely appropriate. Square Enix’s long-awaited RPG is a hybrid world in which the impossible is somehow made reality. Keybladewielding hero Sora stands shoulder to shoulder with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and runs through environments plucked from some of the most beloved animated films of all time. It is playable Disney, shot through with anime styling. It is weird. It shouldn’t exist.
Indeed, it’s taken years – more than ten of them – to make it happen. This is the result of a painstaking collaboration between Square Enix and The Walt Disney Company, two sets of very different but equally perfectionist creators. Keeping both sides happy is no easy task: Disney is not exactly famed for its laissez-faire approach to its IP portfolio. Square, meanwhile, is protective of its own carefully constructed worlds, the Kingdom
Hearts universe in particular cherished by a legion of fans who connect deeply to its story.
So yes, the collaboration took a while. The endless back-and-forth between artists and their own ideas of what this game should be, an unexpected change of engines early on in development, the sheer size of the team required to make a Kingdom Hearts game more open than any previous series entry – all of this further complicated an already complex project. And then there’s Tetsuya Nomura, a man so committed to his vision of the perfect Disney RPG that unless it’s exactly right, he’d rather it didn’t exist at all.
For the series director, making Kingdom Hearts III without the Toy Story licence was unthinkable. “After we were done with Kingdom Hearts II and were starting to consider III, we started talks with Disney,” he tells us. “I remember saying, ‘If we can’t use Pixar, then we can’t have a third game.’ It’s that important to the game series. The whole world loves Toy Story – everybody feels the appeal of that story and those characters. So yeah, at the very beginning I directly said to them, “If we can’t get this, I don’t want to do it’.”
Everything sprang from Nomura’s personal love of Buzz and Woody’s animated adventures, and his insistence that it form the backbone of the game. Toy Story was the first IP that Square entered into negotiations with Pixar for, and had the longest approval process by far. “I wrote a general
“I remember saying, ‘If we can’t use Pixar, then we can’t have a third game.’ It’s that important to the game series”
outline of the story and I submitted it to Pixar,” he says. “It took them several years to okay the story and the character designs.” Perhaps not entirely sensibly, this make-or-break starting point had ended up functioning as the testing ground for the nascent relationship.
Trust had to be built up over time, but Square couldn’t talk to Pixar directly: it had to go through Disney’s people, who would come and go from year to year. “You know, this is ultimately just a discussion between human beings,” Nomura says. “Previous to Kingdom Hearts III, I think these companies kind of saw it more as like, secondary rights permissions. They saw it more as a product, like you would a branded toy or something. This time, it was creator to creator – it was somebody who had made this animation, and somebody who was making this game. We were communicating with each other, myself and these people, so that added an extra level of complexity, because each creator has their own desires, ideas and concepts.”
Kingdom Hearts III had to be a Disney game, of course, but it also had to be a Square Enix one. The logistics were going to be tricky, but at least thematically the world of Toy Story suited the mashup well. “We were talking to [Pixar story supervisor] Jason Katz,” co-director Tai Yasue says, “and what he said was he wanted us to make a Toy Story world – a toy store – that they couldn’t.” The result is Galaxy Toys, a gorgeous virtual playground filled with both recognisable Disney elements and plenty of artistic references to Japanese toy culture. A prize dispenser in the centre towers over a shrunken Sora and friends: run up the inner ramp, and your choice of three rideable rails whizzes you off to a new explorable area. It’s somewhere between gumball and gacha machine, a neat fusion of east and west.
And then there are the Gigas, the drivable mechs that Nomura designed and pushed hard to be included. “Yeah, I think the first thing [that he concepted] was the robots,” Yasue laughs. “I shouldn’t say Gundam here, but yeah, they’re inspired by that sort of culture. We sort of wanted it to be true to what we do – Square Enix-like. And Pixar was actually very open to that. We had this back and forth with Pixar: it placed a lot of importance on the toys. They’re robots, but they’re also toys, so they really wanted that incorporated.” The first designs were even built in a kind of
“We wanted to be true to what we do – Square Enix-like. And Pixar was actually very open to that. We had this back and forth”
virtual cardboard with Unreal Engine 4’s blueprint feature, maintaining a temporary, toy-like feel from the off as the team experimented with how the Gigas would move, fight and shoot. The result is delightful. Mechs swing their arms and rotate their torsos in a wonderfully jerky manner. Look closer, and you can see the screws holding them together: pop open the hatch to climb inside, and the sound isn’t metallic, but pleasingly plasticky.
