Pokemon Grow Part 0: The Game That Could Have Been

On April 1st, 2014, Google continued its tradition of creating epic timesinks by creating a minigame inside Google maps, where users could find pokemon scattered randomly around the map.  As always, the internet went nuts for Google’s little gimmick and millions of hours of human productivity was shoveled into the void.  For most people, that was the beginning and the end of it, but something struck me as a bit weird.

Nintendo is aggressively protective of their intellectual property – it’s been a subject of some contention lately – and Google isn’t stupid enough to go using another company’s copyrighted material without first asking permission.  That meant that Google and Nintendo must have discussed the issue ahead of time. THAT meant that the “prank” was a partnership between the two companies and THAT meant that some kind of joint venture was in the works.  Nintendo had already announced their readiness to move onto the mobile platform, and while that alone was a little worrying, partnering up with Google to do so meant they would be drawing on another corporation’s pool of knowledge and experience.

It was just a suspicion, but there was no way I was about to get any sleep while I was still uncertain, so I wrote a letter (typed, printed, mailed) both to Google and Nintendo’s Australian and US headquarters.  The two main points of the letter were these:

  1.  The Pokemon Trainer demographic (kids born in the late 80’s, early 90’s) had reached the age where they would be earning their own disposable income and were ready to throw it at a source of nostalgia.  The audience was already prepared to dump their cash into a Pokemon mobile app, and the popularity of the April fool’s prank proved it.
  2. Google already had everything it needed in terms of raw data, functionality,  processing power and proof of concept (a la Ingress) to create a wildly successful Pokemon MMOARG.

Nintendo sent me a promotional trading card, while Google sent me a handful of Pokemon Master business cards and the response was broadly the same:

“Hey, that’s super and we’re stoked that you like our stuff.  We can neither confirm, nor deny that a Pokemon MMOARG is currently in development, but here’s a little something.”

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In September 2015, Pokemon Go was announced and the internet lost its collective shit.  A year later, the open Beta went live and for a brief moment, Pokemon Go’s search popularity on Google was higher than searches for porn – read into that what you will.

Now it’s 2017 and almost a year after the game itself went into open beta, I feel like I should have added a third point onto that letter.

  • Please don’t screw it up.

I haven’t made a secret of my disliking for Go at a mechanical and philosophical level, but I want to put my thoughts down in a way that isn’t just a truckload of salt.  There’s some really fundamental ways Pokemon Go isn’t actually a “Pokemon” game and I desperately want to know what decisions were made at what level to make it as cheap and cynical as possible.  Ever since the game first launched and I voiced my misgivings, I’ve had people telling me to shut up because it’s only beta and it’s still being worked on and while the game is far from “complete” at version 0.63.1 at time of writing (despite listing itself as version 1.33.1 on the app store – weird), that’s still a concern for two reasons:

  1. The problems I have would require a complete rework of the way the game is put together mechanically.  There’s no patching this shit out – you would need to make a new God-damn game.
  2. Pokemon Go has blown its wad, and it’s blown it in a really bad way.  The sudden and massive popularity of the game has now petered out to almost nothing with the game still experiencing the same bugs and crashes (still getting gym errors, connectivity locks, crashes to main menu) and the same prohibitive imbalances (useless trying to play in rural areas, PvP is still borked as a spork).  Even if they managed to fix everything by tomorrow, it’s never going to reach the same insane level of popularity because people have other shit to do now.  They had one chance to come out of the gate swinging and they stuffed it up.

But let’s ignore that for a second.  Let’s pretend that it’s still 2014 and the game is nothing more than a design document.  Someone important who makes important decisions has taken one look at it and said “We can do better than this.”  Now what?  Well, come with me and we’ll play a little game of What if Pokemon Go Hadn’t Been Built Out of Cheap Tricks and Cynicism.  It’s a story of wishful thinking, nostalgia goggles and absolutely no concern for real world technological or financial constraints, so buckle up.

What is Pokemon?

I can’t pretend to be an authority on the franchise in either an official or fan capacity, so feel free to disagree with what I’m about to say here.  Pokemon isn’t about catching them all.  That’s like, TWO PERCENT of the Pokemon experience.  For some people, Pokemon is about adventure and companionship.  For others, it’s about competition and strategy.  And for some, it’s about bitterly gatekeeping the cultural value of a commercial franchise in the face of its own creators (that’s me – Hello!).

Really, though, look at the vast breadth of experience in the world of Pokemon as presented in the anime, the game and the manga.  The creative minds behind the Pokemon universe have spent over ten years building the world in which Pokemon are a way of life for better and worse, as well as the point on which events of existential importance pivot.  People befriend pokemon, they train them, pamper them, trade them, battle them, steal them, employ them and get into serious fights over their place in the world, threatening the survival of both Pokemon and humanity in their struggle for domination.  It’s a world that runs the gamut of adventure from the quaint amusement of bug catching competitions to preventing several different flavours of apocalypse.

