GameCentral speaks to the creators of the new Pokémon Sword/Shield about graphics, voice-acting, AI, and… Downtown Abbey.
You almost never get to meet or interview Nintendo developers. We felt very privileged to speak to Super Mario Odyssey producer Yoshiaki Koizumi back before the game’s release but that was a rare opportunity. The Pokémon Company has always had a different approach though and with the release date for Pokémon Sword/Shield fast approaching this is the second time we’ve been able to speak to producer Junichi Masuda and director Shigeru Ohmori in less than six months, following our initial chat at E3 in June.
But then the marketing for Pokémon Sword/Shield has been very on point all year, as it whips fan anticipation into a fervour with everything from a 24-hour livestream, that gave just a glimpse of a new pokémon variant, and the opening of a Pokémon Center in London that has had fans queuing around the block. Pokémon Sword/Shield is clearly going to be huge and based on the 90 minutes we played last month it probably deserves to be too.
It was at that same event that we got to meet Masuda-san again, with Ohmori-san appearing via video link in Tokyo. Despite what these photos might suggest Masuda-san is a stern-looking fellow, who at first glance does not seem like the sort of person you’d expect to be in charge of a game series like Pokémon game. But, like last time, we managed to get more than a few laughs out of him, as he and Ohmori-san discussed detail topics like voice-acting, storytelling, and localisation.
And of course we had to bring up the controversy over ‘Dexit’, the fan outrage that Pokémon Sword/Shield, for the first time in the series, will not include all pre-existing pokémon. That’s a story that broke mere hours after our previous interview, so there was no chance of catching them with an unguarded comment this time, but on the other issues they were agreeably open, as they discussed the difficulties of making a new sequel to one of the most successful franchises in gaming history.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: 15th November 2019
GC: So, I am very pleased to be here at the official unveiling of Pokémon Snap 2.
GC: Well, okay. That hasn’t happened yet but I’m very happy to see a number of other things we discussed last time have. One of the recent trailers had a lot of trouser options, there is an obsession with tea in the game, and also, I was surprised to see, a lot of British slang. And yet that’s not something you seemed to do for the games based on places like Hawaii and France?
SO: The localisation teams have really put a lot of effort into adding some linguistic colour and flair to the translation of the new game, and really making it feel perhaps a little closer to UK English rather than American English. But of course, I am not responsible for the English and do not necessarily understand the details of what’s gone on there. [laughs]
GC: But is that the same dialogue and text that the Americans will get? They’ll have a game with ‘telly’, ‘cheers’, and that sort of thing in it?
SO: Yes, that’s correct.
GC: Oh, okay, that’s great. It’s just a shame about the American spelling. [laughs]
GC: I very much enjoyed our chat at E3 but I think it was literally just hours before the whole Dexit controversy broke, which I’m sure you’re desperate to talk about some more.
GC: I wonder how that sort of thing affects you personally, it can’t be pleasant when fans are accusing you and the studio of being lazy and not caring. Does that get you down at all?
JM: We put a great deal of effort into developing each and every game as the project begins and we do feel that everyone having their opinion is important. But from a development perspective, when we go into deciding what way we’re going to take Pokémon in the future we have to make several decisions on what to put in the games and how we want to improve things or changes things as we go.
So as part of that we reached the decision to take out the national pokédex and keep the pokémon the way it’s been announced. There are many challenges we face as we go – different styles of gameplay we want to implement and we’ve got a lot of communications features that we are working on – and of course the one really big thing we always think about is how we can work to make the game really fun for fans.
And as we were working on all of this we took the decision to make the pokédex as it is, and from a development point of view that’s something we have to do each time and we put a lot of effort and thought into making those decisions.
GC: I imagine it’s a decision you’ve known was inevitable for a long time now but was there a specific cut off in terms of the number of pokémon you were waiting for – like when it reached 900 or something? Or was it just because of the more complex graphics on the Switch?
JM: There was no real set decision of where to cut things off, nothing like once we hit 900 or anything like that. Really, it was the project planning, which obviously starts way before the start of the game release. And really, when we go into that project planning we think about what we want to create and how we can create the very best game for the fans.
And in this case we really decided to focus on the Galar region and the pokémon within it, and so the result of focusing so hard on those, and really wanting to deliver the best game possible, we decided to restrict the pokédex.
