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Just when it seemed the flow of interviews from E3 2018 had finally tapered off, another one makes an appearance. Multiplayer, an Italian press magazine about videogames, had the opportunity to speak with Tetsuya Nomura during last week's expo about his work on KINGDOM HEARTS 3. He gives his insight on working on the Kingdom Hearts 3, the long-awaited inclusion of Pixar properties and dealing with leaks and rumors.
Kingdom Hearts is a series that focuses on the conflict between light and darkness, of friendships and rivalries. But above all, it represents a journey into the hearts of the protagonists. How are the hearts of you and your team now that development has almost come to a close?
Nomura: We're steadily approaching the end of the development cycle, so I won't deny it's a very busy and stressful period personally speaking. Even with E3 going on right now, I'm still receiving requests to review elements of the game. There's never a quiet moment; regardless of what time it is, I'll have things from the team that needs to be checked and approved, messages to be answered, and numerous requests for feedback.
Now that we have announced the release date, we must absolutely hit that date and not delay the game any further. Everyone is giving their all and pushing themselves to the limit, not only because of the release date, but to also deliver an excellent game. With it being so late in development, I try to not give feedback that would require too many changes, because I'm convinced it would create more stress and anxiety in the team. I'm personally trying to remain as calm as possible.
What is your first memory with the Disney universe?
Nomura: I'm not too sure, but I believe my first experience with the Disney universe was with The Little Mermaid. When I was young, I lived in a small village in the countryside, in a house where our TV only had two channels. One day, one of these channels was broadcasting The Little Mermaid. It was the first Disney movie I've ever seen, and as you're aware, it is well-known in Kingdom Hearts.
It's quite a famous story, how the idea for a collaboration between Disney and Square was born in an elevator during a conversation between Shinji Hashimoto and a Disney staff member. What prompted you to propose to take charge of the project?
Nomura: This event took place during the period between the development of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. It was after the release of Super Mario 64, when the industry was transitioning from 2D sprites to polygonal graphics. When I played Super Mario 64, I was very impressed by the world and how you are able to move freely in an open environment.
As I worked on Final Fantasy, I thought our combat system could work perfectly in such an environment, so I began to think about the possibility of creating a 3D action game. I spoke to my colleagues about the idea, but there was a problem: Mario is a famous icon all over the world, and to create an equally recognizable game, I'd need to use characters that are on that same level such as Disney characters. When I heard that the executives at Disney and Square were considering working on something together, I immediately put my name forward. I knew I had to do it or else I'd never have another opportunity. There's no other reasoning behind it.
Did you have any advice from Hironobu Sakaguchi at that time? What did you think about the project?
Nomura: When I started working on the first Kingdom Hearts, Sakaguchi gave me a little suggestion. He had asked me what kind of game I was going to create, and I told him that I wanted to make a simple adventure, at the end of which the protagonist would have defeated a witch. He told me it was not a good idea, and I needed to create a story that would appeal to fans of Final Fantasy, so there was no need to keep things so simple. That was the only warning he ever gave me, and he never gave me any feedback after the game was released. Before leaving, he simply told me: "I do not need to play your game because I know it will be done well and it will be fun. You do not need any suggestions from me."
Sakaguchi is considered the father of Final Fantasy, as the one who created the series. In our office, few people have met him and many who work on Final Fantasy have never worked with him. My generation is probably the last one to have worked directly with Sakaguchi. Maybe at the time I was not too nice, and I imagine that he may have seen me as someone that is difficult to work with. He has had many students, and among all I was "the strange one", but I think I was also the only one who inherited and continues to carry on his spirit of making games. But these days, we are no longer in touch and it will have been a few years since we last heard from each other.
Toy Story has finally arrived in Kingdom Hearts 3, but materials related to the Pixar movie were found in the first Kingdom Hearts design documents and in the Kingdom Hearts 2 code. Can you tell us why it wasn't included back then?
Nomura: I have always wanted Toy Story in Kingdom Hearts, and even as we were making the first game, I was hoping to include a world based on a Pixar film. So I asked our staff to prepare something in the event that we managed to get approval from Disney. Unfortunately, we were not given the opportunity and these ideas never went into production.
Was it because of the relationship between Disney and Pixar at the time?
Nomura: Since they were found in the code, people believe Toy Story was originally included but got cut during development, but that's actually not the case. We just prepared those assets so that we could present them to Disney and see if it was possible to create something with them. However, we were immediately told that we couldn't use those properties, without being provided with any specific reasons.
