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Let me Level with You About: How Pokemon is Well Designed


          Pokemon is the second best selling video game series of all time. Though a lot has been written about the Pokemon games, there hasn't been much discussion of Pokemon's most vital aspect as a game, the mechanics. The underlying mechanics of Pokemon are integral to the franchise's staying power. So let’s look at Pokemon from a design perspective and see why the franchise is still beloved to this day.

            Though often neglected, every Pokemon game's single player mode works to teach new players the series' mechanics and get the player invested in catching Pokemon. Each gym is based around a single type for this very reason. By having a single type, each gyms teaches the player about how the different types interact. It also makes the player interested and invested in finding specific Pokemon. A gym leader will never have a Pokemon that the player can’t catch. The infamous Whitney’s Miltank giving you trouble? Wouldn’t it be cool if you had your own Miltank? You can catch one. This is also why the gym leaders give you a specific TM used by their Pokemon. It's giving you access to the same tools that made the gym leaders so formidable.

            Pokemon, by its very design and structure, makes sure the player is constantly interested in expanding their roster and it does so by making sure the player almost always has access to the same tools as their opponent. This is fairly unique for an RPG. In most Final Fantasy games, your characters can't cast the same spells as the main villain. But in Pokemon everything is open and available to the player. 


Pictured: Simplicity

            On the competitive side, one of the best things Pokemon does is something I like to call “The Nintendo Philosophy” of designing a competitive game. All of Nintendo’s games with a strong competitive element follow the philosophy of easy to learn, difficult to master. Look at a game like Smash Bros, the actual mechanics of the game are simple. Anyone who's literate in video games can pick up a Smash Bros game and understand it in a very short amount of time. This is in complete contrast to say, Street Fighter, where even doing special moves can be an accomplishment for players new to fighting games. The basic mechanics of Smash Bros are simpler, but that doesn’t mean it sacrifices complexity or depth, it’s just the complexity and depth are much more under the surface. The barrier to entry for competitive Nintendo games is much lower than the barrier to entry of other, similar games.

            This philosophy informs almost every design decision in the game. The nuts and bolt of battling are incredibly simple to understand. I mean think about it, when battling another trainer you basically have two options, use an attack, or switch out. Sure the type chart is a little complex but most of the type matchups have some basis in reality. Water puts out fire, fire burns grass, and absorbs water. It makes sense when you’re a kid.

            Most kids will intuitively understand how to battle because it’s so simple. They may not understand the complex interworking network of mechanics underneath the battles, but they probably understand what’s happening on the surface.

            Even the mechanics underneath all the surface stuff are designed to make the player care about their Pokemon. Many people criticize the IV and EV systems as too complex and difficult to understand but this misses the point. They add an important element for all the kids playing the game. IV’s and EV’s make you Pokemon unique. Your Charizard is unique to you, maybe it’s faster than an opponent’s Charizard, or maybe it hits harder. Within the confines of schoolyard battles, your Pokemon is completely unique to you. This isn’t just a Greninja, this is your Greninja. This is also helped by all the different abilities one Pokemon can have, adding a further layer of uniqueness.

This on the other hand, this is just a Greninja

            This attachment to your Pokemon even carries over in to competitive battles. Nintendo wants you to breed your Pokemon and breeding the best possible Pokemon with all max stats is purposefully difficult. You poured days into making this perfect Talonflame, of course you feel an attachment to it.

            None of this even touches on how complex battling an actual person can be. When you simplify things down to their basest elements, you really only have two moves in Pokemon, attack or switch out. For much of the single player, it is as simple as those two choices because the matches are designed to make choices easy. But, in competitive matches your choices have more weight. What was as simple as “click the move that’s super effective until you win” becomes “what moveset does this thing have? Is it physical or defensive? What is my opponent going to switch in that could take this super effective attack?” There is so much to consider and there is a huge amount of strategy. What was a game about using the strongest attack to defeat the Pokemon in front of you, evolves into a game of predictions and legitimate choices.

            The same mechanics are at play in both modes but they feel vastly different. There is no unique mechanic in multiplayer that you don’t see in single player.  Even before a battle, there is an element of strategy. What Pokemon you pick for your team and how well it’s composed are vital to your success. There is a reason competitive Pokemon is such a thriving community. The mechanics are so sound, you can strip them of any of the game’s outer context and it completely holds up. Pokemon Showdown shows off just how amazing the battling mechanics are.

Sorry Reggie.

             The games do have more than a few problems that hold them back though. There is, admittedly, a few too many elements of luck with moves that have ten percent chances for bonus effects to happen. Still, despite the luck involved in Pokemon, the better player will win the match nine times out of ten.

            The fact that competitive rules need to address some degenerate strategies is pretty telling that Nintendo has some issues balancing their games. A competitive board like Smogon shouldn't have to exist, but it does. Unlike some though, I don’t believe Smogon to be a negative force. The tier list exists to encourage diversity of play. Without it, there would be no format where a Pokemon like Flygon or Ursaring could be a serious contender. Tiers keep Pokemon who just aren’t very good relevant and playable.

            The Pokemon games don’t get enough credit for how mechanically sound they are. These games were a huge part of people’s childhood and there’s a very good reason for that; they were and are fantastic games. It’s no coincidence that Pokemon is pretty much the only digital pet/monster game series with any serious longevity. Nobody’s talking about Spectrobes and we all know the only reason people talk about Digimon is because of the anime. Pokemon is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. Long live emperor Pikachu. May its reign be great and eternal. 

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About Persnickety Penguinone of us since 11:48 PM on 08.15.2010