26 June 2014

Keeping an Eye on the Game

Two of Pokémon’s top developers discuss their observations since the launch of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y.

Mr. Morimoto

Mr. Morimoto

It’s been more than eight months since Pokémon X and Pokémon Y launched, and players have had a lot of time to train and battle with the new games. The gaming community tends to notice which Pokémon and moves are the most popular so serious players can prepare for their next competition. The people who make the Pokémon games take a lot of interest in that, too, especially the creative and winning ways that players have approached the games. The developers examine balance, Pokémon team composition, and general battling trends.

Mr. Masuda

Mr. Masuda

Two of the most interested developers are GAME FREAK Director Junichi Masuda and Battle Director Shigeki Morimoto. Mr. Masuda has been central to Pokémon game development since Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. He has been deeply involved in many parts of the games, aiding in the creation of the game scenario and audio as well as managing the development staff as the game director. Mr. Morimoto is the battle director of the Pokémon series. This means he works to keep the balance in Pokémon battles, deciding the stats and moves of the many Pokémon that appear in these games. He is famous not only for his work in the series’ development, but also as a truly skilled Trainer.

Read on to find out what they think of the way people have been training and battling since the launch of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, as well as their advice for how to get involved in competitive play.

State of the Game

It has been more than half a year now since the release of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. How do you feel about the current response from the fans?

Mr. Masuda: We spent about three and a half years on development, and most people have been reaching the Hall of Fame in about three days. [laughs] That was a bit of a shock, but we were able to really get a sense for the players’ completion speed. After the game launched, the battle environment was turned on its head again with the release of Pokémon Bank and Poké Transporter in December 2013. I think people are continuing to enjoy battling, especially now that you can also bring along your favorite Pokémon from past games in the series and not just Pokémon X and Pokémon Y.

Mr. Morimoto: In Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, we added new features like Mega Evolution and the Fairy type, and included Pokémon from past titles in these features, so the battle environment has really been changing. I participate in countless online battles myself, and right now I’m really enjoying building my own way of battling.

It’s become quite a bit easier to raise Pokémon in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y than it was in past titles, wouldn’t you say?

Mr. Masuda: Yes, because people are busy these days. They have plenty of other things to play with, and not just video games. We had the idea of making it easier to raise Pokémon since the early days of these games’ development, to better fit with this environment where we no longer have as much time to dedicate to thoroughly playing our way through a single game. Besides, being able to raise Pokémon in as little time as possible means that you can enjoy battling using a wider variety of Pokémon.

Mr. Morimoto: Even in our past titles, we’ve been slowly adjusting the length of time needed to raise a single Pokémon to become shorter and shorter, but the threshold for battling still felt high for players. I’d guess there were those who still felt like they just couldn’t quite join in and compete. By alleviating the amount of time and work needed to raise your Pokémon to their ultimate condition the way that you want to in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, we’ve made it easier for all players to participate in battling.

First Steps for Competitive Battling

Do you have some tips on how to get into competitive battling for those players who have finished the main story but who haven’t yet tried their hand at battling?

Mr. Morimoto: In Kiloude City, there is a facility called the Battle Maison. It’s set up so you can try all kinds of battle formats, so it might be good to go there first to check which party formations will be strong in battle and how strong you are. However, since the Battle Maison battles are all against the computer, they have a completely different feel from battles against real people. If you want to get better at competitive battling, the best strategy really is just to battle other people.

Mr. Masuda: Especially when you’re starting, don’t worry too much about winning or losing, and I think you can absolutely try making your team around the Pokémon you like.

Mr. Morimoto: Trying to battle with a team built around the Pokémon you like, and seeing when you’re getting beaten, and then thinking of counterstrategies for those times—that kind of trial and error is a lot of fun.

Using the Pokémon Global Link

It seems like a fair strategy for those players who don’t even know what Pokémon they should use to check out the Pokémon Global Link and see which Pokémon and moves are being used the most.

