In a world of Farmvilles, in-app purchasing, online multi-player, asynchronous multi-player, online communities and thirteen year olds calling you any one of the three bad words they know, it’s hard to remember when video games were purely self-contained, single player experiences. When multiplayer was a nice bonus, and video games didn’t ask you to interact with other gamers every 30 seconds. The interaction mechanic du jour are social gaming features. Mechanics that force interactions by punishing players for not spending every moment they have interacting with others playing the game, and only let your progress via that interaction.
t’s sort of a mess. But like all messes, it started with a good idea. That gamers should be rewarded for leaving that isolated single player bubble and finding new ways to play a game alongside friends, without necessarily having those friends compromise their game experience. It’s clever, and also Pokemon did it first, decades before Farmville and Facebook games took the idea to a horrible place.
To be fair, videogames have always been a form of social entertainment. You went to the playground to talk about how to get past a certain level, to learn about the minus world in Mario, to discuss why Mario was so interested in Princess Peach when her sprite looked like she was suffering from a severe case of “my face is melting-itis.” Miyamoto even designed Zelda with obscure, hard to find secrets in hopes that players would come together to find a way through Hyrule. By the early ’90s, games like Street Fighter were played mostly competitively an in public, with players learning strategies from one another, but multiplayer does not a social game make. It wasn’t until Pokemon that social gaming was created. A single player experience that was affected in a meaningful way by another player’s single player experience, that rewarded players for having interactions with other players in-game, and created far reaching meta-goals, all focused around players interacting.
Let’s start with the interactions themselves. In Red and Blue, you could really only interact with other gamers in two ways: battling, and trading. Satoshi Tajiri claims he came up with Pokemon when he first saw a Game Boy and a link cable. The game was built around the concept of hooking your game up to another person’s. That’s sort of where modern social gaming was born. In order to encourage players to do the whole linking thing, Game Freak placed all kinds of interaction incentives around the game world. Badges very clearly stated that they’d allow a player to control a higher level traded Pokemon, and traded Pokemon also gained more experience points.
The multiplayer hubs were conveniently located in the many Pokemon Centers dotted across Kanto, so players immediately knew they wouldn’t have to go out of their way to interact with other players. Certain Pokemon could only evolve if they were traded into another game. It was smart. Hell, it was ahead of its time. Game Freak could have been forgiven back then for making the now-common mistake of taking features away from people who don’t interact, but instead they ensure that player interaction would grant only benefits, and that the games were entitrely self-contained and playable without linking up cartridges. A few Pokemon were exclusive to each version sure, but that just ties into my next point. Game Freak, or perhaps Nintendo’s marketing department, wisely crafted meta-goals that encouraged players to play Pokemon socially.
Gotta Catch ‘em All and Be a Pokemon Master. It’s hard to say if Game Freak came up with those goals on their own, or if Nintendo’s marketing team serendipitously came up with them while thinking of a way to sell people one game for the price of two, but they informed the way people played Pokemon forever. Not only that, they were the impetus to play Pokemon as a social game. Even though the games were designed with social gaming hooks, they were still mostly simplified, single player RPGs that didn’t really require multiplayer features. Sure the games encouraged it, but it was still a bit of a chore to round up a like-minded Pokemon trainer and hope one of you had access to a link cable.
So to encourage this activity (for the sake of selling more copies, really), Nintendo pushed Pokémon with the tagline “Gotta Catch ’em All!” Not only that, but the anime, which launched with the games in North America, hammered home the idea of becoming a Pokémon master, or as the theme song so eloquently put it, becoming the very best. They were both goals that existed in-game. Professor Oak hands you a Pokedex with the stated goal of cataloging all 150 Pokémon, of course, this is impossible without a second cartridge, but that’s mostly beside the point. As for being the very best, like no one ever was, the game ends when you become the Pokémon League champion. But then you could battle your friends to decide who was the best in the playground, maybe organize larger events with friends from other schools; really figure out who the champion was. Nintendo even organized tournaments, basically telling kids that they really could be a Pokémon master.
Think about it, Pokémon was designed purely around the concept of interaction. The games internally reward playing Pokémon socially, the marketing campaign encouraged kids to catch ‘em all and be the best. Not only that, but Pokémon’s infinitely customizable mechanics encourage sharing gameplay experiences with other players. With 150 readily available Pokémon, and six to a team, no two teams would ever be the same. Not only that, but effort values, which give individual Pokémon stat boosts defending on what they defeat in battle, ensure no two Pokémon could even be the same. Add in the fact that each one can have four different moves and a nickname, and you have a recipe for infinite customization.
Having that element of personalization in the game is what really makes it the prototypical social game experience. Not only does it focus on gaming with others, both competitively and cooperatively, but it also makes sure that every game experience is entirely personal. Not only did players share tips and strategies, but they wanted to know what happened in other people’s games. Sure the story was the same, and they’d beaten the same trainers, but with what Pokémon? Which moves? When? Did they have trouble? Does that mean I can beat them? Or should I convince them to trade me their sweet Gyarados? Maybe we should talk about it first. Oh, I think I can beat them.
Hey, you want to link up? I want to battle.