It was proof positive to Pixar that Square could pay homage to one of its most treasured IPs while adding its own sense of individuality into the design. In fact, incorporating original elements into a Disney IP was far easier than altering what was already there. While Square was given plenty of leeway with regards to new toy designs, attempting any change to the standard Toy Story narrative by integrating it into that of Kingdom Hearts III proved difficult. Indeed, each of the Disney worlds in
Kingdom Hearts III – Pirates Of The Caribbean’s Port Royal, Frozen’s Kingdom Of Arendelle, Monsters, Inc’s Monstropolis and Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo among them – presented its own challenge. “Each title has a different team in charge of it,” Nomura says. “The storyline is the very heart of Toy Story. Whereas with Monsters, Inc, it’s more about the world that they’ve built. So we’d be told, ‘Oh, well, actually there aren’t monsters of this colour,’ or ‘There are no monsters that have eyes like that’, or ‘The monsters in this world wouldn’t use that word’.”
Indeed, if you thought Nomura was a perfectionist – well, you’d be right. “I’m a bit more laid-back,” Yasue laughs. “I get a lot of leeway to do a lot of the battles, so there’s a lot of creative freedom in doing that, not a lot of restrictions. But Nomura is very interested, for example, in a character’s face.” Yasue, as co-director was working in a different sphere to Nomura’s obsessive control over the game’s art and story, but often found himself relaying messages between Nomura and the designers. “We have a lot of these back and forths, for example, on the colour of a character’s eyes, or the space between his mouth and nose,” he says. “Nomura and [Toru] Yamazaki, the character designer, communicate a lot. I’m sort of in the middle, doing the back and forth. Things like the whiteness of Sora’s eyes – there’s a highlight, right, in his eyes – and not just Sora, but all the characters. How clouds look, how the ripples are
The Gigas proved Square could pay homage to one of Pixar’s most treasured IPs while adding its own sense of individuality
With the polygon counts of Disney’s animation models too low to use in a videogame, absolutely everything in the Disney worlds had to be remade
when you walk in water.” We wonder just how specific one can reasonably be about ripples. Yasue laughs again: “It has to look good, I guess. Rich. He’s very detail-oriented.”
So is Disney. When it came to design, the ultimate aim was to recreate the Disney films almost exactly. While previous games in the series were made by designers watching the films over and over again, scrutinising them and copying the details, Kingdom Hearts III was to be far more accurate and would require permission to use Disney’s own resources. Several problems immediately presented themselves. Firstly, the tools Disney uses to create animations are, naturally, not the same as those used by Square to make games. With the polygon counts of Disney’s basic animation models too low to use in a game, and those of the final film versions far too high, everything in the Disney worlds – characters, animations, environments – had to be remade from scratch. Disney is choosy about the data it shares, too. Square received only the basic polygon shapes of a character, with guidelines for where the various hair and materials should be, but not the content itself. Square’s artists would have to recreate shaders, hair and material themselves.
Disney might not be prepared to share details such as the specific pattern of snowflakes on the veil covering Elsa’s dress, but Square Enix’s recreation would have to be to Disney standards. It was back to studying the films. The data for how material would drape needed to be contextualised: Disney sent over the data for a fully stretched-out veil, so as to convey the correct dimensions, but Square itself needed to program the physics of how it naturally fell around the character. Disney uses cross-simulation to automatically calculate the movement of hair and fabrics in its films, but for
Kingdom Hearts III, these materials would have to have hundreds of individual, physics-programmed ‘bones’, added by hand to produce an animation quality similar to the films. Elsa contains 348 individual bones. Pirates Of The Caribbean’s Tia Dalma, with her multiple, intricate and more realistic layers of clothing, is packing about 700. Weekly teleconferences between the individual
Kingdom Hearts III teams and Disney creators helped keep the lines of communication open. Disney would send over the data it was willing to share; the Kingdom Hearts III teams worked to complete it as accurately as possible using their own resources; the assets would then be sent back to Disney for appraisal, who would feed back any requested changes, and the back-and-forth would continue until the finished result was up to par.
In-engine cutscenes drew particular scrutiny from Disney. It would ask for minute alterations such as insisting a character show less teeth, having their eyelids move differently or their line of sight adjusted (Pixar’s unexpected notes on the importance of a character’s line of sight, the developers tell us, were instrumental in raising the general quality of the animation throughout the game). Surprisingly, then, it was less that Disney became impatient with the amount of time it was taking to perfect the details of the game: if anything, it was the opposite. “To be honest, it was us that were worried about how long things were taking, not them,” Nomura says. “They weren’t rushing us along or anything – conversely, we were trying to rush them.”
