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Feature Article

Kingdom Hearts 3 Creator Discusses Dealing With Expectations And The Future Of The Series

Nomura heroes.

At E3 2018, Square Enix announced a short delay for Kingdom Hearts 3, pushing the title from December 2018 into January 2019. After a 13-year wait for a new mainline entry in the series, a few extra weeks wasn't a big deal, but it created questions nevertheless: Why was it announced at a concert instead of at Square Enix's press conference? Why was the delay necessary? What state is Kingdom Hearts 3 in?

During the show GameSpot was given the opportunity to put these questions to Tetsuya Nomura, creator of the series and director of Kingdom Hearts 3. We also took the opportunity to discuss the future of the franchise--specifically whether he has plans for a story beyond the upcoming game--and also if we can expect characters from Star Wars or Marvel to make an appearance, now that they exist under the Disney banner too.

Kingdom Hearts 3 has been in development for quite a few years now. How does it feel to finally have a release date announced?

Until now the thing that I was told the most was to just release the game, like, "Don't worry about it, just release the game," or, "When is the release date?" So now that we [have] arrived, to finally be able to say our release date or announce a release date, I feel that they gave me the opportunity to actually say what I want to our fans and have them listen to what I want to say. So I'm really happy about that.

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Did it feel like you always needed to do more to achieve what you want or was it just the case of development issues that resulted in the lengthy development time?

Just one year into development we had to change the engine that we were working off of. This was a directive from the company that set us back a year and that was definitely a blow that we took. And then as we started development after that, we were gradually increasing the number of staff we had on our team, but the increase in staff just did not go as I had planned, so we couldn't really get full momentum for a while. So it's not that we had difficulty in development of the title, it was just a lot of company decisions that we just couldn't avoid.

Given how long the game has been in development, fan expectations for it are incredibly high. Do you ever worry about not meeting those fan expectations and how does that impact you as you're developing the game?

I just naturally don't really feel pressured and that's always been fortunate for me. That's been leading me to successes, but at least for Kingdom Hearts 3 the fan excitement was a lot more than I had expected. So [for] the first time in my life I did feel some kind of pressure from it. But when I thought about why I didn't really feel pressure until now, I realized that it was because I always had the confidence that my game is going to be good and fun. Because I have confidence that Kingdom Hearts 3 will be great as well I think that's probably why I don't feel too pressured or I don't feel too scared about fan expectations or meeting expectations.

I also have experience working on Final Fantasy titles as well, but Kingdom Hearts is a very unique one where a lot of people that are on the title really love Kingdom Hearts 3. They're overflowing with love. They're just like our fans as well. So because their love towards the title is so high, they've been creating the game with that much love and so I think that we are able to push out a game that meets expectations or even more than what you might expect.

You've grown up as a person and as a designer alongside the players and it's been so long since the last Kingdom Hearts was released. How has your perspective on making the game changed over time? Do you still have that passion for it? Or is it just like you feel more of a responsibility to people to make it and end it?

I'm getting older now, so my body really can't take all that difficulty anymore. When I was younger I was definitely more aggressive and I was the one pulling everyone forward, but now there's a lot more energetic staff around me who are more aggressive, so I feel like I'm more like a sage now. Like I'm in the sidelines just telling people what to do. The Kingdom Hearts series has become a huge title nowadays and back then it was more like I was making it secretively in the corner, but now that a lot more people are involved I do feel that it's not my title anymore, it's everyone's title. And just talking about all this … It actually kind of makes me really sad.

People are putting a lot of big things on you between making the sequel to Kingdom Hearts and the Final Fantasy VII remake. Is it a similar thing for that as well where you're letting other people guide you? Are you trying to train up the next generation to take over the things that you gave the world and created for Square Enix?

