GameCentral speaks to the producer and director of the new Pokémon games, about online options, arm-breaking swans, and shorts vs. trousers.
A new Pokémon game is always something to get excited about but Sword and Shield is a genuine milestone for the series. It's the first time a mainline entry has ever appeared on a console that isn't portable-only, which means access to more graphical horsepower than the games have ever had before and the chance to be played on the big screen.
Each game is usually inspired by a particular country and this time it's the turn of the UK, with the land of Galar featuring Big Ben-like clock towers and stadiums that look more like football grounds. Sword and Shield didn't feature much in the E3 Nintendo Direct because they'd had their own dedicated one the week before, but the games were playable at E3 and we were able to interview producer Junichi Masuda and director Shigeru Ohmori.
The playable demo didn't reveal much though as it was all set within a (water-themed) gym, so we didn't get to see any of the exterior graphics. We did get to try out the new Dynamax feature though, which allows any pokémon to grow to giant size once per battle, for three rounds. It's a great visual effect but because only a few different pokémon were featured in the demo the options were limited and as veteran pokéfans we beat them all easily.
Based on the Pokémon Direct though the game does look encouraging, with an open world portion of the game world called Wild Area where you have full control of the camera and can explore and even take part in four-player co-op battles. Although the game retains a more traditional fixed camera system when in or near towns.
In our interview more robust online options were promised, although when we spoke to the pair the furore over the new games not allowing you to import pokémon from previous generations – because not all of the existing 800 pokémon have been recreated in the new graphics engine – hadn't happened yet.
But, like most game franchises, Pokémon is always being criticised by its fans for what it's not doing, while still being enjoyed for everything it does right. Pokémon Sword and Shield will clearly have the usual share of controversies but it's a major step forward for the franchise and one that will shape the future of the series for many years to come…
Formats: Nintendo Switch Publisher: The Pokémon Company/Nintendo Developer: Game Freak Release Date: 15th November 2019
GC: You're potentially making the dream game of every Pokémon fan here. For years people have been asking for an open world game with modern, home console graphics. Was that something you were aware of when you were designing the game?
SO: I'm definitely happy to finally be able to deliver on what I think fans have been waiting on. After Pokémon X and Y and Pokémon Sun and Moon we're now continuing the main series with a new generation of pokémon and we're able to do it on a console this time, so I'm very excited to be able to finally deliver that experience.
GC: It must be difficult catering for both legacy fans and newer players. How much of your time is spent thinking about what the older fans will want versus worrying about accessibility, particularly for younger kids?
SO: We always try and make the game for as broad of an audience as possible and I think we're able to do that by having a lot of the features that you encounter up front… we make sure that we explain it all very thoroughly – introduce the world to players and teach them even the basics. If they're still a new player we teach them how to throw the pokéball, catch the pokémon, all those basics to make sure they get the gameplay.
And then on more of the backend of things, having unique battle systems and a lot of depth on how you can train and raise your pokémon to really satisfy the fans that have been with us the entire time. We just try to make it as broad as possible but also go for depth to a certain extent.
GC: The new game almost seems to be divided into two sections, with the stuff around towns working like previous games, with a relatively fixed camera, and then the Wild Area is more like a modern open world game. Was that a purposefully created compromise?
SO: I think that's fair to say. When we try to make big changes in the series we want to do it a bit more gradually. Every time we make a new game we want to change up the formula and do new things but if you do too much all at once then it feels like it might not be a Pokémon game.
So we try to implement new things fairly gradually, to try and satisfy some of the requests from fans to try out new things, and if it goes well we would incorporate that in the future. So yeah, I think you could say that the Wild Area is our answer to some of the requests for a more open area, and we'll continue to do new things gradually, as we progress with the series.
GC: This is obviously an important milestone for the franchise but how radical a change were you willing to consider for Sword and Shield? I'm sure plenty of fans have suggested having everything open world, like a big Skyrim type world, or even things like having real-time combat instead of turn-based – which is something Square Enix have obviously been thinking about with Final Fantasy VII Remake. They're not necessarily good ideas but are they possibilities that came up?
SO: We of course, in the conceptual phase, we think of a lot of more, possibly, radical changes that we might want to try out. But a lot of them are just ideas at the time and we end up not incorporating them. But we are inspired by the current gaming environment, games that modern players enjoy.
