Pokemon! One of the biggest video game franchises in the world. In terms of copies sold, it loses out only to Mario and Tetris! While the basic formula has seen iteration after iteration on a plethora of consoles and countless imitators, it all started back in 1998 with Pokemon Red and Blue on the good old Game Boy (two years earlier in Japan!)
Have you ever jumped into an RPG only to find that the game is asking you to make important decisions concerning your character’s statistics immediately? Choose your class, weapons, and clothing with various attributes, buffs/de-buffs, the list goes on… it can sometimes get rather complicated! I have had many such experiences, leaving me completely overwhelmed before I have even begun the journey! This kind of introduction to a game, one prone to information overload, is fine if your target audience has been gaming for decades and is familiar with the complicated systems on show in many of the greatest RPGs. But what if you want to design an experience that is accessible to everyone – even the most casual gamer of any age? This is the genius of Pokemon Red and Blue’s introduction, the drip feeding of new systems and mechanics over a short period of time, keeping it simple and succinct, all while funneling the player towards one of the greatest hooks in video game history! Finding out what is inside the three Pokeballs in Prof. Oak’s lab! And it had young and old filling their Pokedex to completion.
There are a million and one analytical articles that could be written with regard to what makes these games exceptional, but for now, let’s take a look at how Game Freak tackled the all-important first ten minutes of game-play. In other words, how the player is introduced to the wonderful world of Pokemon through carefully considered game design.
We all know how it starts: having listened to a short introduction by the famous Prof. Oak, we choose our name, that of our rival, and jump straight in. Right from the outset the game doesn’t ask much of us. Starting in our own bedroom, we can move around and interact with a few points of interest. About as simple as game-play gets. On the surface the game is saying: “Hey, welcome to the world of Pokemon, this is where you live!” But under the hood, it’s making sure that no player is overwhelmed by learning how to interact with the world (especially someone who has never played a game before). Move with the D-pad and interact by pressing ‘A’. Easy. By starting in a small, barely furnished bedroom with a PC and an SNES, the developer further ensures the player concentrates only on learning the absolute basics before they are ready to move on and walk downstairs.
Next, the player can choose to interact with Blue’s mother. She sets the scene by explaining that “all boys leave home someday” (interacting with the TV will further push the theme of growing up by referencing the film Stand By Me). Talking to your mother also provides some important direction as she states “Prof. Oak, next door, is looking for you.” The player now has a goal. They know they are leaving home to go on an adventure, and must find Prof. Oak as the first port of call. This simple narrative setup and player direction in the game’s initial moments have begun the important process of hooking the player. Omitting these steps would leave the player in a state of confusion, wondering what to do next.
Leaving Blue’s house will present the player with a chance to explore the quaint Pallet Town. There’s really not much to it. The player can head to their rival’s house, the lab, or leave through the northern route. Importantly, Game Freak placed signs in front of each location. Doing so makes clear to the player what each house is and what they are likely to find within it. It’s a small touch, but it accomplishes a couple of very important things:
- It saves the player time by letting them know what’s inside each location before they commit to entering the house/lab for the first time.
- When returning to the location in the future, the player can easily confirm what each house is, thereby refreshing their memory, again without having to walk inside.
If the player first enters their rival’s home, they are pushed further towards visiting the professor’s lab, as your rival’s sister states that “RED is out at Grandpa’s lab.” This doubles down on giving the player direction, pushing them to go to the lab – the first substantive step in the journey.
The player can do one of two things next: they can either head to the lab, in which case they will find that Prof. Oak is not there, but will no doubt be curious about the three large pokeballs sitting on the table; or they can head north, braving the tall grass. This is the final decision the player will make in the game’s opening – whether it’s as soon as they leave Blue’s home or after exploring the entirety of Pallet Town. Importantly, the player has made the choice to set off on a voyage of discovery by deciding to leave Pallet Town themselves, but the beauty of Game Freak’s design is that it caters to two play styles and allows the player the freedom to choose what suits them:
- It allows those who want to get on with the adventure to do just that.
- But also affords players that like to take things slow and investigate their surroundings time and space to explore.
In any case, stepping into the tall grass will trigger Prof. Oak’s appearance and shuttles the player off to the lab. Once inside, Prof. Oak will explain that he needs an able body to track down and record all 151 Pokemon in the Kanto region for his latest invention: the Pokedex! What’s more, the player gets to choose a starter Pokemon, and soon gets their first taste of the battle mechanics as Red, being the competitive rascal that he is, desperately wants to show off.
