Su­per Ef­fec­tive

Poké­mon is 20 years old, and as suc­cess­ful as ever. Game Freak’s Ju­nichi Ma­suda helps us on our quest to cap­ture the se­cret of its ap­peal


Poké­mon is 20 years old this year, and for the sec­ond time it’s be­come all but impossible to avoid. AR-based spinoff Poké­mon Go al­ways seemed a likely hit, but its num­bers quickly ex­ceeded even the most op­ti­mistic of ex­pec­ta­tions, reach­ing 50 mil­lion down­loads faster than any app in his­tory. Within a month, that fig­ure had dou­bled. Dur­ing its first two months of re­lease, it had earned in ex­cess of $400 mil­lion in global rev­enue. It may not be the first vi­ral sen­sa­tion on mo­bile – we’ve all en­coun­tered Candy

Crush and An­gry Birds play­ers on pub­lic trans­port – but the scale has been of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent or­der, if only in terms of sheer vis­i­bil­ity. That widely shared tweet about Nin­tendo chang­ing “how so­ci­ety func­tions” isn’t ac­tu­ally much of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion: the news sto­ries about in­juries, mis­ad­ven­tures and corpse dis­cov­er­ies, along with the im­ages of crowds block­ing traf­fic on busy high­ways and swarm­ing over Cen­tral Park, all tes­tify to its as­ton­ish­ing reach. Ig­nor­ing it sim­ply isn’t an op­tion. If you haven’t phys­i­cally bumped into a Poké­mon Go player in re­cent months, you’ve ei­ther been ex­tremely for­tu­nate or you should prob­a­bly get out more.

But, yes, this isn’t the first time. Two decades ago, Poké­mon was a bona fide phe­nom­e­non, its rise to ubiq­uity fol­low­ing the global roll­out of both

Red and Blue Game Boy games and the as­so­ci­ated trad­ing-card sets lead­ing to a sim­i­lar out­break of tabloid hys­te­ria. As a craze, how­ever, it had a nar­rower spread, skew­ing to­wards a younger au­di­ence – and it’s that player­base in par­tic­u­lar that has played a key role in Go’s suc­cess. Those view­ing it as a land­mark mo­ment for AR or so­cial gam­ing (even Sony boss Kaz Hi­rai has de­scribed it as a “game-changer”) and as­sum­ing it can be eas­ily repli­cated are miss­ing the cru­cial fact that Poké­mon it­self is so cen­tral to its suc­cess. Niantic’s own Ingress fol­lowed a very sim­i­lar tem­plate and never came within a sniff of Go’s scope. A look at the raw num­bers might sug­gest that Go has reached an au­di­ence well be­yond Poké­mon’s core fan­base, but many of those play­ing have been fans since the

be­gin­ning, or were brought into the fold at some stage dur­ing the five gen­er­a­tions since (this year’s

Sun and Moon mark the ad­vent of the sev­enth). It’s likely those who are still play­ing to­day rather than the cu­ri­ous first-timers; re­ports that the app had shed ten mil­lion users be­tween July and Au­gust pre­ma­turely de­clared its demise when most mo­bile de­vel­op­ers would kill for its ac­tive player­base, which is more than three times that num­ber.

In cap­tur­ing the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion of such a broad au­di­ence, the se­ries has ful­filled one of its cre­ator’s main aims. Game Freak founder Satoshi Ta­jiri orig­i­nally con­ceived Poké­mon as an at­tempt to re­count his child­hood love of col­lect­ing bugs in his ru­ral home of Machida; this was his way of shar­ing that joy with a gen­er­a­tion of Ja­panese chil­dren for whom wide­spread ur­ban­i­sa­tion had made such a hobby all but impossible. The reclu­sive Ta­jiri is per­haps less likely to have en­vi­sioned that it would even­tu­ally lead to crowds of peo­ple gath­er­ing to hunt rare mon­sters in the real world. He would surely have been per­turbed, too, to note that GPS and In­ter­net tech­nol­ogy means that Poké­mon are much more sparsely spread out­side of busy towns and cities. Th­ese days, the pub­lic face of Game Freak is

Ju­nichi Ma­suda, who has been with the de­vel­oper since its foun­da­tion in 1989. “Game Freak was just a small com­pany of around 15 peo­ple back then,” he re­calls. “We each had to take care of many dif­fer­ent tasks. For me, that meant work­ing on pro­gram­ming, com­pos­ing and cre­at­ing our devel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment, among other things.” By the time work be­gan on Poké­mon Gold and

