How The Pokémon Studio’s New Platformer, HarmoKnight, Came To Be

By Ishaan . March 6, 2013 . 2:00pm

HarmoKnight, a Nintendo eShop platformer developed by Pokémon studio, Game Freak, is headed to the U.S. and Europe soon. One of more interesting points about the game is that it was conceived by a non-Japanese designer. James Turner, the Game Freak staff member who directed HarmoKnight, is originally from England.


Turner has lived in Japan for about ten years, and has been with Game Freak for over three, he shares in an Iwata Asks interview. While Turner has been in Japan long enough to be able to handle himself in Japanese, Iwata points out that directing a project involves being able to communicate subtle concepts to your staff, which can be difficult to express if you aren’t using your native language. Turner replies that his solution to this was to express himself visually.


“When it was hard to express an idea verbally, I would often use sketches to explain things visually,” he shares. An example of this can be seen in a page from HarmoKnight’s design document, translated and provided by Nintendo:


A translated page from HarmoKnight’s design document. Click to enlarge.


As previously reported, Game Freak adopted a new development structure last year, that allows members of the staff to pitch new, non-Pokémon projects. Under this new structure, if the brains behind the project can get at least two of his colleagues actively interested in his idea, the project is greenlit for prototyping, with a progress check conducted three months later. Iwata compares this to Google’s “20% time” concept, which allows Google employees to dedicate 20% of their working hours to their own pet projects.


If the project is considered worth pursuing after the progress check, the development team is then given another three months to work on it further. At the end of this period, a decision is made regarding whether or not the project in question will be turned into a full-blown game.


Not only is this comparable to Google’s 20% time, it’s also reminiscent of the game industry’s fledgling days, say Iwata and Game Freak director, Junichi Masuda. “I first got involved in game development back when you were expected to come up with a new title every three months,” Iwata shares. “It’s unthinkable nowadays!”


In fact, the original Pokémon games were born of a similar working environment as well. “There were about nine of us who worked on [Pokémon Red/Green] all the way to the end,” Masuda reveals. Masuda also mentions at one point in the interview that, experience gleaned by Game Freak staff during pet projects like HarmoKnight will be useful during the development of Pokémon games as well.

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  • puchinri

    Wow, nine of them? That’s amazing. 0v0
    Things have changed a lot, certainly. It’s cool that they’re doing things reminiscent of those days though and that we get cool projects from it. I hope there will be more unique titles. ♥

    Really looking forward to playing HarmoKnight too~.

  • 60hz

    yep this is a great paradigm, as even failed ideas are still educational opportunities! And kudos to the gaijin! Gamefreak was always one of my favorite devs (even before pokemon) i loved the sublime magical taluluto! So i am quite jealous of him!

  • Ethan_Twain

    This is an excellent initiative for Nintendo, considering that they can often be criticized for iterating on decades old design as opposed to creating new designs. What other teams within Nintendo would you guys like to see get this sort of 20% time? My vote is AlphaDream because I would love to see them break out beyond their single franchise, but there are other worthy candidates.

    • Armane

      But this isn’t Nintendo, and it’s just Vib Ribbon/Bit.Trip Runner, so hardly a new concept.

      • Ethan_Twain

        This is a studio wholly owned and operated by Nintendo. It’s called second party development, when a studio retains it’s status as an independent unit but has is locked into working for a single publisher. Every game made by Gamefreak is going to be for Nintendo hardware and published by Nintendo, and every game needs to be green lit by Nintendo. Other examples of second party developers include Retro Studios, Intelligent Systems, and Camelot Software Planning. These studios aren’t free to just make whatever they feel like, they pitch games to or are assigned games from Nintendo directly.

        So if you want I can rephrase to “This is an excellent initiative for Nintendo managed development corps.” Does that satisfy your thirst for grammatically precise internet comments?

        • Armane

          Not really no, it’s still factually incorrect. They aren’t wholly owned by Nintendo nor operated by Nintendo, Nintendo doesn’t manage them, and they didn’t come up with this development initiative (nor does it apply to Nintendo’s other second party developers).

          GameFreak might not be free to make whatever they want, but they do want to make Pokémon, otherwise they wouldn’t be working there. With the new prototyping initiative, they have more freedom as well.

  • キロ

    I think it is nice to see how a foreign developer was able to share insight and communicate effectively with their Japanese team to bring about a very nice looking game. ^^

  • What a fantastic new development structure! It would be nice if more developers could follow this kind of example.

    • A lot of smaller developers do, actually. While it isn’t common in Japan, this is how a lot of indies in the West come up with their games.

  • Gyro Zeppeli

    Well this is great news, I loved Drill Dozer and Pulseman was pretty fun too, so I’m excited to see what other original titles Game Freak comes up with.

  • $29082171

    Still waiting for another Drill Dozer.

    • Tails the Foxhound

      So much this, I want to pierce the…um…boxes!

  • Spirit Macardi

    This is pretty awesome to see GF making a non-Pokemon game again. Even though I love that series, I don’t think a studio should be tied down to the same franchise constantly.

    Looking at the screenshots, it makes me want to see them do a 2.5D sequel or remake of Pulseman.

    • Tails the Foxhound

      Pulseman was fantastic, my only problem with it is that I didn’t play it years ago! A sequel would be so very welcome!

  • isfuturebright

    I wish that all of Nintendo dev teams followed this 20% time of work thing. Imagine great little tiles comming up for the eshop :D

    It’s funny cause now that I think about this like a simpler and easier bit trip runner, right?

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