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New Hello Kitty Island Adventure avatar types and cosmetics are coming

We sat down with Chelsea Howe, the Chief Product Officer for Hello Kitty Island Adventure, to talk South Park, a Nintendo Switch port, and Big Challenges.

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - Hello Kitty standing next to a red bridge with sakura blossom around her

Hello Kitty Island Adventure is a super cozy Apple Arcade exclusive game that allows you to explore a bright open world with many recognizable faces from the Sanrio franchise, and frankly, we can’t get enough. But what’s next for the game? Will it ever come to platforms outside of Apple Arcade? And how do they intend to keep the game fresh?

Well, at GDC 2024 we had the pleasure of sitting down with Chelsea Howe, the Chief Product Officer for Hello Kitty Island Adventure, about Big Challenges, character customization, the future of the game, and much more. So let’s get into it.

I dove right in with a very serious question, asking Chelsea if the name of the game was influenced by that episode of South Park, or if it was a complete coincidence, “The game is about Hello Kitty having an adventure on an island, it’s the perfect name, the name we gave it is the absolute perfect name.” I pried a little further and asked if they’d seen the episode, “So… We’re game developers, right? We obviously experience game culture. But I must say, we have absolutely no affiliation with South Park whatsoever.”

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - Hello Kitty and friends prancing through a field

Take from that what you will, but we think Butters would probably have a subscription to Apple Arcade purely for Hello Kitty. After that palette cleanser of a question, we delved into the characters. With so many Sanrio characters to choose from, I asked how they decide on which ones to bring to the island as permanent visitors, especially the more niche yet loved characters such as Big Challenges.

“For the main cast, Sanrio has their kind of top 50 list. Those are the characters that they’re actively promoting, then every year they do a fan contest all around the world where people vote for their favorite characters. So we basically combined those two, as there’s a bunch of overlap. That’s where we got our main cast from and also our upcoming cast.”

She then continues with the back story on our personal favorite character, “Big Challenges was basically an inside joke that we just had to make an outside joke, right? The character was so sad. The core character was drawn once, like in the 70s, then never touched again. We were just like, someone has to love this little alligator. And it’s gonna be us.” And we’re so happy they did, the wee chap definitely has a place in our hearts now, too.

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - Big Challenges the alligator behind a quote that says "Big Challenges was basically an inside joke that we just had to make an outside joke. [...] Someone has to love this little alligator. And it's gonna be us."

If you’ve delved into HKIA, you’ll be aware of the frequent events that take place. However, we were interested to learn more about how Sunblink intends to keep that momentum going with future events. Will some events return or do they plan to have a new event for each year’s holiday?

Chelsea let me know, “The goal is to bring back the items because that’s one of our big rules and kindness approaches, we don’t want anything to be ‘play right now or you miss it forever’. That’s just not our style.” We at Pocket Tactics love this approach, as many members of our team can often feel fatigued having to rush through mobile games to pick up limited-time items.

She continues, “You’ll be able to see all of the things from previous year’s events come back. For example, you’ll be able to get all the old Spooky Celebration furniture next time. But we do want to make sure that we change it up a little bit each year. So the theming might be a little bit different, some of the wording might be different, some of the core mechanics might be different.”

The first year in a game’s lifecycle can often be used to test the waters, as developers throw things at the wall to see what sticks and refine things, and that seems to be the case for HKIA, too. Chelsea mentions they want to, “Continue to experiment with that. Our overall goal, though, is to always keep it kind of like this short, bite-sized moment of excitement when you first log in.”

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - a Hello Kitty character holding a present and floating through the sky

Keeping things fresh to make sure existing players keep coming back is important, so I asked Chelsea how they plan to stop things from feeling stale. “I think one approach is that we’re going to be remixing and rematching a lot of the theming. So, for instance, the Summer’s End event, which was our first event – when it comes back around this year, you’re going to see different things. You know, lemons and having to run your own lemonade stand or something like that.”

