Daily Exposé: VisualJae
We interview the lead developer of the visual novel game Pokémon Academy Life!
Daily Exposé is a series of articles in which we interview creators of all sorts of Pokémon related content from the PokéCommunity forums and the rest of the internet. In our first instalment we’re talking with VisualJae, lead developer of Pokémon Academy Life, a visual novel that takes place in the fictional Kobukan region. As Red, the protagonist of the first instalments of the Pokémon franchise, the player has been sent to the Kobukan Academy, where he meets many familiar faces from the Pokémon games and is constantly put for decisions that affect his personal life as well as his study. The game is still under development, but download links for the demo can be found on the official site.
Let’s dive right into it. What has inspired you to start a visual novel in the first place?
We haven’t seen any Pokémon related visual novel, official or fan-made. Well, there’s Twitch Dates Pokémon, the incomplete parody VN based on Twitch Plays Pokémon, but that’s not quite what we had in mind. There are so many ROM hacks, spin-offs made with RPG Maker and the like, that we felt that the medium is already saturated. We want to make a game that’s completely story-driven and focused heavily on the characters we can recognize from the franchise. It’s sort of from the same angle of the Pokémon Adventures manga, but set in a completely different universe with different rules.
Why did you choose the Kobukan Academy as the game’s location, rather than a journey through a region as we’re used to from the main series?
We wanted a place where characters from all over the world (the regions from the six core series games) can come together. We’re already sort of playing favorites by using a character based on Red as the player character (though you can name him anything you want), so we didn’t want to, say, have the player start in the Kanto region.
In addition, we feel that having a completely made up region sends the message that this game takes place in a completely different universe and timeline. At the same time, this opens up the possibility for us to throw in numerous references to the regions we know and also give us the opportunity to send the player to those regions later in the game as part of the branching storylines.
We chose a school setting because that’s what the majority of players can connect with. We’ve all been through high school, some of us are going through college, while others have already graduated. Many of us have probably imagined what a Pokémon school would be like and how it’d feel to attend full time.
As for travelling across a region, we mentioned this story takes place in a different universe that follows different rules. It’s illogical to send kids (literal kids, teens or otherwise) unsupervised on their own. We’ve all seen the jokes Pokémon players make about sending ten-year-olds out into the wild. However, in this game, that shouldn’t stop anyone adventurous from exploring beyond the campus!
How do you feel about giving the (normally silent) protagonists and other characters a lot more personality than they have in the official games?
That’s the biggest challenge our lead writer faces when writing the main script. While there are numerous character tropes we can fall on (tsundere Misty, ditzy innocent Bianca, princess-like Serena, etc.), at some point the personalities start to blend. A trick that our writer uses is that he’ll write a series of lines, then cover up all the names and see if we can tell who’s speaking. If everyone sounds more or less the same, we know we need to make improvements.
Characters make or break a story. You can have a boring, mundane setting like a coffee shop in the middle of an afternoon. But if you have interesting characters, they can breathe life into the scene. Conversely, you can have a setting like an active volcano decimating a nearby village. But with bland characters, the scene can lose a lot of impact and there won’t be much going for you.
Take an extreme we came up with: Hilbert. How would you imagine Hilbert from Pokémon Black and White? Serious? Comedic? Stoic? He could be anything as per the “blank slate protagonist” trope. So we decided to make Hilbert super serious and blunt to the point where he could be equally fascinating and equally infuriating. We know we’re on to something when fan feedback seems right down the middle for Hilbert (along the lines of “Why is Hilbert so edgy and serious?!” and “Hilbert seems so emo and serious that he’s hilarious!”). We ended up running with that theme with both him and Hilda, and to an extent, Cheren. That way they’re clearly different from other characters, have their own personal quirks, as well as a group identity.
Which character is your personal favorite?
I personally can’t say I have a true favorite. I know it’s a cop-out answer! There’s something to like about each character and we’re consciously trying to make them each unique in some way. However, let me first say that we’ve been putting extra work into the player character to make sure he’s at least somewhat relatable with qualities that hopefully most players can identify with. Going back to the previous question about “blank slate protagonists,” the player character isn’t one. We’re hoping players can live vicariously through him as he delivers the results of your decisions.
