Interview with Ace Combat Brand Director Kazutoki Kono at PAX South 2019
Our interview with Ace Combat Brand Director Kazutoki Kono at PAX South 2019 was originally scheduled for Tokyo Game Show in 2018, but under went a rescheduling due to unforeseen circumstances. We give our special thanks to Bandai-Namco US community specialist Dmitryi Khlynin for assisting with the rescheduling of this interview. This interview is available in English and 日本語 thanks to TaskForce23 who also assisted Ace Combat Fan in his interview with Kazutoki Kono. Congratulations on the official release of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. What a surprise it was to have you present on the launch weekend of Ace Combat 7. Thank you for making the trip to San Antonio, Texas to meet with the fans in person. What did you think of PAX South? Were you surprised by how many fans were wearing flight suits? I was really surprised. (lol) It was a sight that you really don’t see in Japan. They showed that they were fans of Ace Combat from head to toe, and I was really pleased. What were your thoughts on seeing Ace Combat 7 played live on the PAX Arena stage in competition? For this event, we showcased the multiplayer and VR modes. Many times I watched from the booth, wondering “what kind of playstyle are they going for?” in the multiplayer mode. I laughed because first place for the daily rankings went to community members every day. Have you seen any events in Japan for Ace Combat similar to what you saw in PAX Arena? There aren’t that many events hosted in Japan. In contrast, PAX is an event that takes place in many locations in North America over the course of the entire year, and was an impressive event where “real game fans” gather, with these communities and fans at the core. Looking at the differences in how these events are in Japan and North America, it was very intriguing as an example of what we [in Japan] should aim for. In AC7, Spare Squadron is a penal military unit, which is very unique for the Ace Combat series. The concept of using the 'Sin Lines' to represent how severe their crimes are is eye-catching. Why did you decide to use this kind of unit? When brainstorming scenarios for Ace Combat, one very important factor to consider is “what kind of name/designation will the player be known by from his enemies and allies?” In the case of this game, we thought “what about having scars on the tail [of the aircraft]?” as a design-like symbol. That became “diagonal strike lines,” and while this idea was moving towards “sin lines,” we also wanted the game scenario to put the player in a situation that differed from previous installments. Thus this concept [of a penal unit] was born and both of these ideas [sin lines and a penal unit] were created accordingly. About the mural "Skies Unknown". As you know, people find different messages or meanings when they observe art. When you view the mural, what do you think about it? Since I’m the person who instructed the artist to “make a painting like this,” I know all the meanings that were put into it. (Lol) But I still think about the virtue of aiming towards a so-called Utopia that goes beyond ethnicity and nations, and how it can be realized in “a painting,” but is something that cannot really be done in reality. Unrelated to the main story of Ace Combat 7, the hero Mobius 1 from Ace Combat 04 and 5's Arcade mode returns for the PlayStation VR missions. How did Project Aces feel reintroducing this iconic protagonist? At first, I had doubts like “do we really need to bring back a protagonist from ten years ago?” I even had fears thinking, “will this ruin the dreams of all the fans?” In the end, I made the decision to entrust it to the staff’s strong enthusiasm. As a result, the fans were delighted, so I feel wonderful about it. It seems like the pilots flying alongside Mobius 1 are unsure of his exploits from the past conflicts. One of them even said they don't like "old timer pilots." What a change of tone regarding a former hero! What was the reason for this change around Mobius 1? One of Ace Combat 7’s themes is “the gap between the old era and the new era.” Even Mobius 1 cannot fight against this tide. However, through players flying as him, he was able to make those around him accept that he is a hero once again. Those actions themselves are our message. In your opinion, what is the greatest accomplishment the Project Aces team achieved during the development of Ace Combat 7? The fact that we developed the game with new members and a new [organizational] structure, overcame huge hardships, but was able to good results. This was especially true for the clouds. “Through the use of clouds, effects of weather and air currents will be added, revolutionizing the environment in the sky, and the gameplay itself will become new.” There were some staff members that were skeptical of this, and we were even firmly told “NO” by the in-house product evaluation team. Even then, we believed in the concept, completed it, and actually received support from users and fans for the novelty this “revolution in the skies” brought. That [support we received] is proof that the development team carefully examined the vision that lay before them. Without visionaries, there won’t be a good development [period]. Implementing virtual reality is undoubtedly a landmark achievement for the Ace Combat series. When the team tested the final build of the VR component, what were your feelings and thoughts? We realized that this really elevated the fun of Ace Combat, “the experience of a pilot flying and fighting freely in the skies.” We really felt that revolutionizing entertainment shouldn’t be done solely on the software side of things, and that revolution will come from innovation in hardware. We are hoping that many more people get to experience VR. After seeing VR in its completion do you feel as though future Ace Combat titles could utilize VR on a larger scale? It is possible. Despite problems from a business point-of-view. We gained experience in the methods and know-how