Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ (pronounced "key") has surpassed two million downloads in North America since its launch, according to publisher Square Enix. Available on iOS and Android devices, Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ puts the series' iconic Keyblade in the hands of the player via an in-game avatar for the first time. Players also collect and level up medals with unique power-ups featuring the likenesses of popular Disney and Final Fantasy characters. Prior to reaching the landmark download count, Producer Hironori Okayama (Mobius Final Fantasy, Crystal Conquest) graciously made time at PAX East to share a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the first Kingdom Hearts mobile game available in North America.
'Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ' Producer Hironori Okayama. [Photo by Asma M.]
Now that the North American version of the game has debuted, what does success mean to you for this title?
"I'm very happy that the game has been received well in the states. The definition of success would probably differ from person to person, but for me, I feel that having a lot of players playing this game is one barometer of success."Some players may not have played a Kingdom Hearts game before. Regarding the gameplay, how did you take that into consideration when bringing the title from consoles to mobile?
"So, first, whether they're familiar with Kingdom Hearts or not, I wanted the players to start from the same condition, or start from the same starting line. So, the story is based on the oldest story in the Kingdom Hearts series. New players and old fans alike experience the same story, the same way. For those players who have never played Kingdom Hearts before, I would be very happy if this game interests them enough that they try playing Kingdom Hearts 1.5 or 2.5, which are out right now.Would you consider it possible to bring Kingdom Hearts I and II to the mobile platform for those new to the series?
"Second, this doesn't really apply to the Kingdom Hearts series, specifically, but I wanted to create a game that had a 'feel good' element to it, where you feel like you're adventuring or battling through a Disney world on mobile device with a touch screen. So, I went through a lot of R&D to determine what would be best to achieve that. For those people who have been playing a lot of mobile games, I feel that they would find there's nothing similar to the gameplay [in Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ] and the feeling that you get from it."
"I can't say whether we will or will not, but Square Enix as a whole does tend to release our older games on mobile."
Going back to new players who are experiencing Kingdom Hearts for the very first time on mobile, one interesting part of Unchained χ is that you play as an avatar character. This is the first time that you really get to feel like you are wielding the Keyblade, and it's not just Sora or another character. How did you determine how to really make the most of that opportunity and really bring the player into the game?
"First off, it would be kind of gross or disturbing to think that there are one million Soras in the world, right? That would be a bit of a joke. But, at the same time, it is actually already part of the Kingdom Hearts lore that there are a lot of Keyblade wielders. So, I was able to incorporate a world with a lot of keyblade wielders into the game like this."There seem to be quite a few events that give out different rewards in the game. How did you determine how many events to have? Or, whether they should be monthly, weekly, or daily?
"For mobile games, if there isn't something to do every day users tend to get bored. That's why we have different things to do every day, every week, and every month. We don't want the players to get bored, so our team is constantly thinking about how to keep that going. However, if anyone feels that it's the same thing over and over, or if it starts to get boring, please send us feedback. We might implement something new."
When you were first developing the game, what were some of the things you found that made the game more exciting? Were there ways that you tweaked the gameplay?
"In this game, there's a system called a 'one-turn triumph,' where if you defeat the enemy in one turn you get rewarded for it. At first, that mechanism was not in the game, and the feeling that you had from the game was that it was 'okay' or 'good' if you just defeated the enemy. But, by adding the 'one-turn triumph,' it really added a strategy element to the game. Now, you really want to think about which medals to bring against specific enemies. It brings a puzzle game element to the game, as well. It also increases your desire to collect medals. It gives you an exhilarating feeling. I'm really happy with it."Is there any particular medal that is your favorite, or that you think is the coolest one?
"Yes, Wakka is very weak at first when you get him; but, once you evolve him to six stars, that's when you notice that, 'Oh, maybe he's very strong.' You do get a lot of lux with him, too, so he is the character who has a good growth at the end."Thank you so much for the tip! The outfits that you can unlock, and the different customization pieces, how are those made? Does Disney have a lot of input? Is it a very collaborative effort? And can you share some upcoming unlockable pieces that fans can look forward to?
"There's an avatar team that's part of the Unchained χ team, and they always think about what kind of avatar costumes would be great. They look at what will match the seasons. They also base [the creations] on the fans' demands. Sometimes, Disney comes to us and says, 'Hey we have a new movie coming out. Is there something you want to do with it?' At that time, we do collaborate with Disney. We constantly think about what users will probably enjoy or have fun with. The avatar team consists mainly of female staff. They definitely think of things other women would like, but they are also thinking about what men would like.(Editor's Note: As of this writing, the Zootopia costumes and medals based on Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde have become available in North America for a limited time and will remain available until May 15.)
"In Japan, we've released a Zootopia costume and you can look forward to that in the North American version as well."
Is there any plan to have the content of Unchained χ released simultaneously across the globe? Or, is there always going to be a disconnect between the Japanese version of the game and the North American version of the game?
"In terms of the main story, since the game has been released in September [in Japan], obviously, they are going ahead of the North American game. For the North American market, I want to release the content with a good tempo, as much as possible, depending on the user's keyblade levels and how much they have progressed in the story.
"However, for all the seasonal events -- like the holiday events -- I do want to release them simultaneously. It wouldn't make sense for Japan to have a holiday event in December, and then the North American event in January.
"I'm also thinking of having events specific to North America; ones that Japan wouldn't get. It does really depend on how things progress. But, going forward, I would like to have more simultaneous events.
"Just to give a little glimpse of what we've been doing, it might seem like we've created the Japanese version first. Of course, everyone would think so. And, it is kind of true, because we did release in Japan first since we are Japanese and we were able to create it much faster than the English version. But, we actually brought the first prototype of Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ to the United States. We've been adjusting the game, before we launched in Japan, by catering to American audiences through the feedback we received by testing in America. I have a strong feeling that we created the game for America first, rather than Japan."
On the official Square Enix blog, Mr. Nomura mentioned that Unchained χ was going to be like a bridge or link to Kingdom Hearts II.8 and eventually Kingdom Hearts III. Does Unchained χ have a lifecycle up to, or beyond, Kingdom Hearts III? If gamers start playing the game, about how long will they continue to enjoy it?
"Setting the story of the game aside, I would love to keep on producing this game as long as it's popular -- 10, 20, or even 30 years from now. As long as we have the demand, we will be happy to keep on making the game."What is the ideal future for Unchained χ? What would you like to see it become, if it isn't already there yet?
"One big role that Unchained χ has is to introduce the world of Kingdom Hearts to those who haven't played it yet. It would be great if it could become a title where we could have everyone in this world know what Kingdom Hearts is. That's something we're going for."Do you have a closing summary or message for our readers?
"I think that you really do get a different kind of play/feel from this game than you would from any other game on the market right now. It has really great graphics, and it's a pretty grand RPG. I'm confident players will enjoy this game and will be pulled into this world. So, I want to say, just download now."Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ is now available as a free download (with optional in-app purchases) via the App Store and Google Play. [Image via Square Enix]
"A message for the core users: There are hidden mickeys in some stages. So, please, try to look for those."