It is one of the best-selling game franchises, a Nintendo behemoth with truly global appeal. And yet we know so little about where the Pokemon games come from.
They come from Japan, of course, but, more specifically, they come from a Japanese game developer called GameFreak – somewhat appropriately named given the fanaticism the Pokemon series commands from its loyal fanbase. But what makes the secretive independent developer tick? How does it go about making Pokemon feel fresh version after version? And how does it come up with all those crazy Pokemon names? Here, in a rare interview, Pokemon director Junichi Masuda and graphic designer Mana Ibe reveal all.
Eurogamer: How do you keep the Pokemon games fresh and relevant in the rapidly changing videogame market?
Junichi Masuda: When I create new videogames, I consider not just adapting the last element. First, I look again at all the elements, because the environment has changed. For example, there have been some technology changes and advancements. People may not like what they like in the past, trend wise. I take that into consideration when creating a new Pokemon.
Eurogamer: With this version, what makes it feel fresh? What makes it different to what's gone before?
Junichi Masuda: We employed the same strategy as we did with Red and Blue. We delivered all new Pokemon for this new series. Players won't meet any old Pokemon up until they clear the main storyline.
Eurogamer: The battle system now includes three-on-three fights. Why is this important?
Junichi Masuda: We've introduced two battle systems. One is triple battle, the second is rotation battle. Triple battle inherited the method from the single or double battles we used to have in our past titles, but involves more strategy.
Both sides put out three Pokemon. The positioning is important because the Pokemon on the left is unable to target the Pokemon on the right, and vice versa. The Pokemon in the middle can attack any Pokemon.
With rotation battles, both sides put out three Pokemon, but each turn you can only choose one Pokemon to battle against another. Only one Pokemon can attack at a time. So you can rotate one to the left or to the right, meaning both players can switch and attack in the same turn.
This battle system involves more luck. You don't know until you make the move and the rotation what the opponent is going to do. You have to predict what the opponent is going to do. Our intention with the rotation battle was, sometimes if you're against good players, most of the time you lose. But with rotation battle, even if you're not good you may win because of the luck rotation brings.
Eurogamer: How do you design a new Pokemon?
Junichi Masuda: At first I think of ideas about what kind of play I can include. I consider playing content at first, and then what kinds of new elements I can bring in, and the world and communication aspects.
I bring up all the ideas at first. Then I start to think about what the world will be like. Which region? What town should we have? What type of gym should we have? I start to map the world next.
Once those are fixed I can start to think, so, this gym should have this type of trainer, so we should have this type of Pokemon. Then we start to think about the Pokemon characters.
You might think we always start to think from the Pokemon first, but actually we don't. We do it in this order.
Eurogamer: What makes for a good Pokemon?
Mana Ibe: All Pokemon shouldn't be just cold or frightening. What we consider first is players have some connectivity, a close feeling with these Pokemon. That's really important to have. For example, some Pokemon could have really edgy nails and could be really frightening to the players. However, if the Pokemon has a cute look, it could be something you feel close to.
Also, for example, if some Pokemon have really big mouths, that could be scary, too. But if the shape of the body is really cute, it will be something you feel close to. That balance is really important when we introduce new Pokemon.
We also consider battle balance. We sometimes need to have 20 electric, or a number of water type or fire type. Taking that into consideration, we introduce new Pokemon.
Junichi Masuda: What is different from the other videogames is that Pokemon could be your opponent, or Pokemon could be your friend. That's why she said we should create Pokemon the player could have a close feeling to.