The Pokemon Trading Card Game remains one of the most popular collectible card games in the world and is a major reason for the Pokemon franchise’s success. The trading card game is inspired by the Pokemon video games, but innovates in entirely different ways by shifting in new cards and new mechanics on a periodic basis. The Pokemon Trading Card Game is headed up by Creatures, a Japanese company that co-owns the Pokemon Company along with Nintendo and GAME FREAK.
While GAME FREAK and Nintendo are both known commodities to Pokemon fans, Creatures rarely steps into the spotlight. So, when ComicBook.com had the opportunity to interview Atsushi Nagashima, Game Director of the Pokemon Trading Card Game at Creatures, we leapt at the chance. Nagashima has been involved in the development of the Pokemon Trading Card Game since 2003 and has played an important role in the gameplay design for the Pokemon Trading Card Game since 2006. As the Game Director, he helps develop the Pokemon Trading Card Game playing environment through game system and gameplay mechanics development and planning.
ComicBook.com: Besides being the lead developer of the Pokemon Trading Card Game, what other work does Creatures do on the Pokemon franchise?
Atsushi Nagashima, Game Director, Pokémon Trading Card Game at Creatures: Creatures is involved in many major lines of business outside of the development of the Pokemon Trading Card Game. These include digital game development and CG modeling. In games, this includes the development of the Detective Pikachu video game. As for CG modeling, we also work with GAME FREAK to create models and motions for most Pokemon.
Every year, the Pokémon TCG cycles in a new “mechanic” such as Pokémon VMAX or this year’s Amazing Rare cards. What goes into balancing these cards with past sets and how do you keep finding new mechanics to introduce?
At Creatures, we have a team of play testers who play the Pokemon Trading Card Game throughout the day to gather as much data as they can on how a card performs. Their role is to check the playability of the new cards and game mechanics, while making sure that the game stays balanced after releasing a new expansion. The play testers need to anticipate the strategies that competitive Pokemon Trading Card Game players will choose once the new cards are introduced to the public, as well as how these cards will interact with the ones from previous sets. Some modifications that might be requested based on testing include reducing or increasing HP and damage. The creative team works in close communication with testers, using their feedback to help achieve the kind of game we hope to create.
We start by looking at how the world is depicted in the Pokemon video games. Our inspiration for new elements in the Pokemon Trading Card Gamecomes from the video games, which we use to build the underlying framework of a product or series. We begin by selecting four or five main Pokemon, keeping in mind things like Pokemon types in the existing game environment. Based on this selection, we begin exploring the broader world view of the series. At this point, we start imaging simple illustrations. Next, we create our mix of Pokemon, looking at factors such as type balance, evolution balance, character popularity, and play mechanics, and from there work on data and illustrations for each individual card.
When the Pokemon Trading Card Game was first created, there were seven “types” of cards. Why did you decide to condense multiple types—Psychic-type and Poison-type, for instance—into a single type?
Creatures opted to condense the types so that the game could be simple while also offering depth. In Pokemon video games, you can have 17 different types of Pokemon and the game engine will handle it, but with a tabletop game it’s hard to remember compatibility between all those difference types. Fewer types prevent the game from becoming too difficult. Traditionally, the type advantage aspect of the Pokemon Trading Card Game has been characterized by its rock-paper-scissors nature. However, that meant the metagame would shift rapidly. As a result, we decided to create the Sword & Shield Series with five types at the center of the type match-up: Grass, Fire, Water, Lightning, and Fighting.
For example, the Psychic-type cards used to be weak to other Psychic-type cards, which was somewhat complex and unintuitive to players. We were able to simplify things a bit by unifying the weakness of Pokemon that are Psychic-type and Ghost-type in the video games to Dark-type Pokemon in the Pokemon Trading Card Game. In addition, Pokemon that are Fairy-type in the video game now have weakness to Metal-type Pokemon in the Pokemon Trading Card Game.
Lastly, the Dark-type was strengthened by splitting its weakness between Grass-types and Fighting-types, effectively decentralizing the types against which it is weak. By connecting the Dark-type to two of the five types, we increased the range of strategies available to players.
Even now we continue to tweak a variety of elements, ensuring that the game remains accessible to new players while also expanding strategic options for existing players in a way that doesn’t shift the metagame too rapidly.
Are there any Pokémon TCG mechanics that you were afraid wouldn’t resonate with fans?
Thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, we’ve created a game logic and environment of which we can be proud, though naturally there are always worries when creating new core principles and series.
How do you decide which Pokémon get which moves and abilities in the Pokémon TCG, and how do you balance making sure that the same Pokémon, like Mewtwo or Charizard, don’t get the best abilities over and over in different sets?
There are many different ways in which we approach the creation of a card. For instance, we might approach one card from the perspective of how to bring that Pokemon’s unique features into the Pokemon Trading Card Game system in a way that is most appealing. As an example, Heatran, a Fire-type Pokemon, uses the heat and flames of its own body to scald opponents, while Ariados uses its webs to grab and drag opponents. When people play with Pokemon Trading Card Game cards, we want it to feel as if that Pokemon has come to life and is really doing battle.
We also approach cards from the perspective of deck creation. When looking to create strong decks by combining Pokemon, we decide the techniques and features these Pokemon will have by considering how they could work together to create interesting combos. We later decide technique damage based on how powerful we want that combo to be when it is achieved.
Regardless of what approach we use in creation, we still play test each card before deciding on the final power level. The card data that comes from playtesting is then used to tweak and develop each card to ensure it remains at the correct power-level and is balanced for the play environment. The balance of Pokemon with multiple cards, such as Charizard and Mewtwo, is also thanks to tweaks from play testers.
Will we ever see the return of Pokémon cards that belong to Gym Leaders or the “Dark” Pokémon cards seen in the Team Rocket expansions?
We’re always looking for innovative ways to keep the Pokemon Trading Card Game strategic, exciting, and fun, whether that be through the introduction of new mechanics, fan-favorite Pokemon, or beautiful card designs. However, I don’t have anything to share beyond that.
Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.