Interview: Game Freak on bringing its cult 3DS classic Pocket Card Jockey to Apple Arcade
The Pokémon studio talks original games, subscription models and the closure of the 3DS eShop
When you’re known for one enormously successful series, it can sometimes be difficult to break free from that series and try something different.
This was the dilemma facing Game Freak, which ever since the release of the first Pokémon games in the mid ‘90s has been almost impenetrably tied to that IP.
In an attempt to ensure its staff wasn’t entirely consumed by all things Pokémon, the studio implemented the Gear Project initiative, in which developers can pitch original game ideas during quieter periods.
As programmer and director Masayuki Onoue told us back in 2019, by taking breaks from its flagship Pokémon series, Game Freak’s creators can return to the franchise “refreshed” and transfer their new experience to the famous series.
Among the various Gear Project titles – HarmoKnight, Tembo the Badass Elephant, Giga Wrecker – the one that arguably enjoyed the best reception was Pocket Card Jockey, a quirky 3DS eShop title that mixed horse racing with solitaire.
The game was released back in 2013, and a decade later has now been remade for Apple Arcade. It’s a chance for the game to find a new audience, and a solution for a studio who had already been looking for ways to resurrect the title.
“Pocket Card Jockey was well-received when it was released on the Nintendo 3DS, so we were thinking of making it playable on smartphones,” the game’s director Masao Taya told us.
“We released the game as free-to-play in Japan only, but that did not work out well in business terms. In order to increase profits while operating the game as a free-to-play title, we would have had to adjust the game’s style to suit that format.
“But we lacked the know-how to do that both on the part of Game Freak and on my part as a director, which I think is why that didn’t work out.
“As a result, there was a period of time that went on in which it was hard to make the case for making a new Pocket Card Jockey or a remake of the original game. But in that time, we kept getting support from passionate fans on social media and elsewhere, so we kept wanting to deliver a new Pocket Card Jockey to meet their expectations.
“Against that backdrop, Apple Arcade started gaining attention, including in Japan. Since Apple Arcade was a subscription service that did not require any in-app purchase outside of the service’s subscription fee, we thought that we could make a game that all of our users would be able to enjoy, without having to force it into a free-to-play style, and so we decided to take on the challenge of doing so.”
“…we thought that we could make a game that all of our users would be able to enjoy, without having to force it into a free-to-play style, and so we decided to take on the challenge of doing so.”
The result is Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!, a game that plays similarly to the 3DS original but features polygonal graphics with a dynamic camera, instead of sprites and a side-on view.
“I had very little experience developing 3D games back when I made the original Pocket Card Jockey,” Taya tells us. “Since we also only had a short span of time, we settled on making Pocket Card Jockey in 2D at that time.
“I don’t think that this choice was a mistake, and I still like the 2D racing scenes. With that said, I would have liked to be able to show the power of horse racing by being able to switch between cuts from a greater variety of angles.
“As a longtime horse racing fan, I can draw in my head all kinds of attractive racing scenes, but it’s hard to express those freely within the limits of 2D graphics. Since, with this version, the horses and the race tracks are 3D models, we have been able to more fully realise the ideas I had from that time.”
Sadly, it won’t be long until players lose the chance to make this comparison for themselves. The 3DS eShop will be closing down in March, meaning the original Pocket Card Jockey – along with numerous other digital-only 3DS exclusives – will no longer be available to purchase.
Taya tells us that he understands the business reasons for the 3DS eShop’s closure, but that this doesn’t lessen the sting. “The games industry is a fiercely competitive space that has continued to develop from its inception to the present day,” he says.
“So when you consider that businesses have to keep offering larger numbers of releases in order to offer users newer and more stimulating games, I think the closure of e-shops is unavoidable. With that said, the 3DS eShop was where the original Pocket Card Jockey was sold, and it had a lot of other interesting games, so I personally feel sad at its loss.
“Nintendo is a company that has a long history and is a leader in the games industry. I feel that it is passionate about providing an environment where customers can play classic, nostalgic games, including titles from other companies, as with the current Nintendo Switch Online. I think that this is wonderful.
“…I think the closure of e-shops is unavoidable. With that said, the 3DS eShop was where the original Pocket Card Jockey was sold, and it had a lot of other interesting games, so I personally feel sad at its loss.”
“I would be delighted if one day the original Pocket Card Jockey could get a second life with a seat at the classic games table.” (Incidentally, while he’s at it, he goes on a tangent: “I’d also like to mention that it would be great if they could revive the Famicom Disk System version of ZANAC.”)
There will undoubtedly be fans of the 3DS version who are disappointed to see the remake being released as an Apple Arcade exclusive. However, according to Masafumi Saito, the general manager of Game Freak’s Development Department 1, the subscription model puts the game in an interesting Goldilocks-style position.
“While I think it would be wonderful if you could easily play Pocket Card Jockey on a smartphone or tablet device, it is hard to balance a game if you make it free-to-play,” he explains, ”while if you make it a paid app, it becomes hard to make use of updates, which are the strength of mobile devices. Our expectation is that the playstyle offered by Apple Arcade will bring a new appeal to Pocket Card Jockey.”
Taya adds: “We also want to put effort into offering Apple Arcade-specific features through updates going forward.”
If Ride On! does indeed become a success, where does Game Freak go from here? Will it attempt to remake more of its Gear Project titles, like Harmonight? Or does it take a further step into the unknown and create an entirely new game with Apple Arcade in mind?
“It is very important to Game Freak to keep taking on the challenge of creating original games,” Saito tells us.
“I think that creating a game from scratch, putting it out there, and getting a good reception is a great motivator for creators and is also very significant in terms of its meaning for the growth of the company.
“With that said, we do not think in terms of limiting original games to small-scale projects. It has been ten years since we established a department that deals with original games.
“Initially, team members did the same thing while also developing Pokémon, so it was hard to concentrate on developing original games. Now we work with external companies so that we can start experimenting with moving on projects on a similar scale simultaneously.
“We want new titles to come out of Gear Project that are beloved by lots of people across the world, like the Pokémon series has been.”