Analyzing the Game Design of Pokemon

Analyzing the Game Design of Pokemon

Let's talk about why Pokemon is a good game franchise that fails to be great.

Like many of you (fellow) nerds, I first encountered Pokemon by playing Red/Blue when I was like... 11 maybe? It was great! Finally, a gameboy game kinda like Final Fantasy Legend 2 which was my other fave on gameboy.

The format scratched so many itches for me.

1) The character designs were adorable
2) Collecting and assembling my own lil squad of monsters was very deeply satisfying
3) Grinding and min/maxing appeal to me on a very primal level

Let's ignore the really fucked up aspects of imprisoning and enslaving wild, sentient creatures in tiny stasis cages to have their only conscious experiences be a series of vicious dog fights unless they're lucky like Pikachu and ALLOWED to be your dog and follow you around.

Because it's not like I apply that critical lens to any other game to poke fun at their mechanics.

So anyway, the game hit me on the heels of the Tamagotchi craze and was soon MEGA popular and because I was a nerd I got to be a hipster about it and was pretty insufferable as I was telling all my friends about it.

Loved it so much.

I think there's some really interesting commentary here about human nature and how much we just fucking love to collect things that make us happy.

And how can you not love this theme song? You were probably already humming it.

When the show started broadcasting I was so sad that it came on like 30 minutes before I got home from school and I figured out to use our janky VCR timer to record them on an old VHS tape.

I'd get really mad when this failed for whatever reason (user error most likely). And like most good children's shows, the themes were so positive and inspiring: being friends, learning together, fighting the bad capitalist overlords.

Certainly not about exploiting children's dopamine response to sell merch and encourage a love of animal pit fighting. I'm joking but I actually think this format is awesome and I'd love to see more of it in more games.

Pokemon's primary issue IMO is how simplistic it keeps the battles even with the dual battles. The varied strategies available had shades of MTG and other interesting games.

If you agree with this take then I 1000% encourage you to check out the Siralim series on iOS or PC--I sank many many hours into those games and enjoyed them immensely for the more mature take on the same concept.

Some more big misses for the franchise are 1) not creating better battle/trading dynamics for Pokemon GO and 2) not getting on the MMO bandwagon a LONG time ago... WoW REALLY ate their lunch by creating a whole engaging pet battle system shamelessly cribbed from them.

But I think Pokemon could be like an order of magnitude more relevant than it already is today if they'd gone all in on those concepts--especially Pokemon Go during the initial frenzy phase when EVERYONE was playing it.

Other (smaller) critiques that come to mind are that the games would have benefited from more of an open world concept that allowed you to explore in any direction and take on gym leaders in whatever order but require much more complex strategies to defeat them.

You didn't ask me for a game design essay but you're getting a game design essay.

This might have made it harder/less appealing for children (primary audience) but would also make the games even stickier than they are and there are ways to hedge difficulty.

I also think creating sets of challenges separate from the gym leaders that required more specific strategies with interesting rewards and specialized pet equipment could have been fantastic.

At this point it would damage their brand because, again, children.

But one of the reasons I've gotten bored with every Pokemon game after Blue and stopped playing is because you can just outlevel everyone and brute force your way through with a handful of elite bruisers and then there was not a ton else to do.

The Siralim series, again, handles the mechanics side of this SUPER well but unfortunately doesn't have as expansive or interesting of a world as Pokemon and uses procedurally generated worlds that get kinda stale after a while.

I want the depth of Siralim with a real open world and interesting stories and side quests that require specific pokemon or specific types of pokemon to complete.

Because my other big critique of the mechanics is there's not much reason to use anything but your absolute best pokemon except aesthetics.

And if you're a min-maxer like me this is very very hard to do.

I want to use you, Jigglypuff. I really do. You're just not leet enough for my crew because I play games in a destructive, unhealthy way.

And the story is frankly really simplistic. So much opportunity for better storytelling.

This is the defining RPG of several generations.

They couldn't be bothered to get some nuance and complexity into the stories? I'm upset about this, but again, it's a game for children.

If anyone would ever like to collaborate on an indie game that takes this model and does this, by the way, I am SO HERE FOR THIS and you should pay me to write you interesting stories and scenarios and be your QA/tester girl/producer/coordinator/community rep.

Other things they should have done (and I'm not sure if the newer games do this) is classify various types of Pokemon as potential mounts and let you fly/swim/burrow around the world instead of using one-off skills like Surf in limited situations that require skill swapping.

You know what's cooler than having a Charizard? RIDING a Charizard as you fly through the air over towns and forests and oceans to the mysterious island none of your other flying pokemon have had the strength to make it to yet.

More metroidvania elements in general.

I also think the game would benefit from letting your main character battle alongside the pokemon for a variety of reasons, and develop along a set of skill trees that allow you to shore up weaknesses on your team in interesting ways.

Although this is probably my weakest idea here because it might take away from some of the charm.

But it would allow you to create more interesting teams of pokemon for team battles that compliment your build rather than just finding the best pokemon and going to town.

Legendary pokemon ought to be cool because they can do unique things or produce unique and specialized effects that have subtle combo potential across a wide array of pairings rather than just being absurdly strong.

My interest and roots in the combo-heavy games like MTG or Hearthstone are showing here but there's a reason those games are so wildly popular and enduring and don't burn you out as quickly as the pokemon format.

And then of course there are the fluff elements of the genre which I think are FANTASTIC but I'm not as familiar with because I didn't play as much of the later games.

I enjoy concepts like building relationships with your critter pals or putting them in beauty contests.

There are plenty of interesting ways to deepen and extend these subsystems... unfortunately, again, I feel like the genre aims for simplicity and accessibility over nuance and depth, which is a shame because you can have both by layering levels of challenge.

People forget that kids can be much smarter than we tend to give them credit for. They're just inexperienced at life. A lot of the time they can come to really love harder and more complex systems as they gain mastery in them, at all ages.

Minecraft is an example of a game that has a really gentle learning curve and a ton of complexity that's fun to just pick up and play but also let's you go deeeep down the nerdy rabbit hole if you want to.

More games should aspire to this aesthetic. I really believe it's what differentiates fun, popular games that wax and wane from enduring classics that people can play for 20+ years without getting bored.

Stardew Valley is another game that balances this easy to play / but you can go as deep as you want aesthetic really well. It allows for a wide range of playstyles and ways to have fun that encourage you to spend more time with the game.

And since I still believe that we'll eventually see gaming shift to a pay per time invested in the game world model a la Spotify and Netflix (already seeing some of this shift) this is also just good game design and business sense in a non-predatory or extractive model.

Contrast this with my stupid addiction to gacha games like Marvel Strike Force, which doesn't really give much back for my time or absurd amount of money it's sucked out of me (sigh).

Less of that, more of engaging and interesting systems please.

Anyway, these are all the reasons why, despite my love for the designs and concepts of the Pokemon series, I think it's a good but not great game.

It could be so much better but Nintendo isn't gonna mess with their cash cow formula here.