Sil­ver, Ma­suda had been ap­pointed as a game di­rec­tor; since then, he’s been di­rec­tor or pro­ducer on ev­ery other main­line en­try. He’s over­seen Poké­mon’s spread be­yond games and into mer­chan­dis­ing and movies; by 1998, it had grown too big for Nin­tendo to han­dle alone, and to­gether with Game Freak and Crea­tures, Inc (which has pro­duced Poké­mon card games and toys, and the Poké­park and Poké­mon Ranger spinoffs) it set up a joint ven­ture to deal with Poké­mon mar­ket­ing and li­cens­ing. Which brings us neatly to one of the most com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about Go: that it’s Nin­tendo’s baby. The pub­lisher might own one-third of The Poké­mon Com­pany, but it is in fact the lat­ter that has been work­ing with Niantic on the app.

Ma­suda, it turns out, is the per­fect front­man for a se­ries such as Poké­mon: re­laxed, cheery and af­fa­ble, and still en­thu­si­as­tic about the se­ries that has be­come his life. He’s been kept busy by Go, not least since he was re­spon­si­ble for the mu­sic: “I feel it’s best that I com­pose the par­tic­u­larly dis­tinc­tive pieces, such as the bat­tle [themes],” he says. That might sound im­mod­est, but it’s spo­ken with­out a hint of ar­ro­gance. It’s sim­ply that, given Ma­suda’s two decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, there’s no one bet­ter placed to craft melodies that can both lodge in the brain and with­stand heavy ro­ta­tion.

His pres­ence as fig­ure­head is also a re­minder that while Poké­mon has never been quite as big as it is to­day, it would be wrong to peg the surge of

“I think the fact that we’ve never over­hauled the se­ries and cre­ated a di­vide is one of the rea­sons Poké­mon has en­joyed such longevity”

re­cent in­ter­est as a dra­matic come­back. Quite the op­po­site, in fact. Poké­mon isn’t merely among the big­gest sell­ers on ev­ery Nin­tendo portable since 1989’s Game Boy, it’s a hard­ware shifter in its own right. While it’s fair to say that Go has raised the se­ries’ pro­file ahead of the re­lease of Sun and Moon this Novem­ber, there isn’t likely to be a huge cross­over be­tween a free-to-play mo­bile game of such me­chan­i­cal im­me­di­acy and a £35 hand­held RPG that re­quires ded­i­cated hard­ware to play. With­out Poké­mon Go, th­ese games would still go on to sell mil­lions of copies each. With it, they might just out­sell pre­vi­ous 3DS en­tries, even with an au­di­ence – par­tic­u­larly in Ja­pan – that is in­creas­ingly get­ting its gam­ing fix from phones.

Its ev­er­green status is all the more re­mark­able when set next to its peers. Digi­mon, for ex­am­ple, is still around, but its pop­u­lar­ity is dwarfed by that of Poké­mon. Af­ter a fright­en­ingly rapid rise, Yo-Kai Watch’s peak al­ready ap­pears to have passed in Ja­pan, and its time in the lime­light hasn’t been re­peated over­seas. Con­tem­po­raries such as Do­rae­mon haven’t trav­elled, ei­ther, while Dragon

Quest has achieved only cult suc­cess out­side its coun­try of ori­gin. Poké­mon, by con­trast, is a truly global con­cern, and there’s no one bet­ter po­si­tioned than Ma­suda to ex­plain its en­dur­ing ap­peal. Why, then, has it man­aged to stay rel­e­vant for 20 years when so many other games aimed at younger play­ers have long faded into ob­scu­rity?

At its heart, he says, it’s a mat­ter of ac­ces­si­bil­ity. “There are so many vari­ables in the games mar­ket that it’s not easy to de­fine why Poké­mon has had sus­tained suc­cess,” he con­cedes. “There’s no doubt that the core el­e­ments of col­lect­ing, bat­tling and trad­ing have a last­ing ap­peal when it comes to kids. But the thing that all our games re­ally have in com­mon is that we start by de­sign­ing them with the younger au­di­ence in mind, and then add el­e­ments for our other core play­ers. This means that even peo­ple who have never played the game be­fore can eas­ily buy it and get stuck in.”

