Learning from Littleo

 Hello again, folks. Sorry I disappeared for a month or so. So here’s the sob story, after blowing up and repairing my computer, I got a call from my doctor. Its diabetes. The man says I’ve probably had it for a few years and the way things were going I’m pretty much at the last second that I could jump off the bus before it’s stop at the no-toe tango. The 2 hours a day I used to dedicate to writing (with the rest of my blog-related work time going to research, of course, can’t just pull all of this stuff out of the air… I do a lot of reading and playing) is now being spent at the gym and nutritionist and the rest of my life is re-aligning to match. Speaking of outside lives, Carson is teaching his mom to play video games. We all fear she isn’t getting the mental stimulation she needs down in Florida-land. The sadist says he’s willing to sacrifice his mother’s self-respect for your amusement so drop a line if you want recordings. As you can see, the Wicked dance card is pretty full lately and we hope we didn’t lose too many of you. I promise this inactivity isn’t a permanent thing. We are currently setting up a series of backups so that the computer related elements of our absence don’t happen again.

So, this week I was going to talk about neutral good as an alignment along with a few related archetypes but that essay was unrecoverable when I got this rig back up and I don’t feel like writing it all over again, give me a week or so and I’ll get back to that series. Man, feels like I lost some of my groove, its been 2 weeks since I’ve put down a word so give me a little slack if I don’t have the same quality as before. Ill get back into it soon enough.

So, our topic this week. Hmm. What to do. I was going to go off on this net neutrality thing but after last time I published a rant I realized that ranting isn’t really my bag. Give me a month or so to let the rage simmer down and for the subject to evolve for a bit. Wait; that’s it! Evolve! Let’s talk about all the things that make Pokemon successful (as the stationary bikes at the gym give me about 20 to 30 minutes/day to work on decking out my teams).

I don’t think I need to describe what Pokemon is. It’s a pretty big freaking deal. Seriously, I’ve met people who couldn’t tell the difference between a computer and a typewriter who were right up to speed when I mentioned Pikachu. This is the only game that has so far proven greater staying power than World of Warcraft. This game is the ultimate gateway drug and has the widest target demographic of any game I’ve seen so far.

So, we have quite a lot to talk about. There’s the obvious stuff like animals that range from cute to creepy to epic in aesthetic. There’s the absolutely stunning music and all sorts of other nicknacks but that’s the icing. You know me, I prefer not to talk about the window dressing. We will be discussing the techniques that can be ripped directly from Pokemon and put in your own game.

So, why do we want to do this? Simple. Pokemon is, by every stretch of the imagination, the most well tuned and finely crafted skinner box I’ve ever seen. I do nothing but play video games in my spare time. When I am on break at my day job I work over Hearthstone builds. When I’m in a traffic jam I’m considering Dark Souls strategies. I’ve spent days considering ways to adapt Wizard 101 to an educational platform. I have played almost every single Legend of Zelda ever to come out (excluding the CD-Is, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, Oracle of Seasons and Minish Cap) and I’ve bought every core Halo just for the hell of seeing what they changed. Pokemon is the most addictive and in my top 10 favourite series. Hell, sometimes I still get Red/Blue on emulator just for the hell of reliving the first journey. I don’t care how you feel about the fact that they’ve essentially released the same game 7 times in a row now. If you have a game from the dark ages that still has staying power approaching 20 years later, you are doing it right and you have set an example we all can learn from.

Now, I will admit, I dropped out of the game for a few generations, mainly out of a lack of fellow pokenerds, but I jumped back into the game with X/Y last year and somehow the series has lost none of it’s wonder (though I no longer follow the show so I don’t get the same jolt of joy kids get when they square off with the same gym leaders as Ash. Fortunately, we aren’t here to talk about why I like Pokemon or what my favourite generation is. We aren’t (or at least I’m not) interested in making a Pokemon clone. Plus, Pokemon is so big that it’s developed the WoW effect when it comes to clones (when was the last time a Yu-Gi-Oh! video game made a ripple big enough for you to notice).

Now, what makes Pokemon great? Well, first of all, Gyrados is a beast, but in honesty, it was almost prototypical in the sense that Pokemon proved that a video game could be a mass market product. By generation 2 over half of any student body had dabbled in some form of Pokemon. There were people who collected the cards because they looked cool, there were people with pins and replica gym badges. I saw my first Pokemon shirt before I saw my first Mario shirt (note to mom, if you count Donkey Kong Classic as a Mario game, Mario was almost 15 years old when the first Pokemon game dropped in the US, just let that fact soak in for a second). Everyone had something to take out of Pokemon. No game before Pokemon had managed to pull in people who weren’t even gamers. Even nowadays, you may find a guy wearing his wife’s CoG pin on his hat every so often, but if you go to Boston (the capital of my home state, international readers) you can’t round a corner without walking headlong into somebody with a Pikachu hat.

