Under the hood of what makes Pokemon Go

What started out as an idea of an April Fool’s Day joke is now the most popular mobile app around the world. Needless to say, Pokemon Go has captivated the hearts and phones of many a-mobile phone users, many of which might not have necessarily been fans of the franchise but are familiar enough with it to recognize it.

But for people new to gaming and to the franchise, the question remains, “What makes Pokemon Go… go?”

From a gamer’s perspective, the massive initial success of Pokemon Go can be attributed to a lot of smart game design and well thought out choices but most importantly, recognizing very early on in its development just what kind of game it is and aims to be.

The Elements

GPS play

Despite what memes about business successes say, Pokemon Go is by no means the result of the genius of one company or one group of people.

Niantic Inc. invested on GPS based gameplay mechanics with its earlier app Ingress which is a GPS based turf war game.

While Ingress introduced the world to real time GPS gameplay, it did not come close to the success of Pokemon Go. But as a game on its own, it was intuitive, it functioned well and was well received by players.

The problem was that while the mechanics worked well, the skin it was wearing was not appealing enough to many. An alien invasion isn’t the most relate-able framing device, afterall.

GPS gameplay meant a new way of playing which means an oddity even for just a few days which alone is enough to make people curious for a few days.

Pokemon Skin

Everyone likes Pokemon.

Even if they don’t show it, deep down inside they like it. Even when they claim they don’t like it, there’s still a deep corner of their humanity that likes it.

In a survey done among gamers years ago, Pokemon was by far the most played and most recognized video game franchise among Filipinos.

Couple this with the long running desire of its large fan base to live out the dream of catching, raising and battling with Pokemon and you have a sure fire framing device that people not only recognize but need little to no orientation in order to appreciate.

Heck, the tutorial drops you off where most Pokemon games start, picking your starting Pokemon and teaching you how to catch Pokemon.

“Pick one”

“Here’s how to catch it”

“That’s a PokeStop”

“That’s a Gym”

“Don’t get killed while playing”

Aaaand you’re off.

With the Pokemon skin comes pre-made goals that have been brewing inside its fans long before the April Fool’s joke that started the concept. Because of it Niantic and GameFreak were spared the task of designing long term goals for the game, all they had to do was create the short term goals that facilitated the achievement of the long term ones.

Pokestops and Pokemon gyms were a great design choice to promote the core mechanic of GPS based gameplay and also to frame social goals.

In a nutshell, Niantic made it so that the game’s core mechanic determines the success of any player in the game, “the more you moved around, the more we reward you.”

Randomization and the Skinner box

One big difference between Niantic’s Ingress and Pokemon Go is its use of Skinnerbox mechanics to practically hook its players and never let them go.

Skinner box mechanics are those that use and abuse the natural response of people when given rewarding stimulus for performing certain tasks. It conditions the mind to feel happy when performing specific tasks in anticipation of the reward it might give out.

These are most evident in casinos where slot machines are abundant. These machines are programmed to payout every now and then and to pay out various amounts. There is no amount of skill involved and everything is a matter of luck. Yet people flock to these machines because of the “good” feeling they get with each pull of the lever and roll of the slots. Even if they win P100 for every P1000 they spend, it would have been all worth it to them for the sudden rush of happiness that flows through them when the winning combination finally comes.

The same concepts are used in games like Candy Crush where luck plays a big role in “winning” and the developers’ goal is to keep people playing for longer periods of time.

We see it implemented in how Pokestops are programmed. For each turn of the Pokestop, random items in random quantities are given to us as rewards. Sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less. This reinforces the player to continue looking for more of these Pokestops in the hopes of getting that rare item like an incense, lure module or advanced Pokeball.

The same happens with Lure Modules and Incense activation. These items promise more Pokemon sightings at certain intervals. Incense works by generating a Pokemon every 5 minutes and for every 200 meters travelled while (based on experience) Lure Modules spawn a Pokemon every 5 minutes you are within its radius. But the frequency and kinds of Pokemon are quite unpredictable. Sometimes two Pokemon spawn one after another, other times it takes forever for any Pokemon to spawn and you’d be happy just to see a Rattata.

