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Kingdom Hearts III’s development team share details of what it was like working with Disney and Pixar

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IGN have recently published a feature and a video on talking with members of the Kingdom Hearts III development team about working with Disney in this project. Toru Yamazaki (art director), Kayoko Yajima (lead facial animator), Tai Yasue (co-director), Koji Inoue and Munenori Shinagawa (animation directors), and Tetsuya Nomura (series director) talked about the rewards and challenges working with Disney and Pixar for the game. The video also shows the Square Enix developers show off some of the work they used for the development. (For those who haven't player or finished Kingdom Hearts III yet, be aware that the video contains some cutscene and gameplay footage from the game.)

 

In the video, Yamazaki explained how in previous titles they would recreate the characters from scratch based off the properties, whereas for Kingdom Hearts III they asked Disney to share their resources with them. Disney have provided the original polygon shapes of characters with guidelines on how to add more detail, such as hair and clothes) on them. However, things didn't always go as planned as those resources were not originally made to be used in a video game. For example, models' joints weren't defined and so had to be added manually and physics-enabled objects like capes needed to be particularly revisited. 

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Art director, Toru Yamazaki:

“This time around, because we were planning on making such a high-end game, we talked to Disney about sharing resources with us. Up until now, the way Kingdom Hearts have been made is that we would watch the movies and copy the costumes as we saw them. But this time around, because we wanted to be really accurate and wanted to have everything down to the last detail completely the same we decided to ask Disney to share their resources with us.

"Disney was very concerned with what Elsa’s hair looked like. Of course she’s got this beautiful golden-white hair that’s always flowing and beautiful, and when we got the data, her hair was just sticking straight backwards.

"So we used animation initially to bring it forward, but no matter how we did that it didn’t quite look right, it always kind of looked a little weird, and Disney wasn’t happy with that. Ultimately, what we had to do, we told them, ‘with the data you guys gave us, and what we’re working with, we can’t make it look any better than this’.

"What we ended up doing was remaking the hair, not from the model they gave to us. It was the one part that was like, ‘oh this doesn’t make sense, we’re not supposed to be changing anything, but we have to change it to make it looks like it looks in the movie itself’.”

Of course, making sure your game is as accurate to the film as possible means there needed to be lots of things to be approved over time. Both Disney and Square wanted to make sure that the team were doing an incredible job at recreating their magic and sometimes were there approving things every step of the way. It seemed that every single detail in the process had to get approved before even moving on to the next scene, and any change that they had made needed to be explained.

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Lead facial animator, Kayoko Yajima:

“There was actually a lot of pressure to get even the smallest details that you wouldn’t even think would be that important to look like they do in the movie. We get requests from Disney and Pixar like, ‘we want them to be showing less teeth here,’ or ‘their eyelids need to move differently,’ or ‘their line of sight isn’t quite right’. Of course, cutscenes are where the soul of the character comes out, so it was something that we put a lot of effort into and adjusted down to the minutiae.”

Disney and Pixar not only required changes after things were made; Square needed their approval at almost every stage from concept to finished product. According to Yasue, cutscenes were the most inspected element in the game perhaps due to portraying the source material most intimately.

With things needing to be approved almost every minute, other things they had an easier chance with. As it turns out, the crazier the change to the original property the more likely it had a chance of being approved. This is because changing the character so it is not the same but still recognizable, Disney didn't make a fuss due to perceiving it as a new character altogether.

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Co-director, Tai Yasue:

On making characters outlandish: [The Lion King’s Simba appears as a] fire entity. [We] didn’t have a lot of difficulty. He’s not Simba. So we showed Disney our drawings and everything, and shared that, and we got that approved. But at the same time, it wasn’t the real character. So I think, in that respect, it was easier.”

On cutscenes requiring approval: “There's a lot of different stages for each [team]. I guess it depends on what you're making. For cutscenes, for example, it’s like a waterfall. You have the plot, the story, the storyboards, we get checked each time, right?