I'm not really good at teaching people, so I haven't been really telling people what to do, how to make games, or how to do it best. But because of where I am right now, all the decision making is up to me and because I've had a lot of game creation experience, I can finally feel that I could actually decide on one thing and I could actually make myself stop from deviating from what I've already decided. In a sense, I think all that experience does help me to become more mature. But there's still a lot of things that I can't readily decide as well.

It's not that I've been educating all my teams, but the coder, Tai Yasue, has been with me so long that he knows what I'm looking for. He knows what I don't like and he knows if whatever he has on his plate is something that I can approve or not. In that sense, [it could be said] I have been educating him.

The staff that I have, they actually have this image of me that, "Oh, Nomura-san won't approve if it's like this. It needs to be better." They just have high expectations for themselves or they think that I have really high expectations for them. So when I actually go ask to see something early in development, they say, "Oh, I can't show it to you yet. It's not finished at all." So what they usually tend to do is that they would take whatever order I give them and just create something that's of a higher quality than what I've asked them to do. So if you look at the trailer, I think it's pretty apparent, but they have been pushing out things that are really high quality. I'm very grateful for that.

A lot of people that are on the title really love Kingdom Hearts 3. They're overflowing with love. They're just like our fans.

One of the big things that fans are responding to in the new trailer is Aqua and her seemingly falling to the darkness. A lot of people are quite excited and also showing trepidation about seeing that. Can you talk about the decision to change and grow her character in such a way?

First of all, I didn't really think that people would be the most surprised with Aqua. I did receive a lot of questions about her during interviews and I've seen that it's become a hot topic online as well. The way that I write my scenarios, I don't really have clear thoughts of what I'm gonna do at each moment. I always start off with having a goal at the very end and maybe have smaller goals in between that I know that I have to go through to be able to achieve that larger goal, and then I'll start writing scenarios that go in between to make sure that I reach that goal at those points. So it's an ongoing process for me, but while I'm writing towards those smaller goals, I already know what happens, so in my mind I already have this expectation of what will happen next. But once in a while, I will come to a point where I would actually want to go against my own expectations and that's basically why Aqua became like that.

In another interview you said the reason why it's shocking to other people is because they don't know the path that you've created and you know where it's going to end, so you know how to get there. How far have you created that path? This is supposed to be the end of Sora's story. Do you have another story that goes beyond this or is this the end for you as well?

The way that I make games is that while I'm creating the current title, I'm always thinking about what's ahead of that. That hasn't changed from [the first] Kingdom Hearts, so it's the same for Kingdom Hearts 3 as well and it's all in my mind. But that doesn't mean that we will be able to create that game or we will eventually create the next game. I do this so that it doesn't contradict what I see in the future of Kingdom Hearts. Like I said earlier, it's just not that it's a definite yes or no as to whether or not there will be [another Kingdom Hearts] title, but I do have something in mind.

We've seen a lot of new characters and returning favorites, but we haven't really seen a lot of the Final Fantasy characters and obviously they played such a huge role in the earlier games. Are you just not showing them off right now or do you feel that you don't need to bring them back for the new game?

They obviously appeared from [the first] Kingdom Hearts, but at least for Kingdom Hearts 3, there's going to be a lot of [original] Kingdom Hearts. So most of the main characters from the Kingdom Hearts titles will appear and they will all have their problems that they need to resolve in the game. Because of that, Final Fantasy characters that actually do not have problems of their own … it's just a little bit difficult for them to appear in the game. But, obviously, the trailers that we have been showing until now is not everything. So all I can really say to that is just wait for a little more update to that.

Actually, in interviews throughout E3, I think every single interviewee has asked me about Final Fantasy characters and so I realize that that probably means that everyone's actually looking forward to them. There weren't that many titles out in the world that had all these Final Fantasy [characters] comes together in one [place], but nowadays there's just so many games out there that incorporates all these different Final Fantasy characters together, so I actually felt that it might not even be necessary to have another one of those in my game. But now that I've been talking with everyone, I've realized that maybe it is necessary, so I'm a little surprised by that.

