Earlier this week I spent a few hours at Nintendo's San Francisco office playing the beginning of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but that was primarily to prepare for a meeting with the game's developers. Junichi Masuda is currently a producer on Pokemon Sun/Moon, but he's better known as a founding member of Pokemon developer Game Freak and as the composer of the franchise's most memorable melodies. Shigeru Ohmori has also been a long-time designer in the Pokemon franchise, and he directed Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire as well as the upcoming Sun/Moon.
One of the more interesting pieces of information you can read below is that the team is still working on ideas for connecting both the handheld Sun/Moon and the mobile sensation Pokemon Go, but I also talked with the devs about their process for distributing the game's legendaries, the secret of Pikachu's popularity, and their thoughts on fans calling out their least favorite Pokemon. Check out the full transcript below.
And for even more Sun/Moon content, you can try out a demo of the game for free through the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Or if you don't have time for that, you can watch us play the demo for you!
GameSpot: After spending a few hours with Sun/Moon, it definitely feels like a re-invigoration of the Pokemon series. What are the new ideas you're most excited to show off in this version of Pokemon?
Shigeru Ohmori: This being the 20th anniversary title, and also my first time working as a director on an all-new generation of Pokemon games, I knew I wanted to create a new Pokemon experience. One that could be enjoyed as a fresh experience for both veteran players and new players alike. Also, from the onset I wanted to focus on making the relationship between the humans and Pokemon in this Alola region feel much closer than before. One big change to make it feel fresh was changing the way you work your way through the game.
Instead of going through gyms, like in previous games, you instead have these island trials where you take on wild Pokemon bosses that have grown really big and powerful. That's a new experience.
Sun/Moon adds a lot of options that make it easier for newcomers, or even for people who just haven't played for a long time, to onboard onto the series. For example, after you meet a Pokemon for the first time, you're able to see whether your attack will be effective or not. What was it that made you finally streamline that process?
SO: We always try to think who's going to be playing the game for that era. These days, everyone has an iPhone or some other smartphone; there are lots of handy gadgets in your day-to-day life, which make life much easier. A lot of younger kids, when they encounter a game that feels like too much work, they may just give up. We want to make sure that it's very easy, very approachable for anyone to pick up and play. By doing that we re-examined, revisited the interface design, and added a variety of features like being able to throw the last thrown pokeball with just one button, and just making it very easy to play.
Junichi Masuda: It's a sign of the times, I think. In the past, you had to remember everything. But now you have Mr. Google to teach you everything. [laughs]
Speaking of that simplification, I don't think it can get more simple than Pokemon Go. You see a Pokemon and throw a ball at them. Of course, Pokemon Sun and Moon is a more robust experience, but when you guys looked at Pokemon Go and you've seen the success of that, was that something you were you excited about? Or was it something that was a little bit scary because of the direction that it might take future Pokemon games?
JM: With Pokemon Go, I was involved with the development and specifically designing the catching mechanic. I really wanted to make it super easy to understand what to do, whether or not you've ever played a Pokemon game before or know what Pokemon is about. People who maybe don't know Pokemon, they would see a creature, they have a ball. They may not know to throw the ball and catch that Pokemon, so one of the things we did to really simplify that is we added a target on the Pokemon. So you intuitively know to throw the ball at that target. We really focused on the aspect of catching Pokemon. And then adding the ability to put some spin on the ball, for example, and really fleshing out that mechanic, that was the direction of Pokemon Go.
The main series games though, they're made to be enjoyed in longer sessions, maybe at home, and we focus a lot on the raising of Pokemon and using them in battle. It was a different direction, really focused more on training Pokemon and raising them, so both games take two different direction. I think Go players will be able to jump into the main series through the Sun and Moon games. We make sure that we explain the mechanics in the main series games so that anyone can pick up and play them. Rather than being scary or intimidating, I think we have a new, strong ally in the Pokemon world.
Rather than being scary or intimidating, [with Pokemon Go] I think we have a new, strong ally in the Pokemon world.
Sun/Moon has been in development for a long time, and very separate, of course, from Pokemon Go. But did the rapid success of Pokemon Go, or did any ideas from that game, bleed over into Sun and Moon at all? Did that change anything?
SO: We were in the final parts of development when Go came out, so really nothing about the success changed any of the game design for Sun and Moon. Just for my perspective, I think a lot of people got a chance to experience Pokemon for the first time, and I think they'll be in for a much different experience with Sun and Moon. One of the cool things was that in Go is that you see all of the original Pokemon from the first games, the Kanto Pokemon. What we've done in Pokemon Sun and Moon, we have these Alolan region variants that you'll see, like the very long neck version of Exeggutor.
For people that have played Pokemon Go, who are used to seeing these Pokemon, they'll be surprised at all these new takes on these Pokemon they're already familiar with.
