GamesBeat

Pokémon developer on going 3D, what’s holding up an MMO, and exploring more mature themes (interview)

Pokemon Y
Image Credit: Nintendo

Pokémon X and Y is kind of a big deal. Releasing worldwide on Oct. 12 for the Nintendo 3DS, these two games will mark the first time entries in the main Pokémon series have been fully rendered in 3D. Spin-offs have been 3D since all the way back to the Nintendo 64, but never have the traditional handheld iterations that made the franchise so insanely popular to begin with. Until now, and after 20 games, it makes a world of difference.

So, what took so damn long?

Traveling from Tokyo, graphic designer Hironobu Yoshida and game director Junichi Masuda of developer Game Freak, Inc. met up with GamesBeat at Nintendo’s Redwood City office in Northern California. Over the years, Yoshida has designed too many Pokémon to count (from over 650 total now) in addition to the franchise’s iconic user interface.

After playing the game for an hour, we were ready to grill the duo on the new features and visuals, but we also wanted to get their thoughts on the potential for a Pokémon massively multiplayer online game, a sequel to the beloved Pokéman Snap, and if the team would ever explore darker, more mature themes akin to something you might expect from modern role-playing games.

Pokemon developers Hironobu Yoishida and Junichi Masuda

Above: Pokemon developers Hironobu Yoishida and Junichi Masuda

Image Credit: Sebastian Haley

GamesBeat: This will mark the sixth generation of main Pokémon games, beginning with the original Game Boy in 1996. While spin-offs have featured 3D graphics, the traditional-style Pokémon game has always been 2D until X and Y. Why did it take so long to get to this point?

Junichi Masuda: The kind of expression that we wanted to achieve at Game Freak with the 3D models was to really make it look like the official 2D artwork we put out, that our art director Ken Sugimori designs. It has this softer, warmer feel to it. We felt that this is the first time that the hardware was really able to accommodate that expression that we wanted to achieve.

GamesBeat: With nearly 700 Pokémon, does it get hard to come up with new types without straying too far from what originally got people into Pokémon? Or is straying from where you’ve been before kind of what the team is interested in now, in an attempt to vary that up?

Hironobu Yoshida: As designers, at Game Freak we’re always trying to challenge ourselves with new things. But when we’re designing the Pokémon, we’re always trying to find a balance between making things that are very different from the existing Pokémon — but also keeping certain aspects that make them look like a Pokémon.

GamesBeat: Mewtwo was one of the first notable humanoid Pokémon, but since then there’s actually been quite a few. Is the reaction to them from the fans any different than some of the more cute and cuddly Pokémon? Do people like them, or do some people get weirded out by controlling something that resembles a human more than a pet?

Yoshida: I don’t really feel like there’s a specifically different reaction to those more humanoid Pokémon than the other Pokémon, from our fans. But one thing we’re always more careful about making those more humanoid designs is to make them not appear to be human. We go out of our way to attach certain parts to them or change certain things about them to make them look not human.

GamesBeat: The gameplay in each of these main releases is pretty similar. You follow a familiar path in collecting Pokémon and beating trainers and things like that. Is there anything new or special about the story that the team is trying to tell each time?

Masuda: When it comes to the core gameplay of the Pokémon games – going into the tall grass, finding Pokémon, catching them, raising them, training them – it’s very important that we keep it consistent. We look at it like a sport. Having consistent rules is very important. Or kind of like fishing, where it’s always the same. You’re always doing the same thing when you’re fishing. However, changing the surrounding elements every time is something that we focus on quite a bit – like the story, for example, having a different setting every time.

This time, with the 3D graphics, we have a very different visual presentation style. We’re able to manipulate the camera angles to show off different things in a way we couldn’t before. When it comes to changing the core gameplay, that’s not something we’re going to do. If someone wants to go play basketball, they don’t want to wind up playing a different game with different rules.

Pokemon X and Y

GamesBeat: Following off that, Pokémon’s been around for nearly two decades. Many of its original fans have since grown up. They’ve matured since they became fans of Pokémon. Could the team ever see Pokémon’s stories going in a more mature direction?

Masuda: We tried to do that a little bit with Pokémon Black and White, telling a story that, while it appealed to kids, would also be something that adults could enjoy more than previous titles, dealing with some more in-depth themes. With X and Y, we’re also hoping to have some of those more in-depth themes as well. But at the same time, we’re trying to create – with Pokémon X and Y in particular – this warm and kind atmosphere in the games. That’s one thing we’re trying to get across.

We’re trying to increase the depth and appeal to adults more in the gameplay this time. For example, in the battles, we’re introducing Mega Evolution and hoping the strategic elements will be even more fleshed out than before.

