Pokemon X and Y is a big hit worldwide, selling 4 million copies in the first two days of worldwide release (2.3 million in Japan alone as of this week). It's heady times for Ken Sugimori, character art director at Game Freak and the main man responsible for the franchise's look and feel.
"My first gut reaction is 'Oh, man, it's finally out,'" he said in an interview published in Famitsu magazine this week. "I say that because, since all the Pokemon are 3D models this time, we had to finalize the designs at a pretty early point in development. Most of the design team's work was completed by the end of 2012."
Sugimori and team had to work fast, and they also had to work under some pretty exacting guidelines given by director Junichi Masuda. "With the game taking place in a Europe-inspired setting," he said, "he told us to avoid coming up with concepts straight out of our own minds, but to fully examine source material and such before putting pen to paper. We did things like visit France in order to get the full atmosphere of the area into the game."
"It was easier in some ways to pin down Pokemon designs once we settled on a region," added 3D art director Takao Unno. "For example, you see wild hares all over the place in the mountains of Europe, so that's what led to the rabbit-influenced Bunnelby. I mean, it was to the point where you'd see rabbit holes butt right up against the road once you went out in the country."
Which of the new Pokemon made the biggest impression on Sugimori's mind? To him, it was definitely Xernaus and Yveltal, the two legendary creatures on the covers of each version. "I was tasked with designing both of those, and I ran into a total wall in the process," he recalled. "So I gave the task over to [fellow art designer Yusuke] Ohmura for a while, and once he made some headway on it, I took it back over to finish it off. So they were a team effort. I've designed a lot of the legendary Pokemon over the years, but for whatever reason, it was really hard to come up with the concepts this time around. This was the first time I had to field someone else to get me out of my artist's block, so in that respect, those are definitely the two Pokemon that stick out the most in my mind for this project."
Other Pokemon, such as Sylveon (one of the new final forms for Eevee), went much easier. "Sylveon was by [designer] Atsuko Nishida," Sugimori said. "Generally speaking, with the straight-on cute Pokemon like that, you can leave those to Nishida and you'll never go wrong that way. What you see in the game is pretty much exactly what she submitted to me; I gave it the OK immediately. I think Nishida definitely has a thing for Eevee in general, so this is a design that's already gone through several iterations in her mind, I'm sure!"
Fun work for Sugimori, perhaps, but imagine if you're Takao Unno and the team at Creatures that had to create animated 3D models for all 700 or so Pokemon that have ever existed. "It took a lot of time," said Unno, who's no doubt a master of understatement. "Going 3D for them has been in the back of our minds for a while, but we also all agreed that we didn't want to go 3D if we'd wind up losing Sugimori's artistic touch on the Pokemon in the process. So we stuck with pixel art for a while, but as time went on, I think we naturally started to think that it was time, in terms of our 3D skills and in terms of being able to use the 3D screen as well."
Sugimori himself originally had skepticism for the idea of going 3D — "if you think about it, it was really a madman's idea," he said. "It meant basically throwing away all of our 2D skills." But Unno saw it as more than possible. "This is kind of tooting our own horn," he said, "but with Pokemon Black/White I think we succeeded in getting the pixel art to animate in a more attractive fashion. With that experience in mind, I decided to go ahead with 3D modeling, with the understanding from the team that if we aren't satisfied with the results, we'll quit at that point. So with the help of Creatures, I think we produced results that even the fans will like a lot."
What was key to this success? According to Unno, it came down to attention to detail, to not taking the easy path. "Right at the very end," he said, "we begged the programmers to add light or dark thicknesses to the outlines around each 3D model, so they'll look closer to the 2D illustrations. I think that had a really huge effect on the results. Before that fix, the 3D models looked a lot more robotic, but now I think they're much more like Pokemon. We also spent a lot of time to ensure that the characters retained their Pokemon traits. For example, let's say a Pokemon is happy in the Pokemon Amie section. It's easy to have him raise his hands and jump around and get that emotion across, but if you do that, it'll wind up looking like some guy in a Pokemon suit. We kept an eye on ensuring things looked natural."
It was an odyssey of work, no doubt, but it's all in the past for Unno — and for Sugimori, who's eager to see how players tackle the game. "I suppose this is odd for me to say in a game magazine," he said, "but I don't think you should rely on the strategy guides. Instead, think of it as going on an adventure and spending the time to make it a really fascinating journey. I think you'll have more fun that way."
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