It cer­tainly does no harm that each time Game Freak is build­ing upon a set of solid foun­da­tions that were laid down in 1996. The orig­i­nal Ja­panese games, Poké­mon Red and Green, were six years in the mak­ing, dur­ing which time the stu­dio came close to fold­ing, hav­ing run out of money in the lat­ter stages of devel­op­ment. Yet the time taken to re­fine its sys­tems paid off: in a sim­i­lar man­ner to the likes of

Ad­vance Wars and Fire Em­blem, Poké­mon got so much right the first time that the games still stand up in­cred­i­bly well years later. To a point, any changes to the for­mula would seem to be lit­tle more than gild­ing the lily. And yet plenty has changed. “Over the past 20 years, we have re­leased more than 20 [Poké­mon] ti­tles,” Ma­suda ex­plains. “If you look back over that time, you can see that we’re a long way from the orig­i­nal Poké­mon Red, Blue and

Green ver­sions. When you have a game for­mula that res­onates so well with the fans, you need to cater for what they’re ex­pect­ing, as well as in­no­vate in ways that will ex­cite both them and new play­ers com­ing to the world of Poké­mon for the first time.”

The chal­lenge, he says, when mak­ing any new Poké­mon game, is to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween new el­e­ments and old. The core of col­lect­ing, bat­tling and trad­ing that Ma­suda de­scribes as “the heart of the se­ries” is one that the de­vel­oper works hard to main­tain. “Poké­mon has been con­sis­tent in de­liv­er­ing a pos­i­tive player ex­pe­ri­ence over the past 20 years and, as such, we’re see­ing a real nostal­gia com­ing through from those who played the ear­lier ver­sions of the games. I think the fact that we’ve never over­hauled the se­ries and cre­ated a di­vide be­tween the old and the new is also one of the rea­sons Poké­mon has en­joyed such longevity.”

For all that, Ma­suda recog­nises the need to re­fresh and re­fine the for­mula each time to dis­tin­guish each new en­try. “Over the years,” he con­tin­ues, “we’ve seen the in­tro­duc­tion of wire­less play, on­line play, a shift from 2D to 3D graph­ics, black-and-white to full colour – the list goes on, and you’ll see even more ex­cit­ing in­no­va­tions in

Poké­mon Sun and Poké­mon Moon.” In­deed, as

scep­ti­cal as we are about Go rep­re­sent­ing a ground­break­ing mo­ment for AR gam­ing so much as a timely celebration of a beloved lin­eage, its use of the tech­nol­ogy also serves to high­light that a se­ries of­ten viewed as con­ser­va­tive has reg­u­larly been any­thing but. Since Satoshi Ta­jiri en­vi­sioned the Game Boy link ca­bles be­ing used for some­thing more than sim­ply con­nect­ing two de­vices for com­pet­i­tive play, Poké­mon has been a pi­o­neer for new tech­nol­ogy, usu­ally with a strong fo­cus on con­nec­tiv­ity. FireRed and LeafGreen in­tro­duced wire­less play for the first time with a bun­dled adapter, and at a time when Nin­tendo had only ten­ta­tively dipped its toe into on­line wa­ters, Game Freak fully waded in with Di­a­mond and

Pearl’s on­line func­tion­al­ity. It has, we sug­gest, been un­usu­ally for­ward-think­ing for a Nin­ten­dop­ub­lished se­ries in terms of its on­line in­te­gra­tion. “I think this is be­cause trad­ing is re­ally at the heart of Poké­mon,” Ma­suda nods. “So many as­pects of the game were cre­ated to fa­cil­i­tate or en­cour­age trad­ing – the large num­ber of Poké­mon, the abil­ity to nick­name them, the Pokédex and, of course, the cre­ation of two dif­fer­ent ver­sions. We re­ally place a lot of im­por­tance on the ways users can con­nect with one an­other and trade, so I sup­pose al­low­ing play­ers all over the world to con­nect with each other via the In­ter­net was a very nat­u­ral devel­op­ment for Poké­mon.”

The game’s com­pet­i­tive as­pect has partly driven th­ese tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions, too. Along with trad­ing, bat­tling is one of the core tenets of the Poké­mon ex­pe­ri­ence, and Nin­tendo has em­braced it, hav­ing been in­volved in the run­ning of the Poké­mon World Cham­pi­onships for more than a decade. It’s per­haps strange that Poké­mon should have had a com­pet­i­tive scene for so long with­out ever be­ing classed as an es­port, even as a turn- based game. That’s partly down to care­ful con­trol on the part of its cus­to­di­ans: un­like most com­pet­i­tive videogames, Poké­mon has fos­tered a com­mu­nity spirit that pri­ori­tises sports­man­ship, good eti­quette and friendly com­pe­ti­tion rather than pro­mot­ing a win-at-all-costs mentality. It’s built into the games them­selves, which mo­ti­vate play­ers to view de­feat not as a chas­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but as some­thing to learn from. Both real-world and in-game events of­fer op­por­tu­ni­ties for play­ers of all skill lev­els, rather than lim­it­ing them to the elite. That sense of fair play, of grace in vic­tory and en­cour­age­ment in de­feat, even ex­tends to spinoffs such as Namco Bandai’s Pokkén

Tour­na­ment, re­cently praised by pro player Ryan Hart for help­ing wel­come a new gen­er­a­tion of play­ers to the fight­ing-game scene.

