Pokémon developer Game Freak is increasingly prioritising original game creation, in order to grow the experience of its staff.
That’s according to programmer and director Masayuki Onoue, who told VGC that by taking breaks from its flagship Pokémon series, Game Freak’s creators can return to the franchise “refreshed” and improve the series with experience gained.
[UPDATE 08/07: You can now read our full Game Freak interview with Masayuki Onoue.]
Onoue has worked as a programmer on mainline Pokémon games since Black and White, but recently directed his first game, GIGA WRECKER for PC.
GIGA WRECKER is a result of Game Freak’s Gear Project initiative, which encourages creators to pitch original game ideas during quiet periods.
So far Gear Project has resulted in 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.
“There are two different production teams here, simply named Production Team 1 and Production Team 2,” Onoue explained. “Team 1 is fully dedicated to Gear Project, while Team 2 is for the Pokémon operation.”
“What that means is that Game Freak as 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.
“There is a lot of back-and-forth between Team 1 and Team 2,” he added. “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 they might not have touched before. By mixing up the teams we are able to create this interesting synergy.”
So far Gear Project has allowed Game Freak to gain experience working on Xbox, PlayStation and PC platforms. But for Onoue, it was the opportunity to work on a game as director that he appreciated most.
“Yes, it was a totally refreshing experience when I moved from Pokémon to GIGA WRECKER. It’s like a paradigm shift,” he said.
“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,” Onoue added.
“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. It’s a good synergy between Gear Project and Pokémon creation.”
“Gear Project has helped me become more creative… I can now bring that knowhow back to the Pokémon team and try to create something different for Pokémon.”
A ‘very exciting’ Year
On the surface, 2019 looks set to be one of the most significant years in Game Freak’s history.
Following up 2018’s Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee – its first Nintendo home console release in more than two decades – the developer brought GIGA WRECKER to consoles in May. Later this year it will release Nintendo Switch RPG Town as well as Pokémon Sword and Shield – the first mainline Pokémon games for a home console.
Programmer Onoue wouldn’t reveal which of these titles he’s working on, but confirmed he’s currently taking care of multiple projects. “It’s stimulating, yet challenging as well,” he said.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
One reason the previously handheld-only developer is suddenly able to output three console-quality releases in a year is down to its newly formed R&D division, Onoue explained.
“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.”