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Game Freak explains the 1,000 staff, missing creatures, and leek size of Pokémon Sword and Shield

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Next month, Pokémon Sword and Shield will become the first mainline Pokémon role-playing game to debut on a home console. Of course, with Switch, whether it counts as more of a portable console will always be up for debate. But for the first time, the series will sit alongside Nintendo’s premium entries in its key franchises like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — something certain fans have been anticipating for decades.

As you might imagine, developer Game Freak has a lot riding on this one. Two weeks ago, I spoke to producer Junichi Masuda and director Shigeru Ohmori about their approach to the game, the thousand people involved in bringing it together, and the fan complaints about missing Pokémon.

A console game


Shigeru Ohmori and Junichi Masuda stand in Nintendo’s Bay Area office

Shigeru Ohmori (left) and Junichi Masuda (right)

A lot of people talk about this being the first real Pokémon console RPG. Do you think of it that way or is that just what others say?

Shigeru Ohmori: So of course, at Game Freak we acknowledge the Nintendo Switch as a console. We definitely position it that way and this, from our perspective as well, was the first main series Pokémon RPG to be developed on a console. But as you know, the Switch is not really a traditional console so you can take it with you and also, if you choose, play it as a portable device. So you could take it to a friend’s house and, you know, play it together in-person like a traditional Pokémon game. So it’s kind of a special positioning compared to a traditional console.

Obviously, historically you guys have resisted targeting consoles. A lot of people speculated for years wondering when it would happen, and it never did until Switch seems like it almost forced it to happen. Was this inevitable? Say hypothetically Switch never happened. Say Switch was a traditional console that didn’t have a portable component. Do you think you would have gone this direction eventually anyway?

Ohmori: It’s kind of hard to speculate where we would have gone if that were the direction, but I do think it’s fair to say that the Pokémon main series RPGs that we develop have a very strong connection with Nintendo hardware. So whatever they put out, they usually take a pretty unique approach with things and we try to kind of match that uniqueness with the games. But, yeah. That’s all I can really say.

Junichi Masuda: But of course, if the Switch had come out as a traditional console and then at the same time they had released a separate portable device, I think it would probably be safe to say we would have developed on the portable device.

In some ways, it feels like Switch is pulling you onto consoles instead of you maybe wanting to go in that direction. Does it feel like that at all?

Masuda: So at Game Freak, we get opportunities to give feedback to the direction that Nintendo is going with their hardware, so I think it’s less of being pulled in a direction and more kind of coming up with a direction together.

Do you remember any specific feedback that either of you gave on this hardware?

Masuda: I can’t really go into details. I did give feedback in general terms to Mr. Iwata long ago that it should be a hardware platform that people can enjoy together. So, just in general terms, that was one piece of feedback I gave.


Four characters face an enemy in Pokémon Sword and Shield

Pokémon Sword and ShieldNintendo/Game Freak

1,000 people

There was an interview recently where you [Ohmori] mentioned that a thousand people had been involved in this game in one capacity or another, and I know that involves not just Game Freak but lots of other companies and departments. I’m curious what the biggest resource pull is. What aspect of these games requires the most people?

Ohmori: So, yeah. The number being close to a thousand, that of course includes all the different functions like marketing and PR and everyone that would be associated with the game ahead of release. But I think at Game Freak, really the core team of people that worked on the game was around 200 people. And of course, Creatures is another partner company that develops 3D models of the Pokémon. There are various teams that handle debugging at our partner companies as well. So there’s a lot of people involved and I think in terms of just the sheer number of the most resources required to make something happen for the development, it was definitely more on the graphical side of things. Like I mentioned, Creatures was involved with creating the models, but even at Game Freak, with the increased power of the Switch, we tried to make richer, more expressive visuals. We definitely needed more people this time around. […]

I mean, there’s more than a hundred people who worked on debugging the game, the testing and all of that. And Creatures, they probably have a hundred people working on 3D models and everything. Now that we’re on the Switch, there’s the graphical stuff but also creating the data for the various systems in the game and everything. It just requires a lot of people to be involved.

Masuda: Really this time, a lot of the network features and server-side stuff and new communication features put into the game required a lot more people working on the debug side of things than before.

How would the number of staff compare to what you had on previous Pokémon games?

Ohmori: I just want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression. It’s not really a thousand-person team working on the actual content of the game. It’s really everyone who was involved in the project, including marketing and PR, advertising, localization, all that stuff.

Sure, and I imagine many of those people were not full-time on this game.

Ohmori: Yes, it’s really just everyone who collaborated on the project including contractors, outsourced companies, our partners like The Pokémon Company, Pokémon Company International, Creatures, and all the other people that have been involved at any point in the development.

So overall, how much bigger would you say, roughly speaking, this project was compared to previous games?

Masuda: It’s hard to give a really clear answer but I’d say maybe 1.5 times the number of people as a general estimate.

Ohmori: That’s more of just kind of speaking from feeling, though, not any kind of specific number.

I don’t know how much direct managerial control you have over a team that size but how hard is it hard to manage these projects as they get bigger and bigger?

