The Making of ‘ACE COMBAT7 SKIES UNKNOWN’ (Part 2)

In the Making of ‘ACE COMBAT7 SKIES UNKNOWN’ (Part 2), we would like to introduce stories from co-developers of this new product in the series after 12 years. We will also share chaotic episodes in the final stages of development and the future of the series.

The ‘ACE COMBAT7 SKIES UNKNOWN’ (Hereinafter referred to as ‘ACE COMBAT7’) development team:

Masashi Koyanagi Development Director
Hisaharu Tago VR Director, DLC Director
Shinya Hirota Multiplayer Mode Director
Masaki Iwabuchi Engineering Director
Masato Aikawa Lead Game Engineer
Haruyoshi Yamamoto Lead VR Engineer
Masato Kanno Art Director
Kosuke Itomi Narrative Director
Shinya Sorimachi Art Manager
Ryo Watanabe Sound Director

Never give up until the very last minute

●Masato Kanno
Art Director

●Kanno: We are so grateful for the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Air Self-Defense Force. It was even before Izumo became an aircraft carrier. When we asked them if we could visit them to collect aircraft information knowing it’s difficult, they willingly accepted us, “You’re more than welcome!” Moreover, every person I met told me “I’m a fan of ACE COMBAT”. I was so proud of our product and at the same time, I felt great responsibility and thought we could never create a boring stuff.
We made a new discovery every moment during taking a video. Later as our project progressed, I realized that information we got at Self-Defense Forces was indispensable. I think it’s really important to actually go to the site and learn.
In early times, I visited Komatsu Air Base with Mr. Iwabuchi and others. Pilots there kindly told us about cloud phenomena and other things and that helped us a lot when we created the product later.

●Sorimachi: We were able to have valuable experiences such as an interview with a real Eagle Driver. They were so kind and service-minded because many of them are fans of ACE COMBAT, I guess. They willingly offered many ideas like “How about this one?” or “Why don’t you think about this outfit?” (Laughter)

●Koyanagi: The other day, I had a chance to talk with a young man who joined the Self-Defense Forces triggered by playing ACE COMBAT. In the interview, he told me his experiences when he was surrounded by cloud and it really helped us to understand what it’s like. I was surprised how different the circumstance is from the one without cloud.

●Kanno:  He told me about the fear and loneliness a pilot feels in the middle of cloud. He also said radio communications and cockpit gauges are everything in such situation. That reminded me the bit eerie atmosphere in the game when a pilot is surrounded by cloud and I thought it’s same as real.

●Sorimachi: At Komatsu Air Base, I heard that “You shouldn’t run away once you get into a dogfight because the enemy will be right behind you on the exact moment you ran away. So, buy time until backup aircrafts come by staying behind the enemy. If you are taken that position, take it back.” That made me understand how they fight.


■Koyanagi: Mr. Aikawa, what do you think from the point of view of an engineer?

●Aikawa: We implemented specifications giving the highest priority to maintain the ACE COMBAT’s unique feeling of play and operation so that our customers can accept this game as the latest one in the series. The one of specifications we adopted from past versions has an interesting name – Sandwich Battle System. With that system, enemies fly around a player to bother with just the right frequency. Players seem unaware of that, though.

●Koyanagi: That’s our intention. It’s one solution to make the game fun avoiding an endless tail chasing. Though there still be a room for improvement, it’s a good system to make air combats exciting.

People who cooperated for development

●Aikawa: Also, we needed to go through trial and error in expressing cloud-play. It was very hard but we barely made it somehow in the end.

●Kanno: In the VR demo version of PSX (PlayStation Experience) 2017, when an enemy’s aircraft keep staying in cloud, it disappears off the radar. It’s OK if it’s only in the demo but in the actual game, it shouldn’t completely disappear when we think about convenience and play-feeling. So we made an adjustment for that.

●Hirota: We had various feedback in our project. Mr. Koyanagi and other members sorted them out and made them into current specifications. Cloud tends to be a constraint, so how to use cloud as an advantage was our challenge.

●Koyanagi: Cloud can enhance a pilot’s experiences, but from the viewpoint of game, it also can be a disadvantage as Mr. Hirota said now. So we would like to boost the game so that players can enjoy a sense of exhilaration or accomplishment in the future.

