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The Primer- Great Localizations

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The Primer- Great Localizations

When it comes to figuring out what goes into a great localization, there's a lot of time spent thinking about games that really nailed the transition from one region to another. And also games that totally dropped the ball. Sometimes games dunk that ball though. Other times someone gets hit in the face by an errant pass. Occasionally the ref calls a time out and has to analyze what just happened because the ball was floating in the air gloriously, before crashing back down to the court in a flaming wreck.

What this tortured metaphor is trying to get at is an introduction to just a few of the most impressive game localizations of all time.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The thing about the Ace Attorney games is that all at once, they manage to be some of the best examples of how to do a Japanese-to-English localization, while also showing exactly what goes wrong when you play it fast and loose with localization. One one hand, they’re loaded to the brim with clever puns, mostly subtle references to american pop culture, and charming dialogue. On the other, it’s actually impossible to believe the series could possible take place in Los Angeles.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

To be fair, the series isn't exactly batting a thousand. Between goofy nonsense that doesn’t register as a pun until you think about it and get disappointed (see: Glen Elg, the palindromic homicide victim), and the grammatical catastrophe that is Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, there are a lot of missteps in what’s usually considered to be a shining exemplar of good localization. It says a lot that, for a time, the biggest meme to come out of Ace Attorney was making fun of the one major error in the second game. Well, that and people constantly yelling objection for no damn reason.

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It takes a lot to take a game, especially one as text heavy as Ace Attorney, from one culture to another. The first game in the series did an impressive job of balancing the whole “it takes place in america” thing with the rest of the factors in the plot. To be fair, not too much about that first game was very Japan-centric. The Steel Samurai read as a Power Rangers/Super Sentai-esque kids show in both regions. Sure, it was weird that the Fey clan ran a mystical spirit channelling village somewhere in the mountains of Orange County, but it didn’t ever take me out of the suspension of disbelief required to believe that the world’s most incompetent lawyer was an undefeated defense attorney. But, the part in Ace Attorney Dual Destinies where an entire Japanese village relocated to America and took their ancient chained-up demons with them so they could use them in wrestling TV shows pretty much snapped my disbelief over its knee. It was a smart choice to set the first game in LA. It made it feel closer to home for North American players, and really let the writers play with pop culture references that wouldn’t really fly if the game was set in Japan. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the games stick out like a traditional Japanese shrine in the middle of LA. It was one smart short term choice, that ate into the suspension of disbelief more and more with each game going forward. At this point, I’m half-expecting the upcoming Meiji-era Japan game to be set in the Wild West when it comes over stateside.

Actually, samurai in cowboy hats sounds rad. Sign me up for that.

Pokemon Red/Blue

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

The impressive thing about Pokemon’s localization isn’t really in its script. “I like shorts” isn’t exactly Dickens. No, the cool thing is all the work that went into it that most people miss. It’s the names. Pokemon names to be specific, Charmander to get really particular, actually. See, in Japan, Charmander is called Hitokage, which literally the word for salamander in Japanese. That itself is sort of a pun, because it means fire lizard, but a straight translation would still render that as either salamander or fire lizard. And then what do we make out of Lizardo and Lizardon, Charmeleon and Charizard’s Japanese equivalents? Fire Lizard Jr., Fire Lizard and Fire Lizard Sr.? Lil’ Fire Lizard to Big Fire Lizard? Nintendo’s trick was to flip the script and go with what localization always tries to do at its best, preserving the original intent without sticking to the literal script. Charmander works. It says fire and lizard and salamander all at once, perfectly preserving the Hitokage pun without just calling it “Salamander”.

Changes like that actually led to a few problems down the line. The longer english names often hit the character limit, leaving Gyarados without his former English title of Skullkraken, and forced the designers to change the status screen orientation for foreign versions of Gold and Silver. Longer names meant they wouldn’t fit in the Japanese version’s vertically oriented menus, forcing a horizontal flip. Some people say that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. A light touch. Pokemon, the first games at least, are probably the lightest touch I’ve seen in a game while still being an enormous amount of work. Charmander is clever, but 151 of those critters is crazy. By now, renaming Pokemon is a science, but in 1998? It was a new frontier. You try to come up with 150 cute puns that kids will get but not get bored of?