She continues, “For others that have kind of cultural tie-ins, I think it’s important to explore different angles of that. The Give and Gather celebration obviously leaned very heavily towards Western Christmas, right? But there are tonnes of other holidays that happen around that time, I think it’s about leaning into some of those others and making the broader audience feel seen and acknowledged.”

Hello Kitty Island Adventure has a very active online community. The subreddit is always abuzz with new comments and people sharing tips for other players. But did Chelsea anticipate that kind of response from the players? “I think we hoped people would really love it. We knew they already really really love the Sanrio brand, so we had very high hopes for an active community. We also knew that we didn’t necessarily get all the accessibility features we wanted into the game at launch.”

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - Hello Kitty holding hands with another character as they skip past some fireworks

She continues, “There were things that weren’t as clear as they would have ideally been. Whenever you have things that are slightly less clear in a game, usually the community winds up making up for it, so you get more tribal knowledge and tribal knowledge exchange on things like the subreddit or the Discord. We kind of anticipated a lot of that, I think what we didn’t anticipate was the level of kindness that we’ve seen in those communities. Online communities don’t necessarily inherently lend themselves to kindness. So that’s been one of the really cool things – it’s been much more positive overall than we anticipated, which is fantastic.”

The mention of accessibility features piqued my interest so I asked for a bit of clarification on what we may expect in the future, “There’s always that endless backlog. We try to do a little bit each update that is kind of filling in those cracks. We’re adding additional quests to explain features that maybe didn’t get enough TLC the first time around. Most recently in the 1.5 update, there’s a quest that explains character boxes, which is more of an endgame feature that we just never got around to explaining as thoroughly as we would have liked.”

That’s not all though, “There’s also more systemic accessibility and hand-holding that we’d like to do. There’s no in-game reference or guidebooks, you get a lot of pop-up tutorials that tell you stuff, then when you close out of them, there’s no way to go back to that information. We’d really love to have a way where there is ongoing reference material available.” We’d love to see this feature arrive soon, as it’s great for new players stepping onto the island for the first time or even lapsed players who may need a little refresher.

So, we’ve talked South Park, upcoming events, keeping things fresh, and accessibility, but I was also curious about how soon we may see some new character customization options. “We’ve actually got a lot of avatar stuff coming up in our 1.7 update. It’s going to be very exciting. Not only do we have new avatar types, but we’ve also got different categories of avatar customization that haven’t been available yet. You’ll be seeing backpacks and back accessories, you’ll be seeing sunglasses and face accessories.”

Hello Kitty Island Adventures interview - Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters holding hands against a dark purple sky

On Pocket Tactics, we’re lovers of both mobile gaming and the Nintendo Switch, so I asked Chelsea if there’s any chance we may see HKIA on Nintendo Switch or other platforms in the future, and she responded by saying “We are currently an Apple Arcade exclusive.” The word currently had a certain tone to it and I saw a glimmer in Chelsea’s eyes, but sadly I couldn’t get any more information out of her other than that.

I ended our chat with a final question that also received a somewhat cryptic response – I asked what the future of Hello Kitty Island adventure looks like, and Chelsea got that glimmer in her eyes once more, “So you’ve got Friendship Island, right? It’s a vast, awesome, amazing place where you can build up your friendships… But there are other islands…” she shrugs her shoulders mischievously.

Chelsea continues, “You’ve got more characters that are bound to come. You’ve got additional forms of avatar and self-expression, you’ve got entirely new forms of self-expression that are on the horizon. You’ve obviously got the events that are just going to continue to evolve and hopefully continue to bring delightful new kinds of gameplay. […] it has the ability to evolve in very cool very awesome ways”

It looks like Hello Kitty Island Adventure is showing no signs of slowing down, and I’m hoping for news of a Nintendo Switch port very soon! I’d like to give my thanks to Chelsea for taking time out of her GDC to speak with me, and if you can’t get enough of HKIA, make sure you check out our Hello Kitty Island Adventure critter list and Hello Kitty Island Adventure luggage locations.