Pokémon developer Game Freak has introduced a side-project program to allow its staff to let their creativity flow free – something like Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight – with HarmoKnight as its first fruit.
In a new Iwata Asks, producer Junichi Masuda said HarmoKnight is special to Game Freak because it’s the first game to come out of a “rather special environment”.
“We are absolutely committed to meeting our fans’ expectations. We can’t exactly leave Pokémon to one side while we work on other games. This is why we decided to change the internal structure of the company so that we could initiate new projects while still being able to give our all on Pokémon titles,” he explained.
Under the new structure, if Game Freak staff have an idea for a game, they write and submit a proposal. If two other staffers are interested enough to get on board, the small team is granted three months to work on the project. The prototype is then reviewed by management and possibly granted another three months’ development time. After a second review, it may move into full production phase.
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata compared the concept to Google’s “20 percent time” system, in which employees spent 20% of their working hours on their own projects. It allows Game Freak staff to try out new ideas without taking significant resources from the Pokémon team.
Iwata and Masuda reminisced on the good old days of their youth, when game developers were working on new titles every three months – something that is unthinkable with this generation’s two to three year development cycles – and that’s often without pre-production.
“Due to the sheer scale of the Pokémon projects we are working on now, there is a tendency for members of the dev team to focus solely on the area they are responsible for. This is something that’s difficult to avoid. But back in the old days, teams would be small and people would work on all sorts of different aspects of the project,” Masuda said.
“It’s difficult to bring home the importance of this kind of approach to our staff, so we concluded that it would be best to get them to experience it for themselves and we changed the system accordingly. This means that the team aren’t simply waiting to be told what to do, but are proactively coming up with ideas of their own. It’s positive as our staff tend to become more focused on their work.”
Masuda said there was a “real satisfaction to working on” HarmoKnight.
“I think when you actually come to work on a game, you get a renewed appreciation for how good the old development style was,” he said.
Iwata said that the original Pokémon was developed in a similar way, and Masuda agreed; just nine staff worked on the game that triggered a global phenomenon.
HarmoKnight is an auto-runner rhythm action hybrid; see it in action below. It’s due on the North American 3DS eShop on March 28, for $15.