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 Pokemon 's Masuda: 2D Brings 'Flavor' To Series' Visuals
Pokemon's Masuda: 2D Brings 'Flavor' To Series' Visuals
April 3, 2009 | By Staff, Christian Nutt

April 3, 2009 | By Staff, Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC

Talking to Gamasutra as part of a rare interview published today, Game Freak veteran Junichi Masuda has been discussing Pokemon's accessibility, saying that the 'flavor' of 2D art is key to the series' success.

Masuda, the longtime director of the Nintendo-backed Pokemon series, which has now sold a staggering 186 million units worldwide over all franchise entries, explains in the interview why they haven't considered shifting to a 3D style for the core gameplay updates in the iconic game franchise, now updated with Pokemon Platinum:

"The basic concept of Pokemon is that we want to attract the beginner, so that when the beginner comes and plays, if it's 3D, it's three dimensions instead of two, so it's much more information for you to take in.

We don't know if that's what they want. We want the game to be approachable and easy to understand.

Also, there is a balance that we have to make. By balance, I mean, do we want to make the scenario deeper, so we have a deeper, more complicated storyline, or do we want players to collect, catch, and trade Pokemon?

That balance is always difficult, and we try to find a better balance always. But I absolutely consider it. If 3D makes the player catch and collect more Pokemon, then that's definitely the way to go."

Later on in the interview, Masuda elaborated on the reasoning behind his choices, defending 2D stylings as key to Pokemon's success:

"You [may] think that creating 2D is easier than 3D, but it's not. It requires a lot of technological understanding and technological skills.

I always talk with the art director -- "What's the value is of sticking with 2D art?"

When you look at 2D, it's like a picture. You look at the picture, and it has some flavor to it. 3D, yes, you can make the object very realistic, but 2D is something you can put flavor into. That's what we love about 2D."

The full interview with Game Freak's Masuda, as well as Takeshi Kawachimaru, director of the recently-released Pokemon Platinum, is now available for reading as a Gamasutra feature.

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William Kirkman
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I disagree that the 2D art is the key to the series' current success. Just look at examples of the 3D counterparts released on gamecube and Wii that allowed you to port over pokemon to see them in 3D. It looked a lot better and your characters were actually animated and felt more alive. The 2D static images in current pokemon hand-helds are archaic remnants of an older generation of rpg games- the enemy are a bunch of static images on the top side of the screen and your party consists of a bunch of static images on the bottom of the screen. It's just being lazy and dated, at the very least they should update to fully animated characters.

Kevin Campbell
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I disagree William. That would be true with the exception that Pokemon games garner a wide number of players, including old-school RPG gamers who grew up with 2D and love the retro graphics.

I think the real reason they use 2D instead of 3D is space constraints. They have hundreds of pokemon, and if it was in 3D they'd have to have the space for all the 3D models and animation. Not to mention on the DS they probably wouldn't look as good or as clear as if the art were done in 2D.

Personally I'd rather see a mix of both worlds, which they've flirted with in Diamond/Pearl/Platinum. I'd like to see 3D backgrounds that the 2D sprites fight upon. That way you have the exciting dynamic use of camera from the stadium series with the simplicity and charm of the handheld series without sacrificing too much space.

William Kirkman
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I didn't necessarily mean to imply everything should be switched over to 3D, I meant more that the series' success is tied to the character designs and "Easy to pick up difficult to master" design, not the fact that they still use simplistic static 2D art. I'm quite fine with 2D art, I just wish they would update to fully animated characters as opposed to the static images they've always used for the hand held games for battles.

It would be quite time consuming to have to go through and animate all 498 or so pokemon (not to mention some of the technical limitations), but I think it's a change that is long over-due. They've focused more and more on improving the overworld appearance, but the battles still remain mostly the same- it feels almost like they've been left behind the rest of the game as it's been updated over the years. A good majority of the game is spent battling other trainers and pokemon, isn't it about time they updated the appearance of battles?

Roberto Alfonso
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Maybe just because of that. The first time you play a fully animated battle, you enjoy it. The hundredth time, you hate it. For Advance Wars, I ended up disabling all battle animations. Especially when you want to travel to an early city and fighting bidoofs with your lvl 70 dialga is a nuisance.

Sean Parton
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@William: It's not technically possible to model and animate all near-500 Pokemon and have it fit on a DS cart, so that's an improvement you'll likely never see for many years to come. And all of that is in addition to many of the different Pokemon having different sprites for it's forms (be it make/female, Shellos variants, Unown letters, etc).