Which is not to say Nomura and team were sitting on their hands waiting for the phone to ring. As fascinating a tale as this back-and-forth between two creative companies on different continents may be, Square Enix had its own internal problems to surmount. A decade is a long time in videogame development, after all; no team has the luxury of sitting still while the world outside races past. And with Kingdom Hearts III – which was always intended as a title for this generation, Nomura tells us, despite development beginning in the PS3 era – destined to be the series’ biggest and most technically demanding yet, iterations to both the game and the structure of the team were sorely needed. “The basics were the same, right, we just wanted a fun game – but it was just more vast,” Yasue says.
In terms of both cost and personnel, Toy Story’s world would prove challenging to create, with so many original toys needing to be designed; the more realistically rendered Pirates Of The Caribbean world was, too, both because of the difficulty in matching the live-action film as closely as possible and the nature of the player’s interactions with it. “It’s battle-based, but it’s not with Sora: you’re riding a ship, and so you have these ship battles that are very different. And with exploration – swimming in the sea, and exploring caverns – you have to be really careful because people get lost.” Kingdom Hearts III’s
“It was a whole year that we had to kind of rewind and restart,” Nomura says, before adding that the change was ultimately a beneficial one
environmental art director tells us that making the ocean was “almost like making a whole other game.”
It was clear that the usual top-down structure of most Japanese game-development companies wasn’t going to suit the needs of such a huge, next-gen undertaking: with much of Kingdom
Hearts III’s appeal due to sheer breadth and variety, it being assembled in parts by internal teams and external contractees, with the counsel of Disney creators, there’d have to be a different approach to team management. And the change was far from simple. Square’s internal communications, for instance, were in dire need of a refresh. “There was a lot of difficulty communicating, I guess, because there were so many people and individual teams,” Yasue says. “Connecting that, and communicating to set clear goals was very difficult. If you don’t set them, people get the wrong idea.”
The solution was to begin holding weekly meetings for each team. Computers would be hooked up to the two big screens in the Osaka headquarters’ break room, and the team as a whole would be shown the week’s progress for their section of the game, and invited to provide feedback. “And we’d iterate on that,” Yasue explains. “For the player, for example, each action, each move, we showed it to everyone else, and actually played it. Move by move. We’d discuss the motions, animations, effects. I think it gave people a sense that we were united, that everyone was taking part.” The presentations were relayed remotely to the team in Tokyo, and a new internal video channel was created for Kingdom Hearts III, where Square’s own homemade development documentaries could share information throughout the company on each team’s progress.
It may have taken a while for Square to adjust to a new structure, but the time investment was instrumental in making a game of this scale with the quality and attention to detail needed. Change was tough, but necessary. So it proved, too, in the more technical aspects of the game’s creation: all told, Kingdom Hearts III’s development spanned three game engines across the decade. Experiments in gameplay design began in Unreal Engine 3, Yasue tells us: design goals were decided upon, after which production officially began in Square’s own in-house engine, Luminous. “There was a lot of collaboration between us and the Advanced Technology Division in Tokyo,” he says. “We learned a lot from that – how to make triple-A games for this age, this generation.”
After a full year of creating Kingdom Hearts III in Luminous, however, management suddenly announced that development would be restarted in Unreal Engine 4. “We had our own company reasons, essentially,” Nomura says. “It wasn’t something that we had anything to do with, it was decided higher up.” A common-sense executive decision, perhaps: in this day and age, shifting to thirdparty tech with a community and support system as solid as Epic’s makes sense both financially and practically. With the Luminouspowered Final Fantasy XV dragging its heels, moving Kingdom Hearts III to Unreal Engine 4 may have been a safer bet. And then there were the artistic freedoms it would offer.
“The thing with Unreal Engine 4 is it’s really easy to experiment, gameplay-wise,” Yasue says, referring back to Toy Story’s Gigas robots. “We didn’t need any assets to start off, so the game designers that aren’t artists at all could actually start to test the game.”
The change was disruptive nonetheless. “We had to learn a lot,” Yasue says. “When we started using Unreal Engine 4, we had these study groups – well, not study groups, but we all sort of… There’s a tutorial,” he laughs. He recalls a studio full of game designers, unfamiliar with the new engine, poring over Unreal documentation and making their own learning tasks for each of their teams to complete. “I even did that,” he says. “I made my own robot, a robot that changed shape. We never used it in the game, we were just testing it out. We had contests too, I remember. Each game designer made something, and we sort of compared it. And this had nothing to do with the game.” He agrees that the reset contributed to the overall length of development “because we had to learn about the engine. That was part of the development timeline, and was something that contributed to and affected the schedule.”
