There have been many questions about Game Freak’s development bandwidth in recent months, especially in light of Pokemon’s general lack of polish in recent years. But that’s not 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 difficult,” says Game Freak, General Manager of Development Department 1 Masafumi Saito. “Mr. Taya, the director of the Nintendo 3DS version, worked in parallel on the development of game titles for the Pokémon series. And recently we have collaborated with other companies for development, including Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!. The technologies required for game development are complex and extensive. We have to prepare the best development team for each game, so we have to work together with all kinds of creators both in Japan and elsewhere in the world.”
Saito’s comments follow the release of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, which was a particularly glitchy entry in the long-running series. Pokémon is supported by a complex array of interconnected companies and supporting studios, but the core team at Game Freak is extremely small by modern standards, numbering just over 150 employees. In 2019, Junichi Masuda of Game Freak spoke about his preference for his small teams, which he said was because of the importance of communication.
Despite its size, Game Freak is still 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 is rooted in the studio’s origins as first a fanzine and then an independent studio.
“The departments responsible for developing original games are not limited by scale or platforms,” says Saito. “The most important thing is to create new games that will attract users. We work on various small and large projects regardless of the platform. Game Freak came 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 the Nintendo 3DS in 2016, where it won praise for its good humor and card-based mechanics. It is partially based on Derby Stallion, a popular Japan-only horse racing simulator originally released on the NES.
A self-proclaimed Derby Stallion fan, Taya remembers “the thrill of seeing how the horses displayed in pixels of 16-dot squares behaved.” The experience stayed with him even as he grew up and joined Game Freak, and he tried to recreate it with a game of his own.
“I spent several vacation days working on implementing such a program. It went better than I thought, so I showed it to my colleagues and was happy with it. Then I decided to use that program to try to 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 recalls. “So at Game Freak I pitched the idea of adding elements to a card game. I can see now that it wasn’t such a good idea because it was really just to avoid copying Derby Stallion. At the time there were pretty high hurdles like prevented Game Freak from starting development on a new game, so in the end we didn’t go ahead with it.”
Pocket Card Jockey finally moved on thanks to Game Freak’s Gear Project, an initiative that encourages developers to present original projects. If employees are interested in a pitch, they will collaborate on a prototype. Taya’s idea was supported by Pokémon composer Go Ichinose, another horse racing fan who recommended a solitaire app to Taya.
“[Ichinose] knew I wanted to make a horse racing game and incorporate card game elements, so he suggested using a solitaire card game. I formed a Gear Project with Ichinose and invited another employee (Toshihiro Obata) to join. The end result was Pocket Card Jockey,” Taya recalls.
Pocket Card Jockey was originally released in Japan in 2013, with a mobile version following the following year. Taya would not comment on sales figures in Japan or North America, but said the original game ultimately turned a profit.
After the release of Pocket Card Jockey, 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 do well in business terms.” He was ultimately drawn to Apple Arcade because of 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 several improvements, most notably a new 3D engine that Taya hopes will increase “ease of understanding to provide richer track views and effects.” Taya also retooled the stamina system, allowing players to regain stamina in areas of the map at the cost of gaining energy to win the race.
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“Although resources are scarce, we will not stop making original games”
The reception has been generally positive, with many 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 instead of doing that, I thought there would be more value in making sure we could offer a new Pocket Card Jockey to fans who had been waiting a long time, and to let people who have never played it before try a version close to the original,” says Taya. “Of course, success with Apple Arcade increases the possibility of starting development on a sequel. On a personal level, I would like to try to make a sequel!”
As for a Switch port, Taya says Game Freak’s “main focus is for Apple Arcade users to enjoy it. We want to see the reaction we get from that.”
Pocket Card Jockey is far from Game Freak’s stated goal of finding another Pokémon, but it still appears 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 Pokemon’s core fans.
Somehow, these curious and delightful side projects remain a big part of Game Freak’s DNA.
“Although resources are scarce, we will not stop working on original games,” says Saito. “As a company, we have to take on new challenges, and as creators, we absolutely want to make new fun things.”
Kat Bailey is a senior news editor at IGN and co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Do you have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.