The lights are on
This week marks the long-awaited release of the fifth-generation of Pokémon titles, Black and White. Game Freak producer, Junichi Masuda, and the graphic designer who created many of the game’s 150 new Pokémon, Mana Ibe, tell us about the past, present, and future of the long-running franchise. Did you know the traditional routes found in Pokémon games were
initially created as a workaround for cartridge limitations? Did you
know that Pokémon originally didn't evolve? If it weren't for the lengthy six-year development cycle of the original games, these series staples would not have existed. Read on to learn more franchise secrets.
Game Freak’s beginnings
Masuda: First it was a gathering of people who knew each other who really liked games, “game freaks” if you will, kind of like indie developers. We all got together with Satoshi Tajiri and decided to make an indie game at the time for the Famicom, Quinty (Mendel Palace in North America). After creating that game and nearing the end of its completion, we decided to come together and form the company Game Freak. From here on out, Game Freak’s philosophy is to challenge new things, challenge ourselves, and make games that make people happy, games that people can play over and over for a long time, and have a smile on their face when they play it.
Pokémon began as a vehicle for communication
Masuda: At the time the Game Boy had just come out and it had the Game Link Cable that allowed communication between two Game Boys. Tajiri came up with the idea that he really wanted to find a way to use that link cable so players could trade. At the time the idea for Pokémon still wasn’t right there. The starting point of creating Pokémon came from the idea of finding a way of communicating to trade.
The six-year development cycle
Masuda: The development processes for the first two games was very long – it was a six-year development span – and at first obviously with the Game Boy the cartridges didn’t have much memory at all, as a result of that, we had to program it in a way for the data to be as small as possible.
Pokémon open world game?
Masuda: In the beginning we really wanted to make a really big world, a really big field, kind of seamless, but because of the hardware limitations we had to connect these various maps with routes and it’s become a tradition that we still use in the games up until now. It wasn’t originally planned, but because of the hardware limitations we had to implement that.
No evolution, types at outset
Masuda: During original concept, there was no concept of evolution for Pokémon to evolve and get stronger, and have their design and appearance totally change. That’s obviously an important part of the Pokémon series, one of the characteristics that wouldn’t have come if the development process wasn’t so long.
Also, stuff like individual types was something that came up later in development that really added a lot of strategic importance to battles, and the reason a lot of this was gradually added on when development went on was because the Game Boy cartridge’s memory continued to expand over its lifetime. This allowed Game Freak to increase the amount of Pokémon in the game and add the Pokédex because at that point we had so many Pokémon we wanted something that players could use to look at detailed information for each Pokémon.
Masuda: One of the original names [for the games] was “Capsule Monsters” because they go in capsules, but decided later on to go with Pocket Monsters or “Pokémon.”
From Red and Blue to Black and White
Masuda: It was actually the themes behind the games that decided the titles [for Black and White]. One of the themes is to really express two polar opposites. For example, you have the big city in one field, and then you have the countryside in the other field. The theme of the polar opposites is what brought us to think of black and white.
Pokémon RPG not designed for console
Masuda: Portability is really important for the Pokémon series. For example, in Pokémon Black and Pokémon White versions we have the new C-Gear that appears on the bottom screen that has a lot of communication features. When it’s on it’s always communicating information with players nearby, for instance, at a place where a lot of people get together or at a friend’s house. Turn it on and if other players are nearby you can find out what they’re up to, whether they’re catching Pokémon or in a battle with trainers. It’s this concept of always playing and communicating with nearby players that has always been important to the Pokémon.
Aside from that, to be able to communicate with players who are really far away or can’t be in the same area, in Pokémon Black version or Pokémon White version we are introducing the Pokémon Global Link (PGL) that allows players to communicate data from their DS to their computers, go on the Pokémon Global Link website, and view rankings for battles or communicate with players that are really far away. I look forward to seeing how well this does, especially in the United States, as a lot more people use the internet off their computers.Designing 150 new Pokémon
Ibe: There were about 17 designers for Black and White project at Game Freak and one of the ways we make sure we don’t have too much overlap with any of the previous Pokémon is if we have a new design, we’ll take a silhouette of it, just the outline of it, and color the rest of it in black, and make sure the shape of it doesn’t overlap with previous Pokémon designs, and make sure it still looks original. We also do that with the color palette, color combinations, and make sure that there aren’t any Pokémon in the older games that share that exact same color palette as the new ones. Some of the directions we got from planners was to not be restricted or bound by old designs, for example, just because there might be one type of Pokémon existing in the old games, doesn’t mean you can’t make a similar type of Pokémon in a different light.
Finding inspiration in real-life animals, objects
Ibe: I’ll sometimes go to the zoo and look at various animals or animals outside and study their behavior. I also get inspiration from inanimate objects as well, such as an umbrella. If you combined an umbrella with an animal, how would they use that umbrella? How would you combine that to make an interesting creature?
Never running out of ideas
Masuda: Video games haven’t been around as long as other media. In the past I was worried that once I turn 50 would I still be able to come up with new ideas? But then I look at other creators in the industry who are older like Shigeru Miyamoto, who keeps coming up with new ideas. I’m relieved to see that because even if you keep getting older you keep coming up with original ideas. There’s still a lot of stuff that hasn’t been done. In the past it was sometimes said in Japan that people over 30 wouldn’t be able to use computers because they just get too old for them, but nowadays you have grandparents, people at work in their 50s using computers. There’s still a lot of room for innovation and I hope to keep making games as I grow older. I’m always thinking about new ideas and trying to find ways to realize those ideas, and I feel confident going forward that I’m going to find ways to innovate the series and just games in general.Future of the franchise
Masuda: Often I’ll think about what computers are going to be like 10 years from now. In movies you’ll see representations of the future. You’ll see transparent floating computer devices in the air, touch and pull screens on a transparent screen. It’s just something like in a dream. I hope that the Pokémon series can turn into something that we would dream of now in the future.
Ibe: I played the original Red and Blue games years ago, I was a kid back then, and I’m really impressed that Pokémon is still accepted by society and still popular among people. I never even imagined that I’d work at Game Freak. The ones that come out now are made by people of my generation, obviously the older people make them as well. The new games are matching this generation and I expect that they’re going to continue to evolve with new generations.
Check out our review for Pokemon Black and Pokemon White versions.