Now can you reasonably contain all of that content, all of that epic scope and scale and magnitude of consequences in a tiny little mobile app?

Hell yes.  In fact, mobile gaming is the ONLY platform on which you could make things truly epic both in terms of what you can achieve and what you’re pitted against, but we’ll cover that shortly.

Every Pokemon Should Be Precious

Every capture in the manga and anime is an adventure and achievement in and of itself, and practically every Pokemon captured is given a moment at some point in the story to shine, whether as a reliable mainstay, a trump card or a running gag.  Meeting Pokemon is special, watching them become stronger is special and saying goodbye to them is not a decision to be made lightly.  While this is slightly less true in the traditional games, there’s still every reason to assemble a reliable team and dedicate yourself to making them the best they can be.

Pokemon Go sets the unpleasant precedent of dredging the area for wild Pokemon before feeding them into a chipper-shredder.  It’s something a lot of commentators have already made fun of, but both mechanically and philosophically, it’s a problem.  Ash’s Pikachu didn’t get stronger by chowing down on the processed corpses of its cousins and a mountain of sparkly pink powder.  The whole candy and stardust system is just a nasty way of forcing players to grind like an windmill and shovel thousands of Pokemon into a furnace.

As an unintended consequence of this system (or maybe one that the devs just plain didn’t care about), a massive amount of spawns is needed to cater to the massive amount of captures required to level up, granting a ridiculously unfair advantage to people who happen to live on proliferous spawn points and leaving players unable to reach nests out in the cold.  The results of this are fairly obvious – new or rural players are left completely in the dust while gyms are dominated by high level players rocking maxed-out, high-IV, end-game Pokemon, but fixing the broken PVP is a longer discussion that I can fit in here.

Every Pokemon should be precious.  Or at the very least, you shouldn’t be expected to catch thousands of the things just to throw them in the garbage.  Again, this is working off the precedent set in the original games, the anime and the manga; every capture is achieved for its own sake as something to be celebrated, and strength is achieved through training and care.  In following with this idea, you shouldn’t expect to catch more than a handful of pokemon per week in the early game, maybe three or four a month in the mid game, and the extremely rare pokemon should be just that; extremely rare.

In the current system, there’s no real benefit to enforcing the limit of carrying six Pokemon with you at any given time (given how many you’re expected to catch, evolve and mulch on a daily basis), but under a system more true to canon, the limit serves you well in two ways.  Firstly, it provides a premium currency sink for people who want to increase the amount of Pokemon storage they have (let’s say everyone gets 5 boxes and has to pay for more beyond that) and secondly encourages resourcefulness when exploring, catching wild Pokemon, hatching eggs, contesting territory and tackling gyms, while really emphasising that the Pokemon you have with you are your TEAM.

Pokemon Grow:  What Could Have Been

I shouldn’t be too surprised at how the game turned out – Pokemon is a commercial enterprise before it’s a work of art, so choosing financial success over franchise integrity is a choice that makes itself.  Add to that Niantic’s clear goal of making as much money as possible as fast as possible as cheaply as possible and the end product is unavoidable.  So I really shouldn’t be disappointed.  But I am.  Pokemon already existed before Go started selling itself on the streets and seeing such a powerful franchise with such phenomenal potential run itself determinedly into the ground is genuinely painful.

What I had envisioned when I had first written to Google and Nintendo – and what I’m sure a lot of people were subconsciously hoping for – was a game that brought as much of the existing Pokemon universe into the world as possible.  After all, it already exists.  This isn’t so much an expression of my own vision for Pokemon Go as it is a reiteration of the vision Nintendo already created in 1996 and has been building for over twenty years since then.

The basic concepts are these:

  • Pokemon are friends to be assembled over care, raised with dedication and cherished as either lifelong companions or tomorrow’s champions
  • Overhaul tracking, capturing and training to reflect this
  • Add a pet-simulator element similar to the Amie feature in X and Y – this includes mini-games, berries, poffins and accessorizing
  • Weekly/Monthly events to keep interest steady (capture comps, Co-op PvE, rare sightings)
  • Rework PvP meta so as not to lock out low-tier players
  • Overhaul combat
  • Gyms as PvE targets and qualifiers for competitive PvP
  • Yearly events tied to legendaries and saving the world

If any of this sounds appealing to you, feel free to jump onto the next part.  After all, there’s a world of difference between saying these things should happen and explaining how it could actually be done.

Part 1:  New Game Start

Part 2:  Travel Across the Land

Part 3:  Pokemon Care and Training

Part 4:  Special Events

Part 5:  PvE, PvP and Co-op

Part 6:  The Endgame

Part MissingNo.:  The Long-Ass, Non-RP Version

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