The depth of Poké­mon’s com­pet­i­tive metagame, Ma­suda says, has been an im­por­tant fac­tor in its abil­ity to sus­tain an ap­peal out­side of its tra­di­tional de­mo­graphic. “There are lots of ac­tiv­i­ties that can be en­joyed by adults along­side kids,” he says. “Think about foot­ball, for ex­am­ple. Younger kids may not un­der­stand the more com­plex rules of the game, but both they and adults alike can en­joy play­ing and see­ing the in­cred­i­ble skills of real play­ers. We’re

Its spirit pri­ori­tises sports­man­ship, good eti­quette and friendly com­pe­ti­tion rather than pro­mot­ing a win-atall-costs mentality

al­ways re­search­ing th­ese kinds of el­e­ments that can be ap­pre­ci­ated and en­joyed re­gard­less of age, and look­ing to add them to our games.”

It would be fool­ish, though, to dis­miss the in­flu­ence of savvy mar­ket­ing and smart use of brand­ing and mer­chan­dis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in keep­ing Poké­mon in the pub­lic eye. Al­ready, Ja­panese play­ers of Poké­mon Go have seen 3,000 McDon­ald’s out­lets trans­formed into gyms, while for the main­line en­tries, The Poké­mon Com­pany has used de­vi­ous in­cen­tives to en­tice view­ers to each new Poké­mon movie. Some fans might show up out of a sense of loy­alty, some even be­cause they en­joy the films, but more of­ten it’s be­cause there’s usu­ally a spe­cial Poké­mon that can only be ob­tained via a code given away with the pur­chase of a ticket.

Ma­suda nat­u­rally spins this a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, but for all the ob­vi­ous com­mer­cial mo­ti­va­tions to such tie-ins, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily as cyn­i­cal as it might seem. In ad­dress­ing the topic, he re­turns again to one of his favourite themes. “We want Poké­mon to be a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he says. “What I re­ally want to do is to con­nect peo­ple, then help them form great mem­o­ries by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing th­ese dis­tri­bu­tions and such in cer­tain places. I think of it like hav­ing a meal. By it­self, a meal is usu­ally pretty for­get­table – it can be hard to even re­mem­ber what you had for lunch yes­ter­day! But if you go for a meal with a close friend at a restau­rant you love, you’ll re­mem­ber that meal for a long time. I want to give peo­ple mem­o­rable Poké­mon ex­pe­ri­ences with one an­other.”

That’s part of what keeps Ma­suda mo­ti­vated, even af­ter 20 years in the job. “When it comes to my work, I’m al­ways try­ing to broaden my hori­zons,” he says. It’s par­tic­u­larly apt, as the player’s jour­ney through each Poké­mon game is all about ex­pand­ing your world­view. Though Ma­suda claims that a re­duced fo­cus on story com­pared to most tra­di­tional JRPGs is “an­other im­por­tant el­e­ment”, th­ese sim­ple com­ing-of-age tales tap into uni­ver­sal feel­ings: the yearn­ing to ex­plore, the com­pul­sion of col­lec­tion, the thrill of com­pe­ti­tion, the de­sire to achieve great­ness (or, in the words of the anime’s ear­worm theme song, to be “the very best, like no one ever was”).

Sun and Moon and Poké­mon Go are very dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions of sim­i­lar ideals. Tellingly, Ma­suda refers to “push­ing the pub­lisher Niantic hard to de­velop [this] game to say what we want it to”; Poké­mon has his­tor­i­cally com­mu­ni­cated its mes­sage through me­chan­ics, and Go is ev­i­dently no dif­fer­ent.

Above all else, the Poké­mon games are fo­cused on mak­ing con­nec­tions with oth­ers. It’s an ethos that’s sweetly ex­pressed in a re­cent 20th-an­niver­sary promo wherein a shy Ja­panese boy at­tempts to set­tle in at a new school in Amer­ica, even­tu­ally find­ing some­thing in com­mon with a school friend through a sin­gle word: “Poké­mon?” It’s a cute ex­er­cise in brand­ing, yes, but there’s truth in its de­pic­tion of Poké­mon as a way of break­ing down com­mon bound­aries of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If th­ese pocket RPGs are a shared lan­guage any kid can un­der­stand, thanks to Poké­mon Go you can now ex­tend that to in­clude a much broader age range.

