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News ► Otocoto reveals history of how Kingdom Hearts got approved by Eisner



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Oracle Spockanort

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Otocoto published an editorial piece by Shuji Utsumi, Entertainment Business Strategist for Otocoto and former VP/Managing Director for Asia Pacific at Disney Interactive in the 2000s, detailing the interesting history of how Kingdom Hearts was greenlit in the early 2000s by Michael Eisner, former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company. The article titled "Eisner's final word was the deciding factor for Kingdom Hearts" gives readers a rather colorful picture of how the game managed to get approved for official development.

When Utsumi joined Disney in 2000, he took on the task of getting Kingdom Hearts approved for development after learning the project was in full active development at SquareSoft despite never receiving any official approval to start the project. According to Utsumi, SquareSoft had no knowledge that the game wasn't even officially approved as they had only been in talks with Disney Japan at that point, and there was nobody at Disney Japan who could make those kinds of decisions.

There was very little hope that the project would be greenlit, and long-time staff at Disney Japan warned Utsumi that he should prepare to inform SquareSoft that the project was cancelled. Even so, Utsumi discussed things with other members of Disney, including his boss in the United States and the head of brand management, and had laid the groundwork with everybody to make sure Kingdom Hearts would get the greenlight. All that was left was getting it approved by Eisner. 

Eisner and Bob Iger, who at the time was President and Chief Operating Officer of The Walt Disney Company, came to visit Japan to inspect Tokyo DisneySea and receive performance results from their Japan branch. It was during this meeting with Eisner and over 100 members of management that Utsumi presented Kingdom Hearts. Eisner did not give any praise for the project, but instead gave Utsumi encouraging words to "keep at it, and do it right", which was as good as an approval. 

Kingdom Hearts had been officially greenlit by Eisner. 

Goldpanner has summarized the full article below:

  • 2020 has been a critical year for both the video game industry and the Walt Disney Company (Disney). 

  • CEO of nearly 15 years Bob Iger stepped down in February 2020.

  • He and the previous CEO Eisner (who had his seat for 20 years) made Disney what it is today after being on the brink of death in the mid 80s.

  • In 2019 Disney made 40% of USA box office profit

  • The author of this piece Shuji Utsumi was involved in Sony Computer Entertainment America, which brought the Playstation to the USA

  • He then went to Sega, and then joined Disney in 2000 as VP/Managing Director for Asia Pacific for Disney Interactive where he had the experience of presenting to Eisner and Iger in person

  • He explains the concept of KH - Disney and Square collab, set in Disney Worlds and includes Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters. The first KH game has sold 6 million units worldwide, with PS4 & Xbox One titles still releasing today.

  • He made the presentation requesting formal approval for the first game to Eisner and Iger

  • The experimental KH project began without Disney's authorization - which Square apparently wasn't aware of

  • When he joined the company and was immediately told development was already busily underway he was extremely shocked

  • First of all, Disney had never approved a license in Japan for a title with a completely new setting

  • Second of all, Disney had never combined multiple franchises together into one title before

  • There wasn't even a style guide for creating a 3D model of Mickey Mouse

  • The reason nobody had gotten authorization was because there wasn't even anyone in Japan who had the authority to pass judgment on a project like this

  • Some long-time Disney Japan staff told him that this didn't have a snowball's chance of being approved and advised him to take measures to cancel the project - at that point he never dreamed someday he'd present it to Eisner and get approval to create the product

  • When he joined in the early 2000s Eisner's legendary grasp on the market was beginning to show cracks and business wasn't doing well internationally

  • In Japan however they had just opened Disney Sea and were doing extremely well compared to other countries

  • Eisner was visiting Japan for the first time in a while to inspect Disney Sea and hear performance reports 

  • Utsumi was surprised at how many people Eisner had in his entourage - having an entourage of people working alongside a company president of an old and or powerful company is usual in Japan too, but Eisner had about 100 members of management come with him to Japan

  • The Division Managing Directors were in charge of giving the reports. He apparently stood out among the other presenters as his game division had very good results as well as ran Japan's first global Disney project