In addition, I don't think the DS is even powerful enough to show two Pokemon with 3D models from even the N64 era, as the framerate would probably drop with that many polys on screen. That would become even worse when you start thinking about things like double battles or showing trainers on screen as well.

As an interesting sidenote, the models and animations for the Pokemon in the original Pokemon Stadium were never really redone. If you look closely at the Battle Revolution models and animations, they're the exact same as the original N64 counterparts, minus maybe some slightly higher res textures and maybe a few more edge loops. A nice way to cut out doing extra work in the production cycle.

Tom Newman
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I think this is a testament to 2D gaming, and a great interview to boot!

Carl Chavez
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For the Pokemon universe, the 2D perspective offers something that many modern 3D-perspective games are poor at: pacing. Gameplay in 2D Pokemon moves quickly. If you ever want to do something, whether it's training, capturing, berry care, day care, or whatever, it can be done fast. Contrast this to the 3D Pokemon games, where I would sometimes fall asleep (no, seriously, I would!) running around relatively smaller environments. I have a similar problem with Harvest Moon/Rune Factory in 2D vs. 3D. I can play Rune Factory for hours, but I fell asleep after less than an hour of moving around in Rune Factory Frontier. I've been replaying X-Com again and remembering how I used to get drowsy playing games like UFO: Extraterrestrials and UFO: Aftermath. Heck, I'd rather play ToME or Dwarf Fortress than a third-person-perspective roguelike, or Fantasy General instead of Fantasy Wars. It all comes down to the simple fact that I like getting my input recognized immediately, and I like being able to absorb information from my environment quickly.

I think part of the problem is that 3D artists want the player to see more of their sculpted environments, especially when clues and/or game objects are embedded within the environment, so movement is slower and camera work more sedate. 2D tiled art is, by necessity, more functional, so unimportant, repetitive features of the environment must be embellished by the player's imagination. (Is that a bad thing?) Similarly, control is necessarily more precise in a 3D world, so a slower pace helps improve control. Unfortunately, slowing down the game for the sake of control and art appreciation also slows down the gameplay, making modern 3D games more boring (for me, at least).

Dave Endresak
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I'm not a Pokemon fan, but this interview is an addition to the long series of statements by experienced professionals explaining why 2D is often superior to 3D and is at least equal in complexity (and in some cases, even more complex) but in different ways. 2D is not "retro" at all - this can easily be seen by checking worldwide markets. Many markets have a preference for 2D over 3D.

This also gets into the study of visual culture as a particular field of academe. Unfortunately, there needs to be much more attention paid to this field and much more awareness built of some of the research findings. One point that's worth noting is that one person's perceptions of any particular scene or view is not necessarily the same as another person's perceptions, and that there are often widely diverse variances due to cultural elements regarding visual perception. and visual communication styles. In other words, the perception of what is "realistic" varies greatly, and various people and cultures prefer works that may not be "realistic" per se but are still "believable" and "enjoyable". The focus is different because of an understand that "realistic" is subjective to each individual's perception.

Personally, I find most Western character art to be extremely "unrealistic" and "unbelievable" (not to mention that this feeling causes a complete lack of empathy with the characters) while Japanese and Korean art seems extremely "realistic" and "believable" to me (which creates a deep sense of empathy with the characters). This is particularly true for 2D, but it also holds true for many 3D characters in games. However, I understand that this is just my own perception and that other peoples' may vary. On the other hand, if I am the one playing a game (or experiencing other media formats) then my perception is what really matters for the experience to be enjoyable. ^_^

Jamie Mann
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@Dave: personally, I find Japanese artwork to have become overly stylished, but that's just me :)

I think the 2D art for Pokemon has been instrumental in the series success: the game is very firmly rooted in the handheld world - more specifically, the GB and GBC (and later, the GBA). It's much easier to give a 2D rendering a "personality" which can be easily recognised and remembered by the target demographic (i.e. young children). 3D artwork is much more difficult to implement in this fashion, not least because the low resolution and limited graphical capabilities will result in low poly counts, blurred textures and highly visible aliasing.

When you factor the additional cost into the mix as well, I'm not surprised Pokemon is sticking with 2D for the foreseeable future.

Raymond Grier
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I just thought I'd point out that polygon models are usually bigger than their 2-d sprite counter parts because of the use of textures which are sprites. Using 3-d textureless models on the DS might still be feasible. I can appreciate 2-d artwork just as well but Kirkman is right to say they should at least add a little sprite animation to the 2-d versions. they don;t need to put every Pokemon in every game otherwise there's no reason to play all of them, just play every 2nd or third game.