Improving the Battle System
What can I improve of the Pokemon battle system? Very little. Sure, I could change a little about a lot of features. In fact, I've been designing my own version of the Pokemon battle system for over 8 years. It's 3D, real-time/turn-based hybrid using async, and as dynamic as the battles in the anime and movies. I'm sure you'd love it. But this is about fixing the existing battle system. Because it works so well already, the only thing I can think of that would improve battling is an issue of feedback.
You know who's confused and who's burned.
Feedback is key in how we learn video games. It allows us to understand the consequences and results of our actions every move that we make. The Pokemon lifebar is a wonderful feedback feature that facilitates strategy in a simple way. The battle text at the bottom provides good narration. Features like the HUD for status afflictions, the animated chicks that circle the head of your Pokemon for confusion, and the color change for poisoned Pokemon are great feedback features. But there could be more feedback to reflect the changing battle conditions.
I'm perfectly aware that the following suggestions would have an effect on the way competitors battle. For example, some strategies that emerge from the imperfect information design like scouting or bluffing may be reduced somewhat. I suggest that the narration should be much more explicit distinguishing between attacks that are super effective and 4x-super effective. The same should be done for 4x resistance. Likewise, because each stat can be raised or lowered up to 6 stages, the narration text should keep track of these stat changes. It would be more informative and suspenseful if the narration tallied up the count so all players know exactly how dangerous the situation is getting.
It seems like the competitive battlers on the PokeMoshPit use a lot of Pokemon stat knowledge to make informed decisions. They know when the opposing Pokemon can or cannot outspeed their Pokemon regardless if the opponent has maximized their speed. They know they can take so many hits from certain Pokemon using certain attacks. And they know all the moves the opposing Pokemon can potentially learn. This kind of deep knowledge is great because it rewards players who have more knowledge skills. However, because Pokemon is a turn-based game players can also look up this data or run calculations in the middle of a match before making their decisions. And some do. I figure, if the battle is left open for players to go to such lengths with outside tools, then you might as well add tools or feedback features to the game to make things easier for all players.
I'm not suggesting that players should be able to see the stat page of their opponents. Though Pokemon is an RPG that heavily uses stats and formulas, it's clear that Nintendo made a conscious design effort to keep the presentation of this information very organic. In other words, the developers have hidden as many numbers as they could from the player to simplify descriptions and leave a bit of room for mystery and experimentation. For example, competitive players have devised ways to calculate the IV values of Pokemon, which are like a Pokemon's genetic potential. The formula to calculate these values is very complex and not 100% accurate. Still, because these IV values are not displayed anywhere in the game many players run the calculations. There is one NPC in the game, however, that will tell you the IV values of your Pokemon. But instead of giving your a list of stats, this NPC converts the values into words. When you talk to this guy you're left on your own to figure out exactly what "rather decent" or "relatively superior" means.
Along the same lines, what does "it may also reduce the foe's special defense" mean? I had to look up for information online. For the Psychic attack, it means you have a 10% chance. And if you're thinking the key word "may" means 10%, you're mistaken. The language is not consistently used. The attack Sacred Fire has a 50% chance of burning the opponent, yet the description says "may."
What if you could glean a Pokemon stats in a general way based on how it looks? Or how it animates during an attack? In the image above, you can obviously tell which Ivysaur is specially based, defensively bulky, and which is specialized for speed. All I did was stretch a few layers of the image. The tenet of form-fits-function would go a long way in a game with as many complexities as Pokemon. And this visually based feedback feature would align well with the developer established adherence to an organic presentation.
What if you could also gauge a Pokemon's nature based on they way their eyes looked? An adamant nature would have slightly narrowed eyes while a timid nature would be more open with a shifting focus. What if the darker Ivysaurs's leaves and bud, the more specially based it is? What if you could see the hold item of the Pokemon? And to keep the element of surprise, the held item would only be displayed after it's revealed in battle. I say, the fewer abstraction players have to memroize and mentally keep track of the better.
I love how the speed that the lifebar drains is directly proportional to the amount of hit points lost. Watching all of Blissey's or Snorlax's HP drain away is from a one-hit-KO is not only suspenseful but conveys just how defensively bulky the Pokemon Are. I want the same kind of feedback design in Pokemon so players can gauge overkills and the relative speeds between Pokemon. Because all the opponent's stats are hidden in competition, it's important to be able to tell if an attack barely KOs your Pokemon or if the Pokemon didn't stand a chance. Likewise, it's important to see if you were greatly out sped or if your speed stat is pretty close. A small change to the lifebar animation or the Pokemon fainting animation could do indicate an overkill. And a small change to the way the camera swoops around in Pokemon B/W could indicate which Pokemon is faster and roughly by how much.