I’ll start: Skullkraken.

SKULLKRAKEN

SKULLKRAKEN

Mother 3

If you say so...

If you say so...

Mother 3 is another one of those “look how impressive this text-heavy game’s localization is” kind of games. It’s funny, clever, charming, the puns work, and it all manages to be poignant rather than tripping over the language barrier. Part of that has to do with the script’s pre-existing qualities. Shigesato Itoi, the creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, is a well-regarded and respected writer over in Japan. But, the rest of it comes from a superb english localization courtesy of some folks from the internet.

Mother 3 never came out in America, reportedly because it was a late-period GBA game that would have required a lot of effort, leaving it in the same Japan-only vault as the first Rhythm Heaven game from the same time. Realizing they wouldn’t be be able to play the game unless they did it themselves, Earthbound fans banded together and worked for years on their own translation of the game. Earthbound fans have a reputation for being a bit crazy in their love for the series. Considering Americans only ever got one game out of three in any official capacity, it’s not hard to see their love for the series as a little out there, but it led to possibly the best fan translation of all time, so I’d call it a win.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

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One of the really neat things about the localization is that they also launched some merchandise to go along with it. The team released a hardcover guidebook with a full game walkthrough, which came with a keychain. That guide was also the first major release out of Fangamer.net, another product of the Earthbound fan community, which now produces stuff like Earthbound-themed vinyl figures. Also, in a rare look into the localization process, the lead on the project has a series of articles detailing his translation choices throughout the two years of localization work. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s still amazing that a small group of people could turn out a translation at Nintendo Treehouse quality. I'll be the thousandth person to say that Nintendo should just use their translation in a digital release, but they really should. Unless a player already knew, they'd never guess it wasn't an official job.

Final Fantasy Tactics

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There’s a pig in FFT that has an attack called “nose bracelet”. The dancer class uses the skill “wiznaibus”. The boar enemy classification is listed as “wildbow”. The best part comes early on in the game, when a character is reading something out loud, so you can’t control how fast the text scrolls. In the second sentence, he says “little money”, which takes longer to scroll for each letter than the rest of the text does combined.

 

L

     i

          t

               t

                    l

                         e

                              m

                                   o

                                        n

                                             e

                                                  y

 

Really, it speaks for itself.

Really, it speaks for itself.

If the rest of these games on this primer were great examples of how good localization looks when it’s done right, then the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is a crash course on what can go wrong. Back then, Sony was handling Squaresoft’s english translations internally, and they polished the game’s script to a dull brown mess. Nose bracelet is supposed to be oink, which is odd, because bracelet was supposed to be “breath” every other time it appeared in the game. Why else would a dragon have a fire bracelet? Dancers who fight dance “with knives” or “wizu naibusu”, not wiznaibu. The boar is a wild boar, not a particular misbehaved bow. The little money thing seems to be a programming error that cropped up during localization, because there’s nothing like it in the Japanese version.

Whatever you say, lady.

Whatever you say, lady.

The fairly complicated plot, full of political machinations, backstabbing and demonic usurpation of the church is had to follow in the much more coherent PSP remake, so it goes without saying that it makes no damn sense in a version of the game where they manage to misspell Malboro, one of the series’ classic enemies, as Morbol. It’s an impressively terrible translation, which is doubly as terrible because it’s such a great game. Comparing it to the PSP remake, War of the Lions, makes it look like the amateur job it probably was. Fortunately, we all have that version now, so there’s no need to have a death cold about it anymore.

No, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be either.

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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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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

Over the years, I’ve learned it’s impossible to predict Nintendo, and that’s why you can never count them out. When the 3DS was dying, no one could have seen the massive price cut and ambassador program that gave the system the second wind it needed to become a serious threat that went on to essentially kill the Vita. But somehow, even though I expect to be surprised by then every time, Nintendo always manages to do something completely insane that no one could ever see coming.

