Pokémon Sun – Session by Session Review – Sessions 1 and 2

Pokémon Sun and Moon are now out and I was very happy to get a copy of Sun on the day of release. Professional reviewers likely had it before the release date so in the interest of getting this out quickly, I will review as I go, session by session. It might not give the best picture of the overall game, but hopefully will make up for it with a clear image of how it plays over time.

 

Session 1 – Phew that is a long introduction

I should start this by saying I am very familiar with the Pokémon adventure games, so I have a familiar issue with the opening hours of this game. Anyone who has played the previous generations will know what I am talking about. These games are designed for a wide range of ages and skill sets. It is great that the games make effort to allow accessibility for young and new players. But for us veterans, the tutorial sections of a new game is very much like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

 

It strikes me in this first session how much the developers have looked to grow the Pokemon experience. There seems to be much more in the way of story cut scenes. The game opens with a sequence involving one of the main character escaping some kind of lab. And the early sections pull away from the gameplay to show conversations and action in. It feels like there is less of the characters standing around talking at each other and more of the kind of acting we would see in animation and PC or console games.

Already this was looking to be one of the most immersive, original and detailed instalments of Pokémon. Alola is a beautiful place and is full of life. The people of Alola seem to have their own culture and mannerisms that seems a whole lot different to any of the previous regions. The place feels very natural, helped in large part by the move away from a square grid. Gone are the patches of wild grass growing is neat lines. Paths and patches of long grass flow more like they would in nature.

I followed the usual introduction and tutorials common to these games, frankly getting a little bored. It was a relief when I was let loose to explore the trainer school and have a few battles. Whilst the battles themselves have not changed much, they have made further improvements to the interface. Everything is laid out on the touch screen to be very clear. And the game now keeps track for you of any stat changes, which is helpful. Another useful feature, though I am not sure I appreciate it, is the indicator of move effectiveness. I enjoyed the puzzle in the past of working out which move was best to use against an opponent, memorizing types of Pokémon to best calculate which move would do the most damage. Sun and Moon somewhat takes all that away. Once you encounter a Pokémon for the second time, all your moves will show how effective they are. There is still much to consider to be the most efficient in battles, but by effectively giving us the answer to type match ups, it has taken away some of the challenge.

I also had a brief look at a couple of side features. One being the Care function, here you can feed your partner, pet it, and tidy it up after battle. I am not sure if there is a penalty for not drying off you Pokémon after a fight with a water type, or for not combing the fluff out of its fur, but they seem happy when you do. Then there is the Festival. At any time you can warp to the festival to meet other players, purchase items and services, or take part in battles. It is reminiscent of the Join Avenue feature in Black and White. There is not much to either feature, but they are sort of fun.

 

Session 2 – Just me and my Rowlett

My second night playing the Pokémon Sun showed more promise. After petting a Turos to clear a blocked road (They are really running out of ideas to segment areas now.) I moved along to areas with more gameplay. I found myself skim reading a lot still as characters insisted on showing me all the shops and services of the first big city, but I was given a bit more freedom to look for wild Pokémon and explore.

It was in the city that I had my first run in with Team Skull. Every generation has had a group of ne’er do wells to hamper your progress, and Team Skull are proving so far to be my least favourite. They rather annoying with their over the top patois and break dance swagger. I’ll leave it to the SJW’s to rant about cultural appropriations, these characters just look to me like white kids who listen to too much hip hop. Although annoying as they are, it somehow works. It is satisfying to beat such arrogant hooligan and see the wide-eyed shock that they were not able to back up their big words. I even took to messing with them in the dialogue options and their responses were amusing.

Another annoyance for me was the game’s inclusion of a lot of wild Pokémon from previous generations. I only encountered a handful of new creatures, otherwise I mostly encountered Rattatas, Drowseys, Wingulls and Ghastlys which I have been catching in games for years. The Alolan forms gave a bit of variety but I was still left craving something new. What was new did not appeal so I currently still have but a single ‘mon in my party. Good thing I like my starter, my Rowlett, now evolved to Dartrix is cute, strong and a lot of fun to travel with. I fear I will need to venture further to find any wild Pokémon I deem worthy to join the team.