The randomness in how often and what kind of Pokemon are coaxed out of these items gives players a sense of “rolling the dice”. Both Incense and Lure Modules come in limited quantities, the most efficient was to get them being through spending real money in the Store. Therefore each time a player uses one, he’s making a significant investment at the chances of Pokemon spawning. Every time Incense is used, players feel a rush as they are suddenly excited to try and coax as many Pokemon as they can out, trying to travel as far a distance as they can as they watch the timer count down the thirty minutes.

Lure Modules use the social aspect of the game to trigger a flood of emotional cues that keep players on the hunt. PokeStops with Lure Modules are clearly visible from a player’s map User Interface even if they are not within the radius. This announces to them that a Lure Module has been activated on this PokeStop, prompting the player to walk to if not at least want to walk to the said PokeStop. But if you think about it, the spawn rate of Lure Modules isn’t so high, but the fact that cherry blossoms are raining down from the PokeStop is enough reason to trigger giddy cheers as groups of trainers flock to the said Stop. Add the fact that unlike Incense, the lifespan of Lure Modules are not displayed as a counter, instead it’s a battery icon that barely tells players anything. This prevents players from being discouraged from chasing the PokeStop with the Lure Module if he knows the time it will remain active is limited.

Then there are the Pokemon themselves. Without the aid of Lures or Incense, Pokemon randomly appear around the map. You can try to find them with the “Sightings” function, but based on other reports, it’s based on a 200 meter radius, which is quite a distance.

Even the gym battle mechanic is an exercise of this principle. The fact that battle statistics are imprecise and that battles happen in real-time rather than turn based makes it more chance based. The higher the CP of the Pokemon you use, the higher the chances it might win in the battle. Chances, meaning it does not at any time guarantee victory just because the CP is higher.

What this does is it motivates people to go about the area hoping to run into the Pokemon because of the imprecise nature of the tracking system. You don’t know when you’re close or far, you just know it’s there, somewhere, which also means your search doesn’t end right away. It’s the randomness and uncertainty that keeps people coming back. Despite how illogical it may seem, people tend to play more often and invest more time in an activity when the rewards are uncertain in frequency, as long as the reward, when achieved is immediate.

Peer group tendencies

One of the core mechanics of the Pokemon franchise is the social interaction. But with limited Pokemon at first and soft and hardware capabilities that would make the traditional ability to trade Pokemon a game breaking feature, Niantic built in mechanics that integrate social interaction with the main goal of the game.

Lure Modules

Do you want to be the best friend of all your Pokemon trainer friends? Drop a Lure Module at a nearby PokeStop where you can all hang out and reap the benefits of randomly spawning Pokemon.

Heck, even the shopping malls have gotten into the craze and embrace the Lure Module party idea, offering to place Lure Modules on PokeStops found inside their establishments non-stop for hours.

This public nature of Lure Modules plays to our natural desire to play as a community. Using one benefits everyone, and who doesn’t want to be the guy responsible for the happiness of many friends and strangers alike, right?

Niantic knows people like to spread the love, with Lure Modules, you can. Great way to exploit our kindness, isn’t it?

Teams

At level 5, trainers are given the second most difficult choice they will have to make (first being the starter Pokemon). They can choose to join Team Instinct (my team btw), Team Valor or Team Mystic.

The only known function of these teams is to facilitate the gym battle feature where members of each team take turns fighting over control of the gym.

But beyond this delineation came an unintended (or maybe they did) consequence as the teams started growing in number. Instead of the 33% split among the three expected, Team Mystic has nearly 40% of the players joining them. This reinforces the natural urge of people to become loyal to a team they identify with. With the membership numbers being so telling, the teams took on characteristics of their own, the Mystics being the juggernaut team while the Valors playing opposition while Instinct carried their own way to domination despite the lack of number.

This is the same psyche that keeps people rooting for certain sports teams and identifying themselves a fans of the teams. Some root for teams based on choice, others because of what they represent, often times the school or nation they represent. In the Philippines, the product or company they represent.

Conclusion

Understanding how elements of a game affect us should help us appreciate the game even more. It also helps focus our goals and not get trapped in pitfalls that other not so responsible game developers put in place for gamers, trying to milk us based on our urges and desires.