●Itomi: I think cloud’s appearance has dramatically changed. Now it’s stereoscopic and tall.

●Hirota: That stereoscopic cloud was so sensational. Moreover, we can see it in VR, too! It’s so real and I felt like I was actually looking at the sky from an aircraft. It made me so excited.

●Kanno: In VR, it’s fun ten times more!

●Iwabuchi: It was really hard to finish it, though. (Laughter)

●Itomi: We were working on cloud until the very end in development of the campaign mode. Then when I created IGC (in-game cutscene) and played it as a trial, I found myself saying “There’s only cloud.” (Laughter)

●Kanno: Oh, and Mr. Kono, the brand director, was so obsessive! Of course I could understand what he wanted to do, but at the same time, I also thought like “Are you really going to change the design as much as that?” you know.
And next to me, Mr. Itomi was blamed by the Singapore Studio (hereinafter referred to as BNSS) like “It’s totally different from before. Who is responsible for this?” via skype and he replied, “Kanno is.” So I said “Oh, I’m sorry”. (Laughter)

●Itomi: I told BNSS “Please do not fix anything until Mr. Kanno decides what to do.” (Laughter)

●Kanno: I deeply thank engineers because they never gave up making improvements until the very last minute. Honestly, I had been thinking inwardly, “I’ll be happy if this becomes like this by the end of the project” for some points. Then, you know what happened? Engineers had completed all of them! I can never thank them enough.

●Masaki Iwabuchi
Engineering Director

●Iwabuchi: The other reason why we were able to make it was the extension of the deadline. The product supposed to be released in 2017 at first, but we had to postpone it for two years keeping our customers waiting. Thanks to them, we were able to implement everything.

●Watanabe: Just before the deadline of data submission in the final process of creating sound, I still desperately wanted to fix some parts. So I went to see Mr. Iwabuchi to say sorry. Then I found Mr. Kanno was already there and was complained by Mr. Iwabuchi before me. I thought “Oh, he’s still working on, too!” and it encouraged me a lot. (Laughter)

●Hirota: On the other hand, it was so hard for a person in charge of process management.

■Koyanagi: Mr. Iwabuchi, do you have any comments about the campaign mode?

●Iwabuchi: Well, engineers faced lots of challenges in introducing specifications but Mr. Aikawa handled them so well. For instance, there’s a part a plane goes into a vertical flight in the last stage. Even though I told them not to do that in advance, it was already just like that. (Laughter) So, engineers in the Mission group made adjustments in the way players wouldn’t notice. They did a great job.

●Koyanagi: For that part, Mr. Kanno and I discussed a lot what we should do to make the entrance easy to find.

●Kanno: Yeah. We placed entrance guide lights.

●Koyanagi: Eventually, players became able to get to the entrance without getting lost. I think the tunnel is quite challenging, but it’s perfect for an ending.

●Kanno: I really wanted to indicate that place is connected to the world of ACE COMBAT 3. That’s why I placed red lights. In terms of art, I wanted to use elements connected with ‘3’ only.

●Aikawa: And, we were able to complete the development of campaign mode thanks to the cooperation of many engineers. Engineers who were involved in every past series from the first one to the last one including Mr. Koike (ORCA Inc.), who had been the main programmer in the past series, and people in partner companies joined development.

●Koyanagi: Mr. Koike is a legendary programmer! I feel like that composition of members will never happen again.

●Kanno: Mr. Kito, who was charged with radio communications in ACE COMBAT 4 and 5, had returned, too.

●Koyanagi: After all, Mr. Kono also had to make adjustments for radio communications from ten a.m. to two a.m. with me.

●Itomi: Successive developers involved in some way.

●Koyanagi: Yeah, it’s collective intelligence. I myself want to be a person who polish up wisdom accumulated by everyone. (Laughter) To make a better product, I’d like to stay aggressive without losing our way.

Try in early stage not to regret later

■Koyanagi: Mr. Tago, would you give us a little more details about the VR mode?

