The Pokémon franchise launched in the U.S. in 1998 — explosively. Since then, the merchandising fad has waned, but the games have remained as popular as they ever were. The last edition to be released, Black and White, sold over 1 million units in its first day on sale in the U.S. alone. Next week Nintendo will release on DS Black and White 2, the first direct sequels in the franchise.
Producer Junichi Masuda has been at developer Game Freak almost since its inception, joining in the 1990s during the pre-Pokémon days when it was a struggling independent studio developing games for publishers like Sega and Namco. Takao Unno, the game’s director, has been at the studio for a decade.
Unno and Masuda tell Gamasutra about the core of the Pokémon franchise. What makes a Pokémon game? What does the development team focus on, and what resonates with audiences?
I’m sure you get a lot of questions about why you’re doing a direct sequel, but what really interests me is, what can you do with a direct sequel that you couldn’t do with, say, a third installment, or a new game?
Takao Unno: When creating a sequel, with this sequel in particular, we thought about what we could do to make it new, and why we need to make this sequel. And there are a variety of reasons, but in terms of gameplay, we really wanted to enhance the communication features, and really expand on the various communication features that connect players with other players. We really focused on making these functions even deeper and more in-depth in the game.
Another aspect is that when we have the two original versions and then a third version, that’s very interesting in its own, but by having two versions this time as the sequel, we’re able to kind of communicate in four different directions rather than just three. So in terms of the gameplay communication, we’re able to expand in more directions than we have in previous Pokémon titles.
Another aspect is also the Memory Link, which when you’re someone who has transferred a save data from Black Version and White Version to Black Version 2 and White Version 2 there are some certain scenarios or story elements that get unlocked, and are very interesting for players who’ve played the previous titles.
How do you balance what you change versus what you keep consistent? Because obviously so many things have been consistent since the first or second installment of the franchise up until today, but other things have to evolve because of the way the audience has evolved.
Junichi Masuda: Finding that balance every time is very difficult. But when you think about games, just like playing, for example, soccer and basketball, they’re games that have been around for a very long time. The core gameplay of those — the core of how you play basketball and soccer — hasn’t really changed. Over the years, there’s regulation changes or rule changes to those games, but the core gameplay doesn’t really change for those, and that’s how we kind of feel about Pokémon as well.
When you have those slight regulation changes for soccer and basketball, you can kind of think of that as when we develop more moves for the Pokémon, or change those moves. And finding that balance is very difficult every time. But one thing we’re maybe more focused on these days is defining more detail in those moves. Where it might’ve been a little bit more general or broad in the past, we get into the fine detail of Pokémon moves, I’d say, in the more modern games.
You know you mentioned soccer, for example. We recently had the Summer Olympics, and what changed so much isn’t the events, but the athletes and what they’re capable of has changed. And by the same token, since Pokémon first came out, people have really dug deeply into the games. Does that affect things? The way the players have come to understand and really dig deep into the strategy of the game? Has that changed in any way, the way you approach the design?
JM: When developing the games, we focus primarily on making it a good experience for first time players. You were talking about the Olympics, but one example I can think of is, for example, a young child will watch an Olympic event and it’ll be the first time they’ll have seen that sport, then they’ll get really excited about it, and they’ll want to try it themselves.
And I think it’s really important to make it very easy for people to get into that experience and try it for themselves. And then if they want to take it to another, a higher level they can then talk with more experienced players. When talking about Pokémon, people who’ve played the games for a long time, or maybe their older brother, they can talk to them and learn more about the game. But in terms of actually how we make the games we really focus on making that entrance as easy as possible, making that as user-friendly as possible for brand new players.