As we can see so far, Niantic has developed a system that is both fun and humane. Its core mechanic of moving about is well used and well emphasized throughout its features meaning even the whales of this free to play endeavor will need to get off their butts in order to get ahead.

When the playing field is equalized and effort is the obvious determining factor, games like Pokemon Go shine brightly as an example of a well implemented concept that can keep people playing for years to come. As long as they stay focused on their primary goals, it won’t be difficult to imagine all seven generations of Pokemon spawning at Pokestops.

For the first time a video game has gotten so many people excited for their next road trip instead of their next staycation.

If nothing else, Pokemon Go as a free mobile app has at least made daily commutes more bearable.

 

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The Balance of Narrative

 

Pokemon players who have delved into the competitive scene are familiar with its common formats and the ensuing turmoil surrounding discussions about which is more “competitive”.

First there’s the officially recognized format, created by Pokemon creator Nintendo, hosted by the creators and for the sake of the creator Nintendo. Official VGC (Video Game Championship) format is played with doubles on a ban list that Nintendo publishes every year for the sole purpose of making a ban list. Before VGC ’15 special and legendary Pokemon were banned from competitive play, one of the contentions most players of the other format often make to discredit the “competitiveness” of this format.

 

On the other hand there are players who favor the format that made Pokemon famous, the singles format. For this, players turn to Smogon for a tier list which everyone follows via agreement. In this format there is no distinction between legendary, special and ordinary Pokemon. This is often the reason many tout this to be the more “competitive” format since it allows the use of legendaries and special Pokemon like Zapdos, Volcanion, Heatran and even Mew for as long as they qualify as OU (Over Used) tier Pokemon. On the other hand the format bans certain Pokemon based on perceived superiority in competitive play. Normal Pokemon like Blaziken, Aegislash and Greninja have been called up to the Uber tier after several suspect tests for supposedly breaking the meta of the game, making their use “uncompetitive”.

 

But with all the griping about competition, is one format more competitive than the other? Why doesn’t Nintendo adapt Smogon’s tier system in order to allow VGC participants more freedom to use less “broken” legendaries and special Pokemon? Why does Smogon’s tier list work?

 

Tier list

Nintendo hosts the yearly VGC for money. Duh? You have to compete using the latest Pokemon game, so yes it’s hosted for money. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a non-competitive thing.

The Nintendo ban list consists of objectively marked Pokemon throughout the game. Simply put, any Pokemon considered Legendary and or Special in game is (was) prohibited from competitive play. One main distinction between these Legendary and Special Pokemon against regular Pokemon is the fact that in a single game of Pokemon you are allowed to catch them only once and they do not breed using the Pokemon Breeder.

This distinction is vital in that it’s the reason Nintendo doesn’t allow special and legendaries.

Any competitive player knows that there are two vital extra statistics to consider when team building, them being the Effort Values (EV) and Individual Values (IV), plus the variable of Natures, competitive players mix and match these stats and variables in order to maximize the potential of each Pokemon. EVs are pretty straight forward, ever since the 6th generation of Pokemon, the open secret was institutionalized in the game using the Super Training mechanic to show the EV’s gained by the Pokemon and individually increasing them through Super Training. Before this trainers had to seek specific Pokemon which gave out specific EVs and knock hundreds of them out, a laborious endeavor considering this mechanic existed as far back as the first generation.

IV’s on the other hand are a bit trickier. Through repetition, trial and error with the Pokemon breeder, Pokemon are assigned random IV’s and Natures, but through certain hold items, trainers can maintain some degree of control over how IV’s and Natures will transfer onto the Pokemon egg.

Here’s the even trickier part.

Want certain egg moves? Gotta breed from certain Pokemon in the same egg group.

Want certain hidden abilities? Gotta breed from a Pokemon with said hidden ability.

Want a shiny? Good luck.

All of this repetitiveness, trial and error and what not are part of the built in mechanics of the game. They require you to simply work within the rules of the game itself, not necessarily breaking the narrative.