As Ma­suda re­flects on 20 years of Poké­mon, it’s clear that the se­ries’ rare abil­ity to bring peo­ple to­gether is the achieve­ment of which he’s most proud. And yet he’s keener to ex­press thanks to those who’ve made all this pos­si­ble. “What I’m most grate­ful for is that so many fans have sup­ported Poké­mon all this time,” he says. “With­out them, Poké­mon wouldn’t be where it is to­day, and

Poké­mon Go cer­tainly wouldn’t have seen the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess that it has so far. I re­ally love get­ting to meet and talk with Poké­mon fans, and they’ve given me so many great mem­o­ries through­out the years. As a re­cent ex­am­ple, not long ago I gave a speech at the Ja­pan Expo in Paris, and I was blown away that over 3,000 peo­ple came to hear it. Poké­mon Go seems to have re­ally res­onated with peo­ple and has huge num­bers of play­ers all over the world. It’s far be­yond any­thing I had ever imag­ined.”

Poké­mon Red/Green/Blue (Game Boy, 1996) The games took three years to reach Europe. In the Ja­panese ver­sion, the pro­tag­o­nist and his ri­val were named af­ter Ta­jiri and Miyamoto.

Poké­mon Emer­ald (GBA, 2004) Emer­ald re-es­tab­lished the use of an­i­mated sprites, set­ting the stan­dard for games to fol­low. It also pre­sented the Bat­tle Fron­tier, a postgame tour­na­ment.

Poké­mon FireRed/LeafGreen (GBA, 2004) The se­ries’ first re­makes, FireRed and LeafGreen of­fered wire-free bat­tling and trad­ing for the first time, thanks to the Game Boy Ad­vance Wire­less Adapter.

Poké­mon Ruby/Sap­phire (GBA, 2002) The best-sell­ing GBA games added Poké­mon con­tests and GameCube con­nec­tiv­ity. In­nate abil­i­ties and na­tures for Poké­mon trans­formed the metagame.

Poké­mon Plat­inum (DS, 2008) Wi-Fi Plaza sup­ported up to 20 play­ers, the Vs Recorder al­lowed you to re­watch your favourite bat­tles, while the Bat­tle Fron­tier made a re­turn.

Poké­mon Di­a­mond/Pearl (DS, 2006) The first DS games pi­o­neered on­line mul­ti­player, along­side the self-ex­plana­tory Global Trade Sys­tem. Once again, it fea­tured home con­sole com­pat­i­bil­ity.

Poké­mon HeartGold/SoulSil­ver (DS, 2009) Th­ese came bun­dled with the Pokéwalker, a Poké Ball­shaped pe­dome­ter, with steps boost­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and friend­ship lev­els – a pre­cur­sor of sorts to Poké­monGo.

Sprites were re­placed by 3D mod­els in by far the se­ries’ big­gest vis­ual over­haul. Re­fined con­nec­tiv­ity in­cluded the new Player Search Sys­tem for a truly global ex­pe­ri­ence. Poké­mon X/Y (3DS, 2013)

The first di­rect se­quels in­tro­duced an ab­sorb­ing movie-mak­ing aside, a dif­fi­culty mod­i­fier, and bonus nar­ra­tive links be­tween the two pairs of games. Poké­mon Black 2/White 2 (DS, 2012)

In­frared com­mu­ni­ca­tion al­lowed for easy lo­cal trad­ing and bat­tling, while the on­line Poké­mon Global Link of­fered ac­cess to the browser-based Dream World. Poké­mon Black/White (DS, 2010)

Ex­plo­sively pow­er­ful Z-Moves, four­player bat­tles royale, mys­te­ri­ous Ultra Beasts and a new trial-based struc­ture sug­gest the most am­bi­tious and fea­ture-rich games so far. Poké­mon Sun/Moon (3DS, 2016)

Poké­mon Omega Ruby/Al­pha Sap­phire (3DS, 2014)

The Delta Episode was a more sub­stan­tial endgame af­ter X and Y’s slen­der coda, while Mi­rage Spots of­fered ac­cess to le­gendary Poké­mon. It was the big­gest UK launch to date.

FROM TOP Mimikyu, Ko­mala and Bounsweet are three new ad­di­tions to the ros­ter. Alolan Sand­shrew is a re­gional vari­ant

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