It’s been 20 years since the launch of the original Pokémon games. Does that make you feel old? It should do. If you’re 19 years old or younger you are literally younger than Pokémon.

To celebrate the anniversary of one of Nintendo’s flagship IP’s, the original trilogy of Red, Blue and Yellow have been released on the 3DS virtual console. And with the announcement of Sun and Moon, the new games coming to the franchise in Winter 2016, the formula doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Indie developers could learn a lot by studying the Pokémon franchise, a collection of games that feature so many mechanics that have sadly fallen by the wayside over the past 20 years. So, let’s take a look at 5 things that Pokémon can teach indie developers in 2016.

Character design is everything

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The original generation of Pokémon featured 151 individual monsters for you to catch. Sure, there were a few complete flops (looking at you, Jynx and Mr Mime) but for the most part, the designs are solid, taking real world animals, mythical creatures, and strange variations on human beings, and adapting them with superpowers, bright colour schemes and cute faces that make you wish you could take one home and keep it as a pet.

In 2016, if someone suggested creating a game with 151 distinct monsters, people would laugh. Who would ever be able to remember them all, and why would people ever want to catch them? And yet, in 1996, it worked, simply because the developers took the time to create an ensemble cast of monsters that were the perfect balance of cute and ferocious.

I was planning to reference indie games throughout this article that either feature the same, mechanic as the one I’m discussing, or would benefit from featuring it. Unfortunately, this introduces an annoying conundrum for me. I literally cannot think of a single game that introduces such a huge cast of characters. Lots of games feature small ensembles of well-designed characters, but no one ever has the confidence to try creating such a vast array of simple characters to play with. Which brings me, rather succinctly, to my next point…

Games can bring people together

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There may be 151 Pokémon in the game, but you can only catch some of them. The others are gated off in a different version of the game, so you have to trade with other players if you want to get them. It sounds unfair. It sounds like Nintendo was trying to force people into spending more money buying both copies of the game. (I’m sure they weren’t too upset by the idea)

In practise, this wasn’t actually the case. Restricting the availability of certain Pokémon to different versions of the game offered a new way of playing co-operatively with your friends, which to my knowledge, no other game has replicated since. By linking your handhelds together with your trusty link cable, you could trade Pokémon with other players. Not only was this a possibility, it was literally a requirement for completing the Pokédex – certain Pokémon only evolve when traded, and can’t be obtained in any other way.

With online gaming, a world of new possibilities has been opened up, which simply weren’t available 20 years ago. When was the last time an indie game came along that really encouraged cooperation between different players? Perhaps you could argue Minecraft uses the same approach, with its emphasis on collaborative building projects. But if more indie developers took advantage of these possibilities, taking an approach to game design that encourages cooperation between players, as well as competitive multiplayer, perhaps we’d unlock a whole new world of games we could be enjoying with our friends.

Narratives don’t necessarily have to be ground-breaking

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The Pokémon franchise has rolled out the same narrative time and time again, for the past 20 years. Take control of a young Pokémon trainer and set off on a journey to catch ‘em all. Defeat eight gym leaders, take on a bumbling criminal organisation, and beat the elite four -, a team of supposedly world class Pokémon trainers, who would probably be a whole lot harder to beat if they went outside and trained, rather than simply standing around in an empty room, waiting for people to come along and challenge them.

So many developers go out of their way to create narratives that try to offer social commentary, or make philosophical points about the nature of player agency etc. If an indie developer tried to release Pokémon in 2016, it’d probably feature a plotline about the moral conundrum presented by capturing wild animals in tiny balls and forcing them to fight each other for our amusement.

Obviously in real life the entire premise of Pokémon is stupid – and that really doesn’t matter. While it’s true that some games do benefit from more complex, thought-provoking narratives, some simply take it too far. Recent release, SUPERHOT, is a great example of this. It’s a fun FPS, with a really innovative time mechanic, but it’s hamstrung by a needlessly complex metanarrative questioning the nature of player agency in gaming. A lot of developers could benefit from remember the advantages of keeping things simple.

Pokemon doesn’t rely on a predetermined storyline, simply because it allows the player to create their own personal narrative. Instead of employing a series of scripted events, the systems behind the scenes organically create dramatic situations. Remember that time you were forced to send out your Squirtle against a far tougher opponent and he won? And then he evolved into Wartortle. Sometimes, these self-created stories are better than anything a developer could script.

Grinding doesn’t have to be a chore

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Grinding has become a bit of a dirty word within game design. It’s become synonymous with bad game design, forcing the player to keep repeating the same battles over and over again, in an attempt to strengthen their party to the point that they can advance to the next point in the story. If grinding is required, the game obviously features a bad difficulty curve.

There’s a simple reason why grinding works in the Pokémon franchise. You get a real sense of satisfaction from training up your Pokémon. Watching their level increase, teaching them new moves, watching them evolve and grow throughout the story – it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. You build a strange bond with your Pokémon companions as you progress. They can’t speak to you, or even interact with you in any way. Yet, the further you travel with these characters , the more connected you feel to them.

It’s possible to encourage a collect-a-thon mentality, without the game becoming a drag

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The ultimate goal of Pokémon – to “Catch ‘em all” and complete the Pokédex – is a strange one. Games generally favour more competitive, action packed goals, relegating collection-orientated goals to sidequests. Once upon a time, there were games where collection was not just an element of the game, but also the main point of the game. These were largely 3D platformers, including Super Mario 64, and Rareware games, including Banjo Kazooie, and Donkey Kong 64.

Developers have since developed a kind of phobia towards seeming outdated. As the capabilities of what a video games could do advanced, we began focusing more and more on online multiplayer games. This led to genres such as first-person shooters flourishing, and less action orientated single player games declining in both popularity and necessity.

It’s been a long time since a game with a collection orientated mentality has achieved any major success, but with the upcoming Yooka Laylee seeking to recapture the magic of Rareware’s golden days, it could prove to be the start of a new wave of nostalgia inducing collect-a-thon games. Pokémon shows that encouraging the player to try and collect things isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Provided the game features strong gameplay in its own right, of course.

About The Author

Contributor

As a composer and video game enthusiast, Philip has spent years searching for a way to combine his passions for both music and gaming. Then, one day, he figured he could just write about them. He loves to over-analyse the way music helps to shape the player's emotional response in a game. He also loves to criticise bad control schemes, because... Well, they just get on his nerves.

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