This week, it was the 2DS.

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If you haven’t heard of it by now, the 2DS is Nintendo’s new 3DS iteration. It’s a kid-focused handheld that strips out the glassesless 3D feature and the clamshell design in exchange for a lower price and increased durability. Which is to say it looks like it was made by Tonka and it costs $119.99, about $40 cheaper than the standard 3DS.

According to Nintendo, it also boasts slightly increased battery life, a bigger stylus with a dock on the side of the system (where it should have always been), and a sleep mode switch that replaces closing the 3DS clamshell to activate sleep mode. Additonally, the two screens are actually one large touchscreen separated by the casing, with the top screen covered to prevent people from touching it.

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It’s a smart move from Nintendo. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence around the internet and from Gamestop employees about parents holding off on the 3DS out of worry that it’ll ruin their children’s eyes. The 3DS (and every 3DS game) even has to have a little notice on it, warning that children under 7 probably shouldn’t play games in 3D, lest their corneas rocket out of their eye sockets or something. So it assuages that worry for parents.

The new design also gets rid of the 3DS’s flimsy hinge. I’m not one to jump around and move a lot while playing a handheld game, but I’ve had the 3DS top screen shift around when the bus takes a sharp turn, or the subway gets a little bumpy, I can’t imagine how bad it must be for a kid, who’s probably going to get a little hyperactive with their new toy. The brick-like design, with the covered top screen and thick top makes the 2DS look like a safer proposition for parents afraid their kids will break their $160 toy on day one.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the 2DS. Its existence and branding aren’t exactly the best thing in the world for Nintendo. The name is one thing. We all know it’s ridiculous sounding, but it’s also too clever by half. Sure its sort of a cut little pun, similar to the 3DS, but think back to when that system launched. I can remember Gamestop employees frustrated trying to explain the difference between the regular DS and the 3DS to confused parents. They weren’t frustrated because the parents were misinformed; they were frustrated because it’s sort of hard to explain why a DSi can’t play 3DS games when their names are so close.

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And that’s the kicker. Nintendo painted themselves into a corner with the name. Of course they wanted to name it something similar to the DS, the DS sold tens of millions. But now consumers don’t get the difference. The same thing happened to the WiiU.  WiiU doesn’t sound like a sequel to the Wii, it sounds like an expansion, like the Wii MotionPlus, or the Wii Speak. Even Sony has the sense to just number them.

You now have three 3DS systems on the market, alongside the DS, which is still selling pretty decently. The DS can’t play 3DS games, but the 2DS can. But the 3DS and 3DS XL play all the games that the 2DS can, only with the option to play them in 3D. And the 3DS XL has bigger screens, which don’t actually change the experience. And depending o the DS you get it also has a slot at the bottom for Game Boy Advance games from a decade ago.

Do you see where it gets confusing?

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Not to mention the fact that the lack of 3D splinters the market. There really aren’t very many 3DS games that have a heavy focus on the 3D features, but games like Super Mario 3D Land, the best selling game on the system, have levels that can get pretty difficult if you have the 3D turned off. If the 2DS takes off, we’re less likely to see games that utilize the 3D, since anyone who has a 2DS won’t be able to play. Of course, I can’t remember the last time I turned on the 3D, so it’s no great loss to me, but it certainly got a lot trickier for a developer with an interesting idea for a 3D game to get the greenlight.

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But make no mistake. The 2DS will take off. It’s launching on October 12th, the same day as Pokémon X and Y, in blue and red colours that scream “bundle with Pokémon” to me. It’s targeted at young children, who are going to want Pokémon this holiday season, and is launching with a system that addresses parental concerns while also getting pretty close to very parent friendly $100. It’s an almost guaranteed formula for sales.

Nintendo is going to have an uphill battle explaining what the 2DS is to parents, and explaining why it’s different than the 3DS, but with enough signage, I think they can overcome that hurdle.

