How did we make KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory?

Masanobu Suzui, Co-Director of the game from indieszero, talks us through the high notes and low notes of making a rhythm action extravaganza.
By Masanobu Suzui

Hello everyone! This is Masanobu Suzui, Co-Director of KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory.

When we were given the opportunity to make a rhythm-action game based on KINGDOM HEARTS, we were thrilled! We’re massive fans of the series, so the opportunity to revisit our favorite moments from the past, while looking forward to the future, was beyond exciting.

But making a rhythm action game is no simple task - it’s a complicated project, where even the smallest details can make a big difference. To show you what I mean, I thought it would be interesting to take you behind the scenes of the game, and the many decisions that went into bringing it to life.

Choosing the right tracks

When you’re making a rhythm action game, track selection is one of the first things you have to consider - but deciding which tracks to include in Melody of Memory was a particularly tricky challenge. After all, there’s a genuinely massive amount of music in the KINGDOM HEARTS series - we’re talking 600 tracks, perhaps 700 if you include the latest releases.

Right at the start of development, we made a list of all the different music across all the various games. Then, we collected all kinds of information that we could use to identify the songs that had left a particularly strong impression on players.

For example, we looked at which tracks had been included on the set list of the recent KINGDOM HEARTS Orchestra -World of Tres- tour, and which were voted most popular by fans. We collected all kinds of data, and by studying it, we were able to work out many of the songs we knew would really excite people.

The element of the game that really brought the selection into focus though was the World Tour. The core theme of that mode is for players to relive the KINGDOM HEARTS series (so far) through music, so we made sure to include as many tracks from important and memorable scenes as we could.

These considerations allowed us to whittle the options down to a shorter list, but when it came to the final selection, other factors came into play - some technical and some emotional.

For example, some of the development staff felt very strongly about certain games or scenes, and wanted them represented in our title. There was also our passion to get things just right - we picked tracks that we knew would let us do our best work.

And of course, we were making a rhythm action game so the rhythm and tempo of the track was an important consideration too.

These decisions weren’t easy - we’re all big KINGDOM HEARTS fans, so there was a lot of debate. But I’m happy with the final mix (no pun intended!) - it reflects the breadth of the music in the series, and hopefully, inspires happy memories for players.

Finding that KINGDOM HEARTS flavor

With our track list defined, we now had to build the gameplay systems that would allow players to interact with it in a fun and engaging way.

From the start, we knew we wanted to combine the sense of speed and satisfying action from the original KINGDOM HEARTS games with the rhythm action genre, and we investigated more than 20 different systems and specifications for how the game could play.

One early prototype had notes flowing towards player on a score - a kind of presentation often used in rhythm games. In the background, a 3D model of Sora and the enemies would appear and move according to how well the player input the various prompts.

But while it was entertaining, it didn’t feel true to the series. The KINGDOM HEARTS games see the player running through different worlds on their adventure, seamlessly transitioning into battles with various enemies - as KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory is about recreating that experience in a kind of ‘digested’ version, we wanted to capture the same feeling and revive memories of those games.

After further experiments, we arrived at the concept of having Sora and the other characters run along a music stave above the different worlds, fighting as they go. This felt very ‘KINGDOM HEARTS’ and just as importantly, it was fun!

The challenge now was to make it both visually interesting and easy to read. And as you’re about to find out there’s a lot to consider to do that properly!

Building stages

Unlike many other rhythm action games, which often have quite a simple screen layout, KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory includes a lot of information about the in-game universe - for example, the different party members, the variety of enemies, the background models for each world, and all the effects from the original games.

These were all essential elements for recreating that KINGDOM HEARTS atmosphere, but we also had to make sure that players could identify the inputs quickly. We tested the game over and over again, continually iterating on the camera, enemy positioning, and background model positioning to make it feel just right.

We were very careful not to set an overly complicated or intricate route, as that could distract the player and make it difficult for them to concentrate on the inputs. For that same reason, we ensured that we aligned the camera to even the slightest shifts in any direction.

Getting the visuals right

When it came to visuals, we carefully considered aspects like the colour contrast between enemies and the background - the information had to stand out so the player could process it easily.

We spent a long time digging into the visual details of the game, because they really matter! Every single element of a stage could have an impact on its readability, and we worked hard to make sure that they all worked together in tandem.

For example, we spent a good amount of time defining how many seconds in advance it would be best to have enemies appear. We wanted to create a sense of space, but didn’t want players to be surprised by inputs they couldn’t predict.

In addition, we had to determine the appropriate opacity for shadows of enemies who drop on the course from above. They had to be clear enough for players to register them, but also in keeping with the KINGDOM HEARTS series’ visual style - that in particular took a lot of refinement.

Finally, we carefully considered which on-screen areas to prioritise when displaying the timing guide. Overlapping circles give players a visual indication of when to press a button - very important as they work in concert with the music to help players reliably hit the right beat.

Since the Field Battle stages in Melody of Memory take place in a 3D environment, it took massive amount of experimentation and iteration to place them in locations that provided the best visibility without seeming unnatural.

Talkin’ about timing

On the subject of timing, that was one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. It’s an element that would make or break the game, and demanded a tremendous amount of focus.

Every stage in the game was custom built. We made incredibly precise adjustments to enemy locations, and the overall balance, based on the movements of the course and its exact curvature.

For example, the timing for jumps is set to the beat of the track, so leaping into the air at the right time should make players feel like it’s part of the rhythm. Even small details like the time spent in the air following a jump is set to the stage’s specific timing, so it varies between tracks.

Difficulty decisions

That custom design means that KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory differs from other rhythm-action games. Many titles in the genre allow players to set the speed of the notes or inputs. Generally speaking, increasing the speed creates a greater gap between individual notes, allowing advanced players to read the sequence more clearly and continue to play - even if the density of notes increases.

This feature was not implemented in Melody of Memory, however - due to the precise timing of each stage, it couldn’t be. Any change in speed would cause those placements to no longer be synchronised - a bit of problem in a rhythm game I think you’ll agree!

That meant that every single difficulty level for each track had to be minutely adjusted to account for the background visuals and course movements at each specific moment.

The note sequences for the hardest difficulty level - Proud mode - in particular underwent a lot of iterations to make sure that the enemy placement would be challenging, but still straightforward to input visually using the sound as an additional guide – despite not being able to adjust the speed of the notes.

Of course, we didn’t spend all of our time focused on Proud mode - Beginner and Standard modes also boast unique and enjoyable note sequences too. Our overall aim was to let players select a challenge level in accordance with their skill at rhythm games, so that they could play their favorite tracks over and over again without focusing too much on getting a high score.

As you can tell, making a rhythm-action game is a complicated task. There are so many elements to consider, from the visuals to the timing, and everything has to be tested and refined over and over to make it as enjoyable as possible to play.

I’m very satisfied with stages in KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory. I think they succeed in providing a satisfying gameplay experience, as well as evoking memories of the wonderful games that inspired them.

If you would like to experience this for yourself, the game is now available for PS4 Xbox One, and Switch - we hope you enjoy it:

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