GamesBeat: Speaking of strategy, one of the things that’s always been prevalent in the battles is that the person who goes first kind of has an advantage. In many cases, if you’re a Fire type and you’re fighting a Grass type, you can one-shot them out of the gate. But even in some of the longer, tougher battles, whoever gets to go first just gets that extra hit that may be the deciding factor in whether you lose or barely skate by. Do you still make tweaks to the core mechanics, even after all these years?

Masuda: There are some things that we change every game. We make slight changes to keep up with the times when we release the games. This time we made some more major changes to the battle balance with the introduction of the Fairy type as well as adjusting the type matchups with existing types. Now that there are more than 600 Pokémon in the game, and there are so many different Pokémon and types, after looking at various tournaments and competitions that we go to, we felt that there needed to be some rebalancing. That’s why we introduced the Fairy type this time.

The double battle format is actually really popular in competitions, like the World Championships. Over the last couple of years, we’ve looked at the strategies that players employ and what Pokémon they use. That’s why we took that information and decided that this time, we needed to change the balance and mix that up a little more.

Pokemon X & Y

GamesBeat: A very popular feature of modern games is achievements. Nintendo systems don’t have achievements built in like Steam and Xbox do, but I was wondering if the Game Freak team has looked at achievements and seen if there’s any interest in somehow bringing that to the Pokémon franchise.

Masuda: There’s not a system inside the game itself, but there’s a companion website called the Pokémon Global Link. You can use this feature called Game Sync in the games to send data from your game to that website. There are certain elements that link up that way. One of those elements is a medal system that works in a similar way to achievements, where depending on the progress you make in your adventure, you’ll unlock these medals. There’s also a social aspect to the site, where you can check on your friends’ progress and check on their medals. You’ll be able to see certain things you can unlock. That website will be released after the games come out on Oct. 12, so that will be one option.

GamesBeat: One of the things that’s kind of popular on Reddit and Tumblr is reimagining Pokémon. “Here’s what Pokémon would look like if they were real,” things like that. Games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda and a lot of other Nintendo franchises that started out very colorful but have since gone on to have darker or more mature iterations. Is that something Pokémon would experiment with?

Masuda: At Game Freak we’re always looking for new challenges and new things to do, so I can’t say that that we would never do something like that, but with Pokémon X and Y we were able to get an E rating again, and we think it’s very important to be able to appeal to a wide audience. Of course, if we were able to go in a more realistic direction while we kept this E rating and remained able to appeal to that wide audience, then maybe we’d explore something like that in the future. But we have no plans at the moment.

GamesBeat: The main series has only ever been released on handhelds. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Masuda: With Pokémon, we really view it as a communication tool, even since the very beginning with Red and Blue in the states and Red and Green in Japan. It started as a game based on the idea of trading – trading with other players in real life. We accomplished that using the link cable between Game Boys. Players would meet up and trade Pokémon with each other. That’s also why we had two versions, just so there would be different Pokémon in the versions to encourage players to trade. That’s also why we had the Pokédex and all these other elements, to encourage people to want to trade Pokémon and communicate with other players in real life.

The great thing about handhelds is, of course, that you can go meet people and play with them in real locations. With Pokémon X and Y, we have the Player Surf System this time, the PSS, where icons of players near by will show up as they’ve decided to express themselves. If you dress up your character, that face will appear. You can tap on that person and interact with them – trade, battle. You can make friends that way easily, we think. But you can also go home and turn on the internet mode and interact with players from around the world and do the exact same things – trade and battle with them.

So one thing that we think is great about handhelds is that they facilitate both of these styles of play – going somewhere in real life and interacting in person as well as being able to play with other players over the Internet. So that’s why we continue to develop on the handheld platforms.

Pokemon X Y

GamesBeat: Pokémon has always had some vital social aspects to it, as you said, and they seem to be evolving and growing with each iteration, especially now with the new features in X and Y. Nintendo isn’t really an MMO company, but Pokémon is the one property that most kind of screams “MMO.” Is that something Game Freak has discussed? Is there a reason why it hasn’t gone there?

Masuda: Of course, we hear all the opinions we get from our fans about an MMORPG. But right now, we’re still unsure whether this core gameplay at the center of Pokémon – catching the Pokémon and raising them – would really translate well or really match the MMORPG format. Right now we think the best way for the widest possible audience to enjoy the games is the way we develop them now.

GamesBeat: Last question, but I have to ask: Now that Nintendo has the 3DS — with the 3D screen and the camera and augmented reality features – and also has the Wii U, with the second screen tech going on there, is Pokémon Snap something that the team is interested in revisiting?

Masuda: Not really speaking as Game Freak, but as someone involved with the Pokémon brand, of course we’re always looking for new challenges to do. I’m always getting messages on Twitter about Pokémon Snap. Personally I liked those games a lot too, but I’m not sure it would be that interesting if we just took that basic gameplay and updated it. It needs a little something more to be able to bring it into the current era. Maybe when we find what that is, we’ll be able to show off something.