For gameplay, they team brainstormed ideas that they thought Disney would be likely to approve for its world and characters before letting them see a walkthrough and accepting comments. Painstakingly, every single gameplay action was scrutinized to the smallest detail. However, Disney's role was not only to correct, but to collaborate as well as things had to have some sort of continuity. For instance, Inoue mentioned that when Square approached Disney with a story about a Wreck-It Ralph summon that pounds the ground, Disney recalled a scene from the movie where he did exactly that. Inoue also talked about how pleased Pixar animators were to see their IPs, such as Monsters, Inc., recreated with technology superior to what they had when those movies were first made.

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Animation director, Koji Inoue:

“You know, we’ll program an action in and Disney or Pixar will say ‘that’s a bit too violent’, or ‘they wouldn’t do that sort of thing’. When it came to Remy from Ratatouille, they talked a lot about the precise movements of his tail."

In regards to recreating Pixar IPs with the latest technology: “It was a question of, 'even if they were made with older technology, what would they look like if they were appearing in higher quality now?' We wanted it to look like the original, but the original in its most modern, highest technology form.

“The feedback was always, ‘it looks so nice to have it in such high quality.’ It was actually to the extent where Pixar was saying that some people who'd seen it were saying, ‘wait are you guys making a new movie?’ Because it was exactly like it was supposed to look like.”

Along with making the Disney experience in Kingdom Hearts III more authentic, getting feedback for their project ended up helping the Square developers in the long run to become better animators and storytellers.

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Animation director, Munenori Shinagawa:

“Pixar was actually quite specific about the things that they wanted us to change, and one of the things was line of sight. That was something that we had probably not paid as much attention to as we should have. Ultimately, we ended up doing a lot of Pixar scenes very early on in the process, and what they taught us about line of sight really helped up the quality of the animation throughout the game.”

Working with Disney was one thing, but also working with Pixar was very different. Pixar was in fact more attached to their property, approving more stages of production and participating in weekly conference calls with the animation teams to ensure the most accurate representation of their IPs. Both Disney and Pixar kept their teams of animators intact following the release of their IPs - and they all had a say in the reproduction of their work in Kingdom Hearts III. Nomura went on to explain how it was working with both companies, how they reacted differently to the same issue (even within the same studio) with how the plot of the world should go as well as how it should look. He also had some convincing to do for the studios to fall in like with his longtime vision of Sora and friends canonically arriving to the Disney worlds.

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Series creator, Tetsuya Nomura:

"[Pixar cares more about the] technical, creative side of things, [while Disney focuses more on] the overall production. I would say that we, as a company and a team, are more like Pixar.

“For each different world we had to deal with a different team, and [creating a plot] was largely down to what their feelings were on what they wanted to happen. There were some teams that were like, ‘Ooh, if you make a new story, you’re going to kind of ruin the world that we created,’ whereas there were teams, like Toy Story, who said to us, ’Well, we can’t have it in that world, but if you want to make a new story, that’s fine.’

From team to team, the kind of color, or the way they did things, the feel was quite different. For example, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., those two teams were completely different from each other."

On his vision to have Sora and friends canonically arriving in Disney’s worlds: “When I first brought this to Pixar and I asked about doing that, they were like, ‘Actually, no. The Toy Story story is complete. It’s a complete package the way it is, and we can’t really change that.’ I told them if I’m going to do this in the Kingdom Hearts way, then it’s going to become a case of, ’Actually, Sora and his friends did come into the world.’"

On Toy Box’s plot line happening between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3: “I said, ‘Okay, so is it fair to assume that Woody and Buzz, and friends, remember Sora and everybody coming? Is it part of the story now?’ and they were like, ‘yeah,’ and I was kind of like, ‘Oh! Okay.’”

 

 


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As much as I love attention to detail, I still feel like the increased involvement of Disney and Pixar is not a good thing and is hindering the development of the original parts.

Spoiler

An example would be how small the original worlds are this time around.

I enjoyed KH3 but in some instances one could clearly feel Disney's influence. I dare say having the entire song in may not have been a decision made by the development team but rather by Disney since the movie is so popular. Subjectively, the song didn't need to be in there. It was completely random.

Spoiler

Unlike the Flower Incantation in Tangled, which actually canonically serves the purpose of healing, Anna randomly starting to sing lines from 'Do you want to build a Snowman?' when Sora is sitting right beside her was immensely strange.

