A New Pokémon for a New Era

By Christian Nutt

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.

Junichi Masuda

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.


Now that you mention that, it makes sense. I always felt that the Pokémon franchise is a bit conservative. Many franchises try to add more, and more, and more over time. It can become a trap for developers. 

JM: With each Pokémon title, we're trying to do something revolutionary among Pokémon titles -- like with the communication features, this time, with the PSS and Pokémon Amie. So we do add in new elements, but we want to make sure that the core gameplay is something comfortable and familiar to players who have been with the series.

We really pay attention to the basics when creating the series, like the core gameplay -- for example, going into the tall grass and randomly encountering a pokémon and throwing out your pokéball to catch it. That core gameplay was really central to the appeal of Pokémon.

This game does seem to have a lot of new features and enhanced features, such as the ones you mentioned, along with mega evolutions and the move to 3D. How did you approach making new features and making sure they fit without letting them overwhelm the core gameplay?

JM: With each game, I'm always thinking about what I want to do with that particular game. This time, I focused on thinking of the variety of ways that people want to play the games, and then adding new elements to answer those different styles. Pokémon Amie is for people who want to reach out and play with their pokémon, and pet them. PSS is for battling and trading for people who really want to focus on that. And then we have Super Training, which is the other screen on the bottom screen that helps players who aren't so familiar with how to raise competitive pokémon maybe do that a bit easier. And I think this kind of variety and versatility is important. Another thing we focus on is not introducing new elements which are too similar to things we've done in the past. Coming up with new things is very important.

Pokemon Amie

Of course, new features always try to add depth to certain gameplay elements. For example, going back to Pokémon Amie, there's certain little games you can play with your pokemon where they copy your movement using the facial recognition technology. You can tilt your head one way, and they'll copy that. You can close your eyes, and they'll close their eyes -- of course, you probably can't see that if you have your eyes closed. By doing this, and befriending your pokémon, deepening that relationship, it'll play into the core gameplay a little bit more, where they'll help you out in battle -- dodge moves more, land more critical hits.  Even with new features, we're trying to add more depth to the gameplay.

How do you avoid making features feel like gimmicks, and instead help them feel part of the core gameplay?

JM: It's really just making sure that if we have one idea, it doesn't just end right there. If we have one idea, for example, the planners at Game Freak will come up with an idea for something and they'll create the spec document for that, but that won't be the end of it. We'll implement it into the game and come up with more ideas, adding all of these different layers of ideas to increase the gameplay. Of course, this style -- I don't know how common it is in the game industry -- it's very hard for our programmers to always accommodate this. It really allows us to add new ways to play and add a lot of depth to these individual features every time.

If you follow Pokémon on the internet, you know about the very hardcore players who get very deep into the game. At the other end, you have the total novices who just started the game for the first time. How do you cater to a wide range of players, from novices to experts and in between?

JM: I think what allows us to do this is that the RPG portion, the core adventure portion of each game, is kept relatively simple. We always make sure that the entrance to the games, getting into them, is quite easy. At the beginning, we explain what Pokémon is about, explain the basics. We do this so that not just players who have never played Pokémon before, but players who have never played a video game before can really just get started, get into the game, know what to do, and really have a good time.

But, however, once the main adventure is over, we have the really finely balanced battle system with a lot of depth, a lot of strategy. I think that's what's really satisfying to the players who get into it. It's almost like a sport at this point. We have tournaments, and World Championships every year, and the champions of those World Championships are constantly changing.

I think that with Pokémon X and Y, we've increased that level of depth even more with the addition of mega evolutions. So I think both of these -- having that really simple, easy-to-get-into RPG element combined with this sport-like really deep battle system is what allows us to appeal to so many different players.


You've been making these games for a long time, and new players come in all the time. Do you find that new players have expectations about even what a game is than they did in the past? 

JM: I think, on a fundamental level, the gameplay -- what they find fun -- is not any different than in the past. But conveying that gameplay has changed a lot over the years.