 

After exploring the first routes, I came to the first trial of the game. Here is where the game introduces the biggest mechanic changes to the game. For a long time now, Pokémon games have followed the same formula for many years: Meet a professor, get a grass, fire or water starter and some running shoes, walk around, beat eight gyms, take down some organised criminals or terrorists despite looking like an eleven year old, catch the mascot from the game box and beat the elite four. Although much of that is still there so far, it is refreshing to see them try something new.

My first trial was to explore a cave and find and defeat several wild Pokémon, followed by a show down with a stronger find creature. In some ways it still felt like the gym battles of old, I will be intrigued to see how other trials differ. The next new feature was the concept of wild Pokémon calling for help. This can seem to happen in any wild encounter, basically it involves a Pokémon calling for back up, bringing a weaker ally to fight alongside it, effectively switching to a double battle mid fight. A nice addition.

Finally there is Z moves. It is like mega evolution for moves. They certainly look epic when used, but I am not sure it adds much to gameplay, essentially, once you set up to use a Z move, it is a button that makes a move hit harder, which begs the question why anyone would want to ever not press the button (well, I suppose if you wanted to catch a wild ‘mon and didn’t want to kill it). If anything, they are a bit long winded.

 

I may sound like I have been a bit down on parts of the game so far, but despite a few annoyances, I am enjoying it. I am still on the first island of Alola and found it a great place to explore, I have found a few option areas already, this could be the most expansive map in a Pokémon game yet.

Big credit goes to the designers of this game. Lots of effort has been put into making everything as smooth a process as possible. It’s the little changes that help, there were so many niggles in the past. Remember when you went to the PC in the pokemon centre and had to go SOMEONE’S PC then ORGANIZE BOXES, then the interface was a mess. Now if you want to swap out a Pokémon, you go to the PC and are straight into the boxes. Your party is on one side, the box on the other and you can drag and drop intuitively. Also when you tap any Pokémon, you get a quick view of its moves. It is changes like this that are ironing out the kinks in the games series’ once clunky interfaces.

 

 

Ways Pokemon GO could be a catalyst for change.

EDIT: Some days have past since I wrote this. not all is the same today as it was then,  for a start it is officially out in the UK so don’t go correcting me on that, also, some of my enthusiasm is lost, sure I like it, still play it and still think this could make for a shift in game design and it will be influential for years to come. But, I am maybe seeing some of the cracks, and in some ways, getting a bit burned out on all the hype. but read on anyway, I’m sure there’s is still something to be gained from doing so.I may be writing soon about what I think needs to change or not change to make Pokemon GO an even better game.

 

Pokemon GO has been released to the wild and the response has been staggering. It is such a cut down pokemon experience compared to the main games, so much of the complexity is removed. Catching is reduced to walking around and making a flicking gesture, battles are little more than swiping and tapping. But there is a depth beyond the simple mechanics and a core emphasis on what pokemon has always been about, collecting.

The game has not been officially release in the UK, but even in my small town, you can see trainers everywhere. Groups of players wander the streets, the familiar map can be seen on phone screens in parks, shops or on the bus. The components of this game are nothing new; collectibles, GPS integration, Augmented reality. But the combination of those with the exposure of a popular brand has caused them the game explode into the public consciousness. As a game designer and Pokemon fan, I find the phenomenon fascinating to observe and be a part of.

Time will tell how much of an impact the game will have in the long run, but so far I am seeing a lot of potential ways to many aspects of game design, culture and modern life. Overselling it maybe, I am looking at this in terms of potential change. Things may change for good ill, what’s important is that game designers think what behaviour their games are responsible, but also acknowledge that our players are responsible for their own actions.

