Game Freak: ‘We’re trying to create something more than Pokémon’

Masayuki Onoue discusses the developer’s original games initiative

Pokémon developer Game Freak is increasingly prioritising original game creation as part of its Gear Project initiative.

So far Gear Project has resulted in four original games from the Japanese studio; HarmoKnight, Pocket Card Jockey, Tembo the Badass Elephant and GIGA WRECKER, all of which released after 2012. The developer is also working on Town, a Nintendo Switch RPG due out in 2019.

Programmer and director Masayuki Onoue told VGC earlier this year that 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.

Onoue has worked as a programmer on mainline Pokémon games since Black and White, but recently directed his first game, GIGA WRECKER for PC. You can see the full transcript of our interview with Onoue below.

What is it like to work for such an influential developer?

I joined Game Freak straight from college in 2010. One of my goals was to work on a game that would get played by as many users as possible, so in that sense I feel very lucky to be at the creator of Pokémon.

Before I joined Game Freak I was already aware of the company’s Gear Project and it was a hope of mine that I would someday be able to create something new through that. My goal was eventually achieved with Giga Wrecker. All of what’s happened up until this point, with me able to sit in this interview with you, is thanks to Game Freak and I’m very lucky.

Do you agree that 2019 looks like it could be one of the biggest in Game Freak’s history with all the titles its planning to release?

2019 will be very exciting, especially following the Pikachu Let’s Go titles which allowed us to start looking seriously at Nintendo Switch as a platform. That was a very important milestone for us before moving on to the next step.

However, with the Gear Project we were always targeting PS4, Xbox One and PC as well, but our project relied on game engines such as Unity. Looking at that, I feel as a programmer that we need to really grow as a production team in order to target future platforms.

“2019 will be very exciting, especially following the Pikachu Let’s Go titles which allowed us to start looking seriously at Nintendo Switch as a platform.”

Game Freak is best known for Pokémon of course, but is your hope that it can one day be known for more than that with the Gear Project?

Exactly. There are two different production teams here, simply named Production Team 1 and Production Team 2. Team 1 is fully dedicated to Gear Project, while Team 2 is for the Pokémon operation. What that means is that Game Freak is a company is prioritising Gear Project, which is production team number one, more than Pokémon in general.

We are always trying to create something that is equally exciting, or more exciting than Pokémon.

Can the experience Team 1 gains working on different genres and platforms benefit Team 2?

There is a lot of back-and-forth between Team 1 and Team 2. One of the interesting things is that Team 2, which is dedicated to Pokémon, only knows about specific platforms. So with Team 2, engineers can learn about other platforms that he might not have touched before. So by mixing up the teams we are able to create this interesting synergy.

Town is an RPG due for Nintendo Switch in 2019

So it seems the experience gained via Gear Project is able to benefit the company as a whole?

Yes, I totally agree. Gear Project is supporting the technical strength of Game Freak. Separately, we have an R&D group that directly supports the technical aspects of Game Freak, which also helps.

You’ve personally worked on both Pokémon and new IPs at Game Freak. As a creator, do you feel like it helps you to be able to take a break from Pokémon and perhaps return reinvigorated?

Yes, it was a totally refreshing experience when I moved from Pokémon to Giga Wrecker. It’s like a paradigm shift.

On Pokémon, of course I contribute to the project, but it’s not like I’m looking at the whole picture of the project. However with Giga Wrecker, as a director I’m constantly supervising the whole picture and need to be aware of what’s going on. So yes, it was a very interesting and refreshing experience for me.

“With Giga Wrecker, as a director I’m constantly supervising the whole picture and need to be aware of what’s going on. So yes, it was a very interesting and refreshing experience for me.”

When you’re a programmer working on Pokémon, you’re one of many programmers. However, as a director on Giga Wrecker the experience opened my eyes to the other aspects of game creation, all the way up to users playing the game. It’s really difficult to expect a programmer to have that kind of perspective, but as director I learned how to make a game more appealing and accessible to players, plus aspects of marketing as well.

Gear Project has helped me become more creative. I’ve now seen the whole process of creation all the way to marketing and selling the game to players. I can now bring that knowhow back to the Pokémon team and try to create something different for Pokémon. So it’s a good synergy between Gear Project and Pokémon creation.

Game Freak seems to be putting out more titles than ever before, with three this year alone. How have you managed to become so efficient?

In terms of the number of titles we are releasing this year, it’s happened coincidentally. It’s not like we’re trying to put everything together in 2019 – it just happened.

R&D is a newly founded division which is creating the basic library, which used to be created every single time we made a project. That helps the efficiency of our production for sure. Also we are looking at what’s going on in the future, from a technical perspective, and that’s something else that we’ve never had before. I think that R&D division will certainly contribute to the future of Game Freak.

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

I’m taking care of multiple projects. I’m working on Giga Wrecker now and working on another project as well. It’s stimulating, yet challenging as well.

Nintendo Switch is performing incredibly well, especially here in Japan. What do you think makes it so popular as a platform?

I think the unique nature of the hardware has inspired creators to come up with something different. That’s why Switch has a very unique library of games that appeal to a wide range of users.