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Junichi Masuda has been working on the Pokémon games since 1995, with the initial installment. Still, it's clear he's both excited and nervous about the release of Pokémon X and Y, the latest installment in the franchise and the first for the Nintendo 3DS, for which he served as director.
While the series has remained a massive commercial success, Nintendo is under a tremendous amount of pressure these days. The 3DS handheld is not selling as well as its immediate predecessor, and more and more kids are turning to tablets and smartphones.
In this new interview, Gamasutra speaks to Masuda about pressure, competition, inspiration, and change in the Pokémon franchise.
We're seeing a big leap forward with this new game. There are a lot of graphics and gameplay improvements this time. Why the emphasis on pushing forward?
Junichi Masuda: It really comes down to just what the power of the 3DS allowed us to achieve. We always have a lot of ideas, of course, but this time, with the jump in power we're able to do a lot of things, like move to full 3D. The pokémon are now in full 3D and they have a lot more animations, making them more lively. They appear like living creatures. We can now freely move the camera around to create a lot more exciting moments in the game.
Also, we're able to add more features, like Pokémon Amie, which allows you to reach out and pet your pokémon and interact with them directly, as well as the PSS, which really takes advantage of the 3DS' power to improve communications. It was really the jump in hardware power that allowed us to do all of this.
I think that the first time since the series has come out, there's really significant competition in the handheld space -- with mobile platforms, smartphones and tablets. Until now, Nintendo really owned the handheld space, especially for kids. Have you thought about that when creating Pokémon?
JM: So of course, I think all of us in the game industry are really paying attention to the mobile space. Especially since most games on tablets and smartphones are free, of course, and as developers who make games and charge for the full package, we really need to focus on making sure that we present gameplay with a lot of value.
We like to think that we make these games in a way that they'll be really fun for people, perhaps they'll even improve your life or make you happier, somehow. We have to put a lot of value into them to stay relevant in the space.
Of course, with a lot of the free games in the mobile space, sometimes you'll get bored of them quickly or a lot of the games, they start charging at a certain point, so you have to put money into them to progress. So one of the things we like to focus on with Pokémon is presenting a lot of value with the game, but also making it an experience that's really comfortable and you don't have to worry about. You have the full game there. You don't have to worry about paying for it down the road.
I don't know if this is an issue in Japan, but how do you communicate this to people, especially to new audiences, who have maybe never played a Pokémon game before?
JM: A lot of elements in the game, you really have to play to know what makes it so great, I think. And with so many games in the market today, it becomes hard to get any kind of coverage or attention. Today's news is gone the next day. What we try to focus on is making sure that the core gameplay is really fun, so when people do get their hands on it, they'll really like it, and maybe spread by word-of-mouth and let other people know about how good it is.
Do you always have new players coming into Pokémon with every installment? Do you find that young kids come in? And do you do anything to encourage it?
JM: Yeah, it's definitely something we pay attention to. I always think back to a certain genre that I used to like quite a bit, which is the 2D shooter genre. That genre really evolved to get way too difficult. I couldn't keep up with it. It got to a point where all of the games being released were just too difficult, and I couldn't play them anymore, and that made me quite sad as a fan of the genre. I wanted to make sure that the games that I make never get into that situation of getting more complicated or more difficult over time.
So one of the things we always focus on with Pokémon is making sure that it's very easy to get into them. The basics are explained. It's very easy to understand what's being said, what's going on, and to follow the adventure -- and to have the excitement gradually build up as you play. When I'm playtesting the games during development, I'm always trying to approach the games from a different perspective, like someone who's never played a game, or never played a Pokémon game before.