The number of Pokemon is always growing! The original Red and Blue had just 151, and now there's over 700. Is that a number that you think will always continue to grow with games? Or is that something that you've ever thought, "Maybe we should reset and go back to a smaller number"?
JM: We always discuss that, but from my perspective, if we ever have a clear breaking point, and say, "We're gonna reset here," then that would make the existing Pokemon feel old. They'd be treated as the "old" batch of Pokemon. In my mind, Pokemon like Charizard aren't old.
From a development perspective, it's very difficult to do this, but we try to make sure that all the Pokemon exist in the same space. They're all on the same level. To cut it off at some point would make it much easier to develop, but Pokemon are part of a lot of peoples' memories. We place a lot of importance on that.
We do have lot of memories with those early Pokemon especially. I see that Mr. Ohmori even has a Pikachu cover on his phone case there. Pikachu is, in particular, a really enduring mascot for the Pokemon games. Why do you think Pikachu has lasted so long, is so endearing?
JM: I think the biggest reason is that Pikachu was Ash's partner in the animated series, and that's probably what caused it to be such a success and endearing and widespread. But why was Pikachu chosen as the partner for Ash in the animated series? If you remember back in the original games, the first forest you go into, Pikachu was a very rare Pokemon there. It was a situation where, in places like an elementary school class, maybe two or three kids would have encountered Pikachu. The rest of them hadn't seen him before. It was a cute Pokemon, hard to get, and other students would wonder "How did you get that?" So Pikachu got a lot of buzz, but the internet wasn't around then like it is today; it had to spread by word of mouth. It was a rumored Pokemon that existed in this forest.
So Pikachu got a lot of buzz, but the internet wasn't around then like it is today; it had to spread by word of mouth. It was a rumored Pokemon that existed in this forest.
That was one of the reasons we chose it as the partner for Ash in the animated series. We wanted to feature it because of the rumors that spread about it. The guy who originally coded that part of the the forest, he liked Pikachu because it was a cute Pokemon. He just wanted to catch it for himself, so he made it very low encounter rate. Extremely rare.
Though I guess he wasn't always as cute as he is now [laughs].
Yeah, he used to be a pretty chubby little guy.
JM: When it came time to put it in the animated series, it needed to move around a lot more. So we slimmed him down a little bit. But I think that was actually a good thing.
We were talking a little bit earlier about Pokemon Go, and I believe at some point you mentioned the potential of crossing over, in some way, the mobile game and Sun and Moon. Is that something you still talk about, or is that something might be revealed later, or is that off the table?
JM: It's definitely not off the table. We're still thinking about the best way to establish this kind of connectivity and what the best timing will be. First, we just want people to enjoy Sun and Moon after they come out, then we'll keep working on ideas to best accomplish that.
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Even within Sun and Moon, the process for connecting with other people is also a very streamlined experience. Thinking from a multiplayer perspective, what's been the approach? It feels like there's always been a delineation between people who play for the story and then the people who want to play and compete against other people. How do you approach that from a design perspective?
SO: As an RPG, of course, there are many people who really just want to enjoy the story. There are also people who want to focus on training Pokemon, really getting into the battling. And others who may want to collect and trade with other people to complete their Pokemon collection. I think having this wide variety of ways to play Pokemon is what really makes it great. We always try to streamline or, at least make less complicated, the interface and the aspects of each of these different play styles. Just to make it so that maybe one person can easily switch over to a different type of play. We just try to make it very natural and seamless to move between the different modes.
Which mode do you think is more popular? Is it an even split among players?
SO: Being an RPG at its core, I think it's the story and the adventure--working your way through. This time we have trials, but you're also growing as a trainer alongside your Pokemon to become champion. That's the core of the game, and I think that's what most people enjoy, at least at the beginning. A lot of people will then move on to battling and trading with friends, the communication features. Pokemon continues to expand even after the main story is completed; there's all these options for players to enjoy.
And there's always lots of very rare Pokemon to catch after the game finishes. But In the lead up to Sun and Moon, we've also had a lot of opportunities for people to catch hard-to-find creatures through monthly distributions. How do you decide which Pokemon are going to be "let out of the vault" at any given time?
JM: When it comes to the Pokemon distributions, especially when we give out Pokemon at specific locations or for doing something, we're not just giving out the Pokemon as a character; we want people to create some kind of memory when they get that Pokemon. We place a lot of focus on going to a physical location to get a Pokemon. In Japan it's the Pokemon Center, here in the United States that's often stores like GameStop, or other partners. We want to have people form these memories of going to a real location. Also, we think about tying it together with the season. For example. If it's spring, we'll think, "What's a spring-like Pokemon?" We'll come up with something like that, and also determine the OT, the original trainer name, for that Pokemon, to really hit with the theme we're doing at the time.
