10 Questions With the Director of Pokémon X and Y
By Chelsea Stark - September 20th, 2013
Originally posted at: mashable.com/2013/09/20/pokemon-x-y-director/
Portions of the original article were removed. Only the interview parts are included below.
This leap forward for the series and the more powerful 3DS handheld have inspired lots of changes in the new games. To learn more about how Pokémon X and Y took shape during development, Mashable sat down with Junichi Masuda, the director for X/Y. He's been involved with studio GameFreak since its launch in the mid-90s, first composing music for Pokémon titles, then moving on to direct games.
Mashable: What did it take to translate the sprites and two-dimensional art into that 3D world?
Masuda: When we first decided to develop on the Nintendo 3DS, we looked at its much-improved rendering power. We always knew we wanted to bring Pokémon into 3D, but we didn't want to bring it in a traditional realistic sense. We wanted to convey the soft feel of the 2D in previous games. After doing some experimentation, we made that determination that we could get that same feel across in 3D and just went for it.
Now that there are hundreds of them available, how much work was it to turn the Pokémon sprites into full 3D characters?
Masuda (with input from graphic designer Hironobu Yoshida): It was quite difficult to translate the 2D models, especially with that characteristic style we have in the GameFreak games. That characteristic style was hard to translate. The 2D sprites appear just as you draw them in previous games. That allowed us to make a lot of adjustments to the models even late into the development period. But because of the 3D, we had to have the settings and animations finalized well in advance of previous titles.
Also, now that we're working in 3D, we had to make the settings of each character much more detailed than before. For example, we had to really think about the thickness of something — what a Pokémon's tail looks like on the inside — in order to create these 3D models. The 2D images have these different thicker lines and thin lines that accentuate different pieces of each character, and getting that translated into 3D was very difficult and took quite a bit of time.
How do you design new Pokémon for each game?
Masuda: Each time, we have different settings for each game's regions, and those are based on real-world regions. Getting inspiration for what kind of creatures live in those regions and coming up with ideas for new Pokémon is one of the things we do as graphic designers.
We're also challenging ourselves to come up with things we haven't done before or try new things. Once we come up with several proposals for Pokemon for a new generation, our selection team, headed by our art director Kensuge More and four other people, go through all the different ideas and decide which ones will go into the game, which ones won't, [and which might] be saved for later.
In Pokémon X and Y, the concept of Mega Evolution, where Pokémon can evolve for a fourth time during battle is introduced for the first time. Where did the idea for Mega Evolutions come from?
Masuda: With Pokémon X and Y, we had three main themes. The first was beauty, the second was bonds — the bonds between people and Pokémon — and the third was evolution. Evolution is a defining characteristic of the series, and at GameFreak we were thinking, 'how could we do something new?' How could we have more surprises for players in Pokmon X and Y?
We knew we didn't want to do another stage of evolution, for the battle balance, and to keep the balance intact. We came up with the idea that in order to trigger this mega evolution, which would only happen in battle, we would need the Pokémon to hold a megastone. What that does is it prevents the Pokémon from holding another item. If you want to mega evolve, you can't have another benefit. It makes the battles a lot deeper. There's a lot of strategy as you try to read your opponent.
How do you keep each Pokémon game balanced as both welcoming to new, younger players while still appealing to those who play the game in a very competitive way?
Masuda It's very difficult each time we make a new game to get that balance right, and appeal to both types of fans. One thing we always focus on in the single-player portion is that it's very easy to get into the game, very easy to understand and just pick the Pokémon you like to use, then [use] that Pokémon throughout your adventure without too much trouble.
On the other hand, we have all these elements we've added over time, like abilities and items, and things that make the battle system more complex. We've gotten to the point where we have these world championships every year and people play them at such a high strategic level that it's almost like a sport. You can go and have these competitions and enjoy battling with other players. We never really know if we've been successful with that balance and these systems until the games come out, so before each game comes out I'm always really nervous that players are actually going to enjoy the game.
The first Pokémon game came out in 1998 on the original GameBoy. How have the changes in other technology and how people are playing games now inspired design changes throughout the series?
Masuda: Back with [Pokémon] Red and Blue, most people didn't have mobile phones, or if they did they were huge devices that weren't particularly useful. Most people didn't have access to the internet at home as well. That has completely changed as everyone has mobile phones connected to the internet at all times, and hardware has continued to evolve along with it. With X and Y we really focus on a variety of things to make the games modern. You can accomplish more within a certain amount of play time to make the games speedier.
One concrete example of this: previously when you [caught] Pokémon with a pokeball, you wouldn't gain experience from that battle, but now you always get experience if you defeat or capture Pokémon. We've just made a lot of small changes to that template to improve the pacing of the game. People are busy and have a lot of options nowadays, so you want to make sure to get a lot done in a shorter amount of time.
You've brought back the original starter Pokémon for this game — Charmander, Squirtle and Bulbasaur — that fans played with on the first game. Was it to play on fans' nostalgia?
Masuda: The idea to do the Red and Blue starters didn't come about until about halfway through development, when I first saw the final designs for the starters in the Mega Evolution form. When I saw those designs I thought it would be cool to give players an opportunity to easily get ahold of these Pokémon and to Mega-Evolve them. In the story, you don't receive your first starters from the professor. He's researching what Mega Evolution is, so it just kind of made sense for the professor to give players one of the starters from Red and Blue. Of course, this is going to be great for players who have enjoyed the past games, but it's also great for players who will get to see the old Pokémon in this Mega Evolution form.
Mashable: Was there anything that surprised you after designing the 3D world, like gameplay elements that evolved because of the design?
Pokemon-Amie Pikachu screenshotMasuda: There were actually quite a few features that were decided to be put in after the development of the game had started. This may be due to how we develop games at GameFreak, but we don't necessarily know about all the features we want to add when we start the game. We start developing and as we go along we come up with new ideas.
One new idea was the Pokémon-Amie feature. The concept is just a mode where you can pet your Pokémon and that was it. Later on we started experimenting with the camera and the facial recognition technology and we found it worked really well. We started putting in these little games where the Pokémon would copy your movement, and then it will ask you to do these little copycat games. Another feature was being able to ride Pokémon, which didn't come about a year or so into development.
Mashable: What else are you particularly proud of for this new game?
Masuda: The main thing is the global simultaneous release, now that we're able to release the games at the same time around the world. This comes from a really strong desire to have lots of people to be able to discover new Pokémon for the first time at the same time, and not being able to have seen these Pokémon anywhere else before. A lot of times, when the games were released in Japan first, a lot of fans would have seen a lot of information about them on the Internet before they even had a chance to play them. For about the past seven years, it's been a dream to release these games at the same time around the world, and we were finally able to do that with Pokémon X and Y.
I'm really excited for people to be able to find a Pokémon, and they look it up on the Internet and there is no information, and they ask their friends and they don't know. Those kind of reactions are really exciting to see. It's quite difficult to keep later Pokémon under wraps.
Mashable: The streetpass feature on the 3DS has been a great addition to many games. What will it add to Pokémon X and Y?
Masuda: There's two types of things that use streetpass technology. One is a feature we aren't ready to announce yet. The other is the Player Search System, which appears on the bottom screen of the 3DS. Nearby players will appear on the bottom of the screen, and you can tap them to battle them or trade using the streetpass technology. You can connect to the Internet and get a similar experience from players from around the world.