The People behind the Pokémon
01 Oct, 2012 in Video Games
The Pokemon.com team sat down with two of the creators of the Pokémon Black Version 2 and Pokémon White Version 2 games.
Junichi Masuda and Takao Unno have been deeply involved with the development of Pokémon video games for many years. Their understanding of the Pokémon universe and what goes into making a Pokémon game is unrivaled. Hear what they have to say about the new Pokémon games and much more.
P.Com: Thanks, Mr. Masuda and Mr. Unno, for spending some time with us. Give us a brief explanation of your jobs and what you do on a daily basis.
That’s difficult! Well, I’m the development manager at GAME FREAK. I’m involved
in the management of the company. But on a smaller level, I work as a
game director, I’m a music composer, and I develop a lot of the
scenarios of the game and more detailed work. I’m not sitting at my desk very
often—I’m usually running around the office or I’m participating in meetings! A
lot of different things.
Mr. Unno: As an art director, which is what I normally do, except for Pokémon Black Version 2 and Pokémon White Version 2 where I am the director, I’m involved in the general design direction for how to create Pokémon. I’m also involved in creating the 2-D and 3-D graphics, as well as the user interface for the games. I also design Pokémon myself.
As the overall director of Pokémon Black Version 2 and Pokémon
White Version 2, I was more involved in the general design of the games and
bringing everyone together to develop them.
P.Com: I’ve played a little bit of Pokémon Black Version 2, and it’s surprising how different these games feel from the outset than the first two games in Unova, from the look to the Pokémon you’ll encounter. They feel more original than, say, Pokémon Emerald does from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. Was this a particular point of emphasis during development?
Mr. Unno: It was definitely something we paid attention to during development. When we first decided to make a true sequel to Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version and set it two years later, we had two big concerns.
One, by setting them in the same location it would kind of feel the same to the players who had played the previous games. The other was that as a sequel, it would maybe feel intimidating to new players, and they wouldn’t know what to do. We tried to get around that by giving the game an all-new story, increasing the number of Pokémon you can encounter in the region, introducing new towns, and making the protagonist a completely different character.
Plus, the route through the Unova region is also
different. With all that, we think we have created a sense of freshness for
both new and old players alike. Pretty much anyone can get in and enjoy the
games. We also hope that new players may even become interested in the originals—Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version—after enjoying Pokémon Black Version 2 or Pokémon White Version 2.
P.Com: How far into the development of the first games were you when you started working on the sequels?
Mr. Masuda: In terms of Pokémon Black Version 2 and Pokémon White Version 2, it was actually near the end of the development of the first games when we started talking about what we wanted to do next. It was maybe only three or four months before the actual release of Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version in Japan.
By that time our internal staff was able to play the game even though it hadn’t been released yet. They were able to go through the whole scenario and start getting feedback about how the story was good, and they enjoyed characters such as N and Ghetsis. But our staff was very interested in what happened to these characters after the ending.
From all this feedback, we got the idea that would could
expand on the story using those characters, and that’s when the idea of a
direct sequel came up. We figured it’d also be a good challenge for us because
we had never done a direct sequel before.
P.Com: Let’s talk about one new exciting feature, Pokéstar Studios. I’ve played it a little bit and it’s quite different from other experiences I’ve had in a Pokémon game. What was the inspiration for creating this feature?
Mr. Unno: The main idea behind Pokéstar Studios was to really expand on the expressive visual opportunities of the Pokémon games. Whenever you’re making the game you have to keep track of the reality of the universe and make sure that everything is believable and isn’t something that’s too crazy. Creating a believable reality for the Pokémon universe is very important.
But, by making movies with your Pokémon and having them star in movies, you can put them in exciting scenarios that aren’t really possible in the reality of the Pokémon universe, such as battling against a giant UFO, traveling with a magnificent wizard, or battling a giant robot. Having these adventures should be very new and exciting for players.
Another exciting part of Pokéstar Studios is that you
follow a script but battle using actual gameplay elements. And by following the
script, you learn a lot of basic elements of Pokémon battling in general from
making these movies.
P.Com: Bringing players together through the games has always been an important part of Pokémon. What new ways are you most excited for to connect players in the new games?
Mr. Unno: One of the biggest features is the Funfest Missions, where up to 100 players can play together simultaneously. One player can start a Funfest Mission, and anyone in the area who is playing will get an invitation to participate.
Funfest Missions are always cooperative, with everyone trying to complete the same goal. It might be collecting Berries or searching for a specific Pokémon. By hitting these goals, everyone gets points, which will then earn you items that could be very helpful during gameplay.
P.Com: It has always seemed like there is an emphasis to create a strong personal bond between the player and the in-game character. Why do you feel that is important with Pokémon games?
Mr. Unno: As you know, the protagonist in the game never speaks. The idea is to make it feel like the player is that character as much as possible. By doing this we’re also hoping that the player has a better bond with the Pokémon they encounter, as well as the people they meet inside the game.
P.Com: How big a role does the Memory Link play with this notion of a direct sequel and managing what happened earlier?
Mr. Unno: The idea of the Memory Link was to allow players who had played the first games to enjoy the story on perhaps a deeper level, with the chance to see how the Unova region has changed, as well as how the people—their ideas and feelings—have changed. The Memory Link is really sort of a “present” to the players of the first games.
P.Com: What was behind the decision to create two follow-up games as opposed to a single game, as Pokémon Platinum was to Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl?
Mr. Masuda: In terms of why it’s usually one—that’s usually because we want to specialize in something. Like in Pokémon Platinum, our goal was to really focus on battling, so we really needed one version.
