Pokemon CEO on the series’ early days and rise in popularity, bringing it west, more
Posted on March 20, 2016 by Brian(@NE_Brian) in General Nintendo, Mobile, News
A few weeks ago, Japanese outlet Inside Games published a lengthy interview with Pokemon CEO/president Tsunekazu Ishihara. There was a tiny bit about the current status/future of the series (Pokemon GO), but it was more reflective about the franchise in general and its past. Ishihara went in-depth about how the game series started and the importance of the Link Cable which helped boost popularity, bringing the franchise overseas and naming Pokemon, and more.
It took some time, but we now have a complete translation of the interview. Head past the break to read it in full.
Pokemon which realizes the future of games
Inside: Congratulations on the 20th anniversary. First of all, how you are feeling right now?
Ishihara: Pokemon Red and Green are games that were released in 1996 [in Japan], but the actual development started from around 1990. If we count from there that’d be 26 years – over a quarter century. I never thought that I would be able to always continue this job. Those are my honest impressions. Even within my own lifetime, I think most of it was dedicated to Pokemon, and those were happy times where I couldn’t stop doing things I wanted or implementing things I wanted to see. I don’t know until how far I can contribute, but I’m really glad and thankful that Pokemon has been valued by everyone for a long time.
Inside: I’d like to inquire about your first meeting with Pokemon, but I heard the proposal document was first seen by Mr. Shigesato Itoi’s APE company. How was the impression?
Ishihara: Yes, that’s right. They had wanted to take a little peek at the proposal as a premise to bring it to the Game Boy. Nintendo’s Game Boy which was released in 1989 enabled people to bring games outside, just like how Sony’s Walkman enabled them to carry music on the go. The design was polished at that time, although the abilities were only three shades of monochrome, 2-bit, and slow LCD latency. “Tetris”, which came together with the invention of Link Cables, got really fired up, and many people were excited that the future of games was here. Everybody at Game Freak (who made Pokemon) was also included there.
Mr. Satoshi Tajiri’s proposal was also wondering if this new way of playing could be realized using the Game Boy as hardware. Tangibly speaking, the proposal was about using the Link Cable, which was used for versus in Tetris, to trade Pokemon with data transmission. There were some unrefined points in the plans, and we couldn’t inspect from a technical standpoint either [back then], but there was an impression that if this could be realized, there should be a totally different way of play unlike anything before.
Inside: I see. In Pokemon’s plans, the common presentation is “unclosed game”. What kind of intention created this?
Ishihara: In role-playing games which are a device to tell a story, the plot progresses together with gameplay, and after several tens of hours playing you’ll reach the ending, the credits roll, and that’s it. However, for Pokemon, even though it basically uses the RPG gameplay, what we’re aiming for is not to tell a story, but to enjoy trading and battling through communication. So that’s why it’s not over after the credits roll, but instead we need something like “Huh? You’ve only collected 100 Pokemon”. So that’s why the intention is to make a packaged game that doesn’t end with an ending.
Of course it’s very much complete as an RPG, and obviously there’s also the fun factor to aim for becoming a Pokemon Champion, but what Game Freak focused on was creating fun gimmicks like: how to make trading more interesting; how about the idea to make them evolve through trades; if they could be given to Day Care it would be far more interesting to train them instead, so let’s add more experience points. In order for these gimmicks to be enjoyable, we made it to remain pleasant even when [players] go through the ending repeatedly multiple times.
Inside: So you’re setting up a game with communication as its center and giving meaning to that.
Ishihara: That’s right, because we can’t diminish the meaning and value of trading. For example, if there’s someone who has a level 50 Charizard and someone who has a level 15 Rattata, normally this kind of trade wouldn’t be established. But if the other person really couldn’t find Rattata to fill in his Pokedex, they might do a trade. But if we made them able to trade with a Pokemon holding a Rare Candy for a fairer trade, it would have no meaning. We wanted to make the structure so that it’s not zero-sum to both sides, so the point Game Freak thought about the most was the idea on how to create that.
Inside: Did you have a belief that trading would have to be the most enjoyable element for users?
Ishihara: I didn’t have a complete belief. Even so I still believe in that, and installed the features to make it fun. We actually felt it went well, when after the game was released in February, the Link Cables went out of stock from around May. Nintendo couldn’t ever keep up with the demand. When users were asked what they are buying Link Cables for, they said it was for trading Pokemon. The Link Cables disappeared from the market, and we had the actual feeling that the game succeeded, and the core of everyone’s zeal in playing is in trading.
Inside: I also actually saw and felt in real time when the Pokemon fever caught on with society like crazy.
Ishihara: The Game Boy was being called an ‘electronic toy’, and it also has the toy-like [feel] from Nintendo. Then there exists the Link Cable as a mysterious element, and Pokemon come in and out of it. Many people were interested and did some deep research about this. There were also some mysterious occurrences happening that weren’t intended by the developers, such as how Pokemon disappear if you take out [the Link Cable] before [the trade] is over, you can somehow duplicate [items], and you can also get Mew from some bizarre ways. With those mysteries spreading like town legends, it also gives a fun factor to the Game Boy itself as hardware. Of course Pokemon is interesting on its own, but it can also act as an intermediary for fun factor. If there are people who become [game] programmers, there are also people who make game media (news sites, etc.). I think that was what brought up the heat for Pokemon Red and Green.