  • On the day of the presentation, there were over 100 members of management from both Japan and the USA, but everyone was only focused on Eisner, who sat in a chair at the front and asked questions and gave instructions for each presentation

  • The way everyone hung on his every word, waiting for him to speak or not, trying to read his mood, felt more like an old Japanese business meeting than a Western one

  • Meetings at Disney with Eisner were completely different - Utsumi thought he was like an "Ancient Chinese Emperor"

  • Utsumi worked the topic of the concerning Kingdom Hearts into his presentation that day

  • He'd had many meetings with the other members beforehand, including his USA boss and the head of brand management, and had laid the groundwork with all related parties, which meant things went smoothly

  • Eisner didn't especially have words of praise - he just said something encouraging like "keep at it, and do it right." But, the words of the Emperor have tremendous power - after the presentation many members of Disney's management as well as staff came to shake his hand with big smiles

  • KH was a first as well as an experiment in many different areas which seemed poised to conflict with the company's creative brand rules

  • Most of the management had been neutral, but Eisner's encouraging words blew away those anxieties and brand rule problems - everyone interpreted it as having received official permission 

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Via @aibo_ac7

 
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Can we all just collectively scream at the fact that years into KH's development, KH was not actually officially greenlit and SE didn't even know. Did Disney Japan and Disney Interactive just think the problem would disappear? xD
 

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I should note that people were very afraid of Eisner back then. He was running the company into the ground with how he had to be hyper-involved with everything that was going on. He was respected and admired, but he could make or break a project.

Disney Japan and Disney Interactive helping Squaresoft develop Kingdom Hearts but not actually going to Eisner for approval for years sounds like they were too scared to approach Eisner to get it approved knowing it was an unconventional game.

Also, it makes sense why KH1 is a bit of a different beast from the other games (besides CoM, but it probably got away with everything it did because it was a game for a handheld which wouldn't have received the same level of scrutiny as other games back then). KH1 literally did not have the full rule-book thrown at it.
 
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Jesus, so basically Eisner didn't even approve it, people just assumed! Maybe the guy fell asleep in the middle of the presentation, and just said the most neutral thing you can say in this situation when he woke up to cover up.

This is part of the Miracle of Kingdom Hearts. From the way it was conceived, Nomura volunteering to do the project, and then getting the approval. Like Fate itself kept denying the very existence of KH, yet, like Nature it always finds a way.
 

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Jesus, so basically Eisner didn't even approve it, people just assumed! Maybe the guy fell asleep in the middle of the presentation, and just said the most neutral thing you can say in this situation when he woke up to cover up.

This is part of the Miracle of Kingdom Hearts. From the way it was conceived, Nomura volunteering to do the project, and then getting the approval. Like Fate itself kept denying the very existence of KH, yet, like Nature it always finds a way.
Honestly, having Eisner not say no was probably the best they were going to get. Eisner probably didn't even know it was as far along as it was when he said that lol. I'm sure Utsumi and everybody at Disney Interactive were working triple-time after that to make sure the license got approved before Eisner could suddenly change his mind.

Nature does find a way. KH exist against all odds. The concept is insane and the fact that it gained such a massive following is astounding...
 

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Imagine we lived in a timeline where KH would have been this crazy project that got cancelled and it just have been what could have been. Eventually with youtube documentaries of people trying to find all the info they could of this mysterious cancelled Disney and square game.

Regardless how the series turned out and how the fans feel about it now, i'm glad it still managed to exist and come this far
 

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Jesus Christ I’m speechless. Without a doubt had they gone in with more details Eisner would’ve definitely said no.
Destiny is never left to chance I guess.
 

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I should note that people were very afraid of Eisner back then. He was running the company into the ground with how he had to be hyper-involved with everything that was going on. He was respected and admired, but he could make or break a project.

Disney Japan and Disney Interactive helping Squaresoft develop Kingdom Hearts but not actually going to Eisner for approval for years sounds like they were too scared to approach Eisner to get it approved knowing it was an unconventional game.