But we’re also preparing a kind of powered-up version of Pokémon Bank in Pokémon Home, where people who have got existing pokémon from previous games can bring them all, and all their pokémon can be gathered together in one spot and they can play with them together there.
GC: Have you decided how this is going to work going forward? In the next game presumably you’ll have another 100 or so new pokémon, as usual. Will you also automatically include all the ones from this game or will you always be picking and choosing from now on?
JM: At the moment we’re really focused on the release of Sword and Shield, and we’re looking forward to seeing how fans react to that and the kind of feedback we receive, and as we go forward into the future games we’ll do all sorts of different things based on that feedback.
And so really the biggest thing for all of us is that we can release a game that all our fans are really going to enjoy. Everyone that works on the games themselves is a really big fan of games, and pokémon games in particular, so the biggest thing when releasing a game is really to focus on our confidence that we’ve created something that our fans are really gonna like and that we can release knowing that we’ve created something really enjoyable.
GC: Well, I enjoyed it just now.
GC: There have been some fan complaints about the graphics but there are certainly some areas that look really nice. Have you had much trouble getting used to making HD graphics, after all those years on portable-only consoles?
SO: Obviously, we did have an interim step with Let’s Go, Pikachu and Let’s Go, Eevee. But, of course, moving onto the Switch from the 3DS and earlier platforms is quite a hard challenge, in particular with development efforts and costs there’s a lot that you have to consider.
And, of course, with the new hardware there’s a lot more possibilities, because there’s that much more that you can consider in the first place. But really, when we get down to planning everything it’s down to, ‘How can we make the most fun game? How can we utilise the communication features that the Switch allows us to, to create a really fun game for everyone?’ And we really think we’ve achieved that with producing Sword and Shield.
GC: But of course the Switch is more capable in many other ways and one thing that struck me when playing the demo is that I’m not sure why it doesn’t have voice-acting. I think it would benefit from it. And I still don’t understand – although I’m sure there’s a stock answer to this – but why don’t the pokémon have their anime voices? Why don’t they shout their names?
SO: There’s sort of two main reasons, so firstly this is a RPG with a whole lot of text that we’re then localising and releasing in nine different languages at the same time. So from a purely practical point of view actually getting that organised and carrying out all the voice recording, the corrections and so on in nine different languages for release on exactly the same day is something that would be incredibly difficult. So, that’s one reason why we haven’t chosen to do it this time around.
But the other reason is one of character image, in the sense of when you play a game, if you’ve got a voice on that character that instantly provides to the player an image, a feel for that character that they don’t generate themselves, it’s pushed on them from the development side. Whereas if we have really flavourful text, for those characters, but no voice the players can kind of create their own image of who that character is as they’re playing. And that’s something we really like to encourage as we’re creating games.
GC: But what about the anime voices?
SO: There’s similar linguistic problems – there are some where all of them are the same, such as Pikachu, where that would be fine, but other ones have completely different names across all languages. And another point to consider is that in the game we’re focusing on them as being living creatures, so having them making a sound like a living creature – rather than just shouting out their own name – is quite nice.
GC: Then I shall carry on doing it myself.
JM: I think that’s the best way you could possibly enjoy the game, so please do.
GC: I don’t mean for these questions to come across as negative, but I guess that’s the nature of an interview like this. But the other thing I’d like to see improve is the artificial intelligence. It’s always seemed essentially random, where quite often I’ll only win a difficult battle because my computer opponent made a nonsensical choice. How much of that is intentional versus a technical limitation?
SO: The AI is always something we pour a huge amount of research into when we’re developing the game. So, for example, we’ll experiment and have the AI fight off against itself to see what that does and really fine tune the AI that we create. So it really is quite difficult to tune accurately. [laughs]
We could, of course, make the AI way smarter, and make it really difficult to fight against but by doing that you could end up making the game not very interesting at all, and it’d become just purely difficult. So instead of really focusing on making the AI strong or weak what we do is make it fight in such a way that it’s interesting for the player and the player has a feeling of enjoyment and also a sense of achievement. So that’s something we focus on as we’re creating the AI, not just whether it’s easy or difficult. It’s something that a lot of effort goes into but it’s tricky to find that balance.
GC: Since the demo was offline I’m still not clear how online works and how it takes advantage of the Switch? Because I think the last game was criticised for downplaying that aspect a bit.
