Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

It’s rare to see a game as divisive as Pokemon Go. Half of its players say that this is the game that will save the world. The other half would burn Niantic at the stake with their own overheated servers. Even though the game has been successful in terms of numbers and statistics, players are starting to see the cracks through the nostalgia glasses. Once the magic fades, it seems all that’s left is a long grind. How could this be solved?

Burden of Optimal Play

The “burden of optimal play” is a coin termed by a designer on Diablo 3, referring to the decision between optimization versus fun. Say that you have two options in front of you. One of them is more fun, but the other one will help you win the game easier. Some players will pick one option, and some will pick the other. But the fact that these are mutually exclusive attributes is already a problem.

Grinding is the most obvious form of this burden. It’s not fun, but it helps you win. At that point, you have to start wondering why the win condition isn’t fun. Too often, designers will focus on creating the win condition by itself, and they won’t consider what actually makes it fun. So if players actually find something fun along the way, it wasn’t factored into the design.

The real question is: what makes Pokemon Go fun as a game? Combat is shallow. Flicking Pokeballs gets old quickly. Building a perfect team… well, it doesn’t really happen. Controlling gyms just gives you some meaningless points. But how do you win at Pokemon Go? Putting aside the fact that there isn’t really a win state, the generally accepted goal is to control as many gyms as possible.

I think that the fun of a Pokemon game is about exploration. It’s about going into new and unknown places and experiencing something unique. But in Pokemon Go, you are paradoxically incentivized to stay still. Going out to catch Pokemon is actually a very suboptimal way to play. You’ll get a lot of candies for Pokemon that you won’t use and a negligible amount of stardust. If you just sit somewhere near a bunch of Pokestops, you can spin them constantly and set lures, which will catch you more Pokemon than you would have gotten by walking.

What exactly were Niantic’s design philosophies with this game? How did they define “fun”, and how did they define “success”? Ultimately, we may never know, and it may turn out that they never intended exploration to be a core part of the game at all. But for me, I would want to design Pokemon Go to revolve around this concept.

There are all sorts of places where I want to start. The combat system, the stat growth, the consumable items, the teams… but for now let’s focus on solving one core problem. How should Pokemon Go encourage exploration rather than grinding at lure-moduled Pokestops?

How I Would Have Designed Pokemon Go

My plan starts with making gyms a big deal. Reduce the number of gyms drastically and increase the priority of each one. Take out the cooperation and give ownership of the gym to one person, who will be referred to as the leader.

Non-leaders can interact with a gym in two ways: they can earn a badge, or they can usurp the leader and take their place. In order to usurp the leader, they will set up a challenge in-game, and the two players will need to meet and duel for ownership. This can only be done if the challenger holds a minimum of several badges (which will be described later). If the owner doesn’t show up, the challenger wins by default.

To earn a gym badge, you would play against a weakened AI version of the gym leader. Each badge you hold will act as a mini-incense, drawing a small amount of Pokemon towards you. The badge and its effect will last about a week, and can be refreshed by earning the badge again. Multiple badges will stack if they come from different gyms.

Now you have a motivation to plan out a trip to a gym. In the current game, there are no true long-term objectives other than taking over a gym. But with my plan, even if you can’t take over a gym (which should usually be the case, since it is now a much lengthier and interactive process), you can still earn a badge. You can go earn these badges whenever you want, and refresh them whenever it’s convenient for you since they will last a while.

While you hold a gym badge, you will “tag” every Pokestop you pass. Each badge “levels up” by tagging more Pokestops, which increases the strength of its incense effect. The tag is unique and can only be applied once per badge lifetime, so you will need to go out to many different Pokestops to level up your badges as much as possible. If a badge expires and you get the same one again at the gym, its level will be reset, but if you refreshed its duration by returning to the gym before it expired, its level will stay.

Even though this mechanic is more confusing, it does several things. First, it encourages people to go out to many different places, since tags cannot be applied multiple times to the same Pokestop. This can be something as simple as taking a different route when walking to school. Second, it gives you a recurring reason to continue going back to gyms, and going to different gyms so you can level up multiple badges simultaneously. If you are holding many badges, you are incentivized to go on a long walk outside of your normal patterns.

Now that players have the means to increase Pokemon spawn rates on their own, lure modules can be nerfed or removed. Yes, lure modules are cool for businesses and stores that want to increase their customer count, but in all honesty I think that mechanic is a capitalistic sellout and shouldn’t exist. Instead, gyms themselves will be the central focal points for people to congregate, and highly active players will act as walking lure modules. It shifts focus away from locations and more towards individual journeys.

“Being the very best” should mean striking a balance between civilized life (gyms, badges, society) and the wildness of nature (exploration, the unknown, and Pokemon themselves). My plan would make it so that these two distinct aspects would be connected to each other and create a positive feedback loop.

Would it actually work? I have no idea. Niantic has had to solve problems that I probably can’t even imagine. But when it comes to a world as beloved as Pokemon, it’s a real pity that the true Pokemon masters are the ones who live on top of a Pokestop. Hopefully, we’ll see a fundamental change in the design someday.