Edge Magazine's #328 issue features a lengthy spread on Square Enix and Disney's upcoming conglomeration, Kingdom Hearts III. Jen Simpkin's spoke with Series Creator Tetsuya Nomura and Co-Director Tai Yasue about the process of creating Kingdom Hearts III, delving inside the influences of Disney and Pixar, and how the Osaka Team worked to recreate the look of each film.
Toy Story and Kingdom Hearts feel like a natural fit, and it's an IP that has been pushed for the game ever since the original Kingdom Hearts. For Nomura, Kingdom Hearts III would not have ever been made if Toy Story had not been approved for use.
"After we were done with Kingdom Hearts II and were starting to consider III, we started talks with Disney. I remember saying, 'If we can't use Pixar, then we can't have a third game.'
- Tetsuya Nomura
It was because of Nomura's love and passion for Toy Story that it was the first IP, Edge reports, that Square Enix entered negotiation for. As it turns out, it had the longest approval time as well, as it took several years for Disney and Pixar to okay the story and the character designs.
One of the first concepts for the Toy Story world that Nomura designed were the Gigas robots, a driveable machine that turns the game into a first-person mecha shooter. Pixar was very open to Square Enix adding their own unique flavour to the world of Toy Story with the Gigas, and stressed the importance on them being robots but also being toys. The concepts ended up being well received by Pixar, and proved that Square Enix could pay homage to one of its most treasured IPs.
Kingdom Hearts III features vastly different environments, from the snowy alps of Arendelle to the robust factory of Monstropolis. Each world presented the development team with plenty of new challenges they hadn't faced before. Using Monsters Inc. as an example, Nomura commented that they had to tiptoe around the world that Pixar had built. They received notes such as what colours the monsters are, which eye shapes they would have, what words they wouldn't use, and so forth.
Co-Director Tai Yasue also revealed to Edge the kind of work environment he and Nomura built up over the years. The two have duelling personalities, with Yasue being a bit laid back and Nomura being a perfectionist. However, they were able to use it to their advantage as Yasue took charge of a lot of the battles in the game while Nomura focused his attention on character designs and the story.
"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. 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 when you walk in water."
- Tai Yasue
Kingdom Hearts III's worlds take on a whole new level of detail when compared to previous entries in the series, as the development team strived to recreate the Disney films to the best of their abilities. In the past, designers would simply rewatch the films a number of times in order to gather suitable reference material, but Kingdom Hearts III required them to take it one step further: they had to request permission to access and use Disney's own personal resources.
This presented several challenges, as the tools and programs Disney use to make their films are not compatible with those of Square Enix. Not only that, but the polygon counts of Disney's basic animation models were too low to use in the game while the final versions were too high. As a result, everything within the Disney worlds - including characters, animations, and environments - had to be remade from scratch.
Now, Disney is actually quite selective with the data they choose share, even for a project so closely associated with their brand like Kingdom Hearts III. Thus, Square Enix only received the basic polygonal shapes for the characters. There were guidelines for where the hair should be and what the materials are, but ultimately the artists had to recreate everything themselves.
It proved to be quite a challenge for Square Enix to accomplish, as Disney refused to share details even of something like the patterns of snowflakes on the veil covering Elsa's dress. At the same time, the recreations were expected to meet Disney's high standards.
The data for how materials 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 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.
- Jen Simpkins, Edge Magazine
Square Enix and Disney held weekly teleconferences to keep communication about the project open. Disney would send over the data that they were willing to share and Square Enix would work to recreate the data, which were then sent back to Disney for approval. This resulted in a back-and-forth until both companies were happy with the final product. What caused most issues for Disney, Edge reports, were in-engine cutscenes. They would request small detail changes, such as a character showing less teeth or having their eyelids move differently. Pixar even requested changes such as having a character's line of sight adjusted, which was instrumental in raising the general quality of animation throughout the entire game. But despite Disney's desire to achieve perfection, they didn't put any pressure on the development team to quicken the process. Rather, it was actually the team who were concerned about the amount of time they were taking and trying to rush Disney.
There were two worlds that stood above the rest in regards to the level of difficulty in creating them. Toy Story's world was challenging because of the sheer volume of how many original toys they needed to design. Pirates of the Caribbean was tricky as well due to the realistic nature of the world. Nomura admits to being very picky about the art style in the Pirates world, where they would be giving traditionally cartoony characters like Donald and Goofy a hyper-detailed makeover. Disney was reportedly also quite anxious about this, and everyone agreed too much detail would result in characters looking "creepy". There was also the matter of the player's interactions within 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 exploring caverns - you have to be really careful because people get lost."
- Kingdom Hearts III's environmental art director.
Edge Magazine also delves into the troubled history of Square Enix, including the bumpy transition to the HD era. Kingdom Hearts III was always a game intended as a title for this generation of consoles (PlayStation 4 / Xbox One) despite development on the game beginning when the PS3 and Xbox 360 were still receiving support from developers (development on Kingdom Hearts III was estimated to have begun in 2012, a year before the next generation of consoles were to be released), and it was destined to be the series' most ambitious and technically demanding game yet.
Trying to develop a project of this magnitude with so many internal and external teams made communication difficult for the Osaka team. They had to find some way to keep everyone on the same page and on the same track towards a clear goal, so their solution was to hold weekly meetings for each team. They'd gather in the break room and each team would present their progress for that week, and everyone would be invited to give feedback. This would be relayed to the team in Square Enix's Tokyo office, and an internal video channel was also created to share information of the teams' progress throughout the company.
Tai Yasue revealed that gameplay design experiments on Kingdom Hearts III actually began on Unreal Engine 3 before development was shifted to Square Enix's in-house engine, Luminous. However, after a full year of developing the game in the Luminous engine, management announced that Kingdom Hearts III would cease development with that engine and production would be restarted in Unreal Engine 4. Nomura notes that it was a decision made by the higher ups at Square Enix.
"The thing with Unreal Engine 4 is it's really easy to experiment, gameplay-wise. 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. We had a lot to learn. 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 [Edge notes that Yasue 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. 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 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."
- Tai Yasue
Edge notes that the development restart still appears to be a sore spot for Nomura, who lost a whole year of development when they had to rewind and restart development on the game. However, he says the change was ultimately a beneficial one, thanks to Unreal Engine 4 being an all-in-one development engine and Epic Games' aid throughout the entire process.
Because of Kingdom Hearts III's lengthy development, the Osaka team saw an industry that was changing around them. As a result, everything that needed to be included had to be decided early on in development, such as the full roster of worlds. Disney would provide information about new and upcoming movies, including (at that time) Big Hero 6. Nomura didn't reveal any details about the worlds that almost made it into Kingdom Hearts III, due to their potential inclusion in a future title.
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.'
- Tetsuya Nomura
Although Kingdom Hearts III may be the end of an era for fans, Nomura still has half an eye on the future of the series. At the end of the day, Nomura and the Osaka team simply want to make something good, something that's fun and cool. Everyone just wants the game to be perfect, so they can't deliver a sub-par product. It has to be more than just your average well-made game.
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