There have been plenty of questions about Game Freak’s development bandwidth in recent months, especially in light of Pokémon’s overall lack of polish over the past few years. But that isn’t stopping the studio from pursuing projects like Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On, which launched on Apple Arcade last week.
“The question of resources is always tricky,” says Game Freak General Manager of Development Department 1 Masafumi Saito. “Mr. Taya, the director of the Nintendo 3DS version, worked in parallel on development of game titles for the Pokémon series. And recently, we’ve been partnering with other companies for development, including of Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!. The technologies required for game development are complex and wide-ranging. We need to prepare the best development team for each game, so we need to work together with all sorts of creators both inside Japan or elsewhere in the world.”
Saito’s comments follow the release of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, which was a notably glitchy entry in the long-running series. Pokémon is supported by a complex array of interlocking companies and support studios, but the core team at Game Freak is extremely small by modern standards, numbering a little over 150 employees. In 2019, Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda talked about his preference for his small teams, which he said was due to the importance of communication.
Despite its size, Game Freak remains committed to making games outside of Pokémon. Speaking with IGN, Saito and Pocket Card Jockey director Masao Taya talked about the origins of Pocket Card Jockey and what the series means to Game Freak, in the process touching on how it’s rooted in the studio’s origins as first a fanzine then an independent studio.
“The departments in charge of developing original games aren’t limited by scale or platforms,” Saito says. “The most important thing is to create new games that will attract users. We are working on various small and large projects regardless of the platform. Game Freak came about out of our experiences of independently creating home video games, so we want to preserve the approach of personally wanting to try to create something new and unique.”
Pocket Card Jockey’s roots
Pocket Card Jockey is one of several original games developed by Game Freak. It was first released in North America for Nintendo 3DS in 2016, where it won praise for its good humor and its card-based mechanics. It’s based in part on Derby Stallion, a popular Japan-only horse-racing sim originally released on the NES.
Taya is a self-professed Derby Stallion fan, and he remembers “the thrill of seeing how the horses behaved displayed in pixels of 16-dot squares.” The experience remained with him even as he grew up and joined Game Freak, and he sought to recreate it with a game of his own.
“I spent time during several vacation days working on implementing a program like that. It went better than I thought, so I showed it to my co-workers and was content with that. I then decided to use that program to try and make a horse racing game. But I thought to myself, if it was just a development-type simulation it would be nothing more than a rehash of Derby Stallion several years too late,” Taya remembers. “So at Game Freak, I put forward the idea of adding in elements of a card game. I can see now that it wasn’t such a great idea because it was really just to avoid copying Derby Stallion. At the time, there were pretty high hurdles that prevented Game Freak from starting development of a new game, so in the end we didn’t go ahead with it.”
Pocket Card Jockey finally went ahead thanks to Game Freak’s Gear Project, an initiative that encourages developers to pitch original projects. If staff members are interested in a pitch, they will collaborate on a prototype. Taya’s idea was supported by Pokémon composer Go Ichinose, a fellow horse-racing fan who recommended a solitaire app to Taya.
“[Ichinose] knew I wanted to make a horse racing game and to bring in card game elements, so he suggested using a solitaire type of card game. I formed a Gear Project with Ichinose and invited another staff member (Toshihiro Obata) to join. The end result was Pocket Card Jockey,” Taya remembers.
Pocket Card Jockey was initially released in Japan in 2013, with a mobile version following the year after. Taya wouldn’t comment on sales numbers in Japan or North America, but did say that the original game ultimately turned a profit.
After Pocket Card Jockey’s release, Taya says he remained interested in releasing a free-to-play version on mobile devices, but was discouraged by the original iOS release, which “didn’t go well in business terms.” He was ultimately attracted to Apple Arcade due to its subscription-based model, which allowed Game Freak to bring the series to mobile without “having to force it into a F2P style.”
In addition to being on a more accessible platform, Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On brings with it several improvements, most notably a new 3D engine that Taya hopes will enhance “ease of understanding to make for richer course views and effects.” Taya also retooled the stamina system, allowing players to recover stamina in areas of the map at the expense of gaining energy to win the race.
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‘Even if resources are tight, we won’t stop making original games’
The reception has generally been positive, with plenty of new players discovering it for the first time. Will this be enough for Game Freak to pursue a sequel or a Switch port?
“Making a sequel would require a lot more time for trial and error. So rather than do that, I thought there would be more value in making sure we could provide a new Pocket Card Jockey to the fans who’d been waiting a long time , and to allow people who’d never played it before to try a version close to the original,” Taya says. “Of course, success with Apple Arcade raises the possibility of starting development on a sequel. On a personal level, I’d like to try creating a sequel!”
As for a Switch port, Taya says Game Freak’s “main focus is on Apple Arcade users enjoying. We want to see the reaction we get from that.”
Pocket Card Jockey is far from Game Freak’s stated aim of finding another Pokémon, but it nevertheless seems to be the most successful of the studio’s various side projects. The positive buzz around Ride On is no doubt a refreshing change of pace for Game Freak in light of the relentless negativity from Pokémon’s core fans.
One way or another, these curious and delightful side projects remain a big part of Game Freak’s DNA.
“Even if resources are tight, we won’t stop working on original games,” Saito says. “As a company we have to take on new challenges, and as creators we certainly want to make new fun things.”
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.