At this point in development, the next most developed character would have to be Leaf. Currently, she serves a few roles, including the tutorial character (such as explaining different game concepts to you), and also the first real recurring character outside of the roommate (who can vary). She’s also received a ton of positive feedback, including from people who came in not caring about her. There’s a lot more to come regarding her role in the overall story, as well as her own backstory.
We’ve barely scratched the surface, though, considering over half the characters haven’t even been introduced yet. Without a doubt we’ll surprise ourselves with how some of the characters will turn out the deeper we get into development.
With so many characters introduced in different locations and so many options to go through in the story, isn’t every conversation in the game a huge mess of if-conditions in the code? How do you cope with all that?
Yes, it has the potential to be a huge mess. We try to stay extremely organized during our planning stages (we’re still in the planning process for many parts of the game, actually). Our shared Google Drive is filled with numerous folders spanning character descriptions, the list of Pokémon, brainstormed events, planned scripted events, the entire calendar year of scripted events, as well as other mechanics that’ll show in the game. And each folder contains more details regarding the events as well as the actual scripts that will be incorporated into the game code.
Of course, human error and oversight are what contribute to bugs. For example, the vast majority of the bugs that were found and fixed in the current demo version took place in the elective classes. That’s because there are 306 ways the player can choose the two electives with the students saying slightly different things depending on when you meet them, if you met them before, etc. Some of the lines are duplicated over different scenarios so we don’t lose our minds, but occasionally we miss a condition and an entire block of dialogue is skipped. Or a character says something inconsistent. It happens, but that’s why we test and that’s why we have helpful players sending in reports!
If you yourself were sent to the Kobukan Academy, which two type electives would you choose? Do you think you’d be part of the 10% of the students that actually graduates?
I’ve always liked Psychic and Grass types. Electric and Flying are pretty close behind. I was the weirdo who picked Bulbasaur in my first playthrough in Pokémon Blue version when all my friends chose either Charmander or Squirtle. I was the weirdo who picked Chikorita in Pokémon Silver (and also kept resetting until I got a female one). I picked Treecko in Pokémon Ruby (and also my first playthrough of Omega Ruby). I picked Turtwig in Pokémon Diamond. I picked Snivy in Pokémon White. But then in Pokémon Y, I picked Froakie (and in X, I picked Fennekin).
I didn’t intentionally focus on Grass starters the entire time. I actually just recently realized I subconsciously did this over the span of 15 years or so before gen VI temporarily broke the trend, but with the Sun & Moon starter reveals, watch me pick the Grass starter again. This time intentionally.
As for Psychic types, I often end up gravitating toward caster classes in JRPGs, as well as hack and slash games. Psychic types seem to be the closest in terms of archetypes. Also I ran a mono-Psychic team as my first self-assigned challenge (wasn’t much of a challenge considering I had an entire team of sweepers).
And graduating Kobukan Academy? You should see some of the sample quiz questions we have in store. Here’s an example, and another one.
And here's a sample general 'Pokémon' question that may show up. Too much? Too easy? It's a balance we'll work on. pic.twitter.com/rNRiojQDUW
— Pokémon Visual (@pokemonvisual) March 19, 2016
We plan on timing players, too, so you won’t be able to alt-tab out and look up answers in time. Of course, players will always find ways to beat the system so we’re not too worried about that. We’re sure everyone will be able to graduate!
Seeing as you can save anytime, players will always have a save escape at hand, but for anybody who’s into Pokémon the questions look like a piece of cake anyway. Will the practical aspects of Pokémon such as battling be tested as well?
We’re currently in the process of developing a battle engine to go with the game. We plan on including battling as part of the classes, but most of it will be toward extracurricular or side activities. The logic behind that is that in the Pokémon world, not everyone will be a competitive battler. Some people may simply prefer research. Some may prefer coordinator or performance routes. Others may pursue art (such as painting or photography). So it’s like the academy expects you to graduate knowing the ins-and-outs of Pokémon training and battling, but it won’t force all the concepts on you.
However, should the player intentionally focus on training and battling, we’ll have alternate content for them. Likewise, for those who choose to limit their battles, the content will be a little different there, too. Of course, none of this has been implemented yet, so everything mentioned here is subject to change.
Are you into competitive battling yourself? If so, what Pokémon do you like to use?
