GAMEPLAY FEATURES, THEMING, AND YOU:

or:

Why your game doesn’t have to be more grindy than an eternal windmill to be fun, challenging and successful

Pokemon is an absolute giant of a game series. That almost goes without saying. It is one of the most successful franchises that gaming has ever seen, with millions of copies sold worldwide per iteration in the series. I, myself have bought at least one copy of every generation thus far (except white/black or white/black 2). Pokemon is one of the most fun, engaging, and competitive games that our generation has ever seen.

In theory, anyway.

But what am I talking about? If I’ve purchased well over 6 games in the series, I must think its fun right? Well, obviously, yes, I do find the game to be fun. The single player experience, exclusively. While the whole “gotta catch ’em all” thing has become more of a pipe dream than a reality now (what with 700+ pokemon; a good handful of those being event-only exclusives) I have always found the series fun just for the journey that each game involves. I like creating my own lore for the way things are in each individual region (when there isn’t any to begin with). The exploration aspect of the game, as well, even though it is mostly linear, is interesting to me, if only to see all the different biomes that the developers make for the player to travel through, and the appropriately themed pokemon for the area.

But what really sucks about the Pokemon series as a whole, is a system that was ironically originally intended to diversify the pokemon of each individual trainer. It is the popular meta-game of the Pokemon series, and I personally find it to be absolute tripe, and something that kills not only the multiplayer aspect of the game, but more importantly the very theme of Pokemon in general.

Completely unknown to the average player (pre X/Y anyway), are a system of semi-hidden ‘experience points’ known as “Effort Values”. These EV’s used to be only raised by battling and KO’ing certain types of pokemon. For example, the way it used to work is, if one of your Pokemon fights and beats a wild Rattata, then your pokemon will gain 1 EV to speed. If you were particularly focused on raising your Pokemon’s long-term speed to the max, you would need to battle 251 more Rattata’s (or the equivalent of other species) to max out your speed stat at level 100. Not to mention that you could have 510 of these hidden points that could be allocated to different stats. Which means at minimum, if you fought only pokemon that gave 3 EV’s per KO, to completely train your party, you needed to fight at least 1020 battles… and that’s being really specific about who you let your pokemon fight.

On top of that, you have the even more hidden ‘stats’ of Individual Values, or IV’s. These were designed by the game’s creators to make it so that each pokemon, like the name of the system, was “an individual”. IV’s range randomly from 1-31 in any given stat, effectively meaning that no two pokemon would be the same.

Except they can be.

Pokemon Gold and Silver on the Game Boy Color implemented a system of pokemon breeding, whereupon these IV’s could be “genetically passed down” as such through the generations. Without delving too deep into what all is involved; considering that it takes about 10 straight minutes of riding back and forth on your bicycle to hatch a single pokemon egg, which may turn out not to have even passed down it’s “good” IV stats during this particular poke-factory breeding session, you’re in for a long time of mindless, repetitive grinding in order to assemble a team of IV “perfect”, EV trained warrior pokemon demigods.

And that’s not even delving into a pokemon’s given “nature” (again, another design feature intended to make pokemon unique, inevitably devolved into being another stat to min/max by repeatedly breeding until you get the one you want).

This is one reason why I just cannot stand the pokemon end-game. EV’s, IV’s, natures – they just bog down the game to ridiculous levels; and it’s particularly detrimental to the game’s theme of loving your little gladiators for what they are, by turning it into a contest of who has the most supposed “natural talent” (Ironically gained in a very unnatural way). It takes some seriously bad-Korean-MMO levels of grinding in order to actually compete with most people online, not to mention at your local tournaments. But yet, people generally seem to eat this system up like it’s amazing, calling it a “complex system which separates the boys from the men in the Pokemon world” and such. In reality, it isn’t complex at all. Nor does it make you a “better” pokemon trainer. It just means you put your ass to the grinder and you know how to be very patient. True Pokemon skill should come down to things like knowing type advantages, knowing what moves a pokemon may be able to use, and being able to successfully strategize and beat your opponent using a team that you have lovingly assembled, rather than cranking out the numbers until you get Ultimate Charmander v28.3.

Fortunately for some, Game Freak has included a new feature with Pokemon X/Y; an inbuilt pokemon EV trainer ‘app’ of sorts, wherein you can either:

  • A. Tap repeatedly on the screen as your pokemon destroys a punching bag, or
  • B. Play a minigame where your pokemon flies around on a little hover platform, shooting soccer balls of various speeds and sizes out of its chest, and into soccer nets which materialize randomly around certain parts of a giant pokemon balloon.

And that trains your EV’s because video games.

Sounds dumb? Well it is. It’s grinding 2.0. You’re still grinding, just not as bad as you think you were before. It still takes around 2 hours to meticulously plod through the same minigame, over and over again, until you get a punching bag for the particular stat you want to train, then you equip it and grind it until it breaks, then the cycle repeats. Boring, unnecessary, ridiculous. Admittedly, it does streamline the experience… but it’s an experience that you shouldn’t have to undertake in the first place!

Isn’t it enough that you got your pokemon to level 100? Doesn’t that take a reasonable amount of effort? You could just as easily tell your pokemon what you want it to ‘focus on’ stat-wise and it could be an automatic process. You would still have your strengths and weaknesses, just the same as EV training as it is now, just without the unnecessary grind. I can easily understand how the game designers wanted to make every pokemon unique, with certain strengths and weaknesses… but if that was truly the case, I cannot fathom why they allowed IV perfection grinding via breeding. Surely they knew that there is always that group of people, who WILL participate in soul crushing grinding sessions just to ‘be the best’, and it’s just not right; it’s not what pokemon is about, fundamentally. I’d even go as far as to say the anime TV series is giving kids the wrong idea – the right way to be a trainer is by loving your team and having determination to win. When in reality… well, just imagine going to a tournament at 13 years old with a team of your favorite pokemon, all at level 100, thinking that you’ll at least be able to put up a good fight, just to get stomped effortlessly in the first round by someone that crunched the numbers and abandoned hundreds of pokemon in the process. Yeah, that’s still determination… but it’s definitely the wrong kind, thematically.

In conclusion, I think the pokemon end-game could be made viable again by taking out all of these extraneous features that add nothing to the experience, but serve only to propagate the grind. By all means – pokemon should be allowed to be special little snowflakes, and the IV system was a fantastic idea… in theory. If they would have just left the breeding out of it, it would have been fine. However, if you IV train and min/max for weeks, even months at a time to get a Pikachu with perfect stats; someone else inevitably will too. So now you have 2 soulless Pika-perfects…which becomes 3, then 4, 10, 20…

Tell me, which one is the “individual”?

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