It still appears to be something of a sore point for Nomura. “It was a whole year that we had to kind of rewind and restart,” he says, before adding that the change was ultimately a beneficial one. “As a dev tool, Unreal Engine 4 is kind of an all-in-one – it’s got all of the stuff that is needed in it, it’s used around the world, and we also got really great support from [Epic]. They were very helpful through the entire process.” Was it a question
of having to go backward in order to go forward? He nods. “It would have been a different story if the team making Luminous had been members of the Kingdom Hearts team. But they were a different team, so that did make things a bit more difficult.”
As the years rolled on, the Kingdom Hearts III team began to see the industry – and wider world – change around the game they were making. “But the process of making this game took so long that we had to decide early on what we were going to include,” Nomura says, explaining that the full roster of worlds was set in stone at a very early stage. “Up until that point, maybe some of them we’d started making, and some of them we hadn’t yet started making. But Disney would give us information about the new movies they had coming out before they were ever out, and they’d show us things that were partially done.” Such was the case with Big Hero 6, which Nomura was instantly drawn to for its novelty in the context of the Kingdom Hearts series: the superhero theme and the portrayal of a near-future world. His criteria for potential worlds is simple: “It really doesn’t matter to me whether or not they’re going to be popular, it’s just about whether the game is going to benefit from adding them. In past Kingdom
Hearts games, we’ve included a number of more minor titles. It’s not only about what’s interesting, it’s also about variety.
“Of course, even after that fixed point when we have decided what the worlds are going to be, occasionally there are Disney things that come up afterwards and I’m like, ‘Ah, I wish I could put that in there’.” He is, naturally, loath to give any details about which particular Disney IPs he regrets not being able to include in Kingdom Hearts III. “We might still use them in the future. Personally I’d like to see them used for a new game. I mean, we did just get finished with this one, but still.”
Even after a turbulent decade on Kingdom Hearts III, Nomura still has half an eye on the future of the series. He’s clearly fuelled by his own love of – and eerie creative affinity with – Disney’s work. His perfectionist vision has informed the majority of the development of this game, and will continue to for as long as he works at Square Enix. “To be completely honest, that hasn’t changed since game one – since day one,” he says. “There have been a lot of people who have said as the hardware changes, we’re going to have to change things. As the way of creating things changes, we’re going to have to change our management style, and there’s a lot to keep up with. But this company, in at least one way, hasn’t changed since it was called Squaresoft. We want to make fun stuff; we want to make cool stuff. And the team here in Osaka working on Kingdom Hearts
III are all of that same mindset – they just wanted to make something good.”
Yasue concurs. “Nomura wants it to be perfect, I want it to be perfect, Disney wants it to be perfect, right?” he says. “And our fanbase, they
expect it to be perfect. We can’t have it be sub-par: it’s Kingdom Hearts III. It just can’t be your average well-made game. It has to be more than that.” Indeed, this is a collaboration between two dreamweaving titans, two makers of happy childhood memories: doubtless there are plenty of creators at Disney who grew up gazing starry-eyed at the world of Final Fantasy, and likewise, Square Enix employees who gazed right back into Disney’s animated wonderlands – Nomura himself, so passionate about the world of Toy Story that the idea of making Kingdom Hearts III without it was so unimaginable, among them. There is more at stake here than just a good game.
No wonder Kingdom Hearts III took so long to create, then. This was an astonishingly complex balancing act which required the developers both to respect the past and to elaborate upon it meaningfully to make something that will resonate years from now. Indeed, Square’s next-gen Kingdom
Hearts – despite its appearance at the tail-end of a console generation – has done more with its ten years than most. It’s evolved the way at least one company works in its production, and its impact will almost certainly reverberate throughout Square’s future. And its team hope for more besides: for their creation to have the same effect on its players as Toy Story did on Nomura, or Square’s games did on Yasue, and to inspire more creators in future. “I guess I wanted to make a game that was really talked about,” Yasue says. “We want to sell a lot of games, yes – but at the same time, it should be a game that could be talked about ten years from now.” He pauses. “When I came to this company, I was really inspired by Final Fantasy VII, and so it would be great if kids play our game, and they come to our interviews, and they join us, right? It had to be something that big. Something with a legacy.”
“This company, in at least one way, hasn’t changed since it was called Squaresoft. We want to make fun stuff; we want to make cool stuff”