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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

Pokémon X and Y add a fascinating new feature to the series. It’s a game changing idea, one that totally changes the way I perceive the world that the game presents. It’s not the full 3D battles with a dynamic camera, it’s not the brand new fairy type, it’s not the ability to fully customize your trainer, it’s not even the fact that Pokémon names can be up to ten letters now, allowing me to nickname my Gyarados “Skullkraken”, as God and President Obama intended. 

No, the game changing feature is tipping: the ability to tip buskers, waters, and any number of NPCs who offer you small services.

Stay with me here, I promise it’ll start making sense in a moment.

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Occasionally in Pokémon X and Y, you’ll come across a wandering minster who will offer to sing you a song, or you enter a café and a waiter seats you. Maybe you just asked a maid to assist you in sending out a battle request, or found a poor Pokémon with a sign around its neck saying it needs money for a trim. After interacting with them, the game will ask if you’d like to top them, in denominations of either 100 pokédollars, 500 pokédollars, or 1000 pokédollars. Assuming that’s equivalent to Yen, we’re looking at a $1 tip, a $5 tip, or a $10 tip.

Here’s the kicker though, tipping doesn’t do anything.

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It doesn’t increase your stats, no one mentions it, and all that happens is that you’re out a couple of bucks for what would have otherwise been a free service. It’s weird in a videogame context. Mechanically speaking, videogames tend not to have wasted parts. Everything means something, otherwise a developer spent hours slaving away on something players would find pointless, when they could otherwise spend their time working on things that would enhance the game in general. There are exceptions to the rule, but even those tend to prove it, in a way. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row have plenty of “pointless” areas, but they exist to enhance the open world. An area that isn’t used in a quest line has purpose if it’s there to create the feeling that the world is more real.

So, because everything in a game has purpose, the savvy gamer has been trained to expect results from almost everything in the game world. Thus, the first time I tipped, I expected some invisible generosity stat to tick upwards until it hit max and I got a free Pikachu wearing a party hat or something. Instead, I didn’t get thanks, no one ever mentioned it again, and according to the internet, the game doesn’t even track it. It literally does nothing.

So why have I been tipping every single NPC who asks?

It started pretty simply. I was expecting something to come of it. I thought tipping would increase my catch rate, or EV rate, or somehow influence an obscure stat with a byzantine equation drawing from my average tip amount combined with my tipping frequency. Then, I realized it wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t’ tip a maid after asking her to send out a battle request for me.

And then she sassed me.

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That’s right, a wall of dots. Her unvoice-acted silence was deafening, so much so that I spoke to her again, and gave her a tip that time. And then I continued giving everyone else tips, because I felt guilty that a fake person was angry because I didn’t give them fake money for their fake service.

It’s ridiculous, but hear me out. I think it changed the entire game for me. One of my biggest problems with Pokémon has always been its lack of a cohesive world. To flesh out the things going on in this world and contextualize them as events happening in a fictional world with rules, I had to turn to other sources, like the cartoon and comics. I wrote an entire essay going into detail exclusively about the Pokémon world’s system of governance, just because I felt like it was one of the few things the game explained just enough as to make it seem insane.

Obviously Pokémon has always had bigger problems. Balance issues crop up every few games, and the fact that, at its core, we’ve been playing the same game since 1998, are also problems, but as someone who’s always been way too into Pokémon, and far too interested in world building, the cohesive world thing has always pissed me off.

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I always wanted to know how people operated in this world. Do they eat Pokémon? Is all work centered on Pokémon? Are there Pokémon rights advocates? Why are they both slaves and celebrities?  Do people have jobs? Is the Pokémon Center subsidized by the Pokémon League? And so on. The tipping thing was the first moment that a Pokémon world felt real to me without any extra material in years. It was the first time my imagination was truly piqued.

It was something pointless, something I do out of kindness and social convention in real life, but served no real purpose in this videogame. It made me poke around more and start talking to more NPCs, seeing if they needed tips, just so they could make their rent that week. It didn’t fill in any gaps, it just started making me ask more questions.

World building is usually about presenting both a question and an answer to your audience. Even in something like Harry Potter, Rowling presents a question, how do Wizards get to school without being seen? And then she answers it by having an invisible train platform. Of course, she wisely doesn’t answer the question in full. A savvy reader asks if there are other invisible platforms, or invisible airport terminals, who built the platform, when? And the smart world builder leaves it at that. Those answers aren’t necessary to have a realized world, but the leaving some less important questions to be pondered by the reader makes for a richer world, personalized to them.

Pokémon gave its incomplete answers, but the world lacked the fidelity to inspire the kind of questions world building needs. Sure, Red and Blue tell me that the Pokémon League is in charge of pseudo-government affairs, but since the world is so abstracted, I don’t really think about that too hard, at least not until years later when I stop and really consider that problem.

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Tipping in X and Y asks me a strange question. Do I give these people my hard earned pokédollars? It also asks and answers simpler questions, like how money is treated in this world for people who don’t need to buy pokeballs and hyper potions every day. But the most important question is if I’m going to tip. The answer is yes, because I’m interacting with them in a way that makes the world less abstract. I’m contributing to this weird economy, an undefined social construct. Something I don’t quite understand, but makes this fake world move.

When writers and artists build worlds, one of their greatest tools are those aforementioned empty spaces. Those areas on a map that don’t’ serve any purpose but to make you feel like this is a vast world where not all your questions are answered. A world where things can be wasted and answers aren’t offered around every corner. But when it comes to an interactive world? Nothing is greater than convincing me to contribute to a system I don’t quite understand, to make me interact with these digital mannequins as if they were real people.

It also means NPCs are no longer there for my benefit. Where before they existed only to talk about how much they love Pokémon, or point me in the direction of the next route, now they have an expectation that I give them something in return. NPCs feel just a little more real by opening that door. It’s a small thing, but world building is done in increments like that. Small touches of fidelity in the world do a lot, from the winding alleys in the game’s equivalent of Paris, to the NPC who mentions that cafes exist so people can debate views and opinions, like they did around the time of the French Revolution. It all adds up to a more fully realized, detailed world, and one that I explore with a real sense of wonder. I haven’t felt that way since I was a child playing Blue, and I’m so glad to be back in that world of imagination.

So that’s why I tip every time. Part of it is guilt, sure, but part of it is a sort of gratitude. Thanking these NPCs for inspiring my imagination for the first time since I was a kid. Also, I’m still kind of hoping it makes it easier to find shiny Pokémon somehow. Just a little, at least.

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I'll Teach You and You Teach Me: Was Pokemon the First Social Game?

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I'll Teach You and You Teach Me: Was Pokemon the First Social Game?

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(Image credit to  Shiny Latios01 on Deviantart )

(Image credit to Shiny Latios01 on Deviantart)


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.

 

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