The Art of Balance: Pokémon's Masuda on Complexity and Simplicity
April 3, 2009 Page 1 of 3
Junichi Masuda joined independent Tokyo-based developer Game Freak in 1989 to compose music and program for games. Over the next few years, the team released a few games -- first, in 1989, Quinty, for Namco, on the Nintendo Famicom (which was released in the West under the title Mendel Palace.)
The company's Jerry Boy (Smart Ball in the West) came next, in 1991. In 1991, Game Freak entered into its first collaboration with Nintendo -- Yoshi no Tamago, or simply Yoshi in the West, on the NES. Games for Sega, Victor, and more for Nintendo followed.
But in 1996, the company's defining title would be released -- a title so finely crafted, brilliantly marketed, and addictive that it became a global phenomenon. A title so successful that it revitalized a nearly dead platform and made it one of the most important in the world. The title, of course, is Pocket Monsters -- better known as Pokémon -- and the system is the Nintendo Game Boy.
Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, backed by Pokémon, carried Nintendo through the increasingly lean Nintendo 64 and Gamecube years.
And though the Nintendo DS didn't need as much help, Pokémon has been there to preserve the formidable audience built on Nintendo's portable platforms over the years and capture more converts.
Gamasutra was recently invited to travel to Nintendo's San Francisco Bay Area HQ and speak with Junichi Masuda, longtime director of the Pokémon series, and Takeshi Kawachimaru, director of the recently-released Pokémon Platinum, talking about the 186 million-unit selling franchise.
The discussion turned to the art of balancing the inherent complexity of the titles with the simplicity Masuda sees as the series' core appeal -- whether it comes down to visual direction, gameplay design, or staying true to the series' core concept: catching, training, and battling adorable monsters.
I'd like to talk about the origins of the whole Pokémon series. I know that you personally have been working at Game Freak since 1989, so that's even before Pokémon started. I wonder if you could take me back to the initial inspiration and when you first heard about the idea for Pokémon, and your thoughts about it.
Junichi Masuda: As you know, the founder of Game Freak is Mr. [Satoshi] Tajiri, so when Mr. Tajiri talked to me about the idea he had... At that time, you could connect Game Boys with a cable, and you could play -- and battle by playing in, for example, Tetris.
But for this one, he had an idea of trading monsters. When I heard about that idea, I thought it was an interesting, fantastic idea. However, you then have to realize it, and make it into a game. The concept itself was very interesting, so you could expand and see how you could develop it into one game.
When you first started with the series, you were composing the music, right? And then you moved on to directing the games later on.
I was wondering, as the series evolved, what made you want to get involved with moving on from doing the music and actually becoming involved directly in the creative side of the game?
JM: Yes, when I joined Game Freak, I joined as a music composer. However, I was also programming some games. Not the Pokémon games, but other games as well.
So when we were working on Red and Blue, I did some programming as well. I had a lot of ideas, and I wanted to engage in the creative aspect of Pokémon games. I wanted to use my skills on a Pokémon game.
At that time, when you first started up the series, I'm assuming that Game Freak was a very small company. How big was it then, and how big is it now?
JM: At that point, the different people who worked on the Pokémon games were nine people. There were other projects going on, and there were 20 people in all. Now, it's more than 60 people working on various projects.
Something that's obviously very characteristic of the Pokémon series is that there are the multiple color cartridges, which there have been since the very first one. I was wondering where that idea came from, to have multiple different versions with possibilities of different Pokémon in those cartridges.
JM: The basic concept of Pokémon is trading, so how could we make the trading more attractive? If you have a different Pokémon in your game, that's a different kind of Pokémon you can collect.
You can finish collecting all of the Pokémon based on the Pokedex. What kind of abilities can that Pokémon have? What kind of an attractive character can you create?
When Mr. Tajiri went to talk to NCL, Mr. Miyamoto actually suggested, "How about creating different cartridges? There are different Pokémon on each cartridge, and people are willing to trade the Pokémon."
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