In the new games, before we even had an idea for the story, we came up with the Key System. We didn’t have enough time to get it into Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version. One aspect of the Key System is that when someone completes his or her game, they’ll get a key that they can give to someone else which can adjust the difficulty of his or her game. The idea is that if one player has siblings or friends, he or she can help them. Since that concept really needs two games, that was really when we made the decision.
Also, since these games are true sequels, it felt like a much more natural progression from the first two games.
P.Com: In the 15 years that Pokémon games have been around, they have been remarkably consistent in their style and quality. Do you have a philosophy for how you produce games over the years?
Mr. Masuda: That’s a difficult question. Obviously our focus is always on quality. Whenever we make a game, we concentrate on what first-time players will think when they play it. Those first-time players, they change as time goes on. Nowadays kids have computers and the Internet. That kind of technology is commonplace, and sort of a given for them, where that wasn’t really the case before. So we’re always focusing on that new audience.
Also, in regard to graphics and animation, there’s sort of a universal sense of what’s comfortable... what’s natural to everyone across the world. We want to make the game feel comfortable for everyone in the world, no matter where they live. We make sure that everyone in the staff is aware of this and that we’re all on the same page—that’s important to the design.
P.Com: As much as the games have been consistent in quality, they have also been fundamentally similar in plot and structure. Do you ever consider taking the core games in a different direction, and maybe changing up how the plot unfolds?
Mr. Masuda: We’ve obviously thought about those things before. For example, changing the number of Gyms that appear in the story, or maybe making the selection of starter Pokémon be five instead of three, or having different types such as Steel-type or Poison-type starter Pokémon.
But every time we make a new game, we try to start fresh and think about what’s necessary to make a really good game. And whenever we reconstruct it in that way, we find out that it’s often the same elements that make the most sense, that are easiest to understand.
For example, having three starter Pokémon of three types that work in a kind of rock-paper-scissors relationship is very easy to understand for players. So, very often—even though we’re rebuilding it every time—the games end up having similar construction.
P.Com: Many of the Pokémon are obviously inspired by real-world animals and objects. Mr. Masuda, I know that you travel quite a bit. Can you say that there are places you’ve been that directly inspire locations in the game in the same way as Pokémon themselves?
Mr. Masuda: In regards to setting, at least, whenever a theme is decided we’ll start thinking about specific locations. For example, in Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version the general theme is Manhattan and New York City. In more general terms, I try to be inspired by everything, by noticing and observing differences in the places I go. I try to take all my experiences from day-to-day life and put them into what I create, so it’s hard to pinpoint one exact thing.
P.Com: There are so many Pokémon now, as well as so many different ways to battle, such as Triple Battles and Rotation Battles, the testing to ensure gameplay balance must be incredibly difficult. How does gameplay testing work for these kinds of games, such as making sure no Pokémon or moves are too powerful?
Mr. Masuda: On the GAME FREAK staff, we have a group that is constantly examining each Pokémon and figuring out what kind of parameters they would have. They’re focusing on the fine details of each Pokémon. This group is constantly battling to test out new moves and how they interact with each other. And their focus is to make sure everything is balanced.
But obviously you can’t predict everything. By going to
events such as the World Championships and watching the players there, a lot of
unexpected things come up. We pay attention to the trends of the competitive
players and see what is strong, and work those ideas back into the next games
later on. It makes live events very exciting for us to watch.
P.Com: How good at battling are these balance testers on your team?
Mr. Unno: I
always lose when I play them!
Mr. Masuda: We have tournaments inside the company, and those guys are very strong.
P.Com: It’s pretty well understood that designs in the video game lead the other aspects of Pokémon. Mr. Masuda, how often do you get consulted for upcoming animation and Pokémon TCG plans?
Mr. Masuda: There’s obviously talk between the different elements of Pokémon. For example, when the new movies or animation series are being planned, I participate in the meetings and discuss what’s going to be featured. In terms of the Pokémon TCG, we leave the mechanics and the balance up to them. But some of our staff, including Mr. Unno here, contributes illustrations for some of the card images.
P.Com: Mr. Masuda, you are active on Twitter, and you spend a lot of time interacting directly with Pokémon fans. What does it mean to you to have that kind of communication with Pokémon fans?
Mr. Masuda: At first I was kind of scared of putting myself out there on social media. I was worried I’d get a lot of development questions I couldn’t answer, or that people would be very critical of me. But since I began on Twitter last year, so far people have been very kind. They share their opinions, obviously, and there’s good discussion that goes on there. It’s been useful for me to get the word out about events and signings, and it gets even more people to show up. Also, because there are just so many different avenues for Pokémon to get into the world, I can’t really grasp it all. I get to see a new Pokémon product I didn’t know about, or I get to hear from fans overseas talking about Pokémon.
One thing I really like is when I get tweets in other languages from places like Finland or Argentina or Italy. I won’t be able to understand what is written there, so I’ll use an automatic translator to find out what they’re saying. It’s so nice and gratifying to see people all over the world enjoy Pokémon.
P.Com: New Pokémon games are getting much bigger, with more Pokémon and more expansive areas. Looking back, is there a generation of Pokémon that you are particularly fond of?
Mr. Masuda: Hmm. In terms of the most memorable, I’d have to say Pokémon Red and Blue. Developing those games took six years, and back then it was in black-and-white graphics and you had to use link cables to connect the Game Boy hardware. Just that process of creating everything from scratch was very memorable.
The focus back then was really on trading. So everything was designed around that aspect. For example, the Pokédex was added so people could keep track of what Pokémon they had with trading in mind. Even giving them moves was done in an effort to add value to each Pokémon so people would want to trade them. But really the whole process of creating a game from scratch was very memorable for me.