Of course I can't know if the Disney properties have something to do with it but it feels like both Disney and Pixar have been very demanding and were protective to have their own works look as best as they can which ended up in the original worlds not getting enough development time because they had to spent so much time on every little detail.

I love how it looks most of the time but sometimes the original characters fluctuate a lot in quality while the Disney/Pixar ones are relatively consistent. Especially the eyes for the original cast could have used more depth.

All in all, it felt like they spent way more time on appearances and adjusting that than making sure that the pacing of the story is good. I liked what we got but as always, I feel they could have added more content for the original plot. It doesn't help that both Disney and Pixar, from my point of view, demanded a lot without actually sharing much of their assets and knowledge.

Of course graphics, especially good models with lively expressions, are extremely important for Kingdom Hearts since that's what carries emotion across, but sometimes it felt like they had to cater more to Disney/Pixar's needs than what they wanted to do for the original plot.

Spoiler

While Sora and Co. did feel more included in some worlds, in others they didn't exactly feel necessary like Kingdom of Corona or Arendelle. I don't mind the out of context scenes as much as Sora & Co. not interacting much with the characters anymore toward the end of the worlds and just being there to defeat a Heartless/Nobody/Unversed while otherwise staying in the background and barely even talking to the other characters anymore.

Another point would be how utterly useless 100 Acre Wood is. It's not even cute but the same minigame 3 times in a row with differrent conditions just to show his connection to Pooh has weakened, which is never picked up again despite potential. I'd rather would have seen more rooms in original worlds for that.

Another instance of somehow forgetting the actual plot in favor of looks would be in the Pirates of the Carribean world. There's this continuous built up with Tia Dalma asking Sora to free her with the Keyblade. In the scene where she is usually freed they claim it didn't work (though there's still a storm) and she never appears again and Sora doesn't get to do anything. The world looks amazing and I love the details but doing a little less is always appreciated if it means the story makes sense.

All in all I was happy with this game and also the Disney/Pixar worlds but I'm a little afraid Kingdom Hearts will get burried by demands of companies which only care about the things they created themselves without caring for the overall plot. It feels like a lot of time was wasted to make things overly accurate to the source material. Which is fine if you have the time but KH3 clearly showed that they could have used some more toward the original plot in my opinion. Just to give the characters and their plot points the attention and time they need and deserve and make it feel less rushed.

I'm concerned this will continue into the future with how successful KH3 was and Disney suddenly realizing that it does have a rather large fanbase. Judging from interviews, they're not as lenient toward depiction of violence for example as with the other KH titles anymore. (Which is kinda ironic, considering their own movies have tons of violence and mature references.)

It isn't always bad to have more people look toward the game and make sure it turns out great but that only works if they're not solely looking out for their own works. Disney owns the franchise after all so they shouldn't only care to look visually appealing.

I enjoyed KH3 a lot more than others obviously, considering all the negative comments, but I can't ignore the flaws and also can't help to attribute some of the blame to Disney/Pixar for burying everything pertaining to Kingdom Hearts itself beneath their properties and making them feel rushed in return, no matter how good it looks. Disney may be a major part of KH but it's not good to be too much of a perfectionist with a game that has another focus beyond Disney movie representations.

I was satisfied with a lot of the Disney worlds. I truly did enjoy most of them and also the original story wasn't half as outrageous as I had feared based on the spoiler-free impressions and reviews. But I can't deny that I would have rather sacrificed some of their content and detail in favor of more original content and a more even pacing. It sometimes wasn't as directed as they clearly could have managed and then realized after all the Disney worlds that "whoops, we actually have to do the stuff we teased 10 hours ago."

Spoiler

Like Roxas. They searched for a way to bring him back early on. So far so good. A nice starting point for the story. Then that was forgotten, then picked up again and suddenly, he just appears seemingly out of thin air where it feels like Sora hasn't actually done anything to bring him back except being there.