It would be great if players could gauge attack strength based on the actual attack animations. This is completely doable even within the current graphical engine. In the moving image above, the fire-ghost Pokemon Chandelure uses a move called Hidden Power. This is an attack that draws on the special attack stat of the Pokemon. It would be simple to program the attack animation to have more green energy balls, a larger shock wave, a screen shaking effect, or a more bombastic sound effect the higher the special attack stats is of the attacking Pokemon. With such a design, the difference between a powerful Pokemon using an attack and a weaker one (stat wise) would be discernable in the animation. After all, using the lifebar to judge the power of an attack is more complex because falling HP is the product of the attack power of the attacking Pokemon and the defensive power of the target. The difference between a STAB attack (when the attack type matches the Pokemon type) and a non-STAB attack should be visually apparent also.
As great as text and numbers are, I find the charts like the ones above from smogon.com much better tools. You can tell based on color how good each stat category is for each Pokemon. The greener, the better. See how Mewtwo is a stronger Pokemon all around than Ivysaur?
The bottom line is the Pokemon battle system is deep and complex. Because it's turn-based, knowledge skills make the difference. To be a competitor, you have to know a lot. So designing ways to teach and inform the player go a long way in helping all players of all types play the game.
I have a whole list of ideas for changes that I feel would greatly improve the Pokemon single player experience. Like the impetus behind the Pokemon MMO dream game, I fully acknowledge that there is a rich world of Pokemon that is never communicated visually in the RPGs. The flavor text for each Pokemon in the Pokedex merely hints at this detailed world. For example, apparently Weavile hunt in groups of 4 or 5 in cold regions where they also carve signs into trees and boulders with their sharp claws. Sounds incredible, right? I'd love to see some sign of this in the game other than this text. Where are the trees and bounders that tell me Weaviles are near? Where are the signs? Where's the richness? What in the game shows me there are Pokemon living in the world outside of battle? In some ways this disconnect between fiction and function can be fixed with a graphical or style change. Changes this big would certainly be drastic. I'd rather focus on the type of changes that can be made to the existing Pokemon B/W engine that would go a long way. Again, this is an issue of feedback and presentation.
Apparently, the NPCs scattered throughout the game world collectively provide the player with lots of key information. Read a sign here and you learn about exp boosting. Talk to a guy here and he tells you what the Hidden Power type of your Pokemon. Though helpful, communicating so much complex information via text is part of the problem. Not only do we not get to see so much of the Pokemon world happening in the game world, but we also don't get to see the signs, what these NPCs look like, or what they do to our Pokemon. Some have faulted the game for conveying too much of the story via direct or expository text. I believe this is the result of trying to do more within the engine/formula than can comfortably fit. I like having to use my imagination to fill in the gaps. But the gaps are too wide now.
We know that battling is the core of the Pokemon experience. But this focus has resulted in a limited gameplay and storytelling capacity outside of battling. There's little to do outside of battle other than walk around and talk to NPCs. Try to convey a story more complex than walking around and talking to people, and the execution will ultimately suffer. Put simply, the non-battling design space isn't very rich.
And on this note there is too much battling in Pokemon B/W. The wild encounter rate is extremely high. Many times I couldn't even take a step before another battle would start. After catching all the Pokemon I want in an area, I either run from every battle or use Repels. I see little point in wild Pokemon attacking me so relentlessly. I'm sure it helps give EXP to less experienced players, but it also stresses the fiction of the Pokemon world.
The battle system has such a large design space yet the challenges in the game are too simple outside the gym battles, the elite 4, and a few other specialty battles. For example, there are many battles with Team Plasma grunts throughout the game that are far too redundant. It gets really old fighting their singular Sandile or Patrat so many times.
It's an issue of unique set pieces. I thought it would have been great if Team Plasma, the bad guys, force you into a lopsided double battle where two of their Pokemon fight one of yours. Or it would have been neat if you had to team up with Cheren and Bianca in a triple battle to fight back the odds. What if one of your Pokemon was temporarily stolen? What if there was a Pokemon battle school that taught the player high level strategies? Learning to deal with recovery stalling, setting up, sweepers, frequent switching, walls, tanks, status based attackers, etc are important battle skills that the game largely stays away from. Though the Battle Subway is a worthy challenge, it doesn't teach.
Ultimately, Pokemon faces the same problem that many FPSs face; how do you tell a partially non-combat based story when there's a gun in the player's hand? For Pokemon, how to better tell a story about ideas and individual views when everything is settled with Pokemon battles. If only there was a non-combat core aspect of the game through which the world of Pokemon, including people, could be explored.
In the 8th and final part of this article series, we'll look at some of the responses from competitive wifi Pokemon battlers and recap by responding to statements published across the internet.