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How Pokemon are born: Designing the series' iconic monsters

Gamasutra speaks to Hironobu Yoshida, the final art supervisor of the 20-person team that designs the creatures that form the core of Nintendo's killer handheld franchise.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 10, 2013

4 Min Read

When you think of the Pokemon game franchise, of course you think of its iconic monsters. Pokemon, after all, is a portmanteau of its Japanese title, Pocket Monsters, and the series' most iconic mon' is Pikachu, which still serves as its symbol over a decade later. With every game in the franchise, a team of monster designers at developer Game Freak comes up with new creatures for players to battle and catch. Hironobu Yoshida led the graphic design team for the game's interface; he also worked on the monster designs alongside a team of about 20 designers who come up with ideas for pokemon. Pikachu may endure, but each game has its own stars -- the trio of "starters," the three monsters from which the player selects his or her first companion. Above, you can see the starters from Pokemon X and Y. "I do believe they represent a very important position in the Pokemon games, of course. They're the first pokemon you pick," says the game's director, Junichi Masuda. "I think they're absolutely necessary to the Pokemon games," Yoshida says. "Personally, I think they're the ones that should be on the packaging. They're really the face of that generation, and I think even as designers, they feel a bit more special to us than some of the other pokemon." It's not just about aesthetics -- the starters teach players how the game works in fundamental ways, a challenge to accomplish through visual design. "With the starter pokemon, they always evolve twice, and a lot of players will use these pokemon until the end. They teach the players a bit about the basics, so we need to make sure the designs are at the same time easy to understand -- the way they evolve, for example -- and of course making them appealing is very important to the games," says Masuda. Pikachu as it appears in Pokemon X and Y. As you might imagine, the process of coming up with these monsters is very painstaking: "Since there are 20 of us and we're working all on our own ideas, we want to make sure we're not overlapping ideas. At Game Freak, we have an internal server where we can upload our designs and share them with everyone else on the team. This allows us to see what everyone else is working on and get ideas from each other," Yoshida says. Getting a monster selected for the final roster, however, is not simple. "It's very difficult work every time. There are probably five to 10 times the number of ideas that are rejected as the ones that make it into the final design, so it's a very difficult process," Yoshida says. The studio has a committee of five people who decide which designs will go into the game -- and which do not make the cut. "And they also will leave feedback on all of the designs, even the ones that are rejected, to say why they got rejected or why they didn't choose a certain one. What that lets us do is improve for the future, so we can use that knowledge for the next series of titles," Yoshida says. It's Yoshida's job to supervise the final look of each monster, in the form of setup sheets that contain every detail of their appearance. "I'm in charge of really creating these setup sheets and making the final adjustments to the pokemon," he says. He also created the Pokemon X and Y pokedex -- the in-game catalogue of all the monsters. The monster designs also don't occur in a vacuum. The nature of the game means that various monster "types" -- there are 18, which function similarly to elements in other RPGs -- are needed to fill the roster and provide for balanced play. "Of course, we do a lot of free thinking on our own, but we also get orders from the planners, saying, 'We need this type of pokemon,' or even from Mr. Masuda, the director. He'll say that we need specific pokemon," Yoshida says. "Really one of the good things about the company is that it's really open for discussion," he adds. "We can talk with each other until both parties come to an agreement, I think."

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