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In-Depth:  Pokemon  And How Familiarity Breeds Content
In-Depth: Pokemon And How Familiarity Breeds Content
May 10, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

May 10, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Innovation is one of those words people say so often they donít always think about what it means. Like a living organism, game design evolves through interesting mutations Ė it usually takes something different to break through, and that makes innovation the holy grail.

But gamers actually seem to enjoy sameness more than weíre willing to admit.

The Pokemon games havenít meaningfully changed since the earliest editions. Although theyíve blossomed outward, adding new features or subtle technical iterations, the core features are unchanging enough that people even joke about how, instead of buying a new Pokemon title, they should just continue playing the old one.

The mechanics of the Pokemon universe are much more complicated than they appear, reliant on an ever-deepening stats system the basement of which isnít even necessary for the average player to be aware of. And yet its interface is exceedingly simple. The most key gameplay functions really occur across just a handful of basic commands: Command a Pokemon, walk, use an item, catch a Pokemon. Easy.

The huge gulf between what it is necessary for the player to do and what the player can learn to do if he or she is so inclined changes the playerís consumption of the game from lateral Ė beginning, end, next! Ė to radial. The path through a Pokemon game often meanders over various tasks, some of them with which the player engages deeply, others over which they skim if they touch them at all. It's not something to be consumed and then discarded; it's a game meant to be explored and exhausted until its next evolution appears.

This sort of structure that lets players choose where on the depth chart they want to plot their engagement is actually only possible with a solid core of support pillars in the mechanics. And if that main formula is going to be expanded in future games, itís even more key that the most essential elements remain exactly the same, the better for the player to anchor to when exploring whatís new in each iteration.

The games have experimented with various agricultural systems, fishing games, cooking, and pageants and contests that arenít battle-rooted, among other things. New Pokemon with new abilities are added in each iteration, and subtle tweaks are made to the training and battling systems. The advent of wireless online features for Nintendo DS added an entirely new dimension to trading and community play.

But itís somewhat untrue that engagement comes from surprising the player with newness or keeping them ever curious and leaning forward. Engagement also comes from mastery, and that players will want to return again and again to a ruleset that theyíve discovered how to make work for them is a principle we often underestimate.

Even things about Pokemon that are less design and more dressing create desirable points of familiarity for the players. The look itself of the game is part of its communication with the player; even though its geography will change, the worlds in Pokemon games always feature patches of distinctive tall grass, trees that can be cut, rocks that can be smashed, lakes that can be surfed, and these are always clearly defined in the visual palette. The setting canít evolve much, because those environment objects have become shorthand for the behaviors players will need to use to negotiate them.

Itís almost like changing any one element would destabilize the whole wonderfully efficient works. Like a beloved serial, even story and the dialog are always the same Ė perhaps making any tonal change would appear drastic in the face of everything else so soothingly identical.

The gameís narrative generally goes like this: characterís journey through the world of magical animals is their coming-of-age, where theyíre learning to respect life, get along with people and explore the world outside their borders. Mysterious organization threatens the positive ecosystem to which the player has become accustomed. Godlike legendary Pokemon appears to restore balance. Themes of responsibility for life and environment and general goodness abound.

Itís child-like, but not child-ish. Itís just simple and cute. And while fans would probably continue on with various Pokemon games even in their absence, those thematic and story elements, the lighthearted dialogue, reinforce the pleasure in familiarity and simplicity, like cookies and milk.

Iteration and innovation are the lifeblood of the industry, and hardcore game fans, if they had their way, would create impossible paradoxes with their demands (do everything new and better, but donít change a thing!). But itís important to consider familiarity as valuable, too, albeit strategically and with care. Has game development defined yet what kinds of elements have necessary permanence and which are more flexible, especially in the context of a long-running series?


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