Returning to Aqua and changes made with her, is that something that you want to do further with other characters? Do you want to kind of change perspectives on characters and maybe turn things upside down in the same way that you did with Aqua so people aren't as comfortable with everything?

It's not to say that there will be similar situations for other characters as Aqua, because I think that actually if I did that too often in the game, it will just lose the surprise element or it'll just feel very boring. But I can say that there will be a lot of surprises in the game, and future trailers may reveal it, but there are some surprises in there that I don't even know if it's okay to even put it in a trailer. Maybe we should just leave it in the game without revealing it beforehand so it'll be like a surprise in the game. I think all I can really say is to just please look forward to that. But let's say, so it's not like I'm changing your perspective on a character or not, but there will be some moments in there that you will definitely be surprised.

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One of the other major questions people have is: are there limits to the characters you can now pull from, because Disney is changing massively and there's new characters being added to their roster. We now have Star Wars characters and Marvel characters [at Disney]. Are they [franchises] that you can pull from?

So Star Wars and Marvel are under Disney, but they are a completely different company, so it's just completely different. It's not that we could just freely ask for those characters as well. And I do get asked this questions once in a while, as well, but even to have Pixar characters in Kingdom Hearts, they actually started negotiating for it over 10 years ago. It wasn't like a simple ask and it took that long to [get to where] we're finally able to realize it. Currently, there's really not an option for me to use [Star Wars and Marvel characters].

If you were given the opportunity to have a Star Wars or Marvel character and you would granted it instantly, who would you pick?

If I answer to this question, I think a lot of people will actually be like, "Oh my God. It's confirmed. It's going to come," but it's not like that. But just simply as a character, I really love Tony Stark.

The game was recently delayed and it was a message that was delivered at a concert to fans first. Can you explain a little bit about why the delay was revealed that way, and can you tell us what state the game's currently in and why the delay was necessary?

As for the reason why we announced it at the concert, it was because this title is a multi-platform title, and so we wanted to be fair to everyone, and so that is why we decided to announce there. As for the reason for delay, because we really wanted to release the game as simultaneous as possible, this was a big request from our overseas team, our Western teams, so we had to think of that for this title. Until now, we would decide on a release date for Japan, and then the rest of the world would follow, so we would only have to think about situations in Japan. But now that we're looking towards a global release, we have to think of distribution and software production lines in global terms. If it was only like about 10,000 or like 50,000 units, then I think it would have been a little bit more of a simple matter, but since we're trying to produce more at once, we really had to think about those issues.

For instance, like one country might be able to distribute a game towards the end of the year, but another might not be able to because of their holiday season. So the higher-ups actually were very cautious about this, and they really wanted to make sure that we did not run into any issues, and so that is why we decided that this date that we have is the safest to be able to achieve a global simultaneous release, or as close as possible. And of course, with developers, it's much easier to push the release date a little back than to make it earlier, and so that is why we decided on this date.

Kingdom Hearts means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it represents their childhood or it's a story about friendship. What does Kingdom Hearts mean for you?

It's probably the title that represents who I am. When I was a starting as a developer, like I wasn't an industry veteran yet, when I was creating Final Fantasy titles with Mr. Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, and at that time, he said that Final Fantasy is a game that has everything in it. I don't think that there are that many people left in Square Enix that have actually worked with him on Final Fantasy. Of course, Final Fantasy is still continuing on--they still are committing to push out titles. But when I started creating Kingdom Hearts, that was when I kind of had this time away from Final Fantasy. And of course, I am working on a Final Fantasy title right now, but it was at a time when I was not working on a Final Fantasy title, and I really wanted to realize what Sakaguchi-san said about Final Fantasy, that it is a game that incorporates everything, to Kingdom Hearts. So I brought that idea to Kingdom Hearts. Currently looking at the newer Final Fantasy titles, to be honest, I don't think it really incorporates that idea of having everything. So I think that Kingdom Hearts, to me, is a game that has everything in it.

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