The combat system is one of the most unique elements of Kingdom Hearts, and each game introduces several new features. How difficult is it to strike the right balance?
Nomura: The combat system is something we work on until the last few weeks of development, so balancing is a very difficult process. We are always trying to adjust the game as much as possible. Even the demo that was played a few weeks ago at the premiere event has since been modified. We continued to analyze the game and make adjustments after the press went hands-on to test the build. We will keep doing so until the last minute, but there is no correct answer on what's the best combat system or what's the right balance: it is all a matter of finding common ground between what we want to create as developers and what users want instead.In Kingdom Hearts 3, we visit several new worlds based on Pixar films. And how do you choose which environments to include in the game?
Nomura: The series has been going on for some time now, and fans would grow bored if there were always the same worlds to visit. So for Kingdom Hearts 3, we tried to include completely new worlds, save for those that are absolutely necessary to bring back due to plot reasons. Like I said before for Toy Story, I had always wanted to put the Pixar films in Kingdom Hearts, and this was the best opportunity to do it. As for the way we choose the worlds, the process is quite straightforward: I ask my staff to propose ideas about new worlds and what sort of things can be done in those settings. They create design documents and present them to me, and from there I choose the ones I like best. There would be many other Pixar and Disney films that I would like to have in the game, but considering the release date, we can only have so many.
Each game features some pretty unique costumes for the characters. Is there a special creative process behind it?
Nomura: For Sora's main costume, I always have a pretty clear idea about how I want it to look. I often arrive at the office with photographs of clothes or special accessories, or even bringing clothes and objects I bought, telling the team "I want this jacket" or "I want this piece for pants". Based on those requests, the team will put together several character designs, and I modify or approve them. For Kingdom Hearts 3, since Sora's costume is often different depending on the world in which it is located, I first create a draft of how I want him to appear in those worlds, then present it to the art directors of Disney and Pixar. Once I receive their feedback, I make changes and and propose new drafts. This cycle continues until we are satisfied.
Many publishers prefer to announce their projects when they have progressed quite far in development, but games like Kingdom Hearts 3 and the remake of Final Fantasy 7 have been revealed very early in advance, creating much anticipation from the fans. Would you have preferred waiting so as to not deal with the pressure and expectations from fans at such an early stage?
Nomura: Deciding when to announce your game to the public is always difficult. I understand why some companies wait as long as possible, and I definitely think it's a good thing for them. But in our case, we receive pressure from the fans even when we do not announce anything. They're always asking us "are you working on this?" or "why don't you make a sequel for that?". Even after the announcement, the situation does not change, because then they'll move onto asking us "when will it release?" or "when will you show a new trailer?".
People are waiting for new information regardless of whether the game has been announced or not. It's great when we manage to keep it secret for as long as possible, but these days, a lot of important projects become victims of rumors and leaks. Honestly, I prefer that we officially reveal our games instead of seeing a leak or a rumor circulating online. Especially when part of the development is outsourced to other companies, there is always the risk that people outside the in-house team will spread information and images online. It is even worse when, during the development, a fake rumor sprouts that people start to believe, and it becomes necessary to decide whether to answer and deny.
The same thing happened with the remake of Final Fantasy 7. I am well aware of the fact that we announced it too early, but even in the industry, word was beginning to spread that we were working on the game, so we just decided not to keep it more secret and officially reveal it.
The E3 trailers have shown off many characters and worlds. From a dark version of Aqua to Riku Replica, through the worlds of Frozen and Port Royale and even the Ratatouille minigame. Are you worried about showing off too much before the game comes out?
Nomura: I assure you that there are still many surprises waiting for the fans, and I'm not just referring to the worlds that we haven't shown yet. The E3 trailers have only shown small samples of what the players will encounter during their adventures. We haven't explored any of these characters and worlds in depth; rather, what we have revealed is simply enough to provoke the imagination and curiosity of the fans.
We will reveal a little more detail about some of these in upcoming announcements, but there will also be things that we will keep secret until the very end so that players can look forward to discovering them for themselves. Though I can tell you that a lot of the characters that have appeared in the past titles will return,and there are even a few we haven't shown yet. We've also kept secret a few really important characters that will leave the fans speechless. I'm sure a lot of people will be more suprised by the trailers we're going to show in the following months than by the ones we've shown so far.
Thanks to Zip for the heads up!