Secondly, Pokemon was the first game that allowed players to track their progress on a global scale. I mean, there were already wildly famous games out there like Pac Man and Mario, but ultimately, in the case of Pac Man, your experience could be quantified (at best) only in the context of your local arcade. In the case of Mario, your experience, such as clear times and high scores, were limited to you and your closest friends. Pokemon was the first game that actually let you contextualize your victory beyond the people you personally knew. If you ran into somebody on the street who happened to have a Gameboy you could compare Pokedex completion and match your best teams against eachother. That would be like if you could do side-by-side simultaneous speed runs of Mario with anyone you meet who happened to have a game cartridge. I know that this is no new thing to the CoD generation. Every game you guys have ever played probably had that kind of connectivity (with the exception of the explicitly single-player ones) but when I was in elementary school, the idea that you could run into some kid at school and haul out with your balls out was crazy never-before-seen technology.

However, I’m not here to gush. I want to get to the meat of this discussion. What is it that Pokemon has done to solidify itself as the first (and possibly greatest) massively multiplayer game? I would like to go over the lore, the primary form of engagement and the means used to entangle players in it’s world. I wont be going over the anime here since this is purely about elements that could be adapted to improve video games, though one day I plan on writing TTB Pokemon (where I will be discussing the anime).

So, what is Pokemon about. Every game has been the story has been about a child (usually 15 or younger) who fixes the world’s ills using little else but the power of friendship and his/her 6 favourite pets. He/she travels across a diverse world filled with one dimensional characters (seriously, some of them rant about how much they love shorts) and faces off against a team of miscreants on a journey to become the greatest Pokemon trainer in the world. He/she has a rival who appears to show up at the most inconvenient times and always appears one step ahead in the quest. Ultimately the child meets his/her rival a final time (as they both became champions of the Pokemon League) where he/she proves once and for all that he/she is the greatest trainer in the land. It is then revealed that there are many other lands with many other champions and that if the trainer is going to be the very best that he/she needs to go meet up with these foreign trainers and contend with them. It is also revealed that even if the trainer managed to acquire every single Pokemon in the land, that there are still other Pokemon in those foreign countries to meet and master.

Ignoring the imperialist overtone of such a storyline, let us look at what Game Freak has done by wording the ending of each game as such. At the beginning of each game you are told to go out and be the best in the world, to conquer every challenge and explore every corner. Once you complete the journey it is revealed to you that you’ve only scratched the surface (both in the most literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase) and that another adventure with new rivals waiting just 50 bucks away. The Pokemon world is massive and beautiful, an amazing place. Every bully is beatable, every animal is friendly by nature. Its just the type of place that people want to visit.

You see this concept exploited in MMORPGs nowadays. You complete one adventure and there’s another set of bosses just a few dollars away. I use Pokemon for an example instead of WoW because Pokemon manages to pull it off in a far more exploitative way, while at the same time feeling like less of a blind grab for money. Think about it. If you’re really going to be honest, each Pokemon game is basically a clone of the last with a few tweaks. Seriously, Rattata, Bidoof and Zigzagoon are basically the same Pokemon with different faces, yet Game Freak makes it feel new and fresh every time. I was ecstatic when I caught my Zigzagoon.

You see, the human brain can’t tell the difference between a virtual space and a real one. I would like to draw attention to my wife for a moment. She and I have opposing versions of X/Y. Now, anyone that plays Pokemon knows that this series is not known for it’s open-ended environment. You get 1, maybe 2 important choices in each game, those choices usually (but not always) being which starter you choose (Fennekin, Chespin and Froakie) and what Legendary you pick (in Gen 1 it was impossible to get more than 1 of the legendary birds, Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres without cheating or trading). However, by the time you get to X/Y every single town (excluding the first two) has 3 exits. Only 2 of them are accessible (the one you arrived through and one other). Now, this may seem like an arbitrary design choice, but think of the newbies. Gen 6 was my wife’s first Pokemon generation (after much poking and prodding from her husband, she really doesn’t like to try new things) and her head was absolutely crushed by all the places to go. Us veterans know that there aren’t any -real- choices after the starter pick, but for people who are new to the series, the fact that there is a fork in the road at every single stop makes the world feel 3 or 4 times bigger than it actually is! I mean, face it, Kalos is not that big. I’ve only dedicated to gens 1 and 6 but as far as the distances feel, Kalos isn’t really any bigger than Kanto (for the record mom, Kalos is the most recently added region and Kanto was the setting of the very first game). Yes, stepcount between towns might be larger, but your standard mode of transportation (roller skates in gen 6 vs walking/running in gen 1) is 2 or 3 times faster, with the bike being even faster than that, resulting in a roughly equivalent amount of time to get from one zone to the next, and if you count up the visitable places in Kalos and Kanto it winds up equaling out (there are still only 8 gyms).

