After the recent release of Kingdom Hearts: Unchained X, Siliconera caught up with the game’s producer, Hironori Okayama, to talk about the development of the game, what excited him most about working with Disney and the series, and what the future holds for the mobile title.
How has its reception for Kingdom Hearts: Unchained X been so far?
Hironori Okayama, Producer: I’m surprised and happy that a lot of users are saying that it’s a really fun game.
You’ve changed from developing PC games for Square Enix to mobile. How does that feel different for you?
First off, just going to a mobile platform – it was thrilling because there’s a lot more users on a mobile platform nowadays. But, as for me, as a producer and game creator, (this is not specific to Kingdom Hearts) I like games that are connected to a network, like an MMO-type game, where you can play with others.
I’ve been making games like that for more than ten years. So, regardless of the platform, whether it be PS4 or smartphones, I continually want to make those types of games.
What were your thoughts in shifting the Kingdom Hearts experience to mobile? How do you make that experience work with that larger possible player base?
Instead of catering to a specific demographic, I thought more about how to incorporate the touchscreen gameplay within the players’ daily lives. That’s how I came up with the different stages. Like, how you clear different stages, which is completely new to Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts: Unchained X was planned to be a browser game at one point, but you’ve shifted focus to just mobile. What prompted that change?
It’s just that the mobile game platform has a lot more users now worldwide, and that’s why I wanted to take it over to the mobile platform.
Before I created the prototype of this game, I actually presented it to certain people by putting the PC game into a surface and I cut out a window in a cardboard box to make it as small as a smartphone’s size. Then, I showed it to people – “This is how it will probably feel on a mobile platform.” – and everyone liked that. So, that’s how this project started.
How does it affect your approach to creating gameplay when it’s being played on a smartphone versus PC/console?
Because it is a mobile game, I tried to design it in a way so that each of the stages don’t take as much time to clear.
When people have to go on the train to go to work or whatnot and they haven’t finished and have to get off at a stop, I made it so that you can close the game but go back to it whenever you can. That is also why I went for more of a turn-based kind of game rather than real-time action.
The gameplay itself, I believe that you can feel that it is still Kingdom Hearts in its essence. It has that kind of action feeling. I believe I was able to get that with this game.
We had heard that you were taking and implementing feedback for the Western audience. What sort of changes were made from that feedback?
One thing is that, right after we created the prototype, we tested the game in the US with American players, and so it was more about getting feedback from the US players, or US audience, and then adjust the game from there to release in Japan and in America later on.
The greatest change might be the medals, actually. In the PC browser game, it used to be cards. We received feedback that cards would probably be a bit too geeky for a mobile game. Given that feedback, we thought about what we could do to make it a little bit different and not use cards.
What we ended up with was medals, and when I saw the cool medals that were created for the game, I was very happy because I thought “This is it.”.
The feedback we got was when users explained the game to people – to tell people that it’s fun – when they say that it’s a card game, some people might get put off by that. That’s the type of feedback that I got, so that’s why I decided to do away with the cards.
I love trading card games, though.
What got you excited to work with the Kingdom Hearts franchise?
It might be just to work with Disney for the first time.
When I brought the prototype to America to do the first test play, Disney was kind enough to take me to one of their animation studios, and I felt “Oh, this is great!”.
What was it like to work with Disney? Was it fun? Challenging in any way?
It is both fun and challenging. The Kingdom Hearts series is definitely a title where Disney and Square Enix all really discuss with each other to make the best game that we can. It is a very cherished title for both of the companies, so they always discuss how to improve the quality of the game with each other.
Did the other Kingdom Hearts team members have any suggestions on things they wanted to add to the game?
Everyone on this Unchained X project, aside from myself, has always been working with Kingdom Hearts, so they’re veterans in the series. So, rather than them giving me advice or suggestions, it was more like we were working together as a team.
I feel that it was probably the avatar system – where you could create your own avatar – that is definitely a first in the series.
How did that come about? The story in Kingdom Hearts is focused on very specific characters. Now, to tell a story in the past but leave those characters out seems like a big decision.
For the story, or how the game plays, or how the characters appear, they’re all being discussed by Tetsuya Nomura, and he did think through it. So, rather than a big decision point, it was more like a natural thing for them to decide to do. And, for fans of the Kingdom Hearts series, they’ll definitely see how it will lead up to the Kingdom Hearts series.
Right now, at least, no one has really gotten into the depth of that story with Unchained X[chi], but it will lead you to understand how it ended up like that. We’ll definitely be constantly updating the story in Unchained X [chi], and so I would love for everyone to look forward to seeing how that rolls out within the game.
Does working in the Kingdom Hearts series’ past give a lot of freedom to do what you like with story and gameplay?
So, aside from the story, which I didn’t really work on so I can’t talk about that, but the game system, at least, because it is the first game (in the Kingdom Hearts narrative history), I was really able to work pretty freely to create the game’s systems and concept behind it. There are a couple of things that I have to follow, but I was able to do things pretty freely.
What are you most proud of that you’ve done with this game?
If you defeat the enemy before you finish up using all of your medals – pretty much before the enemy strikes back – you’ll get a reward called a ‘One Turn Triumph’. To get that objective cleared, you really have to strategize and figure out which medals you want to use because, obviously, it gets more difficult as you play. I really like that in the game because it adds a puzzle element. It adds a lot of depth to the game.
Kingdom Hearts Unchained X is supposed to connect to Kingdom Hearts 3. How does a game in the far past connect to this one in the future?
I actually want to know, too! I feel that if you play Unchained X [chi], as well as the other titles, then you will realize what the connections are, but that’s all I can say at this moment.
Will the answers become clearer as you issue story updates to the game?
I wouldn’t say that everything will become clear, but there will be some things that will be revealed through this game. I am also looking forward to the future stories in this game.
Will any characters like Chirithy or others from this game show up in later titles?
I am not working on other titles, so I can’t say.
Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover will be a part of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8. Will players be missing out on anything by not playing the mobile game themselves?
The story is written in a different perspective in Unchained X [chi] than 2.8 Back Cover. Unchained X [chi] is written from a player’s point of view, whereas Back Cover is written from the Foretellers’ point of view. So, they are from the same story, but from different perspectives.
I would love for everyone to try to take a look at both.
What is your favorite character from the series?
Because he’s the most interesting.
What’s the plan for you next, in this game and as a developer? Will you keep working on new story elements for Unchained X [chi]?
As far as Unchained X [chi], I would love to keep on creating new elements to it as long as it’s popular. I’m also working on other titles as a producer.
My team members, they all really like to create new things and so they will all definitely want to pursue making more new elements to the game going forward. As well as the story, of course. I’d also like to do more collaborations with Disney like they did in Japan for Zootopia moving forward.