Bakugan: Battle Planet Anime Expo Interview with Justin Gary
Bakugan is a toy-based franchise that has been around for over a decade and had a decent amount of popularity during its original run consisting of the aforementioned toys, an anime series, a card game, and several video games.
While Bakugan has never quite become the phenomenon some other franchises have, it was notable enough to be parodied on The Simpsons as well as having brief appearance in the movie 21 Jump Street, and was even one of the best selling kids video games in the holiday season of 2009.
Despite its spin-offs during the time, the popularity of Bakugan had faded by 2012. Toy and entertainment company Spin Master relaunched Bakugan as Bakugan: Battle Planet in early 2019.
At Anime Expo 2019, we sat down with Lead Game Designer of Bakugan: Battle Planet and former Magic: The Gathering champion, Justin Gary, and asked him what it's like to reboot a franchise, the decision making that comes with it, and developing an audience.
GameSkinny (GS): What is it like to reboot a franchise like this? Especially not that long after the original?
Justin Gary: It's one of the things that was a great honor to be able to work on because so many people love Bakugan so much and to be able to sort of modernize it and make it something that can expand and appeal to an even wider audience was a big challenge. So we wanted to make sure that we were true to the original brand and we worked with some of the original people that developed the game and that developed the animated show and we wanted to bring it into the modern era. So we did that with the three main parts: The toys themselves, they're bigger, they have more magical transformations, a lot of them pop open and transform in cool new ways; with the show the animation's better and we've launched not only the new series on Cartoon Network but also the animated shorts that we have on our YouTube channel; and then of course the game, which as Lead Game Designer I'm particularly partial to, but we wanted to not only have the fun and the kinetic strategy of tossing your toy and getting it to land and open, but also the strategy of a card game where you can actually build a deck and have different synergies and strategize against other players and have resources that you have to manage. All the things that can make somebody like us love the game and be something that you can play not just as a five year old but as a fifty five year old and have throughout your whole life.
GS: How do you decide between creating a full reboot or, using Yu-Gi-Oh! for example, just making changes that essentially shift the way the game plays?
JG: We decided to do a full reboot because we wanted to make something that could last forever. We wanted to make something that people could love and continue to play, like you used Yu-Gi-Oh! as an example, well Yu-Gi-Oh! has been around for 20 years, Magic has been around for over 25 years, Pokemon has been around for over 20 years, that's what I want for Bakugan, and to do that you have to have a very solid foundation.
While there were a lot of great things about the original game, it wasn't a deep enough gameplay experience to last for 20 or 30 years, and the game we have now is. So we relaunched everything with keeping the best parts of original Bakugan alive, there's still Dan and Drago, there's still the fun of tossing the ball and watching it pop open into a monster, all that stuff is still there but now we have deep gameplay and strategy and amazing art and years and years worth of content that we can continue to release and grow on, and that's why we decided to do a full relaunch.
GS: How did your experience with Magic: The Gathering help influence Bakugan: Battle Planet?
JG: So I became Magic: The Gathering US National Champion when I was 17 back in 1997, I was a World Team Champion in 2003, I paid my way through college playing Magic and I've traveled all around the world. So it was a huge part of my identity and where I learned about how to play competitive games, and I obviously was able to understand and dissect that strategy at a very high level, so of course it has influenced me to this day and all the games that I make because I know what it takes to have deep strategy and have a competitive feel and make sure there's a balanced metagame and that not one strategy becomes dominant and that there are lots of different play styles. It's more than just that, but also the importance of community, that's why we have events like this at Anime Expo.
We have fans that are coming here that are coming to hang out and play with us, we're building local events at local stores, we're making sure that there's an online community and Youtubers/Streamers, and people that can all be together because it's not just great gameplay that I've learned from my past as a Magic player but also the importance of community and building that tribe. We want to make Bakugan a welcoming place and an awesome place where everybody can get together and hang out and play.
GS: For the anime series, why use same characters rather than making new ones when the characters are essentially different in all but name?
