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.
How do you balance keeping the game accessible, but making it very deep? The framework's there -- you already have the framework of the strategy, and that's remained consistent. But in terms of making the game satisfying to those audiences, how do you balance that?
JM: So, in terms of balancing, what we think our core philosophy is, is really first finding a really fun type of gameplay in its simplest form. It's got to be fun in its simplest form. And then when players pick up the game for the first time, we'll teach them the basics, teach them how to play. For example, football season has just started here in America; how to hold the ball, or how far you need to run to get a touchdown, or something like that. Teach them the core rules and let them know the basics, and just make sure it's fun for them.
And then from there we can continue, step by step, perhaps explaining in more and more detail. But we'll add a lot of the more deep, strategic elements to the game, but not necessarily explain them to the players; we don't really throw it in their face, and they have to really think about that.
For the users who really want to take it to that next level, and for players who really want to get into those deep strategies, they can play with the game, and play with their friends, and figure it out for themselves, or discuss it with other players and then figure it out from there.
You spoke earlier about communication being very important to the franchise, and you just touched on it again in a different way. I was wondering, why is communication so important to the Pokémon franchise?
JM: Trading is really the core concept behind the Pokémon games; it's really the core idea that birthed the Pokémon games, and everything really exists to facilitate trading.
For example, the Pokémon creatures we create, we give them value for players that makes players want to trade them, by giving them moves or setting their statistics, the parameters, and making them attractive, something that people would want to trade their Pokémon for.
Also allowing players to give their Pokémon a nickname, and train that Pokémon and raise it by themselves, so there's some sort of sentimental value as well. Or they might not want to trade it with someone, because they have sentimental value for it. Also, stuff like the Pokédex was created as a collection element to support that trading aspect.
And from there, trading is a lot more fun when you do it with people, so that's how the communication aspect came into play. So you're not just trading within the game world, but also outside of the game world, communicating with other people and trading with them.
When you make decisions to approach new technologies such as online, does that all feed back into that core, key concept for the franchise?
JM: So definitely, like I was saying, trading is the core concept to the Pokémon games, and whenever we're investigating new technology we definitely think about how that can support the trading aspect. In regards to Black 2 and White 2, we enabled really easy trading with using the infrared function; you can just use the infrared to connect with someone right next to you, and really trade very easily, especially compared to previous games. We also have wi-fi internet trading over the GTS, the Global Trade Station.
And we just think it's a lot of fun to trade Pokémon; it's fun to imagine where your Pokémon are going throughout the world, now that you have this global connectivity with the wi-fi trading. For example, Black 2 and White 2 have been out in Japan for a little while now, and it's interesting to see how people overseas are really excited to trade with Japanese players for their Pokémon. And everything really is focused on trading, when we're investigating new technology.
When you sit down to plan a new Pokémon game, what's the first thing that you consider? What is the most important consideration?
JM: In the very beginning, we come up with a theme for the games first. For example, in Black Version and White Version, we had the theme of two opposite extremes -- black and white. And when developing Black 2 and White 2, Mr. Unno was the director, and he came to me asking about what we should do for the theme, and he suggested the theme of resonance.
And when you decide a theme, it becomes a lot easier to really figure out what the direction of the game is going to be; it becomes a lot easier to start designing from that, beginning of deciding what the theme will be.
TU: When I saw Pokémon Black Version and White Version with its theme of extreme opposites, which was kind of represented by the Entralink, I was very excited by that. And when I became the director of Black 2 and White 2, I wanted to have a theme of my own. But what I really wanted to do was expand on the communication abilities of the games, communication features, and that's why I chose the theme of "resonance", because that would allow me to really expand the communication aspect of the games.
Can you talk about how choosing a theme enables you to make creative decisions; not just about the story, but also about how the game actually plays?
TU: In terms of Black 2 and White 2 with its theme of resonance, something where the theme really reflects the gameplay, one aspect of that is the Join Avenue, which is a brand new feature to the game.
In Black Version and White Version we had the Tag Log and the Entralink, which were places where players could communicate with each other.
But the theme of resonance, I really was inspired to expand on those possibilities of communication. So not just the Tag Log and the Entralink, but it'll also include the other communication aspects we had such as the Pokémon Dream World and trading over the GTS. I want to find a way to really combine all of these elements and have them resonate with each other.
By taking all of these communication elements and then having the information taken from them reflect on the Join Avenue -- it's a shopping mall type of place, it's a town that gets built up as you communicate with other players via the different aspects, such as the Dream World, the GTS, Tag Log, and Entralink.
And it's really interesting, because players have certain settings for what they like, and then by communicating with those players, the town will develop in a different way.
And another new aspect of Pokémon Black Version 2 and White Version 2 where a theme of resonance came into play was the new Pokémon World Tournament feature. It's a tournament in which you can battle trainers and various characters from the older games, but it also has a feature where you can download data and then you can battle against that data.
For example, the Pokémon World Championships that are held every year; they're events where players come and battle against each other. And one example is that we can take the data from the actual, real life World Championships and have players download and battle against those players.
So that theme of resonance really comes into play, where you have the real world champions' data being able to play against players in game, so it's kind of the real world and the game resonating, in that sense.
It sounds like you continuously want to update these features, and we see more and more focus on this. Do you actually see a potential to make a persistently online Pokémon game?
JM: I really like online connectivity, but for example, we're having this phone call right now, and it's really cool that we can communicate with each other from two really faraway places. But at the same time, it would also be really great if we could talk in person.
That's another thing we could do; it's much more enjoyable when you're talking in person. So I think the best way is to have kind of both at the same time, being able to enjoy this kind of faraway communication, as well as having aspects that allow you to enjoy communication face-to-face and in-person communication.
When the original Black and White were announced, it was viewed as a new beginning for the franchise. Did you achieve what you set out to achieve with the original Black and White?
JM: I think, yeah, we were able to achieve our goals with Pokémon Black Version and White Version. In respect to that, we've made the first step in kind of the new structure, the new form of Pokémon, I believe. For example, we have the Pokémon Global Link, where there's now a great number of people who've registered, and we have the wi-fi battles and wi-fi competitions.
Even in Japan, actually, we have the official qualifying events for the World Championships, and at the first stage of that, we actually used wi-fi competitions where players would sign up on the Pokémon Global Link and battle from there. So I think we definitely achieved our goals of making a new beginning.
In the past, especially on the Game Boy Color and the Advance, there were a lot of games that imitated Pokémon, and a lot of those franchises aren't really around anymore. But lately I've been shown a lot of social games on mobile or on Facebook that seem to imitate Pokémon; it seems to be back in vogue. Does it concern you to see that there are games like this being made, especially on platforms that you can't reach?
JM: So it's definitely a difficult subject, for sure; there are definitely some concerns there. I'm not really sure how far, or how much they copy, or are similar to the Pokémon games -- but as long players are looking at them and thinking, "Oh, this is similar to Pokémon", and as long as they're thinking of Pokémon, that's something that I'm happy about.
Pokémon is a series that's been around for a very long time. The reason it's been around for so long is because players really enjoy it and they play it for a very long time, so we think as long as we can continue that, then we're probably in good shape. However, we do feel that we need as many people as possible to play the Pokémon games; it's important, because the aspect of communication, having more people communicate with each other, is very important for the games. But what we focus on is what our players feel. We just want to keep innovating, doing our best, and making sure that we can make the best games possible, so players will enjoy them.
And just from a creator's point of view, sometimes I wonder whether people who make these really similar games -- or so-called copies -- whether they really want to make that kind of game; if they don't want to make their own thing, instead.