So You Want to be a Pokémon Master? – Improving Game Design and Balance

File:003Venusaur OS anime 2.png

Venusaur is owned by the Pokémon Company.

For many players, the PokéDex is the pivotal point of gameplay. The goal of the game is to capture all the Pokémon to complete the PokéDex, which is more or less an encyclopedia of all the available Pokémon in a game. When Pokémon players use the term “generation,” it is referencing a point of time when there are a certain number of Pokémon in the complete PokéDex. There are currently seven generations of Pokémon, starting with Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green in Japan. In the first generation (or Gen I, as it is commonly abbreviated,) there were 151 Pokémon; Bulbasaur through Mew. For most people, these are the most familiar Pokémon. Whenever a new pair of games adds new Pokémon, the games move onto the next generation. When Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver added 100 new creatures to the PokéDex, the Pokémon franchise moved to the second generation (Gen II.)

The transition to a new generation is the most important facet of the series growth, but not solely because of the addition of new Pokémon. Each generation changes the mechanics of the game, and, in many ways, addresses the problems that the previous games faced. This is how Pokémon keeps players coming back: they mix the nostalgia of seeing old Pokémon with new Pokémon and improved gameplay.

During Gen I, the game was saturated with bugs, glitches and an imbalanced type matchup. Every Pokémon and move has a unique type, which matches up favorably, neutrally or unfavorably against other types. The main problem was that the Psychic type was incredibly imbalanced. It had only two weaknesses, Bug and Ghost. Furthermore, all the Bug- and Ghost-type attacks were weak, so effectively Psychic-type Pokémon had no weaknesses. In addition, their attacks were only resisted by other Psychic-types. This led to Psychic-type Pokémon dominating the game, including Alakazam, Starmie, Exeggutor and, of course, Mewtwo.

Another problem with Gen I was a glitch that affected the Normal-type move Hyper Beam. This attack is incredibly powerful, but after you use it, your Pokémon needs a turn to recharge, or basically pass their turn, before they can attack again. The glitch was whenever a Pokémon was knocked out by Hyper Beam, the Pokémon using the attack didn’t need to recharge. This glitch made fast Normal-types, especially Tauros, overpowered since they could simply just keep using Hyper Beam to keep knocking out Pokémon.

The result was an imbalanced game. When Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver were in development, game designers needed to address these issues. They fixed Hyper Beam, so in future games it works as it should and the Pokémon must always recharge. In addition to adding new Pokémon, they added two new types to the game: Steel and Dark. Both of these types were strong against Psychic-type Pokémon: Steel resists Psychic-type attacks, while Dark-types are completely immune to Psychic-type attacks AND Dark-type attacks are also super-effective against Psychic-type Pokémon. This fixed the matchup system between types, making one type not supremely dominant over all the other types in the game.

Gen II had its own limitations due to the hardware of the technology at the time. Players could customize their teams and moves, but two of the same Pokémon were largely identical to each other with the exception of slight variation in stats. This meant if you saw the Pokémon Snorlax, you knew what to expect in terms of its stats. Gen III, starting with Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire, gave the players more options for customizability. Now, every Pokémon had one or two possible abilities to choose from which can aid in battle or exploring. For example, Snorlax could have Thick Fat, which makes it more resistant to Fire- and Ice-type attacks, or Immunity, which makes it immune to being poisoned. Each Pokémon could also be customized with Effort Values, or EVs, which improve a Pokémon’s stats as it battles. If a Pokémon beats a bunch of enemies with a lot of Attack, its own Attack will increase. This led to people being able to fine-tune their Pokémon’s stats to their preference. Maybe they wanted to boost their Snorlax’s Speed, which is naturally low, or give it even more Attack. The game designers put a ceiling on the number of EVs a Pokémon could earn, making the game part not only about leveling up your Pokémon, but also how you are going to train them.
This trend continues up to today. The Pokémon franchise’s strength is giving their players agency in how they play and opportunities to optimize their game. They allow the players to choose how they want to play the game. They can go out and complete the PokéDex with just their Charizard or create a team of six Pokémon with balanced types. Or you could use six Fire-types. Players can use their favorite Pokémon in battle, or work to train that one Pokémon with the perfect ability and stats for their team. The series recently came out with Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon for the 3DS, ushering in the seventh generation of Pokémon. There are now 802 Pokémon in the game, and the series is showing no signs of stopping until they reach one thousand.

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