JG: Everybody who knows Bakugan knows Dan and Drago, they're main characters of the show, so why would you get rid of them? Of course we're going to modernize them. Our heroes in the show are The Awesome Ones, and they're basically streamers, so of course that wouldn't make any sense 10 years ago. So we wanted to take the characters people love and put them in a modern context, tying into your earlier question about why a reboot and what does that mean. you want to identify what are the most important things about the original and how do we modernize them and make them better.
GS: So there's Bakugan: Fan Hub available on mobile devices, which has a game included with it, and in the past Bakugan has had a few console games. Can you tell us more about the app and if we can expect more games in the future?
JG: There is a mini-game in the app where you can get some trick shots and level up, then there's a compendium of all the different toys, there's some news, and you can watch clips for the show and the animations. We're open to everything, but the main focus right now is really growing the physical game, the toys, the TCG, the app is there primarily to support those things, but of course we're open to that sort of stuff over time. There are going to be more cool things to come but the most important part right now are the TCG and the toys and the show.
GS: So you previously said you were open to everything, and I'm guessing it would be in the far future if possible, but since there are a handful of competitive toys somewhat similar to Bakugan. Would you ever consider a crossover?
JG: That's not my department exactly but i will say that what we'e trying to do is be a category defining best in class game. While there are toy battling games and there are trading card games, there has never been a collectible toy and trading card game like this where we have both the fun and the kinetic toy and the dexterity part of that, but also the strategy and depth of a trading card game. There's nothing else like that in the world, and so Bakugan is the only one and it's going to be the best one and that's what we're really focused on.
GS: Earlier you mentioned appealing to a broader audience, is there a target audience or age for Bakugan?
JG: A hundred percent we're trying to get a broader audience. So there's the basic toy battling game, where it can be five year olds, you roll the toy, it pops open, you add up the numbers on the core that you open and the number on the figure and if my number is higher than yours I win, win three in a row and the game is over. Little kids can be taught quickly and play it, it's a great introduction.
Then we have the card game, which you can learn once you're around eight or nine years old and learn how to play and that everybody can enjoy and play. We have tons of families, a father and a daughter came up to me at the last show and said it's amazing because it's a game they can play together and both have a good time and she can beat him and they can have fun. So it's really trying to be something that again is going to last for decades, and it has got to be something that's accessible, but still have enough depth and interest to keep you playing for many years to come and that's exactly what we're trying to do with Bakugan.
GS: Is it true that if a Bakugan doesn't pop out then that player loses, and what is the proper or best technique to ensure a lower chance of this?
JG: Every given battle if your Bakugan doesn't open and if you miss, then you're going to lose that fight. But in the basic game you have to win three fights to win a battle so even if you lose one it's not that big a deal, and in the advanced game whenever you when a fight you attack the other players deck and start flipping cards off of it and you lose if you lose all the cards in your deck. Of course you're going to miss sometimes, you're never going to hit a hundred percent, even I don't hit a hundred percent, but that's part of the skill of the game. We even have some strategic cards we've designed that let you re-roll, so if you miss you can use a strategic re-roll card to be able to get back in the game. So there's a lot of ways to mitigate that if you don't get the roll you need to.
The most important thing is to know where the magnet is on the toy. Each toy has a magnet listed and if you drop it anywhere else it's not going to open but if you land it there then it pops right open, so know where the magnet is. There's usually an arrow that points you on how you should roll, so you want to roll along the axes so that it will be more likely to hit and open. That's the normal way to roll, and if you watch there are some really cool online videos to show you some more trick ways to roll and spin move and other cool things you can do, but that's more advanced as you practice. How do you become a Bakugan master? Well, you got to practice.
Bakugan: Battle Planet toys are available online or at your local retailer. You can catch Bakugan: Battle Planet on Cartoon Network or on YouTube. Bakugan: Fan Hub is available on the App Store and Google Play. You can also follow the official Bakugan social media pages on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.