To further the exploration motif, Pokemon plays each region’s Pokedex close to the chest so that each generation you go into the woods almost completely blind. You don’t know what’s coming. Each step feels fresh and new, even if the mechanical set is incredibly old. It plays off of the human need to explore. By the time any one of us is capable of self reflection we realize that there is something just beyond the next street sign. Pokemon exploits the human desire to know and to see quite masterfully. Every corner has some trick to it, some hidden wonder. It may be a shiny Ferroseed (by the way, how did we ever get by without steel-types) or it may be a well-hidden Max Revive hidden under a pile of leaves. In the real world we have monsters of all kinds. We have sharks, thieves, griefers, etc. but in Pokemon world we can go out virtually unprotected, the worst thing that will ever happen is you waking up in the nearest Pokecenter (that is a hospital for Pokemon, mom) at most missing a hundred credits (or whatever they’re called). Game Freak has learned how to zero in on our desire to explore and provided us a safe space in which to do so.

Finally and most importantly. Pokemon is one hell of a rabbit hole. Let us look at how Pokemon always starts out. There are 3 types, water, grass and fire. Water beats fire, fire beats grass, grass beats water. Easy as ro-sham-bo. The move list for your pokemon only has space for 4 entries, so that’s easy enough, any given turn there’s only 4 things you can do. This is vital to the process. Think of other RPGs. Within an hour of starting FF8 (not including cutscenes) I had 6 spells, and we all know how insane that list gets towards the end. 4 is easy, 4 is manageable. The very first match shows you what happens when you match type advantages/disadvantages, so thats easy. Your moves are weak as water when you match poorly, and when you match well you deal double damage. So now we are about 30 minutes into the game, we have one or two moves, the user interface tells us that the maximum number of moves for any Pokemon is 4, and we can see clearly the difference between different types. 5 minutes later we learn there’s also Normal type Pokemon and that normal types are basically neutral, with no types being particularly strong or weak. Now visualize with me the damage chart at this point, theres fire, water, and grass, with normal right in the middle. Easy as cake. You are given a few minutes to play around with that, if you’re observant you will see that fire types excel at damage, water excels at defense, and grass excels at status/recovery but if you are like me, that is to say as quick as a Snorlax crawling through mud (there’s a reason he’s referred to in-universe as the Sleeping Pokemon), that’s okay because there’s other stuff to learn. Soon you meet the type called ‘bug’ which kills off grass-types real quick. Here you are given another opportunity to see a bit under the hood, because while the fact that bug-types go to town on grass-types, observant players will notice that bugs have really weak stats, focusing more on tripping up enemies with debuffs than actually dealing damage. Observant players will also notice that bug types evolve like gangbusters, almost universally hitting their final forms before level 20. While players like me might not notice how incredibly fast bug-types grow, we will learn that many Pokemon can get stronger by evolving.

Soon we get to our first gym where we might meet a new type. Now, by now you’ve spent a few hours playing with fire, water, grass and normal, you’ve tinkered around with bug types, and feel pretty solid about your knowledge base. In every game this is the point where you get thrown for a loop. For me it was Pewter City. I took my cool new Butterfree to face Brock and got hammered. Turns out Brock’s pokemon are all rock type; never seen one of these before. If you’ve been observant and checked every corner you might learn to bring grass or water types to the party, but if you’re just unlucky like my brother, you picked Charmander and have absolutely nothing that types well against Brock. This is when grinding is introduced to you. Bug, poison, electric and normal, the only types that were catchable by the first gym in generation 1 all suffer from damage-weakness against rock types. So unless you picked Squirtle or Bulbasaur as your starter you aren’t getting past Brock without going back to the woods and training your team.