Once they have chosen their first Pokemon, the player is let loose on the world and allowed to explore the game in full! Depending on the player’s preferences, all of this has taken approximately ten minutes, and the end result is a firm understanding of what the game is asking of the player and how to manage the various systems of game play.
But what if we were to change things up? Let’s explore the expert game design of those first ten minutes of game play by making some changes to Pallet Town’s layout and see what effect it would have on the player’s experience…
Pokemon Red and Blue is a linear game, and Pallet Town is no different. There are three locations and a single exit so ultimately, no player is going to end up lost, wondering where to go next by design. Eventually the decision to go north must be made. In this way, Pallet Town is a narrow corridor designed to quickly teach the player the basics of interacting with the world, the battle system and hook the player as quickly as possible.
Pallet Town. Does. Not. Waste. Time!
This is critical if you want your player to become hooked within the first minutes of gameplay. So what if Game Freak pressed the brakes, slowed down and allowed the player the time to get (perhaps a little) lost before they found Prof. Oak? And what would Pallet Town’s layout look like with an alternative design?
One option is to provide player choice with the implementation of branching paths. True choice would depend on what is beyond these extra paths, of course. Perhaps Prof. Oak’s lab is to the east and there are some more residents living to the west for the player to find. In any case, the end result would be the same (the player would end up receiving the Pokedex, choosing a starter Pokemon, and battling it out with Red) but the time taken to hook the player has now doubled and furthermore, certain players may not know where to go next.
The decision to put the player at risk of feeling lost isn’t necessarily a bad design choice. It works if the game is exploring themes such as loneliness or isolation – but that’s not what Pokemon Red and Blue is about!
On a side note, if branching paths are a preferred design choice, we can improve this layout by shifting the eastern path up a few tiles. This will ensure an optimal walking path as the amount of times the player needs to change directions can be kept to a minimum. This is a small touch but something to keep in mind when designing the layout of your own RPG map.
Another alternative is to expand the scale of Pallet Town by making it larger and filling it with more locations to visit.
A layout such as this will certainly make Pallet Town more realistic (I always felt it was strange that Blue’s home town comprised of only two houses and a Pokemon Research Laboratory), but it dramatically shifts how the player experiences the first moments of game play. Just as the branching paths option pads the time taken to hook the player, so too does filling the town with extra optional content.
In the map layout above, there are now more residents, and what’s more, I have purposefully designed the town with a few design flaws:
- Some locations don’t have signs, thereby forcing the player to go inside to investigate exactly what’s inside.
- One house doesn’t quite block the northern route but does hide it to some degree, thereby serving to misdirect the player’s ultimate goal in the introduction.
- There is a large open patch of grass in the center of the map which, when viewed in-game, will only serve to make the player feel lost (as there is no point of reference directly around the player).
- The town contains a Pokemart and Pokecenter: two locations that are best shown to the player at a later stage in the game, after they have gotten used to the core game-play.
Let’s redesign this large map, and attempt to fix some of these problems:
- All the locations now have signs to inform the player. (Including a sign with every house may be overkill, but that falls to personal preference on the part of the developer – at the very least, a sign in front of the most important locations would serve to hint at the critical path).
- The northern route is now no longer partially obscured.
- The barren patch of grass is now populated with locations to investigate.
- A suggested critical path has been added by placing a pathway from Blue’s house to important locations within the town – as it suggests the player should either head to the northern route or the research lab. Now the player can choose to explore locations outside of that critical path but can rely on the strong hint of the critical path itself.
- The Pokemart and Pokecenter have been replaced with houses, so that the player will not be overloaded with learning too many game play systems before it’s necessary. As Game Freak rightly knows, these locations are better introduced in the next town on Blue’s journey.
We have made various changes to Pallet Town in an attempt to understand why Game Freak made the choices they did. In the end, Pallet Town needs no such alternative to the original design. While Pallet Town’s population size may be a little strange, the ultimate goal is to provide the player with a suitable introduction to the game play above all else. To summarize:
- The first ten minutes of game-play are critical if the player is to be hooked effectively.
- Keep information regarding game play systems concise and easy to understand.
- Avoid information overload by drip feeding introductory mechanics.
- Give the player immediate direction (and double down on that direction in case some players need a reminder while they explore).
- Make the critical path clear using visual elements on top of direct objectives.
It must be said that this direction is not necessarily the “right” way to design an RPG introduction, not 100% of the time anyway. But Game Freak has certainly excelled at designing an introduction suited to casual gamers and much more at that!