Game Design - Keep the players
-how Pokémon try and adapt design to keep an aging players base-
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Pokémon games have made the choice to maintain a high rate of production and release to keep a strong presence on the market, therefore multiplying new content creations, leading to constant goodies sales and renewing the pool of experiences and collaborations for new styles. But the main genre, the monster taming game at the origin of the success, has been kept regularly under production too, leading to innovation.
The choice to maintain a ‘game for kids’ policy coupled to that growing success and the expectations of the public put Game Freak in a new and so far unknown position. How can they keep making the same game for each generation of kids to discover, but still please their aging players? How will they conquer new customers and still have the old ones paying each new release almost every year?
1. Bringing back old memories
The realisation for the 2nd generation games (Silver, Gold & Cristal) betrayed the first ambition. As if revealing a whole new regional Pokédex and the region of Johto was not enough, Game Freak cleverly attached this new world to their older one. A link was made between the regions of Kanto (1st gen) and Johto (2nd gen).
Nostalgia certainly is a great lever to anchor players in a cozy well-known environment, but traveling the same region over and over again would definitely bore the players. That same world building mechanic that could intrigue players to seek for changed details and countryside evolutions could not be reproduced for more than one generation.
That is why, in future generations, a selection of the previous Pokémons will be available in the new games in order to bring that small dose of nostalgia, and also somehow justify their solicitation around the Player-VS-Player fight scene years after years.
And, for that matter, imagine having tools to keep those Pokémons through generations… by paying a few extra bucks?
2. New gimmicks
Having an aging player base is also a synonym of innovation, or at least the necessity to offer new ways to renew the game mechanics. It seems harder for players to buy the same game years after years without the promise of gameplay renewal.
Mega-Evolutions, Z-moves, Dynamax, Gigantamax are now well known, and today with them Terastallization. But all in all, they are pretty much built the same way. It is always a bump up for some chosen Pokémons through a temporary special move or form allowing them to overpower and surpass themselves by accessing some kind of unleashed new energy.
Even tho Mega was some kind of a new rush in players will to fight, this kind of repetitive gimmicks seems to lack of novelty through generations, or at least this is what is heard among the older players nowadays. Without a proper interest and balance for PvP formats, it might be a thread that has been too much pulled, and too far.
3. Rational evolution theory
Galarian forms, Hisuian Forms, Alolan forms, and now Paldean forms had been a great addition to the overall bestiary.
Beginning as another take on a region-localised evolution and adaptation over time in a contemporary era within the constraints of harder environments, it has now grown up to be a means of showing climate-depending ancient version of some already popular and missed Pokémons to bring them back to center stage.
4. Developing a taste for collection
Let’s state the evidence, one thing that goes with the Monsters Catcher genre is obviously to catch a lot of monsters. On that side, Pokémon has not only a catch about it with the first generation’s 151 creatures, and the adding of new creatures in every generation but they also put the extra effort on developing new ways to tickle the completionists.
Starting directly with Gen 2, Shiny hunting has been implemented like a little surprise for players. Back in 2009, social medias and spoilers weren’t what they are nowadays. A vast majority of players purchased the second opus of the franchise because they liked the first one and wanted more creatures. Little did they know by this time that Game Freak gave them a new feature to worry about.
Designed for the new addition of colors in the games, escorting the arising of the new Gameboy Color, the hunt would become more interesting. As the sprites put on their most beautiful brilliance, some rare monsters were going to dress with alternate colors. Shiny Pokémons were born.
With an apparition rate of 1/8192, shinies weren’t even known for most of the players, except for the Shiny Gyarados showed at Lake Rage, here to introduce the players to this new feature, but often just mistaken as an exception, due to the very special context and storyline of how players encounter it.
I rarely express personal info in my articles, but this one is sweet: I remember being 11, playing for hours with my Gameboy Advance and encountering a shiny Ponyta at the foot of Mount Silver when I was pexing for the ultimate fight. I thought this was a bug and showed my ‘bugged Ponyta’ to all the Pokémon players around me, nervous and theorizing about if or not it would break my save on the cartridge.
5. Inspirations for experimentation
The first opus of a new serie in the Pokémon Universe, the Legends serie, clearly shows new attempts of pleasing older players. Pokémon Legends: Arceus brings new mechanics on the table, oftenly asked by some players through ages.
Two-styles fight were bring to ease the ‘turn-by-turn’ side of the game. Choosing between two paces for your Pokémon’s fighting style give another rythm to one of the principale mechanic of the game: the fighting part.
This rythm change is supported by an overall re-shaping of the global exploration and capture system too. Being able to capture the Pokémon directly into the wild without having to trigger a fight is a real new beginning and another step forward to an even freer experience, bringing the envy for a more close to real catching experience.
6. Creating a mythology
The games (even the universe) weren’t immediately thought to sustain so much generations and so much narrative additions through time. Even if we can see a Ho-Oh (Gen 2) make a brief apparition in the very first episode of the animated serie, the mythology had to be adapted to match all these new Legendary Pokémons arrivals.
The original designs tend to show a regular scheme: one mythical Pokémon, powerful Legendaries and an elements-based triptych making a clean squad at the end of each Pokédex, ultimate goal of the completionists.
At the very beginning was Mew, a legend according to the people, considered as the First Pokémon. With the three legendary birds and Mewtwo being a clone from human activities, the first gen set up a real steady base for the collective imagination. The second generation of games introducing Celebi, the Ho-Oh + Lugia duo and the triptych of legendary beasts confirms the mechanic as an established gimmick for generations.
But, as the releases rythm thickens, the justifications and links between new legendaries have to find origins in new domains, follow new inspirations and allow the monster base to grow further, leaving aside coherence with the older system. Luckily, these new myths are accompanied by storylines and realisation to support the overall acceptation of their origins. These stories are bringing Mythical and Legendary Pokémons to every game independently, and they can still strongly exist one by one as well as in a global vision.
As explained (in french) in this short essay on trying to regroup Pokémon Mythology on Pokébip, trying to give a unique and globale interpretation to all the Pokémon legends might be a mistake, considering it is based on our world myths and they are not coherent one with another.
Some other experimentations were made least recently -let’s dare to say in every generation- in order to renew some parts of the overall experience in the design like hordes encountering, alpha pokémons, holding items, two-pokémon or three-pokémon battles, stylistic choices and personalisation (for Pokémons or even Pokéballs), apricorns harvest and therefore Pokéballs specialisation, and so on…
Contrary to what can be heard around every new release, it must be admitted that the people responsible for Pokemon development on every front are relentless to propose some novelty around at every generation, or spread across generations. It also shows that it is hard to maintain a clear working balance between keeping a game for kids and offering the older player things to work with to enjoy the game their way.
I personally think that the Legends serie and the new games releasing today (Scarlet & Violet) carry a great hope and shows good sign for the renewal of the whole franchise, as much for the gameplay as for the evolving maturity of the storylines.