Nomura said there are enough original characters so that FF characters aren't as needed anymore. (Something I couldn't disagree more with.) But the same could be said for the Disney properties then. Apart from a few plot points intertwining, I dare say a lot of us have stayed with KH due to its original plot. Not because it has Disney slapped onto it. I couldn't imagine Kingdom Hearts without Disney and neither without Final Fantasy, but at the same time it felt like the focus sometimes shifted too much away from the overarching plot that actually matters toward excessive visual Disney/Pixar representation for high quality copy and paste scenes from their movies which aren't always necessary.

It's entirely subjective of course and I can't say I can prove my claims since I don't know what's going on behind closed doors. I just know that KH3 was lacking in certain areas. Which is completely normal for a game and it was the same in all other KH titles, but especially when trying to connect this many characters and plot elements, they could have used more time toward that and the actual final confrontation instead of focusing on the tiniest visual details.

I still loved the game though. I just like to view the game from all perspectives, both negative and positive and for me, Disney's increased involvement does not appear positive. KH stands and falls with Disney of course but I couldn't help but feel that their trouble with the engine slowed down development which ended in other parts being rushed.

Edited by Merilly

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@Merilly
I couldn't agree more. I joined the KH series because I love the Disney stuff, and I'm partially still here because of it, but there's no doubt it definitely took focus away from the original parts.

Having the original Disney & Pixar creators give input is a great idea on paper, but was it really needed? As a big Disney finatic, I have never played a KH game and thought "Hey, that's not what Ariel sounds like!" or "Yuck, Aladdin's hair is wrong!" or "What is wrong with Simba's eye direction?". Square has always done the Disney properties justice, so I don't know why Disney needed to be more nitpicky now?
 

Personally, I would've been willing to sacrifice Monstropolis (or the Caribbean) to have a fully playable Radiant Garden with FF characters.

I wish there was a proper way to voice our complaints, but with the high scores and sales numbers of KH3, Disney & Square are going to go with the whole "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" plan :(

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11 hours ago, Green Sparrow said:

@Merilly
I couldn't agree more. I joined the KH series because I love the Disney stuff, and I'm partially still here because of it, but there's no doubt it definitely took focus away from the original parts.

Having the original Disney & Pixar creators give input is a great idea on paper, but was it really needed? As a big Disney finatic, I have never played a KH game and thought "Hey, that's not what Ariel sounds like!" or "Yuck, Aladdin's hair is wrong!" or "What is wrong with Simba's eye direction?". Square has always done the Disney properties justice, so I don't know why Disney needed to be more nitpicky now?
 

Personally, I would've been willing to sacrifice Monstropolis (or the Caribbean) to have a fully playable Radiant Garden with FF characters.

I wish there was a proper way to voice our complaints, but with the high scores and sales numbers of KH3, Disney & Square are going to go with the whole "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" plan :(

Exactly. Disney is a part of KH just as FF is for me, but the balance is key and this time it felt like Disney took the entire focus for itself to let itself look good. Unlike quite a few others, I don't think KH3 lacks soul or heart but it's undeniable that the focus has shifted away from the original plot way more than necessary and likely more than Nomura and the developers wanted because they had to do what Disney/Pixar told them. They realized KH was popular and wanted their own franchises to look best. That's at least how it appears to me.

That's especially visible in worlds like PotC or Arendelle. They are visually stunning, no questions asked, but they don't actually need Sora. Just like how KH2 was criticized for the worlds being too disconnected from the main plot, KH3 has the issue that it fails to give Sora a purpose to be there. Even the Power of Waking gets lost in Disney's original plots.

I liked the Disney worlds. They were fun on their own but once you regard their integrity in the overall plot, which is what most fans were looking forward to since it was the final, KH's original plot becomes somewhat irrelevant. And I can't help but think that Nomura isn't the only one to blame for that but rather Disney wrenching control over its properties away from him and barely allowing him any creative freedom to include his own ideas.

I can't agree more with you on the fact that their involvement looks good on paper. Having some sort of peer review with people familiar with the franchise to watch over the original plot and Disney employees to make sure that the main ideas of each movie are presented correctly is a good thing to prevent a single author from going in a direction only they understand. That's understandable because as an author, you sometimes don't realize it doesn't make sense to the readers/players since they can't look into the writer's head.