But legendary, mythical and special Pokemon don’t work the same way. In a game you can only catch one Zapdos, Articuno or Moltres in the wild. There is only one Mewtwo available in the wild. And once caught, these Pokemon are incapable of breeding. But these Pokemon do have natures, EV’s and yes, even IV’s.

Many don’t realize it, but this is Game Freak’s way of regulating the uniqueness of these legendaries. While by design they are supposed to have base stats superior to normal Pokemon, they are not intended for competitive use because they were made to not be used competitively. Those that might be allowed in competitive play are nerfed through the limited IV’s and random natures. Meaning they are extra strong but more vulnerable than other Pokemon.

So what’s a competitive trainer to do in order to get a competitively viable Mewtwo?

One route trainers might take is what is known as “soft resetting”. This involves saving the game right before the Pokemon battle in which the trainer intends to catch said Pokemon, catching the said Pokemon, checking for the right nature, checking for the right IV’s and then resetting the console until desired nature and IV is achieved.

It’s a tedious task as the numbers are all 100% random and the chances of getting the right combination are slim.

While tedious and not within the confines of the game narrative, soft resetting is perfectly legal as it merely exploits the gaming function.

For the more shady trainers, third party accessories exist that can do all the Pokemon breeding in an instant. Commonly known as PowerSavers, these data re-writers are able to look into the game’s data assets and edit them with relative ease. This means the ability to change values such as natures, IV’s and even EV’s in an instant.

So you can see now where the legendary, mythical and special Pokemon benefit from this.

All a trainer has to do now is catch the Pokemon, run it through the value editor and turn it into the competitive legendary he desires. No randomness, no soft resetting, all competitive fun.

But this method is ILLEGAL. Nintendo and Gamefreak penalizes players who are caught using third party devices to manipulate game data, for good reason. Methods like this can give Pokemon moves, abilities and stats beyond those programmed by the developers giving them an unfair advantage.

This is where the difference in platforms matters between the Smogon and VGC formats.

Platforms

Remember that Smogon is often played on its own battle simulator, Showdown. Teams are built by choosing your Pokemon and entering the desired values for IV, EV and nature. No catching, training, breeding or any of the in-game things involved at all.

This means everyone is at an even playing field when it comes to access to “perfect” Pokemon, or those which have 6IV and the desired natures.

This lifts the shroud of exclusivity over the legendaries, making them just as accessible as any other Pokemon.

So when Smogon implements its tier list, it does so considering a purely theoretical scenario where everyone has equal access to every Pokemon in existence. This makes sense as Smogon claims itself to exist only for the competitive battles.

Showdown imagines itself to be in a scenario where it desires to be like a game of chess where variables are minimized. It also explains the criteria for banning certain moves such as One Hit Knock Out moves, Petal Dance and the Sleep Clause. To create an atmosphere which places each turn squarely at the hands of the trainer, they claim they are for increasing competitiveness.

This puts into perspective the stringency with which Smogon as a community goes through to ensure that no single strategy is able to dominate the playing field, because in their playing field, the Pokemon are for rent and every resource is available to everyone all the time.

Take out this ability to simply generate Pokemon in seconds and you get the VGC format where trainers are forced to trade, breed and train battle ready Pokemon either themselves or through others. Allowing third party devices to mingle and mangle the game is out of the question. Encouraging the practice of soft resetting or glitch exploitation is out of the question as well. So when GameFreak hosts tournaments, they host them under the impression that their balancing mechanism is already built-in to the game through the narrative and the mechanics that help to expound on that narrative.

When The Pokemon Company decided to allow the use of one legendary Pokemon per team in VGC ‘15, they did so expecting the built in randomness discussed earlier, because it would make sense. Legendaries which are the strongest in-game Pokemon would have a reduced role compared to perfectly bred battle-ready Pokemon, except the trainers will want any advantage they can get, which meant maximizing the stats either through glitching, exploits or third party devices, which beats the purpose.

 

Final words

 

The two most dominant formats are the way they are simply because they are designed with different intentions.

Smogon is based on a simulator setting where everything is at its theoretical best, on the other hand VGC continues to push the narrative of being the official tournament where trainers test their skill not only in battling but also in Pokemon breeding and training, even if many do cheat this process (not playing by the narrative rules is cheating).