●Hisaharu Tago
VR Director, DLC Director

●Tago: Well, I’m familiar with air combat game because I had a chance to develop AIR COMBAT 22 (*1), and also, I have knowledge of VR because I had developed MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM – Senjo no Kizuna. In addition, a skilled engineer in VR like Mr. Yamamoto, who used to develop SUMMER LESSON, has joined our team this time.
As for VR sound, I still remember when I consulted with Mr. Watanabe in the Sound team. He said, “I’m confident of sound direction. You can rely on me.” His intense eyes were so impressive and I instantly felt “We already have capable members for creating the VR mode!” In the beginning, BNSS had been developing the VR mode and we were planning to utilize what they made. But when it comes to VR, no one knows if it’s fun or not until you actually play it. So Mr. Yamamoto and I made a schedule so that we could perform several iterations. Then it was October when we had completed development, I guess.

The Arcade Game which was released in 1995. Developed by NAMCO (Current BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment)

●Yamamoto: I planned backward from the deadline while thinking the right frequency of trial and error and review. By putting those things in the schedule appropriately, it worked successfully.

●Tago: This “put things appropriately” was the point I exercised my ingenuity. I was already confident of our success at the point that I made this schedule. (Laughter)
Thankfully, the VR team totally understood my intention, and started to work last and finished to work first among all sections. (Laughter) So it’s the result of members’ hard working. I did nothing special but if I can mention one, I made efforts for making the schedule I said now.

●Koyanagi: Thanks to that, we have received a very good reputation.

●Tago: Yeah, adding to the reputation, we were able to obtain valuable knowhow in creating the VR mode. We learned what people like and what they don’t. If I can make it again, I think I can do it even better.

●Haruyoshi Yamamoto
Lead VR Engineer

●Yamamoto: The work went smoothly because a VR template was available and I was able to image what it would be like easily. The largest possible number of trial was already fixed by counting backward. So, I prepared several patterns in an early stage so that I can retry them while there’s still time even if they don’t work well. I didn’t want to regret later.
At that time, if I had given up testing those patterns after just thinking, I might have thought, “I should have done this.” or “There might have been another way.” later. In the latter half of SUMMER LESSON development, I thought, “I should have tried this in an early stage.” Learning a lesson from that experience, I started to test various ideas from the beginning this time and it went great.

●Kanno: For example, a radar screen and a number of remaining missiles were displayed like a hologram utilizing a mechanism of the campaign mode before. Then, Mr. Yamamoto joined and he said it’s more realistic to display those things on the multifunction display. And actually he did it by himself. Thanks to his try, the VR world became much better.

●Tago: We were not confident that we could finish the process because it might take too much time. But anyway, we decided to make patterns quickly and roughly and test. Because when it comes to VR, you never know its feeling until you actually experience it.

●Kanno: When I think back, we all were looking for reasons we can’t. The more reasons we have, the more we justify the idea to throw away the specification under consideration.

●Tago: The idea to make and experience many patterns first was totally fine for me. It might be because I was the last who joined the team. I mean, I started to work when other members were already in the middle of development. I think that’s why I accepted that kind of idea naturally.

●Yamamoto: In my case, I think the fact I didn’t know much about conventions and rules of ACE COMBAT might work well. I had been thinking inwardly like “Embed UI to the display? Is it really OK? It might be fine as a game, but isn’t it inappropriate for ACE COMBAT which is trying to express realistic air combats?” But anyway, I just did and showed it to members “How about this?”, then I got positive reactions. So I think it was worth a try.

●Kanno: It is heartening to have a member who willingly tests many ideas.

●Tago: In the VR mode, experiencing each pattern was the best way to know what it’s like. In addition, thanks to Unreal® Engine (*2), performing iterations was pretty easy this time. It was like repeating immediate creating and execution. That’s another reason we were able to test varieties of ideas.

●Yamamoto: Right. I have been involved in game development only as a programmer, just writing source codes. But after Unreal® Engine was introduced, I became able to edit the game visual such as UI by myself without bothering the Art team. It became possible to test many patterns and I think it’s really cool.

●Tago: It’s just like Mr. Itomi’s story about sound editing he talked now. I feel like everyone who can use Unreal® Engine started to work as a creator transcending a job category.

●Kanno: Oh, yeah, I was so surprised the other day! When I went to see a voice actor who was in charge of radio dialogs, she, herself, was using an effect editor! I recognized that now each of us can adjust such a technical thing by ourselves. Barriers between job categories has gone, I think.

●Tago: Now each creator’s activities cover a wider range, so the performance cannot be calculated by simply multiplying the number of creators. Some groups achieved 150% of results for their number of people. I felt like it was a synergy effect of everyone’s various activities in different fields.