 

Changes for video games as a whole

 

  1. Local online play

This is exciting but also a little scary. Online play has been a fun way to meet and interact with people with similar interests from all over the globe. There are countless stories of online gamers making lifelong friends, even relationships, and should you meet anyone online who you have a bad time with, it is usually as simple as electing to block or mute them to be rid of the nuisance player.

Wisely Pokemon GO does not allow you to locate any other player or directly interact with them, it could be a dangerous technology if you could track down other players, suddenly trolling players with your OP Dragonite could be a health hazard. That is not to say that pokemon is not leading to real world face to face interactions. I have already met and spoken to strangers playing the game on two occasions having only been playing for a few days. I had pleasant friendly experiences, but with the way the game draws people to similar areas, I can understand why people might be concerned.

I think the potential to meet and interact with people playing the same game as you in a local area is great, but then I am a big boy, I haven’t much fear so strangers. I would certainly not want to let children or other vulnerable persons venture off unattended. This is one of those areas where unfortunately common sense and self-preservation is needed from players. Supervise your children when they play, don’t go anywhere restricted or dangerous, be aware of your surroundings, that kind of thing.

There has already been one reported case of criminals using the game to lie in wait to rob players in an area with a rare Pokemon. It highlights the issue around a game that is played “in the real world” but I cannot see the tactic catching on. The kind of criminal acts that spread are the smart effective ones, I don’t think the robbers thought it through very well. You can take your pick of any one these days and have a good chance getting a decent phone if you mug them, why use a game to try and lure people with phones. Also you can only do it once or twice, before long the crimes will be reported and police will know where to find the criminals. The men who tried this tactic were caught, not surprising really.

Yep, I think we will see a lot more of this kind of local online play. There are a lot of possibilities for this kind of mechanic. There will be copycats, no doubt, as with many elements from this game. The successful ones will be those who take it as inspiration and a point to innovate from, rather than simply copy.

 

  1. Merging virtual worlds with physical worlds

A big buzz word (two words…) from this game is Augmented Reality or AR for short. Basically it means imposing virtual assets on the real world. Pokemon GO does this by allowing you (if your camera has a gyroscope) to see the pokemon you wish to catch in an image from your phone’s camera as though the critter was there in real life. It’s a fun feature and a bit gimmicky but I think it will give exposure to the idea.

There is a lot more that games can do with this technology and I am excited to see where it goes.

It’s not new tech of course, it and its close cousin Alternate Reality have been around for a while. The idea of a game world leaking out into reality are exciting concepts to me. Alternate reality games already have a history of sending people away from their computer screens to find clues to intricate puzzles. Merging this idea with elements like augmented reality and geo caching could make for great experiences.

 

  1. Merging Physical worlds with virtual worlds

The inverse of putting game elements into the physical world is the way Pokemon incorporates the outside world with that in the game. Looking at the game map, you will no doubt see pokestops and gyms, mostly they are related to physical landmarks, some of which I was scarcely aware existed in the town I have lived in for decades. I can only imagine the coding it took to procedurally get accurate GPS data, names and photos of all the landmarks in my town, then consider that this has been done for landmarks all over the world.

The main problem is that it is procedural and as such, does not always understand the context of the landmarks in the real world. Near me is a Royal Mail building, the whole site is restricted to employees of the building. Yet in the middle is a pokemon gym. I have skirted the fence a number of times but cannot get close enough to challenge the gym. And yet there are several pokemon guarding the gym. So maybe people working there play the game, or perhaps players trespassed in order to get access to the gym. Regardless, there are already stories of gym locations causing problems for people (like the café that put up a sign banning pokemon trainers unless they make a purchase). A change we may see is in how such cases are treated, how long before Niantic get angry letters asking them to relocate in game items

Could laws be made to regulate this? If you own a property, do you also own its GPS co-ordinates and how they are used in virtual worlds?

On a more positive note, this is another interesting avenue for games to explore. Pokemon GO uses real locations in a very simplistic way, finding gyms in local landmarks and Pokemon near their natural habitat. Games can do more with this, imagine if a mobile RPG generated taverns at bars and cafes, or if you had to claim bounties at a police station or heal up at your local doctor’s surgery. What if fields were random encounter zones and rare items grew on real life trees. There is a lot you could do with the real world to incorporate it into a game.

