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Interview: Building A Brand New Pokemon Universe With  Black And White

Interview: Building A Brand New Pokemon Universe With Black And White

February 24, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

February 24, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

When Nintendo's Pokemon Black & White launches in the West on March 6, it'll mark the fifth generation of games based on an ever-growing lexicon of battling monsters. The Pokemon franchise is a funny beast, beloved to its fans for its friendly RPG universe and deceptively deep stat mechanics -- but most of all, because it's always familiar.

That sort of brand presents a particular challenge for any game designer. How do you evolve a series when there's so little you can change and still maintain what loyalists love? Gamasutra had the chance to talk to Junichi Masuda, co-founder of developer Game Freak and director on Pokemon Black & White for Nintendo DS, and that's exactly what we asked him first.

"The first thing we did was break down all of the individual elements of the games and re-evaluate the contents of Pokemon and think about what's necessary: There's catching Pokemon, and there need to be trainers so that you have someone to play with," he noted.

But even well-established sports can tolerate, and even benefit from experimentation with their core rules, says Masuda -- although a careful awareness of what can and can't be manipulated is key.

"In basketball, you could change the rules slightly and it would still be a fun game; you could change how many points you get," he explains.

"But you can't get rid of dribbling, or you can't let someone hold the ball... obviously there are some things that needed to stay there for the core gameplay."

"Getting that balance is very challenging," he admits. "But it's about being able to evolve the series with every new release."

Masuda also approaches Black & White from an interesting angle: He began primarily in a music and sound composer role with early Pokemon titles and gradually evolved into a more hands-on approach to the game's various elements. That gives him, in his view, a connection to the feel of the games, and the atmosphere that has sustained them.

"In terms of actual music I like to listen to, it's more hard techno stuff," he explains -- the Pokemon world seems populated mostly by schoolchildren in a countryside idyll, though nonetheless one enforced by soft futuristic shapes and gleaming structures that suggest science fiction.

"But when I'm thinking about what to do for Pokemon, I imagined old classical music like Bach, or Mozart. I thought about the era that they lived in and the atmosphere of that era and imagined that kind of music... to make something that was different than the present day or than the feeling of Tokyo. Not otherworldly, just kind of a different era of music."

Currently as director he works closely with the music staff, and Masuda says he encouraged them to listen to a wide variety of music from around the world.

With this particular incarnation of the game, which Nintendo expects to make good use of its DS handheld's connectivity features, he encouraged the staff to think about "the idea of different nationalities all together. Every town [in the game] has its own kind of feel music-wise as well." This also helps give the game a more concrete sense of being an actual "world", he suggests.

"If players get the impression one of the concepts behind Pokemon Black & White is people coming together, that would be something I would be happy to hear," he said. "One of my ideas was to make people think about what Pokemon really are, with all these different types and ethnicities and nationalities, and what a better world will be like. The overall idea is kind of like love and peace."

Each installment of Pokemon must be a fierce challenge to any character designer, too -- just how many funny creatures can one come up with when the series has birthed so many? Black and White alone adds 156 new Pokemon to the lexicon -- bringing the total number of creatures players can theoretically collect to 649. Many are inspired or loosely resemble actual animals.

"One of the directions we gave to the designers was not to be bound by the older designs," says Masuda. "Even if it existed in the past, not to necessarily steer away from making another one based on that type of animal."

And designing a Pokemon goes further than making a cute animated character -- the look and type of the Pokemon needs to match its abilities within the context of the balance of the game. Mana Ibe works with 17 other character artists at Gamefreak to create new Pokemon. Among many of the new characters, she designed Victini, the game's special character only available during promotional events.

"The process of how it works is we exchange a lot of ideas and new designs, and we also get direction from the planners for the types," she tells us.

Once they get to a certain stage, the designers speak face to face with design lead Ken Sugimori to decide whether to ready a final version of a possible character.

Interestingly, a key method for making sure that a Pokemon truly doesn't overlap with ones that have been created in the past is that they render it in silhouette completely black, and compare its shape with past designs. Each silhouette must be completely identifiable as different from others.

"It's definitely very challenging, but we make sure we do our best not to overlap," says Ibe.

So for every Pokemon that makes it into the game, dozens and dozens of creatures never made it to the final stage. Ibe herself estimates that 50 of her own designs were passed on before the game was finalized. "High-quality designs that might normally be put in will sometimes get passed on because of battle balance, or because we need to have a certain amount of a certain type," she says.

One unusual element about Black and White is that players will initially be presented with only new Pokemon from the beginning, in part to break the comfortable routine of always beginning with the same types of characters or assembling the same team that players used in previous games. Masuda says players must complete Black and White main story using only the new Pokemon before old favorites become available.

Another key feature is a single in-game console that lets players manage all of the game's online and multiplayer communication functions. Included in these features is a 'tag log' that can find other Pokemon players' nearby devices, given wireless connectivity. Masuda says that among everything new in Black and White, he's most looking forward to seeing player reactions to this.

"I'd like to see the reaction of players at home, or where people are all together, and they turn on their game and see the tag log that shows what other players nearby are doing," he says.

Ibe says she's excited to see how players receive all of the new main story Pokemon. "No one's going to know which ones are strong or which types they are," she says. "It'll be their first time meeting them all."

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