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There’s a more interesting nugget hidden amongst the 2DS debate though. It only has one screen, and it’s shaped shockingly like a tablet. You’d need to be living under a rock to miss all the news stories about kids getting into tablets at younger and younger ages, and becoming incredibly well informed about their devices. Nintendo wants a piece of that action, and they want it bad. Kids are mostly using tablets to play games, and Nintendo can offer something app developers can’t: Pokémon and Mario.

I doubt the 2DS is ever going to steal the iPad’s thunder, but between it and the Wii U game pad, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Nintendo handheld doesn’t launch with tablet and clamshell options. One intended for kids, one marketed to older gamers. Nintendo might pretend they aren’t afraid of Apple, but the 2DS marks the start of a serious effort to take tablet gaming back into Nintendo’s hands. After all, the Game Boy was basically a brick with a screen, and what is that if not the tablet of the late ‘80s?

 

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Nintendo E3 Roundup: Megaman, Cat Mario, and Ennui

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Nintendo E3 Roundup: Megaman, Cat Mario, and Ennui

Nintendo came into E3 with good news and bad news. In good news, 3DS sales have picked up significantly since last year, and the handheld is no longer treading water. In bad news, the WiiU isn't exactly lighting the world on fire, in fact, it's only barely outselling Sony's bastard stepchild, the Vita. But with promises of price cuts, Smash Bros. and Mario games, can Nintendo turn the sinking WiiU ship around?

Nintendo went for a lower key presentation this year, sticking to the Nintendo Direct livestream format that's served them so well for the last little while. And it makes sense, after all, nothing they could show off would be as impressive as Sony's show last night, why go big when you know you can't win?

Nintendo started off by talking up the new Pokemon games, X and Y. They showed off a new Fairy type which will be applied to some new Pokemon, as well as a handful of old favorites, like Marill and Jigglypuff. They also showed a new mode for the game, Pokemon Amitie, which lets you interact with your Pokemon in a Nintendogs-like fashion. 

The next big game on the docket was Mario 3D World . In the vein of their New Super Mario Bros. titles the game features multiplayer for up to four players in levels that resemble the level design of stages from last year's Super Mario 3D Land.  Nintendo touted the fact that Princess Peach was playable again in a main Mario game, the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES. Also, Mario got in a cat suit and climbed up the flagpole at the end of the level. It was pretty neat.

Mario Kart 8 was then shown, and looked very similar to Mario Kart 7, but this time with hovercars. After a quick WiiU eShop sizzle reel, Nintendo talked up Wind Waker HD,  which will have some minor improvements over the original, including a speed-up function for sailing.

Retro Studio's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze  was next up, with some quick gameplay shown off before Nintendo revealed another CG teaser for Bayonetta 2. Iwata seemed very excited about Bayonetta's "major makeover," which mostly included shorter hair. After aproximately 30 seconds of gameplay footage, Nintendo moved along to another Platinum game, The Wonderful 101, which launches in September. 

Nintendo gave us a quick look at X , the spiritual sequel to Xenoblade , also developed by Monolith Soft. The new trailer featured giant transforming robots which fought dinosaurs in RPG combat. 

Finally, Nintendo played themselved out with the first trailer for the new Super Smash Bros.. The trailer showed off both the 3DS and Wii U versions of the game. The handheld game looked more cartoony than it's console sibling, but the big news were the two new characters. Well, one of them. First was the player character from Animal Crossing , who fights with various tools from the game. The second new character was Megaman. In the trailer, he swapped between weapons from various Megaman games as a remix of Wily's theme from Megaman 2  played. The trailer ended off with Megaman battling a still-forming Yellow Devil, a recurring character from his series.

All in all, it was a bit of a plain event. Nintendo just focused on the games, which kept it brief and to the point, but you really do get a sense that need something more to push the Wii U. If last year's E3 events are anything to go by, Nintendo has some more announcements in store for the weeks to come, but for now, they aren't going to be leaving E3 with any trophies. 

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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?

I'll Teach You1
(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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