 

Changes in Lifestyle

 

  1. Childhood Obesity – or any Obesity

In the old days, if you wanted to trick a child into doing something healthy you lied to them; eat your spinach and you will get strong like Popeye, eat your carrots and you will see in the dark. It seems that by design or accident, Pokemon GO has found a way to incentivise going for a walk. Ignoring the implications of children now wandering the streets with their noses in phones, the increase in physical activity amongst players is surely a good thing. There have been games that have led to exercise in the past (Dance Dance Revolution, anything with motion controls, Rock Band/Guitar Hero drums) and maybe this will be more than a passing trend like the rest.

I wouldn’t be surprised if governments and educators start to take notice of games and their ability to adjust behaviour. As designers, we should always take time to think about what behaviour we want to encourage, and what we might be inadvertently promoting. World of Warcraft incentivised sitting infront of your PC for long periods so effectively that they had to make sleeping an in game bonus. Much research is being done into the gamification of learning, healthy eating and other things (In China’s case, the gamification of being a model citizen). One of the biggest problems is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Just because you make a game that will benefit children, doesn’t mean they will want to play it, and forcing them to play it will unlikely yield beneficial results.

Perhaps game companies will take it upon themselves to include gamification like this, or maybe government bodies will approach them to try and include it. One thing is for sure, any time we make a game that has consequences away from the screen, we need to think about what behaviour we are encouraging. Pokemon GO encourages walking, and that is good, it also encourages to some degree, going to unfamiliar parts of town with your mobile phone on display, not looking where you are going, and in some cases, going to places you don’t belong.

 

  1. How we play on our phones

This game has certainly changed some of my habits on phone use. I have since getting it, started thinking about that larger data plan I have been putting off, also that wrist strap that came with the box. I even at one point wondered how much it would be worth it to upgrade to a phone with a gyroscope so I can use the AR feature.

More generally I think this will serve to show that mobile games can fill a bigger market space then what they do now, which is for most games, the niche of killing a few minutes between other activities. With people going on specific pokemon catching outings, then perhaps developers will see that with the right experience, mobile games can be an activity in their own right, not just a diversion.

There is also potential for mobile games to be something better suited to socialising in person. Phones have long been seen as the death of conversation. Yet here is a game that is being played as a group activity. There is no real in game incentive to playing as such, but it is all the same. I have come across a couple of groups of people going on specific outings together to catch pokemon. Groups can cover larger areas and weed out rare pokemon, or work together to lock out gyms.

I imagine as more features are added the potential for Pokemon GO to be a locally social game will increase. So far it is reminiscent of the days of meeting in the school yard to trade pokemon via link cables. In a time where local multiplayer games are a dying breed, I hope this game helps keep it alive.

 

Cultural Shifts

  1. Perception of gamers

This was changing way before this, but still, it is maybe another step on the road to gaming becoming as acceptable socially as reading a book. Sure these says geekdom is almost and aspiration and even the people who think gaming is childish probably have a game on their phone they like to play.

One of the criticisms of gamers has been that they are shut-ins, well it’s hard to argue that with gamers wandering the streets. I say that but that’s not really how perceptions will change. I think part of the stigma of gaming is that people assume the stereotype of decades ago, of the overweight pimply recluse being the typical gamer, is still the case. I think a lot of people don’t realise that the average person on the street is probably a gamer to one degree or another. Gaming has been hidden in bedrooms for a long time. Seeing it out in the wild will perhaps change people’s perceptions, some non-gamers may start to realise it is in fact them who are in the minority.

 

  1. A new scapegoat

This will only happen if it does become a huge, next big thing. There always seems to be something that parents want to point to in order to explain why their child or children as a whole did not turn out the way they wanted them too. In recent years the scape goat has been violent games, online games, mobile phones and internet porn. Now maybe it is time for AR to have its turn as the whipping boy.