Also, it makes sense why KH1 is a bit of a different beast from the other games (besides CoM, but it probably got away with everything it did because it was a game for a handheld which wouldn't have received the same level of scrutiny as other games back then). KH1 literally did not have the full rule-book thrown at it.
I think they need to repeat that recipe with the next KH main title. Go years into development without Disney's rules, then when it's too late ask them permission and hope that they rather greenlight whatever was done over cancelling and redoing.
 

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I think they need to repeat that recipe with the next KH main title. Go years into development without Disney's rules, then when it's too late ask them permission and hope that they rather greenlight whatever was done over cancelling and redoing.
I doubt they can really do it anymore xD They are wrapped up with Disney now.

They seem to let Nomura do whatever he wants with the story, though. It's just the Disney stuff they are really strict about.
 

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Reading this interview makes me realize how close we were to living in a world without the crazy nonsense called KH.

And knowing that Disney pretty much sees KH as a lucrative series now..it makes me a little worried. KH1 was done in the way that it was because the CEO didn't know it existed for much of its development cycle. And after how strict Disney was with KH3 it makes me slightly apprehensive.
 

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I doubt they can really do it anymore xD They are wrapped up with Disney now.

They seem to let Nomura do whatever he wants with the story, though. It's just the Disney stuff they are really strict about.
Which makes me think Nomura has to select worlds where a good collaboration can be born. Toy Box and Monstropolis are good examples, while Arendelle is pretty much the definition of what Nomura needs to avoid going forward (unless Disney can budge and actually allow more interaction). I don't mind the film's playing out almost exactly the way it was and no main story included (I would prefer main story included though), but I at least want Sora to interact with the characters and become part of the story. The climax of Arendelle didn't feel like we were friends with Elsa or Anna, so when we inevitably revisit Arendelle... the "joyous reunion" won't feel like when we go back to Agrabah or The Caribbean.
 

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Which makes me think Nomura has to select worlds where a good collaboration can be born. Toy Box and Monstropolis are good examples, while Arendelle is pretty much the definition of what Nomura needs to avoid going forward (unless Disney can budge and actually allow more interaction). I don't mind the film's playing out almost exactly the way it was and no main story included (I would prefer main story included though), but I at least want Sora to interact with the characters and become part of the story. The climax of Arendelle didn't feel like we were friends with Elsa or Anna, so when we inevitably revisit Arendelle... the "joyous reunion" won't feel like when we go back to Agrabah or The Caribbean.
Hindsight is 20/20. KH3 was the first game utilizing more modern films whose creative teams are still working at Disney and wanted to have a say in how their babies are presented. Nomura/SE can't really know how they will all work together until they actually do.

Also, a reminder that Frozen was chosen for KH3 before the film even released in theaters.
 

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Kinda skimmed through, but how does this align with the elevator pitch?
 

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Hindsight is 20/20. KH3 was the first game utilizing more modern films whose creative teams are still working at Disney and wanted to have a say in how their babies are presented. Nomura/SE can't really know how they will all work together until they actually do.

Also, a reminder that Frozen was chosen for KH3 before the film even released in theaters.
I know Frozen was selected before it hit theaters. I didn't mention the film's popularity, I talked about how Nomura needs to pick worlds that Disney would be more lenient with. If Nomura is seeing a ton of creative control enforced by Disney for a world, then he should back off and choose something else... or maybe keep one of those worlds in the game, if it's really popular (like Frozen).

Anyway, I think it's really interesting to see how KH was born. I remember seeing it for the first time advertised and just being in awe, like I couldn't process what I was seeing. It seemed like something completely unbelievable.
 

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I know Frozen was selected before it hit theaters. I didn't mention the film's popularity, I talked about how Nomura needs to pick worlds that Disney would be more lenient with. If Nomura is seeing a ton of creative control enforced by Disney for a world, then he should back off and choose something else... or maybe keep one of those worlds in the game, if it's really popular (like Frozen).
You missed the point. Disney was only so protective of Frozen because it had proven itself and become a worldwide phenomenon, even ranking in the top 3 best grossing films ever in Japan. SE couldn't have known it would become so successful when they chose this film for KH3. Had it achieved, say, Tangled or BH6-level success, Disney wouldn't have had so much red tape around it.
 
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