But as you said, it can also be negative if there are too many and they are nitpicking. I don't believe I would have cared about an exact line of sight if they had added more original content. These details are sweet and lovely but they also take time and should be left for when most is done.

I personally believe that Radiant Garden was originally meant to be playable and maybe even serve as a Hub-world but they couldn't really fit it in anymore with all the Disney worlds.

I'm not hating on Disney but they've never cared for KH's original plot in my opinion and only saw it as advertisement to their own movies. And neither SE nor Nomura can go against their demands since they own the franchise.

I still enjkyed KH3 despite that. I just feel that the endgame could have been drawn out by having a midgame section solely dedicated fo original plot points. They could have saved some characters earlier to actually give them time to interact with each other outside of the tension of a final battle. I am fairly happy with what we got but there's no denying it could have been more and that the pacing/structuring is none too stellar.

Spoiler

For example, it would have given the story a more even pacing if they had put the Keyblade Graveyard segment where Sora loses his friends in the middle or even toward the beginning, maybe have him sent to the realm of darkness, offer some exploration there on his own, meet Aqua and then save her. Riku and Mickey don't actually do much in saving her anyway so why not have them fail earlier and return to Yen Sid for regrouping purposes. Then Aqua could team up with Sora and go to Ven. After that, they could have worked with Ienzo & Co. to get Roxas back, etc.

They had a lot of Keyblade wielders right from the beginning. It would have been okay to switch them midway and give Xehanort a preliminary win where all lights are MIA and have to be recovered.

It doesn't mean that they should have absolutely done it like that. But it would have incorporated more original locations and focused more on the final battle than going through so many Disney worlds without actually achieving much. The interactions were cute. I loved them. But for the final part of a saga, I can't deny I would have liked a bigger focus on the original plot since there was so much running together which ended up colliding into the last few hours. 

Despite that, I wish that fans would also lower their expectations a bit, stop blaming everything on Nomura/SE and look at the development more.

Roughly 4 years of development (since the engine switch) are not a whole lot when you have to build everything from scratch. I think a lot had to be sacrificed because it took them quite a while to adjust to the new engine. And Disney was probably unwilling to sacrifice a property of its own to accomodate that. Add to that that the fans were getting impatient and Nomura didn't have the resources of other big titles (in particular money and employees), it's actually quite a lot that they managed to achieve.

I wouldn't be too discouraged yet. There's also a lot of negative criticism which doesn't sound like entitled fans throwing a tantrum and the developers have shown to take notice of complaints in the past. That is also something Disney/SE can't ignore when presented to them. We also have to take into consideration that they're more familiar with the engine now and won't have to build everything from scratch anymore, which effectively leaves them with more time to focus on other things. And if Disney/Pixar keep their nitpicking a bit more to themselves, I'm sure it has the potential to show off more original content in the future.

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Disney was way too fussy over KH3.  In this game I found the Disney worlds to be pretty to look at, but they didn't have the heart like in the previous games where Disney company was more hands off.  But Disney company has been obnoxious in just about everything it's got it's hands on in the last decade, so I'm not surprised by this.

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12 minutes ago, Raynaninja said:

Disney was way too fussy over KH3.  In this game I found the Disney worlds to be pretty to look at, but they didn't have the heart like in the previous games where Disney company was more hands off.  But Disney company has been obnoxious in just about everything it's got it's hands on in the last decade, so I'm not surprised by this.

Yea i mean attention to detail is good and all but really who really notices if a string of hair on elsa is a few millimimeters shorter than in the film

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While I do overall like how the Disney stuff with handled, some of this is really nitpicky and could of been better spent with other aspects of the game. If I wanted to see how well a Disney character tail or hair or whatever moved, I would just go and watch the movie. Not to mention some of the worlds felt very commercially (I won't name any world names).

Like, believe me I love the Disney aspect of the game and I hate the idea that some people have that they want to get rid of it, but Disney would need to chill out a ton. They can help if, lets say they think a character is out of character and they want to help them write them, but they need to know when to back off.

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I guess that helps explain how we only had a few Disney bosses this time.

 

In a game series  of KH, I don’t buy any excuse for any Disney villain not to be fought at any point but hey that’s just my preference.

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