Mr. Morimoto: That’s true. You can thoroughly check which Pokémon are popular right now using the Pokémon Global Link, and you can really learn a lot from the statistics. Even among our staff, many people enjoy watching how things are changing in that environment. For those who are thinking about making their start in competitive battling, I hope you will discover your own battle style while seeing which Pokémon are being used often, and create new strategies for battling.

Mr. Masuda: In the end, I’d just like to explain one thing for absolute beginners: in online battles, each player is assigned something called a rating. These ratings will go up or down, starting from 1500, based on whether you win or lose in battle. When you are matched up with another player in an online battle, it is basically those ratings that will be used as a standard for finding an opponent, so beginners are more likely to be paired up with fellow beginners. When the season first starts, everyone’s ratings are about the same and so players of different levels are more mixed up, but now that we’re in the middle of the battle season, players are getting stratified by their ability. Even if you couldn’t manage to win before, this might be a good time to try out competitive battling once more.

Creating Pokémon Balance

Many players are probably curious about how you adjust the balance of strength for all the Pokémon. What can you tell us about that?

Mr. Morimoto: We start off with an idea in mind, like “How would this little fellow have to be used to be able to beat that guy when it’s about this strong?” Keeping that in mind, we assign stats to each Pokémon. After that, we do all kinds of playtesting among ourselves and adjust areas where the balance seems off as we go along. Even so, after the games are released, we find that they are still sometimes used in ways that we never imagined. There is still room for customization by deciding moves and Abilities, and so it’s really interesting to see what trends develop on the battle scene after the games’ release.

The Company Tournament

What kinds of Pokémon are popular in battles among the development staff or in your international competitions?

Mr. Morimoto: We held a company tournament just the other day, and when we counted up the Pokémon that took part in it, Talonflame was the most frequently used Pokémon. In addition to it, I’d say Kangaskhan, Noivern, Tyranitar, Greninja, and Meowstic. But really, the overall trend was that everyone was really using different Pokémon. A lot of us developers feel like we want to do something different from everyone else, so we end up using Pokémon like Banette or Barbaracle, Houndoom, Malamar, and others, and we use unexpected strategies. But of course there are also more than a few people who battle using the teams that are popular right now.

The level must be pretty high in a competition among the development staff! Soon we’ll start seeing some big competitions and their qualifiers and preliminary events, so what are the two of you looking forward to seeing there?

Mr. Masuda: For me, I just want to see everyone having fun. In the main story of the games, Single Battles are really in the forefront, but the majority of battles at official competitions are Double Battles. I hope that people will discover the fun of Double Battles by trying out Double Battles with their close friends. If they do that, I think they’ll surely be able to enjoy battling, and maybe even eventually end up in the Pokémon World Championships. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s such a waste to miss the chance to participate just because you’re too hung up with building your team or raising your Pokémon, so don’t get too consumed by that.

Pokémon Surprises

At the moment, are there any Pokémon that are being used to battle in a way you didn’t expect, Mr. Morimoto?

Mr. Morimoto: Oh, there are already plenty of them. Among them, I would say that what’s happened with Aegislash has been really unexpected. We really thought of Aegislash as a Pokémon that would battle using primarily physical attacks. But recently, there has been an increase in Aegislash using special moves, like the Steel-type move Flash Cannon.

It seems like there would also be Pokémon that aren’t yet being used in battle in the way that you imagined they would be when you created them.

Mr. Morimoto: I like tricky battling styles, so I’m often thinking about unexpected strategies using Pokémon like Malamar and Aromatisse, but those may not have been uncovered yet [by others]. Malamar’s Topsy-Turvy is a move that will reverse the stat changes in an opponent, and Aromatisse’s Hidden Ability Aroma Veil is interesting because it can negate some status moves, like the perennial battle favorite, Taunt. I’m thinking that you could probably use Aromatisse in particular to great effect if you used Trick Room well. But those kinds of tricky strategies tend to have some real peculiarities that can make them fail, so maybe it’s just that no one is really looking into them. [laughs]

Adjusting Moves and Abilities

You also make minute adjustments to the balance of existing moves and Abilities, don’t you?