Top Award in the Sound Division of CEDEC AWARDS 2019

■Koyanagi: Now, I’d like to celebrate the Sound team! You guys won the top award in the sound division of CEDEC AWARDS 2019! Congratulation!

●Watanabe: Thank you! I’m so happy because I had never imagined that we were able to get that award.

●Itomi: This time, many young creators including Mr. Kitadani made BGM, didn’t they? It was new to me.

●Ryo Watanabe
Sound Director

●Watanabe: I believe this series has trained many creators and produced great people. I also could improve myself through this series, so I really wanted young people such as Mr. Yamauchi, Mr. Kudo, Ms. Miyagi and others to grow, too.
Mr. Kobayashi told me “In development of ACE COMBAT, even though all sound data is ready, the process after that is long.” I had provided assets to the project before, but I understood what Mr. Kobayashi said only after I actually joined the project of “7”. Data was ready a half year before the submission deadline, but even after that, members were trying to make it better as much as possible in every section. I was so impressed.
They were adjusting a music duration counting by 0.1 second and when a sound they made for a specific scene didn’t work, they simply switched it to another without hesitation. That totally blew my mind. And just before the deadline of data submission, Mr. Kono, a brand director, ordered to make a brand new music. Though there was only a week left, Mr. Kobayashi created an amazing music that gave me goose bumps in the end. Through those kinds of things, I thought the whole process of creating sound was really dramatic.

●Kanno: It’s a drama including a waiting time, right?

●Koyanagi: Yeah, it’s like – “There’s no reply whole day. That means… finally they must have started to make!” (Laughter)

●Watanabe: While playing ACE COMBAT, you hear so many sounds. In addition to music, there are various kinds of sound effects such as many types of explosions, radio communications, etc. There’s no game like this. So, in the mixing process for the right balance, I worked so carefully so that I could hear every sound clearly while test-playing more than one and a half months.
On that time, I researched a variety of overseas games and tried to realize the best balance that I can hear every sound in the game. But after that, Mr. Itomi and Mr. Kono told me “Music is too quiet, isn’t it?” (Laughter) And one day, a screenshot of sound options was sent by e-mail. At first, that balance was unacceptable for me, but anyway I set the balance same as the screenshot. Then everyone said it was good, so I realized “OK, this is ACE COMBAT.”
You can hear resonant music even in other various sounds – that’s the balance of ACE COMBAT, not an emulation of others. If I had not changed the first balance sticking to my own opinion, the sounds must have become just nice but boring. Now I deeply appreciate their advice.

Try something new to entertain players

●Masashi Koyanagi
Development Director

●Koyanagi: In the DLC development, we sincerely accepted our customers’ feedback about the main game of ACE COMBAT 7 and thought about what kinds of plays our customers strongly want as the first priority. Then ideas of ‘Manned aircraft combat’ and ‘Boss combat’ came up soon and we decided to adopt them. In addition, I considered expanding a strategy flexibility, that is, a part each player can decide how to fight. I think we were able to realize that in SP mission 1.

●Sorimachi: To be exact, we had developed ideas for DLC even before releasing the main game. Because combats are mainly against AI in the main game, we assumed that customers want to fight against manned aircrafts. So we set it as our mission.

●Koyanagi: Besides ‘Manned aircraft combat’ in SP mission 1, we have tried different kinds of things. For instance, we put many aircraft names in radio communications this time. Actually, we haven’t put so many into the campaign mode or past series.

●Itomi: Just a bit in ACAH.

●Koyanagi: Uh-huh. I heard many customers take that favorably because they love aircrafts.

●Itomi: When the team was making DLC, their teamwork and condition were great. Technologies cultivated in the development of campaign mode are concentrated in DLC. I found that Mr. Kitadani did great jobs such as interactive shifting of BGM even though I had not asked him. Also, I was surprised at the sequence of assassination team in SP mission 1 of the fourth DLC because it had become so much better.

■Koyanagi: I heard lots of players love that part.

●Watanabe: Mr. Kitadani uses interactive music in a new way in the fourth and fifth DLC.

●Itomi: Needless to say that music itself is wonderful, radio communications are also carefully coordinated with music. I think players can feel much better than before.

