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LONG BLOG

Let it Rip! Keeping Pokemon around for 20 more years.

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I wonder if the man who, on the UK release of the first Pokémon movie, warned my mother not to enter the theatre had any idea that that was the first of nineteen films. Pokemon has certainly proved itself to have more longevity than it's competitors - pre-dating and outliving pretenders such as Digimon, Beyblade, Metabots and to a certain extent Yu-Gi-Oh! However, the world has not stood still: Pokémon would never merit a full theatrical release in England any more and the fact that most 5 and 6 year olds seem to be permanently equipped with expensive tablets for some reason means they would most likely be not so giddy. Regardless, it is crazy that Pokémon hit 20 this year. It makes me feel young and old at the same time; when Mario, Zelda and Metroid hit their recent landmark anniversaries, I thought it was cool, sure – but it still felt somehow distant. With Pokémon, it has hit much closer to home, for those who felt this way for Mario and Zelda, bugger me, you must feel really old now.

                                                                   

"Beyblade, a fad? Don't be silly!"

Unfortunately, Pokémon’s following now a shadow of its former self, and the very nature of that following is changing. Pokémon is becoming increasingly competitive, and the sense of community which pervaded much of Pokémon’s early success is now all but gone – preserved only in the intimidating and fairly exclusive communities of competitive circles such as Nugget Bridge and Smogon.  Also, for the first time since, well, see the above, Pokémon may have some real competition, in Japan at least.

Mummy, can I have the new YoKai watch game? Mummy, can I watch the Yokai watch cartoon? Mummy, can we paint our house blue?

Frankly, I still love Pokémon – I play the games religiously, Pokémon Adventures is a genuinely fantastic manga, VGC is probably my favourite “esport” and I remain a casual collector of the trading cards – and have found attending the ghost towns that have been the recent Pokémon events saddening. Now that we know Gen 7 is definitely a thing, I’m going to give my thoughts on what I’d ideally like to see, both in and out of the games. Ideas which I think would hopefully ensure Pokémon will still be around in another 20 years.

If nothing else, watch the second game.

Ultimately my ideas all orbit around a central one – bringing the sense of community back to the games. During the fourth generation I can remember going to an event to receive an Arceus, it took all of two minutes to pop into Game; however the shop was surrounded by people playing DSes or flicking through trading card albums. Compare this to the Mew event for the 20th anniversary – I was the only person there asking for a Mew. There was no one there.

I will bring up Pokémon events again later down the line, but for now the immediate issue is easy to remedy – simply make events, events again. To get my Arceus I had to bring a DS and a copy of Pokémon to a Game store on one of two days, to get Mew I had to turn up at any point in February and ask for a code. The latter is certainly more convenient, but it means that there is no concentration of Pokémon fans and even if more than one happened to be in the same place at the same time, there’s no guarantee either will even have the game on them. Whilst some will no doubt argue that they should be able to receive event Pokémon regardless of whether they have time to attend an event, need events and wifi giveaways really be mutually exclusive? Obviously the events would need to be separate and give out different Pokémon (otherwise there’d be no point in turning up), but I don’t see why people shouldn’t receive a reward for taking the time to attend. Nor do I think the Pokémon should be the only incentive (see below).

There is no doubt that something of Pokemon’s success comes from its simplicity, and when trying to broaden your appeal this is probably a bit counterintuitive, but I think that the Pokémon company should cater to the hardcore a bit more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pouting with my arms crossed saying that Pokémon is too easy (although I do think that X&Y took the difficulty too far in that direction). Rather, I’m arguing that we try to reduce the divide between competitive and casual Pokémon while at the same time blurring the lines between the in game Pokémon League and real life VGC, which should definitely be renamed the Pokémon League.

Although this may be a point of contention for some, the official format for competitive Pokémon is double battles, for a number of reasons. Games are by their nature much more aggressive and faster paced, and if I’m being perfectly honest – more entertaining to watch, to me at least. The format opens up a number of possibilities which are simply unusable otherwise; with a large number of more supportive moves essentially exclusive to doubles, and like it or not, new Pokémon are clearly balanced with doubles in mind. Therefore it has always baffled me that there has never really been any emphasis on doubles in game, with the exception of Colosseum and XD, something which I think is hugely detrimental overall. It means that there is a great chasm between normal and competitive play – not only is the way battles play out completely different, but it means that teams are pretty much incompatible. Having double battles be more prevalent in the games – if not the core focus – would go a long way to bringing down the barrier to entry for competitive play. Something that Game Freak is clearly eager to do with the introduction of Super Training to the 6th Generation.

                                                                            

Heh! singles. Pfft.

I don’t think that every battle in the game should be a full on double battles, it would take far too long (as we indeed saw with Colosseum and XD). As I’ve suggested above, I think that the in game Pokémon League and real world VGC should be brought more into line – this would mean that gyms and elite four should operate on the official VGC rule set, that includes the odd “bring six take four” which I feel ends up putting a lot of people off. Again this will act to bridge the gap, easing people into some of the more unusual rules, and it is not unheard of in the Pokémon franchise as a whole – in the anime and manga gyms are virtually never 6v6s. A kid could start by competing in the Kanto league and then move on to the Local, National and maybe even World Championships.

Though they had their shortcomings, the more I think about these games, the more they seem like a missed opportunity to serve as a start point for a new direction for the series.