of how to create an Ace Combat specialized for VR. We’ve said this many times before, but if we were to create an Ace Combat game solely for VR, the storytelling and presentation will be completely different from previous installments. If it’s a product that requires that much effort, there needs to be a correspondingly high demand for it. In the past, you've said you're a fan of the Sukhoi Flanker series of aircraft. That being said, are you living your dream of flying a Su-30 Flanker with AC7 and PSVR? We didn’t include it just to suit my personal tastes. I think the dreams of a lot of fans have been achieved. Am I wrong? (lol) What is the process to translate the game and game materials to other languages like? First of all, we transcribe everything in Japanese. Then we translate those into English, which is then translated into other languages, but in the case of Project ACES, we work on the English wording within the team, and re-check and re-translate military terminology. With the release of Ace Combat 5, the series introduced the map of what would become known as the "Strangereal" World. How early in development did the decision to create an original world arise? For example, did the idea start with Ace Combat 04 development back in the year 2000? “Ulysses” and “a world with craters” were born when I was working as art director for 04. I thought in the Ace Combat world, a world where you look down at the ground from the sky, a “massive symbol” was required. This was to differentiate it from other flight games. At that time, I think instead of “creating a world,” we were focused on “creating a setting where battles between fighter jets are frequent and heroes are more easily made.” Afterwards, I personally named and called it a “Strange Real World.” That turned into “Strangereal” among fans, developed into common language, and thus became a world. A world map in 5 was shown because it was necessary to depict the cross-national war between Osea and Yuktobania. On the subject of Strangereal, what are some of your favorite additions from over the years? Any specific countries, characters, original aircraft or events? Hmm, this is a very difficult question. I want to know what’s going on in places like SOTOA where nothing has been talked about yet. (lol) I’ve checked the main stories over and over again, so I love everything equally. Rather, I like the “events not depicted in the main story of Strangereal” that are presented on the Japanese official website or Aces at War. Seeing those things, it really feels like Strangereal actually exists. Were there any original aircraft designs you wanted included in a game, but they were never used? Could you possibly describe any of them or tell us their names? All original aircraft should be included in one title or another. Even the ADA-01B “Adler” which had not been implemented for a long time was added in Ace Combat Infinity. Right now, I feel like there aren’t any [unused aircraft]. In games and books from series' past, there are references to unseen conflicts in the 1900s of Strangereal. Some Ace Combat games featured famous World War II-era aircraft as a part of their aircraft list as well. Has there ever been talk of a making a World War II-era Ace Combat game using propeller-driven aircraft? Even now, Producer Shimomoto frequently proposes ideas. We definitely have staff that want to make one within the development team. However, we, Project ACES is a much smaller team than what you imagine. We have our hands full with just 7 and the season pass. Another game by Project Aces, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, features wind and minor clouds in its gameplay. Did these mechanics have an influence in the early development of Ace Combat 7? There are no direct influences. The clouds and wind phenomenon seem the same, but the way of implementing things via “setting the concept’s focal point” and “adding features” varies greatly. In the case of setting the concept’s focal point, conforming to the concept affects the game system, scenarios, presentation, multiplayer, and everything else. The blueprint becomes something totally different. This is a feeling particular to [game] development, so it might be hard to put into words. Throughout the years the Project Aces team has interacted with the Japanese Self Defense Forces in many ways. Have you had any memorable experiences involving the JSDF? Have they taken you for a flight in one of their aircraft? Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to ride in one, but some development staff has sat in the cockpit of one their aircraft. We’re always so grateful for their cooperation when we collect data, but the most memorable experience was that they went out of their way to line up F-15s and F-2s at Matsushima and Nyutabaru Air Bases for the Ace Combat 7 exhibits. I was extremely moved on how the people on the bases came together to promote our work. Has your vision for Ace Combat 7 come alive with the game’s release? I don’t think everything has been fulfilled. There are probably users who weren’t satisfied. However, I think we have definitely moved the series forward. After experiencing 7’s skies, “the sensation of the sky” in previous works should feel like there is something missing. The fact that we were able to go one step beyond that ambient sense and revolutionize [the game] by appealing to the human senses makes me think that my vision has been achieved. Our final question: How would you describe your journey with this franchise as it has evolved? I feel like I’ll be like Mihaly soon. People like Producer Shimomoto, [VR] Producer Tamaoki, and Trigger and his allies have appeared. The times will change. I want to stand in their way as an obstacle that must be crossed and surpassed. We would like to thank you for this interview and meeting with our interviewer at PAX South. Thank you for everything you and the Project Aces team has done to create the Ace Combat series and continue moving it ever forward. The original Japanese interview can be found here.