●Koyanagi: For DLCs, we tried so many things looking interesting from a standpoint of game – super effect of ESM, increasing supply lines of necessary materials to three, etc. In terms of science, these things are highly sophisticated, but we took a step even into that level. We hope players like it.


Challenges for the future

●Sorimachi: In the aspect of visual, I would like to improve its performance continuously. Although the sky is becoming stereoscopic by using true SKY™, it’s still far from the real one. So testing new methods and aiming at high goals, I want to express many subjects such as multi-layer clouds, light and shadow, fog, rain, beautiful colors, and natural phenomena. Lively cities using various effects or others as well. At the same time, I’d like to pursue not only the formative beauty of real aircrafts but also its overwhelming presence in depth.

●Iwabuchi: Because I’m a lazy person, I would be happy if I don’t have to do anything additional. (Laughter) But if possible, I would like to create a product focusing on what players have been longing for.

●Aikawa: I wish I could assure our customers that we did everything we could for ACE COMBAT7, but actually, I still have many things I couldn’t finish. So, I’d like to keep trying to provide our best ACE COMBAT. Also, since I like air combat, I want to pursue its fun in a very ACE COMBAT way.

●Hirota: Well, the most important thing for the next product is to stand on the customer’s viewpoint as Mr. Iwabuchi said now. I would like to come up with new ideas to satisfy our customers more.
Next, when I see how each member is approaching creative work, I deeply respect them as a new member who joined ACE COMBAT projects since the last one, “‘ACE COMBAT INFINITY”. I feel so blessed for the opportunity to create a game with them. I reaffirmed my thought after listening everyone’s talk in this meeting. I’m grateful for this great opportunity.

●Watanabe: As the Sound team member, I have many things I want to try in both aspect of acoustics and music. Since I played ACE COMBAT 2 when I was in high school, I’ve played 3, 4, and 5, while longing to join this team in this company. After working here for three years as a sound director, I think members are just wonderful as I expected. Or I can say it’s a group of crazy people!
These crazy, marvelous, never-give-up people are so serious about making high-quality stuff. They are always thinking what they should do to make the best product and amuse customers. I sometimes had hard time but even that time I devoted myself was also fun looking back on it now. I’m really looking forward to working with these people again.

●Itomi: For the development of product, many people cooperated with us as always. I hope to expand this kind of network more and more to create new products together. When we work with the limited number of people, we gradually lose the ability to think flexibly. To avoid that, I would like to work with new members and generate new ideas.

●Kanno: ACE COMBAT will mark the 25th anniversary in 2020. It’s a long series. When you join a development of long series from the very start just like me, you can gain extensive experience and create great products. On the other hand, during such a long time, you can lose a flexible way of thinking or hesitate to introduce new things because it becomes physically tough. In the case of an artist, your eyes may go bad gradually, or you may lose instant response. So I want many young people to join us. At my age, I strongly feel it’s really important to adopt lots of ideas from new members.

●Yamamoto: Like introducing VR for the entire game? (Laughter)
From an engineer’s point of view, we need to solve a problem of processing load to realize that. Also, after working on VR, I found that a good story is indispensable for ACE COMBAT. This time, Mobius1 helped me to make an exciting story. From the next time, I want to make ACE COMBAT as the best game for VR experience including its great story.

●Tago: 25 years of history of ACE COMBAT is an inimitable strong point. Because of this long history, fans expect not only a fun game but also the unique story and the worldview of Strangereal, which has been inherited continuously, and want to know what will happen next in this world. I would like to add more depth to it.
This time, I tried to realize it using my skills especially for DLC. For example, if you see a brand name on a package of cookie in front of you, it gives you a sense of reality, doesn’t it? I would like to try those kinds of things so that players can immerse themselves in the game world more deeply.

●Kanno: That must require tons of design works. (Laughter)

●Koyanagi:  I want players to enjoy the core part of this series. I hope those who haven’t been able to enjoy it enough to fully enjoy, those who are fully enjoying it now to enjoy even more. That’s what I’d like to make my best effort. We think that just improving and strengthening existing products are not enough.
We need to keep trying for new challenges. After improving and strengthening the product and ensuring its core value, we want to pursue new elements for more fun. By doing so, we would like to satisfy players’ various wishes about their hero experiences.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today.


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