Obviously though, the game’s structure would require some pretty major alterations to make this work. Currently games progress fairly linearly with the plot and Pokémon League leapfrogging each other; you’ll do a thing to stop the enemy team doing a thing, beat the gym and then move on to the next area. I’d suggest that the distance between the gyms and plot be widened; that the games embrace a more open design, with the plot guiding the players around the region and introducing the gyms leaders as characters rather than simply road blocks. The gyms themselves could be more in the background – to be tackled when you feel ready, not when the plot dictates. This added freedom could in turn lead to the more in depth stories which many fans of the series have wanted for a long time now, as well as allowing for more memorable gym leaders both in terms of character, and battles. Rather than sporting the usual mono-type, fairly paint by numbers battles, the separation from the main difficulty curve can allow for greater challenge and variety. Rather than the water gym using only water types, it could be a rain team built around supporting one or two key Pokémon; other gyms may not be locked into types at all – utilising particular strategies such as trick room instead. Whilst the gyms would be doubles, the majority of random trainers would still only have a few Pokémon, and will vary between singles and doubles, as they do now. It might even be fun to have this be the distinction between the “official” tournament gym battles and the unsanctioned, impromptu and more dangerous battles against the enemy team.

Imagine there is a screen shot of a Fire Red Rocket grunt challenging you to a battle here, followed by a terrifically funny caption.
I couldn't get it to load in the editor.

Obviously, these changes will increase the complexity and difficulty of the games, and make no mistake – I do not wish to scare away the younger audience, or those that are perhaps much more interested in the “catch ‘em all” aspect of the games. Resolving this is a hard one, as regardless of what I said in the comment which sparked this blog – I don’t think a straight difficulty level at the start of the game will work. How could someone on easy battle someone on hard? Again this would split the community, the opposite of what we want to do. Rather, I think the gyms themselves should run separate “leagues” of their own; taking inspiration from real world VGC again, you could enter a gym at Junior, Senior or Master level. Since the bulk of the story won’t be altered everyone should still be at a roughly at the same level at the same point in the plot, whilst those seeking the extra challenge can find them in higher level gym battles. It could even add to the post-game content; there could be separate champions for each difficulty and Master’s gyms could require more competitive teams which would only be possible after you’ve unlocked every area of the region. 

However, and this is key, the games should very much still be adventures – none of these difficulties should require EV training, or *shudders* perfect IVs in order to be successful. These games should still be adventures after all.  

Cynric Cyning's VGC2015 team. *Curls up into a ball at the thought of trying to breed another HPice Blaziken* 
Tens of hours down the drain - and in the end I had to trade for it anyway. 

My final suggestion here is the encouragement and official recognition of more grass roots tournaments. That or holding more local official tournaments – both are essentially the same thing in the end. The framework already exists for people to arrange and host Pokémon tournaments, however it’s not really that publicised, and doesn’t really appear to be that commonly utilised, at least not in my experience. Bearing in mind that I live inbetween two reasonably large cities, last year the only tournament I could have realistically attended was still quite a ways away and a quick check of the Pokémon website makes it seem like it’ll be similar this year. Having more, less competitive, smaller scale, local tournaments will just mean that more people, and more people who perhaps aren’t really all that competitive such as myself, will be encouraged to attend. Again this will all be with the aim of returning a sense of community to the games. These will be events where people can meet and trade Pokémon, find other local players, and potentially win some nice prizes. 

I don’t want people to think that I want Pokémon to become an exclusive club, open only to the competitively minded. I myself don’t even really play competitively; I just enjoy the numbers game of building teams and then battling. Although I’ll no doubt buy whatever they send out, even I must admit that Pokémon is feeling increasingly samey and formulaic – returning to gen 1 on the eshop has really highlighted just how little the games have actually meaningfully evolved in the past 20 years. I think that the above changes will help re-energise both the games and the community, something which the series is increasingly in need of. Like I have said, I don’t want the games to become hollow updates to the metagame, conveyor belts designed to create more competitive players. The idea of these changes is to give the games a bit more freedom in the way their plots play out, add an extra strategic layer to the turn based combat and importantly reduce the gap between Pokémon in game and Pokémon out of it. These changes would mean that an in-game team could come to a local tournament and potentially find success, that the player would have no problem finding a local tournament in the first place. With the sense of community returned to the games and the barrier for entry into the bulk of the post-game content reduced, more and more people will begin to feel invested in Pokémon again, driving up retention and also sales. Obviously these changes would take a lot of work, not only would balancing and creating gyms be extremely hard work (teams and AI will have to vary depending on rank, and level at which they were challenged) but there are hundreds of complications associated with allowing even more members of the public to arrange tournaments to which children will attend. At the same time, I think the benefits would be well worth the effort.   

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About Cynric Cyningone of us since 12:18 PM on 11.27.2014

Unemployed Archaeologist, Bristolian, Gentleman. The sort of reckless bastard who'll wear a blue cardigan with brown trousers just because he wants to see the world burn.

Favourite games:

LoZ: Wind Waker
Super Metroid
Ys I & II (TG16 version)
Xenoblade Chronicles
Super Mario Galaxy 1/2
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Pokemon Emerald
Radiant Historia
Dragon Quest VIII
Sonic Adventure DX