So now we are 5 hours into the game and we know that water beats fire, fire beats grass, grass beats water. We also know that there are a few more exotic types, and to cap it off, rock-types are made exclusively out of awesome and nothing short of a massive type-advantage will stop the rock-types. Easy enough. After you beat your first gym is when we start picking up pace. There are 18 types, some seem useless or only useful in fringe cases (I’m looking at you, ice) and some feel absurdly powerful (looking at you, dragon-type) but for the most part everything has an answer for something and nothing really stands out as the de-facto super type (excluding dragon-types before the most recent games, seriously, Game Freak, took you 15 years to work in a common type that stomps dragons? I got real tired of having to drag out my Lapras for my Elite Four runs).

Soon you’ve beaten a few gyms and a pattern has begun to emerge. Nowhere in any of the type charts does it say that psychic-types type well against rock-types, and yet Golem regularly gets it handed to him whenever Alakazam shows up. Same with Onyx and Grumpig. All random values excluded, a psychic-type will almost always beat an equally trained rock-type. Similar anomalies exist all over the place. Grass-types usually fare well against ghost-types and despite bug being super effective against grass, I’ve never seen an end-game bug pokemon beat an end-game grass pokemon (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an end-game pure bug-type beat anything with any level of regularity). Here we learn the value of stats. While typing is very important to every Pokemon match, its the stats that win. You could have a max level Ferrothorn and it will get thwomped on the regular by a mega-evolved Blastoise 15 levels lower. Now, I can guarantee you that my mom’s eyes are glazing over just looking at all of this information, but you’ve logged a good 50 hours into the game before it even asks you to figure out how stats work, and unless you decide to take your best team to tournaments, you will never even hear about type-specific stat averages. Nowhere in the core game does it ever mention type-specific stat advantages, and to prove this I ran an experiment. I took a Blastoise on my old copy of Pokemon Red, and beat the -entire- game, all trainers included, I even caught Zapdos. I havent run the same experiment with my copy of Pokemon X (Palette Town to Indigo Plateau is a 60 hour investment, ain’t nobody got time to do that twice) I doubt the difficulty level of the game has changed so drastically that one can’t pull off the same feat.

The point being, us pokenerds know exactly how complicated the game is. There are effort values, there are moves that can only be learned through breeding or tutoring. There are pokemon that can only be earned through breeding. There’s pokemon that can only be obtained through trade. Lower evolution tiers learn moves faster while higher evolution tiers gain stats faster, the stat-changes gained by leveling change depending on what pokemon he/she defeats on the way to each level and if you want a competition ready team you need to know -all- of this. You need to know what a pokemon’s effort levels are, you need to know what level each pokemon learns any one of their moves, you need to know how each ability’s damage and accuracy sync up with each pokemon’s accuracy, evasion, attack and defense stats. On top of that, every 2 or 3 years Game Freak releases a new generation and you need to figure all of this stuff out all over again. I have no freaking idea how special abilities and natures work, but if I wanted to play on even an amateur level I would have to memorize all of the qualities and natures of all of the Pokemon.

To summarize, if you want to play in the big leagues of game design you need to know all of this stuff! The qualities that make a great game are abstract and mercurial, but games like Pokemon and WoW have figured out that elements of a popular game are more of a science than an art. If you want to make a smash hit adventure game that lasts for decades you need to look at this. Look at The Sims, World of Warcraft, Terarria and Minecraft. I know that none of these games resemble Pokemon on even the most basic levels but they all take heavily from techniques first mastered by Game Freak. I won’t go into detail because this is page 9 and I have to get started on next week’s essay (it’s 10:07 on Tuesday night at the time of writing) but take a quick glance at Minecraft. Minecraft exemplifies Pokemon’s learning curve to an extreme. Now, if you’re reading this then chances are you’ve seen a letsplay or two of Minecraft, if not (say, for example, you’re like my mother) then take some time to consider the following. There is a life size replica of Hogwarts that you can pay to get into. People act out famous scenes from the books and roleplay their own novel scenes in this beast. It’s several miles wide and consists of over 1 million blocks. There is also a life size replica of the NC-1701-E “Enterprise” (the last ship captained by Jean-luc Picard in the mainstream continuity of Star Trek) complete with automatic doors and working Turbolifts that you can actually just wander around. You are expected to learn how to do all of this stuff and it all comes from first figuring out the difference between stone and wood.

Well, thats my bit. Feels good to be back in the saddle after all this time. Welcome back to those of you who missed me and welcome all to those tuning in for the first time. Tune in next week for my take on tutorials. Good night and good luck!

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