Mr. Morimoto: Yes, we do. Since we put all the work into making all these moves and Abilities, we try to make the ones that aren’t being used much a little stronger, or weaken those that are too powerful. We adjust their particulars so that it will be easy to think of as many different strategies as possible for battling.

Mr. Masuda, how did you feel about the balance for the battles this time?

Mr. Masuda: At a recent Pokémon tournament in Japan, Kangaskhan and Garchomp were used quite a lot, so I wouldn’t deny that those seem a bit too prominent. But for now, it appears to me that the players seem to have a good grip on strategies to counter one another, so I think we’ve achieved an adequate sense of balance.

Do you make changes to overall battle variables, as well?

Mr. Masuda: Sometimes, but not always. For example, there has been a debate lately among players about the probability of a move landing a critical hit. In short, people have been wondering if the probability of getting a critical hit had increased in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. I’ll use this opportunity to answer that question: the probability of landing a critical hit has not been changed from what it has previously been.

Mr. Morimoto: Since we lowered the amount of damage awarded for a critical hit from 2× the usual to 1.5× the usual, it did make moves that are more likely to land a critical hit less powerful. To compensate for that, we changed the effects of moves that are more likely to land critical hits and the effects of some items. However, as Mr. Masuda said, the base probability of getting a critical hit has not changed a bit. It would be a very problematic bug, so we tested more than 10,000 times at GAME FREAK, and the game performed just as we’d set it.

That’s true; you can definitely feel that. But as the makers of the game, did you also feel that you want to see people working hard to raise their Pokémon, even as you were making it easier to raise Pokémon?

Mr. Morimoto: Well, some of the fun does come from raising a Pokémon with love until you reach that point where you challenge the competitive world, feeling like “All right, now it’s finally time for battle!” We have definitely kept the part of having to put a certain amount of work into raising Pokémon, and the parts that tie up to this foundation of such enjoyment will probably not change in the future.

Mr. Masuda: It’s the same in sports: if an athlete who never even practiced suddenly made it into a competition and won it, doesn’t it leave you feeling somehow unsatisfied? Yet it’s no fun either if you say that you can’t even compete without putting in incredible amounts of work. We’re trying to find a balance where the people who put in the time can achieve fitting results, while also making raising Pokémon easier overall.

That sounds tough to manage.

Mr. Morimoto: Taking part in online battles can be pretty hard at first. You end up flinching away [from them] when you feel like you just can’t win. But in fact, some people just collect their favorite Pokémon and use them to battle, or other people who just use the team that they cleared the story with. So I hope people will take part without getting too anxious or nervous about it. Use online battles to try out different things, and if you realize that there’s also this other way you can battle, I feel sure that you’ll come to see the fun of battling.

Some well-informed players may feel like they want to research everything online and prepare perfectly before they ever take part. But it seems like if you do that, you might just end up spending forever on building your team and miss the actual chance to enter [any competition]. [laughs]

Mr. Masuda: You do feel like there are quite a lot of people who get too worked up and then never end up taking part, huh? [laughs] Everyone should understand that simply taking part in battles is the first step, and just give it a shot.

A Global Game

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y were the first titles in the series to be released virtually simultaneously in all markets. As a result, Trainers outside of Japan were quicker than ever to join in online battles. How do you think that has changed the development of players and strategies?

Mr. Morimoto: It is rather mysterious, but Japanese players still tend to be strong, I feel. Would you agree?

Mr. Masuda: I don’t know the definitive reason, but I think that one reason might be that there’s a closer community among players in Japan and it’s easier to communicate about Pokémon. It’s possible to exchange information and opinions through various social networks, which leads to even more opportunities to practice battling.

Of course, there are players doing the same things overseas as well, and I’m looking forward to the 2014 World Championships to see how the gap between Japanese and international players might be changing.

In the recent World Championships, it seems that we’ve seen strong performances from players all around the world, not just Japan or the United States. What do you imagine will happen at Worlds this year?

Mr. Morimoto: That’s something I don’t yet know. [laughs] At the Pokémon World Championships, we get to see Pokémon and strategies that you don’t normally see in battles in Japan, so I’ll be looking forward to it.

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