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Ohmori: It definitely gets harder. I think the bigger the project gets and the more complex things get, it can get more difficult to make sure that everyone’s on the same page and that you’re conveying the same message to everyone and they’re understanding it. For example, I definitely have to get more specialists — like programmers who are experts in a very specific field of technology and making sure that I understand what they’re doing but also making sure that they understand what the goal for the game that they’re developing is.

Out of the thousand or so people who have touched this game, how many do you think you could name?

Ohmori: I’m pretty bad at remembering names.


A character explores in Pokémon Sword and Shield

Pokémon Sword and ShieldNintendo/Game Freak

Legacy Pokémon

Obviously, there’s been some criticism about not including all of the legacy Pokémon in the game. How much of that is related to the challenges of this already being a huge team and the staffing resources it would take, and how much was it a creative decision that you knew you’d have to get to eventually?

Masuda: I think it’s fair to say that both are involved. I mean, in any design situation, resources and time are always a constraint on what you can do in a project. But at the same time from a creative perspective, it’s part of a discussion we’ve had at Game Freak with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, and we came to the decision that, at some point, we need to be able to prioritize new gameplay ideas. We need to be able to find a way to balance the right number of Pokémon and also still introduce new ways for players to enjoy the game, new gameplay ideas to keep the series fresh and enjoyable far into the future.

Do you remember how long ago you that first occurred to you? That sense of, oh, we’re going to have to draw the line sometime.

Masuda: I mean, from my perspective, it’s always been in the back of my mind that at some point we were going to have to not include all the Pokémon. One of the things we’ve tried to do this time around, and we don’t have a lot of details to share, but we’re introducing a cloud service called Pokémon Home and we really want to use that to kind of expand the Pokémon world, provide a place for players to be able to gather all of their Pokémon in one spot, do fun things, and also use it as a launching pad for different adventures and different games.

Did you see the, the Twitter challenge, “make a Pokémon in five minutes?”

Masuda: Yeah, I definitely saw it. I mean, it was interesting to see everyone doing that challenge. But Pokémon are definitely not things that you can just make in five minutes. Obviously, you know, it’s not just the outward facing appearance. You’ve got to make sure it moves and everything, and then there’s all the different systems and data you have to create to make it work in the game. But, yeah. It was interesting to see.

What would be the quickest amount of time you think an actual Pokémon could be created in?

Ohmori: It definitely takes a decent amount of time. I’d say the fastest for coming up with an idea and actually implementing it completely in the game would be at least three months per character. You know, having them all move in parallel. It’s not just creating that outward appearance of the Pokémon. You’ve got to make sure that then you build the model and make sure it’s within the limits for the polygons, rig it with all the bones and everything, texture it and make it look how we set it up, and then send it to the animators, have them create all the different animations, review those to make sure they still match the idea, and then eventually put it in the game and make sure that everything works in there. So it’s definitely a pretty involved process.


Characters play around in Pokémon Sword and Shield

Pokémon Sword and ShieldNintendo/Game Freak

Bonus

OK, so to finish I have some specific questions from others on the Polygon staff. First, why is Farfetch’d getting an evolution now?

Ohmori: So the Galar region, the inspiration for it is actually the UK. We spent a lot of time researching and kind of referring to different things in the UK and I spent time there. One of the things I remember noticing was that the leeks that they sell in the UK are much bigger and thicker than the ones I see in Japan. So seeing that, I got the idea that the Farfetch’d that lives in the Galar region would maybe evolve in a different way than you see elsewhere.

Where did the idea for including Team Instinct come from?

Ohmori: So one of the themes in Pokémon Sword and Shield with the Galar region is that Pokémon battles there are really like a sport that’s widely enjoyed as entertainment in the region. Similar to how you’ll see soccer teams that have huge fan followings, you’ll see that there’s a lot of fans and supporters for the different gyms that are in that region. The idea was that there was this group that, kind of similar to how you see followings of idols in Japan, are really backing this very specific trainer, Marnie, and they just want to really support her and make sure she is the champion.

What about the idea to develop version-specific gym leaders — where did that come from?

Ohmori: This also comes back to the whole idea of Pokémon battles in the Galar region being this kind of sport. They’re played in gym stadiums. It’s kind of a background setting. It’s not actually in the game but we had the idea that there would be 18 gyms in the region, total. And only eight of those in either game are in the kind of major league that you actually challenge as part of your gym challenge. So we had this kind of idea that, oh, maybe some of the different types would actually be in these two different games.

Did the reaction to Popplio influence Sobble?

Ohmori: I wouldn’t say it was influenced by Popplio. The direction we really took with the starters this time was treating them as kind of a group or a set, and we wanted to give them all unique personalities as if they were a group. Sobble is more this kind of shy, timid, maybe a little bit sad character. You’ve got Scorbunny, who’s really energetic but also gets into mischief sometimes. And then there’s Gurki here who is kind of the mood maker and almost the leader of the group, and keeps the group together. So we wanted to kind of give them their own unique personalities.

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