Kids these days, around the time they hit middle school, they're constantly in contact with their friends via text message, they're on Twitter, they're on Facebook, they're on blogs, for example. The amount of methods you can use to convey gameplay is quite different than before. One major difference is that kids spend less time playing games than they did before, because they have all of these other things around them.

How does that affect Pokémon? To complete a Pokémon game takes some time. I think it took me around 40 hours to finish Pokémon Black 2. That was just the main story, not the optional content. Is the audience demanding shorter experiences? Is that something you can cater to?

JM: I think the key is not to make it shorter, but to make them feel like they're getting more done in a smaller amount of time. I think the real fun of Pokémon -- one of the most fun parts of it -- is coming up with your own pokémon party and raising those pokémon. In a variety of ways, we've made it easier to raise your pokémon at a brisker pace. We've also made the movement speed faster in Pokémon X and Y than in previous games. We've focused on making it feel like you can get more done in a certain amount of time. So rather than reducing a certain number of hours, we've made it feel like it's a brisker pace.

We've talked about smartphones and tablets. There are also big franchises like Skylanders taking off. Do you feel more pressure than you had in the past? 

JM: I always feel a lot of pressure. [laughs] Definitely a lot of pressure, and it's scary in today's market. The thing we're most afraid of is that, as creators, we make these games so people can pick them up and have fun playing them. If people weren't able to be able to play them, or if they didn't have fun playing our games, that's what we're most afraid of. This time, we're able to get an [ESRB] E rating, thankfully, and also to do a global simultaneous release. I'm really looking forward to people getting enjoying it on a global scale -- trading and battling with each other.

Can you talk about your emphasis on a global simultaneous release, and why you made an effort to do it for the first time with Pokémon X and Y? 

JM: Of course, when the games first came out, the internet didn't exist back then. But as the games became more widespread, when a game came out in Japan first, all of the information about the new pokémon and all of the story details would quickly go up on the internet. It's gotten to the point where even people who maybe don't want to see that information see it before they get a chance to play the game. It's just the amount of information that's out there these days.

It's really been a goal -- a dream -- for the last seven years, to accomplish a worldwide release. This is really because we want to give players around the world the same starting point, a chance to discover pokémon themselves, and to be able to go in fresh without having any sort of information in advance. We really think that discovering pokémon for yourself is one of the most fun parts of the games. That's really why we wanted to do the global simultaneous release.

You've been working on the franchise for a very long time. How do you stay focused on and interested in putting out a new Pokémon game? 

JM: Near the end of every project, each time I feel like I'm out of energy, and I've used all the ideas I had, and I really don't have anything left. But then around the time the game comes out, I start talking with people, and I start getting more ideas again for something I want to create. I've always been a creator. I like creating things. I start to get more ideas, and it builds up, and usually after three months I'll get energized and have an idea in my mind about what I want to create next.

This time, with Pokémon X and Y, it's going to be coming out soon. I'm really excited for the release, of course, but also very nervous. The games are like my children. Once they're released, they go out into the world and grow up. I also like to travel a lot and get ideas and inspiration from that. From having conversations with people and traveling, I hope I'll get more inspiration and have another surprise for the world in a few years.

Is that why the Kalos region in X and Y looks like France?

JM: Actually, yes, the Kalos region got its inspiration from France, as I believe I've said before. One of the core themes of Pokémon X and Y this time is "beauty." I used my own time to travel in France for about a month. I really got to know it, and I started to research it. I think it's the country with the most tourists of any country in the world. While I was traveling there, I noticed that there were a lot of places that I'd go to and I'd want to take a photo of just because they were so beautiful. So on that theme of "beauty," we felt that France would match that theme and be a good inspiration for the region.

So even though I went for a month taking my own personal time as a vacation, I ended up probably spending half my time tying that back into work and getting ideas for the game.

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