A long time ago, for example, it was traditional to have a camera looking down at 2D gameplay, with much more fixed movement, but now 3D games are the norm and being able to freely move around the camera is something that people are used to and we're able to incorporate that more.
So it really just comes back to what we think Pokémon fans are really looking forward to trying and, for example, real-time combat – we've thought about that before but we just keep coming back, at least for these games, to the turn-based system that is what fans of Pokémon enjoy more.
GC: Okay, but that implies you might try it out in a spin-off?
JM: We've got a lot of ideas, but nothing to comment on right now. [laughs]
GC: So why was it that Dynamax became one of the main gimmicks for the new games? Where did that come from? Is that something that had been considered for a long time?
SO: It was really inspired by the move to Switch, higher resolutions and the ability to play on a big screen TV. With the 3DS we really didn't have the resolution to portray very small characters versus very big characters at the same time. So being able to visualise that kind of size difference, of the pokémon, was something that the Switch enabled us to do. So we wanted to create these kind of cool-looking battles.
GC: I've being looking at the reactions online and everyone seems very keen, except there is concern that new features get added to Pokémon each time and, whether they're well received or not, they seem to disappear for the next iteration for no obvious reason. Is Dynamax something that's going to stick around forever?
SO: At Game Freak, it really just comes from our desire to surprise the players with new gameplay. Not to do the exact same thing every time but have a new twist on something, that keeps people surprised and enjoying the new style of gameplay.
GC: If a feature has been removed – things like Vs. Seeker, Battle Frontier, and so on – is there still a chance they might come back in the future, even if it's not for this one?
SO: I think, if by bringing it back, it would be a surprise in itself or be a new take on the formula I think you might see some things like that happen. For example, in these games, the bike is back, which was gone for a while. In Sun and Moon you could ride on the back of certain pokémon, to get around, but we felt with the Wild Area being so large we wanted to look at what would be the best way to let players get around and very smoothly, without too much trouble.
So we brought back the bike, but we also changed it a little bit so it can now go seamlessly over water and we added new things to make it feel like it's a surprise again.
GC: Is the game based on the UK in general or just England, I'm not clear?
SO: I think it's probably fair to say it's inspired by the United Kingdom as a whole. Of course, it's not 1:1 [laughs]. But I've been to the United Kingdom before and it left a deep impression on me… the feeling of the power of the nature, for example, and a lot of the old legends from the United Kingdom and the stories that inspired us for these games.
GC: That's what I was going to ask, is there any specific mythology or supernatural characters you've incorporated into the games? I don't know what we've really got other than Nessie.
SO: [laughs] One specific example is the legends of giants, like, ah…
GC: Brutus and those legends?
SO: Yeah, so some of that really ancient pictography on the hills.
GC: Oh right, I know what you mean.
SO: The English and Welsh legends about tales of giants.
GC: So is that where the idea for Dynamax came from?
SO: Partially, yes. And also other elements in the game.
GC: So is there going to be other stuff like, I dunno, does it rain a lot? Is there going to be a sudden obsession with tea?
SO: [laughs] In the Wild Area in particular the weather is quite dynamic.
GC: Quite dynamic? That is a very diplomatic way to put it.
GC: I just hope there's a reference to cricket. You've obviously got football in there, but all those Mario sports games and it's never cricket.
GC: So just turning to the pokémon designs, is there a different methodology to creating them with each game. I don't know whether that would be informed by the new setting or new hardware?
JM: Every game, and even in a single game, there's lots of different methods we use to design different pokémon. They come from a lot of different places. But one of the approaches we focused on this time around was not just having our digital artists come up with new visual designs first and then figuring out what to do with them.
Instead wed had some of the game designers, even if they aren't very artistically inclined, they would come up with a setting or an idea and then be paired with an artist and then they would work on it like a team together, to come up with a wide variety of new pokémon. So that was kind of a new approach that we took this time around.
GC: Are there any specific examples you can give of one that was created that way?
SO: One example is Wooloo, the sheep pokémon, and one of the reasons for that is that there a lot of sheep in the UK. [laughs] But aside from that the designer came up with a lot of settings and what they wanted from the character, and then worked with the artist to come up with more ideas.
