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How Pokémon Sword and Shield’s creators balance risk-taking with tradition

How Pokémon Sword and Shield’s creators balance risk-taking with tradition

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Game Freak on experimenting with a 23-year-old series

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Image: Nintendo / Game Freak

Pokémon Sword and Shield, the pair of new games in the iconic monster-collecting series due out November 15th, come with unprecedented expectation.

They’re the first mainline Pokémon games from developer Game Freak designed for the Nintendo Switch, meaning they’re also the first of those titles playable on a proper console, granted one you can take with you on the go. Sword and Shield are also the first installments to break the link with past games; you won’t be able to import the pokémon you may have been collecting for the last decade or so into these new entries, much to the die-hard Pokémon community’s everlasting frustration.

It’s about balancing what people love about ‘Pokémon’ with making it accessible

But there are reasons why these games aren’t just more of the same, and why longtime features and traditions may have been forsaken for newer, innovative approaches, like the bombastic Dynamax and Gigantamax transformations that have taken the internet by storm. According to Sword and Shield director Shigeru Ohmori and producer Junichi Masuda, whom I spoke with earlier this month through a translator at Nintendo’s Bay Area offices, it’s about properly balancing what makes Pokémon such a beloved series with what can make it fresh and accessible to new players.

Sword and Shield represent a bold move forward for Pokémon that builds both on last year’s accessible Let’s Go entries and the mobile Pokémon Go that’s introduced millions of new players around the world to the series. It features new open-world environments, multiplayer dungeon battles, and a more approachable storyline that is less systemized around collecting monsters and gym badges and more narrative-driven. Yet there are still new monsters to collect and gym leaders to overcome, and the general approach of turn-based battling remains intact.

Pokémon Sword and Shield director Shigeru Ohmori, left, and producer Junichi Masuda with the game’s three starters.
Pokémon Sword and Shield director Shigeru Ohmori, left, and producer Junichi Masuda with the game’s three starters.
Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

In that sense, Game Freak wants Sword and Shield to do three things at once: to be a proper next step for all the new Let’s Go fans, push the series forward with unique and interesting gameplay changes, and appeal to players who might have spent the last 23 years with the series.

“It’s hard to say that Sword and Shield and Let’s Go, Pikachu! are really different. In terms of basic structure, being an RPG game with a story you follow through, they’re similar in that regard. So it’s a natural progression to go from Let’s Go, Pikachu! or Let’s Go, Eevee! to Sword and Shield. It’s just a step up from that,” Ohmori says. “I think anyone who maybe started with Pokémon Go and then first learned what a traditional RPG is through Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, they’d be able to ease in pretty quickly to Sword and Shield.”

Game Freak also took some learnings from Let’s Go, most notably the ability to see random pokémon encounters animated on the map, so you can avoid them if you like and only engage in fights when you know you may be facing a creature you’re trying to catch. “Once Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! came out, the reaction to that [feature] was so positive and people really enjoyed being able to see them roaming around, we decided to go back and incorporate the system in Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield,” says Ohmori.

Game Freak knows it has a die-hard fan base; just look at the national dex controversy that erupted earlier this year. And there is a lot riding on Sword and Shield. They’re the first mainline Pokémon games for the Nintendo Switch, breaking with a 23-year tradition of releasing core titles on portable-only consoles starting first with Red and Blue on the Game Boy.

Yet Game Freak has set out to create a new version of Pokémon that straddles the line between old and new in many of the same ways Sun and Moon did, with the added benefits of the Switch that let it double as a console and a handheld. In my time with Shield’s first hour and a half, it’s already apparent that these games, which come out on November 15th, mark a bold step forward for Pokémon, even if they might not do enough to appease the crowd of fans that just want more of the same with better graphics.

But the last thing Game Freak wanted was to dump overly complicated games onto a player base that still skews younger and continues to add new devotees. After all, the Pokémon franchise is continuously expanding. New players can come in from the wildly successful anime, last year’s well-reviewed Detective Pikachu live-action film, or Pokémon Go, which still counts tens of millions of monthly active users worldwide. And it’s becoming more likely with each passing year that new parents who played the games as young kids or teenagers are now introducing the games to their children.

That’s why holding onto tradition sometimes takes the backseat to coming up with new features, which can be more widely enjoyed by anyone who picks up the new games regardless of their past Pokémon prowess. “It’s really a challenge a lot of the time. We know that some of the traditions are important to a lot of our longtime fans, but at the same time as creators, we always want to come with new things and to surprise our players,” Ohmori says.

In some cases in Sword and Shield, Game Freak is able to both stay true to tradition while also trying something new. Take, for instance, the starter pokémon. Sword and Shield feature your standard fire, water, and grass type starters. But instead of being given one from your local pokémon scientist, a Professor Oak type, you’re given the choice from your best friend’s older brother, the Galar region champion Leon, who becomes your mentor.

Image: Nintendo / Game Freak

Your rival, Leon’s younger brother Hop, also opts against choosing the starter you’re weak against — the case with a vast majority of the earlier mainline games — and instead picks the one you’re strong against. That ends up tilting the scales a little bit in your favor every time you fight. That relationship between your character and Hop is cast in a different, more positive light, building on how Sun and Moon turned the competition with your hometown rival into one with deeper narrative ties about friendship and the strength of the bonds between you and your pokémon companions.

As for the starters themselves, Game Freak also took cues from the real world. In particular, Ohmori says they tried to predict how the pokémon would be shared on social media and in memes, as well as perceived by the broader gaming culture.

“I think with the first three pokémonGrookey, Scorbunny, and Sobble in particular — it would be fair to say we did try to think about how players and fans would react when we were designing them. We actually went out of our way to assign more of a specific personality to these three pokémon than we typically do for other pokémon,” Ohmori says. “We really focused on giving them distinct personalities.”

“We actually went out of our way to assign more of a specific personality to these three pokémon.”

Ohmori says Grookey is designed to be an upbeat, party-loving character, with Scorbunny being an energetic and exuberant one. Sobble is the sad, mopey type. “When we were making them, we were thinking, ‘Oh, these type of people will like this character.’ We definitely had that on our minds for the three starter pokémon,” Ohmori adds.

“This was a learning for us specifically with the Sword and Shield starters,” Masuda says. “These days, it’s really easy to get feedback directly from fans or social media. Both Ohmori and myself are on Twitter and interacting with fans and getting all sorts of opinions and really cool messages sent to us.” He says the goal was to give the starters a more distinct personality, specifically to get more animated and passionate reactions from fans. “We’ve got a wide range of reactions, but people are really excited about them in general. I think we can say it was a success going this route.”

When asked which starters Ohmori and Masuda preferred specifically, they were quick to act. Sitting between the two of them were three stuffed animal versions of the pokémon, and Ohmori picked up Grookey, while Masuda chose Scorbunny. Poor Sobble was left on its own. “It’s going to be pretty clear what kind of personality... maybe not your personality, but the kind of person you like depending on which starter you choose,” Masuda says. “Be careful in giving that away with your starter.”