I feel like it isn’t groundbreaking to point out that using a familiar theme is a great way to introduce new players to an unfamiliar genre. I say this having recently seen a number of MOBA newcomers flock to and enjoy Pokémon Unite which was launched onto the Nintendo Switch back in July and is due out on Android and iOS later this month. While highly successful as a genre, there were still a number of people who’d never touched a MOBA until Unite launched. As such, I wanted to examine why Pokémon is uniquely positioned such that its inclusion as a game’s theme can help with onboarding new players.
I suppose the obvious first place to start is with Pokémon’s identity. Ever since its inception back in the 90s, Pokémon has always associated its brand with being approachable. The most obvious example of this can be seen in the original video game releases of Pokémon Red and Green version (later Blue version with international releases). Prior to the 1996 release of Pokémon, numerous role-playing games were being released by both Eastern and Western development teams featuring a variety of systems, storylines, and characters. This ultimately established a number of genre conventions that developers would build upon as they learned from and tried to out-do one another while developing new role-playing experiences.
Pokémon’s developer Game Freak, however, took a different approach. Instead of building upon the established conventions of games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, they opted to streamline the RPG experience and provide a more beginner friendly game. One of the best examples of this can be seen in how Pokémon doesn’t use mana. Almost every RPG at the time, and even today, make use of a resource akin to mana that players need to manage to use their spells. Pokémon doesn’t. Instead each attack has a set number of times it can be used before a Pokémon needs to rest. This dramatically simplifies casting spells and is a lot more easily understood by beginner players.
Pokémon also has a less complex narrative when compared against other role-playing games. Until recently these games had almost no central plot, nor did they feature much in the way of character development. The story lines were often as simple as you’re the hero and you need to stop the bad guys. There weren’t complex themes, or any nuance to the story being presented. It was often very black and white.
Obviously that has changed over the years, but Pokémon still features storylines that rarely go beyond what you’d find in a children’s cartoon show. The same could be said for the inclusion of many of Pokémon’s deeper mechanics. They’re present for series veterans who want to dig into Pokémon at greater depths, but every game in the franchise can be completed with only a basic understanding of the game’s systems.
It is for all of these reasons that Pokémon has always presented itself as an approachable game within the role-playing genre. By having simple mechanics, characters, stories, and systems there is a very low barrier to entry thus many people can play and enjoy these games.
This approachability affords Pokémon a unique benefit in that it is positioned as a great entry point for players who are new to role-playing games. The games are designed such that they can be enjoyed with little or no existing knowledge of RPGs or the Pokémon franchise. As a result, Pokémon’s identity has become one that is widely recognized as being kid friendly, or in-fact games that everyone can play. And through tying this image to a game, even if it’s in a different genre, developers can implicitly communicate that their game is also approachable and enjoyable by everyone.
Let’s cycle back around to our Pokémon Unite example to see this in action.
Prior to the current Battle Royale and Wholesome game craze, MOBAs were the big ticket item to copy. Both League of Legends and DotA 2, the two seminal MOBA titans, were widely recognized as some of the most popular and most profitable games in the industry. This led several developers and publishers to try and copy this success so they too could have a crazy popular title that racked in millions annually. The results of this were similar to what we’ve seen with Battle Royale games: everyone was sick of hearing about MOBAs, and a large contingent of gamers were entirely turned off from ever playing the genre.
However, what happens when you throw a Pokémon skin onto a MOBA and streamline aspects of it so that it is more beginner friendly? Well you end up with a game that works on consoles and mobile that can attract a completely new audience of players.
Pokémon Unite applies the same fundamental design of approachability that is seen in mainline Pokémon games to a MOBA. The core of the experience remains unchanged, but certain aspects have been streamlined for simplicity. Players have less skills to manage, towers are simply points you need to control, and there aren’t endless waves of minions that players need to micro-manage. This has dramatically lowered the difficulty of the game such that it can accommodate a completely new audience of players by lowering the barrier to entry.
While I don’t have any hard numbers to know how much of a success Pokémon Unite has been, anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of folks enjoying the game. Many of them cite having never been interested in a MOBA before and it was only because Unite was painted with a Pokémon skin that they decided to give it a chance.
As a more personal example, Pokémon is actually responsible for introducing me to rogue-likes. Back in 2006 a spin-off game titled Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Blue Rescue Team launched for Nintendo DS. I picked it up because it was a Pokémon game and fell in love with the concept of procedurally generated levels and systems driven gameplay. It was so compelling that when I first signed up for Steam I spent a fair bit of time trawling through indie games hoping to find something similar. It was during this time that I learned what rogue-likes were and as any regular readers here will know I’ve spent my fair share of time playing a variety of those over the past several years.
I hope I’ve convincingly made my case here. I’m not entirely sure anyone needed convincing, but in general I think Pokémon as a theme makes a great gateway into new genres. A history that has inextricably tied its image to approachability and the high recognizability of its various characters have created a brand with the power to convince people to try out new experiences they wouldn’t otherwise. I think there is a lot of value in that, if for no other reason because it helps people to discover things they love that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
What about you? Did Pokémon ever get you into a genre you weren’t already a fan of? Perhaps you’re one of the folks that picked up Unite, or you had a similar experience with a Pokémon spin-off like I did? Let me know in the comments as I’d like to hear your story.