Smogon creates a chess-like environment where you can pick up the board and play in an instant as long as you remember the pieces you play with, while VGC wants and expects you to take your trusty Pikachu or Zubat which you’ve had since the first gym or at least a descendant of that Pikachu or Zubat or at least a team of Pokemon which you spent time hatching and training, to the real world league for them to enter the real world hall of fame.

So the next time someone chides the VGC format for allowing the use of overpowered legendaries or special Pokemon which are 6IV and the right nature, be reminded that it’s not supposed to and that it’s the trainers who break the system to gain the advantage.

The same can be said of other games wherein mods or unofficial versions are purported to be “more competitive” than the official game. Game design is an important matter when it comes to any video game, narrative is part of that design, so are mechanics and gameplay balance. Rarely do franchises as big as Pokemon make design decisions that they don’t rack their brains over. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.

It doesn’t become their fault anymore if people don’t play by the designed rules. When this happens, companies can either correct it or reject it. Neither is a better move than the other.

Which one is more competitive? It depends on how you define “competitive”. Ideally, Smogon cuts to the chase and sends trainers straight to the battles, making cheesy tactics also easy to pull off. It becomes a crucible for battle strategies where only the most formidable survive. VGC tests trainers every step of the way (if done according to design) which means more effort being put on the road to the VGC Championships.

Go with Smogon if you’re after a battle of wits. Go with the official VGC if being a Pokemon master means more than just battling.

 

Post Script Update:

As many people pointed out, certain legendaries were already allowed to be used as early as VGC ’15 and some even earlier. In VGC ’16, two “big” legendaries were allowed.

Assuring three perfect IV’s might be a sign that they may have been intended for competitive play, however the limit and randomness were meant to serve as a crutch toward what are inherently overpowered Pokemon.

The Smogon format is currently used by console players and Showdown also has a VGC format, however, the Smogon was designed with Showdown in mind. Yes, trainers do carry over the rules of Smogon onto their consoles as the console game is the execution of the theory learned in Showdown. It’s not a declaration that one format cannot and is not used on the other platform, rather a statement of which the format is designed for.

Both Smogon and VGC update rules regularly, however Smogon’s process makes the rule changes more gradual and less surprising to trainers. It also adds to the question of what makes a good competitive game. Should it change with the times or should it be consistent for the players to be familiar with the mechanics?

 

 

The Omega Ruby experience

Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire has just been released and with a bit of prodding from my ever understanding girl friend, I was able to get a copy on launch date in the Philippines.

A long cue later, Pokemon Omega Ruby with the little Primal Groudon figurine was mine.

Since Pokemon X and Y introduced me to the competitive scene, it is likely my goal will be to complete the story of Pokemon Omega Ruby as quickly as possible just to access the competitive tools. Just to add a bit more spice to my adventure, I’ll be playing using what is known as the Nuzlocke Challenge.

The Nuzlocke Challenge is an unofficial set of added rules to playing Pokemon that makes it more difficult and more restrictive, reminiscent of more tactical RPG’s such as the Tactics series, Fire Emblem or X-Com. A few basic rules include considering a Pokemon “dead” when it faints in battle, this means releasing it (or for more forgiving versions, permanently PC boxing it) into the wild, capturing only the first Pokemon encountered in an area (if it dies or flees, you got nothing) and using only captured Pokemon.

For this play through, I’ll be following only the basic rules with the added rule of giving each Pokemon I catch a nickname. I realize doing this would drastically stunt my Pokedex progress, but what the heck, I’ll be able to fix it once I’m done. With a ready team of competitive Pokemon just itching to be Pokebank transferred, it won’t be difficult to complete the Dex eventually.

Challenge rules:

  • Nickname all caught Pokemon
  • Use only caught Pokemon
  • Catch only first Pokemon encountered in each area
  • If Pokemon feints in battle, release that Pokemon
  • No repeat Pokemon

So, let’s get started!

Adventure started on 11/21/2014

ID No.: 33991

Date: 11/21/2014

Trainer: Toby

Pokemon added: Torchic [Kungfu Chick] (Professor Burch)