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What Pokémon Does Right

posted Tuesday, January 8th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Nintendo today announced the next installment in the Pokémon game series. Whether or not you’re a fan, Pokémon has a lot in common with Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s an RPG with a history of over fifteen years, now entering its sixth “edition”. RPG designers can learn a lot from the ways Pokémon has changed since its first version, and the ways it’s remained the same.

1. The core story remains unchanged.

Pokémon is always the tale of a boy from a small village who leaves home to collect, train and battle wild creatures in the hopes of winning the regional championship. Nintendo knows this is a successful story, but do they know why? Either way, they don’t change it. D&D, similarly, has always been about heroes who explore and loot dungeons for treasure.

2. Sacred cows are never slaughtered.

Pokémon games have a lot of features that don’t change. The starting Pokémon are always Grass, Fire and Water type. You always have a friend or rival that you battle along the way. You always fight eight gym leaders, battle through Victory Road, and take on the Elite Four. These things are iconic to Pokémon. Whether people like these because they’re good design, or because they just feel like Pokémon, Nintendo is clever enough not to change them in their main series games.

3. New design changes rarely invalidate old player knowledge.

If you look closely, Pokémon actually does change the game rules between editions. Pokemon Gold/Silver divided the Special stat into Special Atk and Special Def, added the Steel type and changed Magnemite from Electric type to Electric/Steel. Ruby/Sapphire gave Pokémon individual passive abilities, and Diamond/Pearl divided attacks between physical and special so that, for example, some Psychic attacks now used the Attack stat and not Special Attack. The attack and damage algorithm has even changed subtly under the hood between game versions.

But almost always, something I learned in Pokémon Blue in 1999 is still relevant in Pokemon Black 2 in 2013. If I can find a Pikachu, he still learns Thunder Wave, an attack that causes paralysis. Grass-type Pokémon are still weak to Ice-type attacks. I can still evolve an Eevee into Vaporeon with a Water Stone, teach him Ice Beam from a TM, and he’ll still have high HP and a low Attack stat for his level, just like he did in 1999. Vaporeon still feels like Vaporeon, and that’s important.

3. Hit percentages are high.

My D&D 4th edition players complain how often their attacks miss, so much so that our cleric nicknamed his “Lance of Faith” attack as “Lance of Missing”. He should play Pokémon, where most attacks have a hit chance of 90% to 100%. Attack and Defense stats modify the amount of damage dealt or taken, but you don’t get the frustration of your main attack missing due to bad rolls. Those attacks which do have a high miss chance are balanced by increased power or special effect.

Those high hit percentages make tactics reliable. Competitive video gamers especially hate the high random factor that’s common in D&D. Serious Pokémon competitors play by rules that ban extremely powerful moves which miss a lot, or moves which increase Evasion to make the opponent miss a lot.

4. Combat options are limited while in battle.

A high-level spellcaster in D&D third edition knows the pain of managing his lengthy spell list. In Pokémon, each creature can only know four attacks at a time, greatly simplifying your options. You can switch out attacks, but only at a cost, and only outside of combat. There are numerous ways to optimize a character out of combat, but once the battle starts you don’t have many options

5. Attacks have efficacy.

One of the worst D&D encounter types in my opinion is “padded sumo”, where you and your opponent both deal small amounts of damage to each other, with comparatively high hit points. Each attack is meaningless and the combat is long and dull, without risk. By comparison, a well-trained Pokémon can reliably one-hit or two-hit an enemy type he’s optimized against. Of course, you can avoid being one-hit yourself by switching out to a defensively better Pokémon, unlike in D&D where it’s hard to block an opponent’s Disintegrate just by putting a fighter in the way.

Comments

  1. Cam

    January 12th, 2013

    I disagree, i’ve blocked a disintergrate by putting a fighter in the way, I didn’t even take a scratch!

  2. Asmor

    January 15th, 2013

    I find it interesting you consider “never slaughtering sacred cows” to be something Pokémon does right.

    The whole concept of a sacred cow is something that’s there not because it makes sense, but because it’s always been there. A sacred cow may or may not be a bad thing, but it’s something which does not inherently add to the experience except through nostalgia.

    Not all sacred cows need to be slaughtered. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. But there are certainly plenty of sacred cows which are detrimental to the experience, and should be.

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