SO: This time we do have a lot of online communication features, so one in particular to mention is the Wild Area. Players that are nearby can appear in the game and you can see what they’re doing. You can also camp together with them and enjoy games there, as well as take part together in the Max Raid battles. So you work together with other players nearby and fight a large pokémon.
Another feature is that you can see what other players are doing or what they’re looking to do. So you can send what are kind of stamps to show, ‘I want to trade’ or ‘I’m camping’ – things like that. So you can see what they’re doing, they can see what you’re doing. So there’s a lot more interaction there with other players in this game.
GC: So, that’s primarily in the Wild Area?
SO: Yeah, where other players appear and you can directly interact with them is predominately the Wild Area. But where you can share what you’re doing and other players can do the same, that is basically anywhere. You can send out a ‘I want to trade’ stamp anywhere.
GC: And then they’ll appear in the game world?
SO: With 3DS we previously had the feature called the PSS, where you could instantly trade or battle wherever you want. So this new feature is really intended to take that place.
JM: At the moment it’s tricky to see, because you’re playing offline but there’s a lot of features you wouldn’t have seen pop up in the game. But the communication features are always running in the background and so while you might not have been able to experience it properly in your demo, once the game releases in November you’ll be able to see there’s a lot of interactive features going on in the background whenever you’re playing. [After a delay trying to remember what the feature is called in English – GC] And the communication feature is called Y-Comm.
SO: The Japanese term for Y-Comm is YY Communication, YY means to have fun, everyone excited together. But also, you press ‘Y’ on the Switch to activate it and YY kind of sounds like Wi-Fi. [laughs]
GC: It has always seemed to me that, perhaps because they’re both two large island nations, there are more cultural similarities between the UK and Japan than you might at first think. A love of puns in particular I think, which I notice so often when looking into the explanation for Japanese names in games. Is that something that you noticed while making this game?
SO: I don’t understand English too well but in general I’m looking and seeing what’s fun for Japan and what’s interesting there. But in preparation I’ve watched a lot of UK dramas and things and so I have this vague awareness that there are a lot of puns and jokes in UK culture.
GC: What have you been watching? It’s going to be Downtown Abbey, isn’t it?
SO: Monty Python! [laughs] I’m particularly fond of puns. Not just in preparation for this game but even in the past I’ve watched a lot of UK programmes and pun-heavy humour.
GC: I just realised why a lot of these questions have a tinge of negativity, it’s because I’ve been talking to fans to get them.
GC: But one of the other things is that while Pokémon is a RPG the storytelling and characterisation has always been, for obvious reasons, a low priority. I wonder if that’s something that’s changed this time? And while it’s understandable that the story is not at the forefront, I’ve often thought Pokémon is in a slightly awkward position where the story and dialogue can’t be too serious but it’s also rarely purposefully funny – not like something like Paper Mario.
SO: When we’re creating the story for Pokémon games the biggest thing for us, over the story, is the gameplay. So we really want to create really solid gameplay that people can enjoy. The story we make is really to bring out the best aspects of the gameplay, that’s how we go about it, rather than starting with saying we want to make this grand story and then building the game based from that. Instead, we really start with the gameplay aspects.
So in terms of the story for this time around, it’s a very simple tale of wanting to become a superstar. You’ve got this kind of sports event related gym challenge, so you want to become a star, you want to become a champion. So that kind of simple story is something that can really immerse people into the gameplay – fighting to become champion.
You mentioned Paper Mario and the kind of jokey story that has and if that’s something that were to fit into a gameplay style that we create then that sort of thing is something we might consider. But it really is gameplay first and then we build a story that can bring out the best of that, rather than the other way round.
GC: And just finally, given the graphics are now so much better, I’m sure every pokéfan has thought about this but I ask this seriously: would you really want to live in the Pokémon world if it was real? On the one hand it’d be great because you can have Pikachu as a pal but on the other you’ve got spiders the size of coffee tables and ghosts that are real.
Both: [a lot of laughing and talking between each other]
JM: [laughs] It’s sure to be a good thing because pokémon, really, are all friendly. So if they actually existed they definitely wouldn’t try and destroy the world or anything.
GC: Well, that’s a relief.
JM: [laughs] Although if you did something really bad they might kind of gang up on you…
GC: [laughs] Okay, well I’ll bear that in mind. Thank you very much for your time, it’s been great to talk to you both.
JM: [in English] Thank you!
OS: [in English] Thank you!
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