I’ve played many competitive games before, but Pokémon for me has always been more about casual fun than anything. I’ve built some competitive teams before just so I know I can do it, but I never really went out of my way to challenge others with them. I figure if you study the metagame and build a setup that counters most of the other builds, then you have a pretty good shot. It’s the same formula with basically any competitive game. Math and statistics all the way!
For most of my “competitive” teams, Gengar somehow finds itself there on many occasions. I haven’t tinkered with a Mega Gengar team yet, though. Then again, I haven’t been paying too much attention to how the competitive scene’s shaping up in the past few years.
Are you looking forward to the upcoming Pokémon games, Sun and Moon?
Of course. I’ve played through every single core series Pokémon game that’s been released starting with Blue version in 1998. I even tried playing Green version sometime in middle school, but I couldn’t really accomplish much since I’m Japanese-illiterate. Anyway, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.
Can we expect to see characters from Sun and Moon appearing in Academy Life later in the process?
Funny thing is that we had people asking us about Sun & Moon characters right after the games were officially revealed the first time.
If we get to the point where it’s too difficult to squeeze in significant content, we can at least reference the new games. Like throw a poster featuring the new starter trio on one of the school bulletin boards or something. Maybe have the Sun & Moon player characters show up as new students in an epilogue CG (that’ll probably be the last resort).
In short, nothing is set in stone yet.
Besides Pokémon, what games are you into?
I used to play a lot of games, but I stopped in 2016 to focus more on work and other parts of life. But previously, I played a lot of Blizzard Entertainment games. I regularly placed in the Top 10 on Diablo III leaderboards (managed to nab the #1 spot worldwide for the wizard class on one occasion) before I quit toward the end of 2015 due to all the players cheating and botting. I’ve reached Legend rank once in Hearthstone, something I’ll never attempt again (a whole lot of work for a whole lot of nothing). I’ve played a fair deal of competitive StarCraft back in the day and StarCraft II, but stopped due to getting cold sweats for making tiny, but substantial mistakes in micro and macro plays.
I also played a lot of DotA many years ago, but once League of Legends was in the spotlight, I moved on to other genres of games and left MOBAs behind for good.
Aside from online multiplayer games, I enjoy my fair share of JRPGs. Speaking of which, after Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel left a sour taste in my mouth, I do hope FFXV can restore the franchise to its glory. Otherwise, I’ll dread how FFVII Remake will turn out.
Reaching the Legend rank doesn’t sound like nothing. Did you have to spend all-day practising to reach that, or were you controlling your game character as if it was the most natural thing on earth?
Practice really just came with the hours spent. Well, as long as the hours are properly spent (that’s also subjective). I didn’t get into competitive gaming until I was well into my college years, so there was no way for me to really play “all day” at any point. Even after graduating, I started working full time right away.
One of my cousins once told me something interesting. He said that while interviewing candidates for a job (completely unrelated to video games, by the way), one of the questions he asks is if the candidate plays any game competitively, and if so, if he/she ranks high. If this candidate does play a game competitively and plays it well, this tells my cousin that there is a degree of intelligence and dedication in this individual. There is no way for someone to compete and reach the top without having some balance of talent, dedicated time, as well as the brains to research and study how to perform optimally at a high level. This applies to sports, too. An elite baseball player will have the innate talent to drive or take any ball pitched at him, dedicate the time to practice his swings day in and day out, but also study videos and research opposing pitches and batters during down time to remain a step ahead of the competition.
I can’t tell if I had talent or if I have the brains. Probably neither; since I make my share of mistakes and experience multiple instances of brain farts. But for sure I knew how to effectively and efficiently use my available time.
If I may ask, what job do you have? Do you like your job?
I’m part of an agency that manages and develops YouTube channels for big, multi-million/billion dollar brands. So basically I spend most of my day making sure YouTube videos are optimized and their metadata are up to standards to be picked up by YouTube’s search algorithm. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s probably my most fulfilling job I’ve had so far as it’s got a comfy environment and all the essential perks like vacation days and insurance.
Plus, it’d be nice to tell someone you spend eight hours a day watching YouTube videos and get paid for it, right?
Wow, that’s probably one of the coolest jobs I’ve heard about. But let’s go back to Pokémon Visual… what is your team working on right now?