It can get very complicated though. If a Pokemon is given out in Japan first, then we need to think about distributing it in other regions, or vice-versa. It's something we're always looking at.
To put it in another way, we always pay attention to the "value" of a Pokemon. Like my phone case. [He holds up a phone that also has a Pikachu over on it.] If I just purchased it, however much I paid for it is the value of it. But if I were to receive it from some amazing person, or someone gave it to me as a present, then the value, obviously, goes up for that particular case. It becomes a very special case. We have that way of thinking, or that approach when it comes to giving out Pokemon.
Thinking about the games themselves, in America especially we see a lot of yearly franchises; every year there's a new Call of Duty game. But for Pokemon, how does the team decide how much time they need for a new game? How do you decide when it's finally ready?
JM: It really needs to be something that we, as a team, are satisfied with. But it does, kind of, fall into a cycle; an all-new generation game takes about three years of development to really get it to a point where we know it's something people will enjoy it. Even with Sun and Moon, we had a team of around 120, but it still took us about three years.
Pokemon is such a global, recognizable phenomenon. Does that make you feel like you have more of a responsibility to create a game that's global? Some developers are very region-focused--games that are specially geared toward a Japanese audience or an American audience. But do you feel that responsibility to make Pokemon a game for everyone?
JM: Yeah. With Pokemon these days, in terms of numbers, it's even bigger in the United States than in Japan. Europe is also a very big market. And in Europe, if you're on a vacation, you can easily visit a neighboring country-- we really have to keep these things in mind. How are they going to use the communication features in such an environment? We're always thinking how would Americans, or people from other countries, play the games. We have to talk about it with people who know about that stuff, and we got to do a lot of research on our own. As a creator, I think it's really important to imagine how people are going to play your games. We also need to think globally, obviously.
For a game like Sun and Moon, you have an obvious island influence. Did you guys try to find a primary area to take those ideas from, or were you aiming for a more global island culture?
SO: With Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, obviously that took place in the Hoenn region, and there were some Okinawan-inspired areas in that region. The idea, in Hoenn at least, was that we would express these Pokemon hiding out in all these different spots of nature. In Japan, you can really hear the loud cry of the insects at night. In certain regions there are just a lot of animals hiding out in nature.
We really wanted to express that with the Alola region, which is more inspired by Hawaii. We wanted to show a world where Pokemon and humans are much closer to each other, that relationship is much closer. They all live in harmony in nature. I go to Hawaii a decent amount in my personal life, and I feel that the people there really just live alongside nature quite closely.
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We took that as the inspiration for Alola, and expressing it in, for example, the Pokemon Ride feature, where the Pokemon maybe help you carry things, you can ride on them directly, or overcome obstacles. It's really a part of people's lives there. Also, we express it with the battles, where the trainer now appears alongside his or her Pokemon. It all expresses that close relationship.
Did everyone on the development team get to take a lot of trips to Hawaii for research too?
SO: We definitely took some trips, and a lot of the development team went to Hawaii. A lot of the experiences they had there are expressed in the game, and we used those experiences to make the rich, abundant feeling of nature in the games.
As a series, there aren't a lot of role-playing games that get to keep that same name and the same feel, even the same world, over such a long time. Pokemon has evolved a lot from the initial game, which was primarily just collecting Pokemon, but there really wasn't a lot more context than that. Now you have a big, rich story. What does Pokemon mean now? What to you does Pokemon represent?
JM: It's the beauty of diversity. In really big terms, it expresses beauty of diversity. They are so many options. You can find things that you like, and everyone can find something that they like within the Pokemon world.
SO: What Pokemon represents to me, is that it facilitates communication, interactions with other people. Really communicating with friends, through trading, for example, and growing up alongside these Pokemon. I think that the experiences you have with them add value to them, and that also goes back and facilitates the trading. You want to get other people's Pokemon. That's really what it means to me.
My last question, there are always list features about people's least favorite Pokemon. Do you ever look at lists like that and think they're funny, or do you think, "Yeah, that was kind of a weird idea for a Pokemon that we put out. Like that garbage Pokemon"?
JM: I think having those lists is interesting. The fact that people dislike a Pokemon means that it has a certain trait, some defining characteristic that they dislike. Other people actually might like that, so I think it really comes back to that diversity, or just having this wide variety. There are probably also some Pokemon in the middle that people don't really like or dislike.
SO: In one of the recent movies, there was a poll where people ranked their favorite Pokemon. I think at the very bottom of that was a Simisear, one of the fire monkeys. But even that being the most disliked Pokemon actually spurred this outpouring of fanart and everything, and posting about him on Twitter. So I think that was interesting.