GC: This is a slightly silly example, but I think everyone in the UK was told by their mum never to go near a swan because it'll break their arm. Which is something everyone in the UK believes is true, even though it's not.
Everyone in the room from the UK: [nodding and mumbles of agreement]
Everyone else: …
GC: Will you have references similar to that?
SO: [laughs] Actually, our art director on the game is a guy called James Turner and he's from the UK.
GC: Oh yes, I saw him on the Direct.
SO: We do check with him a lot. All the designs, we make sure to get kind of the UK check that it's faithful and authentic before we get the final OK. So, I imagine he's worked in a lot of those kind of elements into the game.
GC: I'm imagining a whole subplot now, where the Queen gets to eat the swan at the end.
GC: We're joking here but it must be very difficult with common animals, that you've already used as inspiration two or three times before, to come up with anything new. Is that why it seems like there's been a drift towards more humanoid-looking pokémon in recent games?
JM: At Game Freak we all try to bring all of our ideas to the table, to come up with new original things but, as you said, using the same motif for a base animal and adding new traits to it, to differentiate it… we never want to make a pokémon that's extremely similar to another one so that it's hard to really tell the difference.
We're not consciously making more bipedal or human-looking pokémon but there could be some kind of subconscious thing that's leading us in order to have more original characters in that direction. It's hard to say.
GC: What did you think about the response to the Detective Pikachu movie? Because I think whatever your response to the film the designs were very warmly accepted by almost everyone. The idea of doing realistic looking pokémon is not particularly new but is that something you will now be thinking of incorporating into future games? Maybe even mainline ones?
JM: It was really difficult making the movie visual style, getting it right. For example, Pikachu doesn't have eyebrows, so trying to make them look realistic, with emotions and everything, without making it look completely different to the traditional Pikachu that everyone knows, was very difficult. But I think we did come to a pretty good balance that made it still feel like Pokémon but it was also more realistic.
I was very pleased to see the reaction, of how people accepted it. Especially, I was worried about the reception in Japan, where realism maybe isn't as appreciated as it is in the West. But it worked out pretty well and I think whether we actually go that style on the games or not, that's something we'd have to think about in the future. But finding that right balance between fantasy and reality, where exactly that is for each game, I think that's something we'll have to find in the future.
GC: When I was talking earlier about the idea of the perfect Pokémon game I think most fans would imagine something that had much more robust online features. And, again, that's something that's waxed and waned with the mainline games over time. Will we see that being expanded on? Could things like co-op for the whole game be in this title or future ones?
YO: We've always viewed Pokémon as kind of a communication tool, even starting with the Game Boy where you had link cables to connect to other players to battle and trade, and we tried to expand on it in different ways every game. But I think online is definitely one of the focuses that we've put for these games.
For example, the Wild Area, when you're connected to the Internet you can actually be matched up with other players from around the world and they'll start appearing in your world and when you see them you can kind of invite them to trade or battle or even engage in the new Max Raid Battles, which is kinda the first time we've done this co-operative battle gameplay where you can team up with three other players and then take on big bosses.
I think you'll find there's definitely more of a focus on online this time and we'll continue to try and expand on more communications in the future.
GC: If I could just end with two quick requests, one of which I think you get a lot and one of which I'm sure you don't. Firstly, I can't believe it's 2019 and there still isn't a Pokémon Snap 2.
GC: You had the Wii U GamePad and now you've got Nintendo Labo VR, which has an actual physical camera, why is there not a Pokémon Snap 2?! I'll pre-order it right now if you agree to make it!
JM: [laughs] All I can say is that I don't think we can just make the same thing again. So we'd have to come up with a very unique twist on this if we do make another one.
GC: OK, that's fine. Please do so! And the other thing… can we please have the chance to wear trousers in this game? There's not many Britons that will be wandering round in shorts all day but you never have them to buy at shops, it's always just shorts!
YO: [considerable laughter] …
GC: Just say yes.
YO: [laughs] There's a lot of clothing options in the game…
GC: I know. And every time I get to a new shop I think, 'This one will have trousers'. But it never does.
YO: [laughs] Well, in Sun and Moon it was a very hot climate.
GC: That's why I'm pointing it out it should be different this time. [laughs]
GC: Thank you both. Thanks very much for your time.
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