I’m personally mostly streamlining and simplifying some code to make things potentially a little easier for me in the future. We got one programmer working exclusively on the battling engine and we’ll see how that turns out. If it goes well, we’ll attempt the Pokémon catching engine next.
I’m also doing some screenplay and organization work alongside our lead writer, who doubles as our lead artist. He does all the character, Pokémon, and CG art basically. He streams what he’s up to a few times a week on his Twitch channel.
We do have some potential writers waiting in the wings. But that said, we’re still open to adding more writers to the team. Our standards are really high because none of the starting members here are writers by trade. So essentially we’re looking for people who we can say, “Wow! Yeah, you’re way better than us.” But if the writing is about the same as what we have now, we’d rather just do it ourselves and skip potential directing/editing headaches.
Lastly, we have a freelance background artist on standby for when we start implementing new scenes. We’re really just planning and writing 90 percent of the time right now and making sure our roadmap is all set before we commit. There’s three years of content to sort through. While most of it will be linear, there will be dozens of smaller branching plotlines we’ll have to deal with. We want to at least get the linear part (the core game) ironed out.
Are you able to give us an indication on when the next update is going to be released?
Unfortunately, if that info isn’t already publicly available, then we can’t answer that. It’ll be ready when it’s ready.
Okay, this will be the last question from me… Can you name a few of the weirdest suggestions for your game you’ve received from your fans?
I wouldn’t say any were particularly “weird,” but there certainly have been numerous ones that were illogical from a development standpoint. Oh, where to start…
As a disclaimer, we’re not trying to play the naming and shaming game here, so for each “weird” suggestion we point out, we’ll offer some insight on why we outright rejected them without much of a second thought.
I guess I’ll start by talking about one of most requested features, which is playing as a female character. Don’t get me wrong, we’d all love to do that, but we can’t right now. Unlike the official core series games where the protagonists are silent and the plot doesn’t change based on your gender, the visual novel is a completely different ballgame. A female player character means all the roommate characters that exist right now need to be completely different female characters. Every existing line will likely have to be changed because every character has his/her own personality. Let’s say Leaf is the female player character. Leaf is not Red. What Red says, Leaf may not necessarily say or even think about. All the choices will likely have to change, too. Essentially, outside the art assets, we’d have to remake the entire game.
Another one is a more touchy subject, which is LGBT relationships. In this day and age, it’s all about proper representation and we get that. However, it’s impossible to please everyone and we can only focus on the most logical course of action in our best interest. In our case, it’s more about knowing our audience. Our primary demographic is not the LGBT community. It’s roughly 80% males between the ages of 16 to 34 (nearly 40% between 18-24) with only a small fraction of them that fall under the LGBT community (I actually do a fair share of research on our target audience group, considering that’s part of my real job). We can certainly make references or put a spotlight here and there on some topics or issues should the opportunities arise, but we’re not going to go out of our way just for the sake of doing so. We’ll prioritize content that the majority of our audience is interested in.
All of this, however, comes after what we as the creators want to do. If we don’t think we can pull something off, we’re not going to dedicate the extra time and effort just to force it to work.
I’ll throw in some honorable mentions as well:
– Dating specific Pokémon: denied because potential zoophilia topics.
– Player customization: denied because it doesn’t impact the core game and just adds extra work.
– 18+ content: denied because you’ll have to pay our character artist an absurd fee to get him to even attempt the work, it shuts out the under 18 population interested in this game, it’ll cause problems with generating promotional work, and it’ll open up a whole other can of worms that I don’t even want to get into right now.
Alright, thank you so much for your time! Do you have anything to say to our readers before we wrap up this interview?
Thanks for the continued support and patience! Feel free to continue making suggestions and reporting any bugs or inconsistencies you find in the current demo. Every bit helps us improve.
I’m personally not on PokéCommunity all the time unless I feel there are news I need to relay, but there’s our Twitter, Facebook, YouTube channel, and artist’s Twitch channel should you ever want to take a peek to see if we’re still breathing.
The interview was fun. Thanks for that, too.
Thanks again and good luck with your project! We hope to hear more about it soon!
More about Pokémon Academy Life:
Pokémon Academy Life development thread
Official site of the game
Gameplay video by Necrum
Edited by bobandbill and Jake.