How free-to-play has changed Pokémon training

To catch them is my real test. To train them is my cause.

These two lines from the legendary theme song might not be as famous as the introductory proclaim to be the very best. But they do summarize what the player actually does in the Pokémon games. A task that has stayed basically the same ever since the monochromatic origin on the original Gameboy. Now it is time again in Pokémon Go, a game that in less than a week made the whole world succumb to Pokémania.

At first glance it appears like it is business as usual in the world of Pokémon. Besides the obvious need to take walks in the real world. Cute monsters are captured, trained and evolved into more powerful forms. Battles with are fought and a huge number of balls are thrown. However, one thing is fundamentally different. This time it is a free-to-play game with microtransactions. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that this change of monetization model has steered many of the design decisions made by the developers Niantic. As a result, the game is radically different compared to its Gameboy and DS counterparts. In fact, Pokémon Go favors heavily the “catch them” over the “train them”. Let us begin by going back the late 90s and to see how training worked in Pokémon Red and Blue Version.

Red and Blue

You choose your very first Pokémon and head out into the Kanto region to become a Pokémon master. In order to do so, you obtain new Pokémon by capturing them in the wild or trading with other players. Throughout the game you construct a team consisting of six Pokémon which you use in battle against other monsters. Both wild ones and those under the command of a Pokémon trainer. As you progress, the opposition becomes progressively stronger. To stand a chance your Pokémon must be trained. Which conveniently is done through battles. When a Pokémon participates in a fight, it gains experience points. With enough points accumulated it will level up and potentially learn new attacks or evolve into a stronger Pokémon. Leveling goes on a scale from 1 to 100. However, the level is only a rough indication on how strong it is. A Pokémon’s true potential is lies in its statistics.

A Pokémon has five (six in later games) different statistics that determines its offensive and defensive capabilities. Exactly how they are calculated is a complex subject. In short, a Pokémon trained by a player will have higher statistics than a wild Pokémon of equal level.  So let us take a look at the elusive Pidgey.

016pidgey

#16 Pidgey – The tiny bird Pokémon

Pidgey is one of the most common Pokémon in Red and Blue. Pidgey lives just outside the small town where you start the game. Hence it will be one of the first Pokémon you capture. In this early area, Pidgey is only around level 2-5. You could just ignore. Later in the game you will be able to catch its evolved form Pidgeotto who will be around level 30. But if you stick with that puny level 2 Pidgey it will have evolved into Pidgeotto long before you reach their natrual habitat. Your Pidgeotto will have higher statistics than any wild bird and probably out level them as well due to the natural progression of the game.

The statistics system in Pokémon Red and Blue favors players who spend time on their individual Pokémon. In the long run, training weak Pokémon will result in a stronger team compared to putting a bunch of freshly caught, high level Pokémon together. Hence, training is essential to be successful in Red and Blue. This has remained true in every new Pokémon game over the past two decades. Knowing this it is easy to assume that Pokémon Go follows this in some way.

Go

You choose your first Pokémon and head out into the real world to become a Pokémon master. In order to do so, you obtain new Pokémon by capturing them around your local area and maybe through trading when it is implemented in a future update. Throughout the game you will carry around a small army of Pokémon in your inventory. You will not use them to battle wild Pokémon. But you will use them in gym battles.

Gym battles is basically a turf war between three rivaling teams. You can place one of your Pokémon in a gym to defend it. But if it is owned by another team, their Pokémon must first be kicked out by defeating them in battle. You have chosen team Valor (obviously) and want to take over the local gym with your Pidgey. However, the neighbor joined team Mystic and currently rules the gym with a mighty Dragonite sporting a Combat Power (CP) of 2900.

CP is what Pokémon Go uses instead of levels. The scale starts at 1 and has a maximum that depends on the Pokémon but possible max CP tend to be around 2500-3000. Like the other Pokémon games, Go also have a system for calculating a Pokémon’s statistics. But unlike the other games, the statistics are not visible to the player. Your Pidgey currently has 40 CP.

Screenshot_2016-07-31-17-20-51

Not exactly a threat for a Dragonite.

40 CP which will not be enough. You would need to train Pidgey a lot before facing Dragonite. But training is not done through battle. Which is maybe a good thing considering that Dragonite would squash your tiny bird in one blow. Instead you boost  CP by consuming a resource called Stardust combined with a Pokémon specific candy. Stardust is obtained by capturing any kind of Pokémon. The specific candy is awarded for capturing that specific Pokémon. Capturing a Pidgey results in 100 Stardust and 3 Pidgey Candy. A captured Pokémon can also be transferred (a nice word for deleted) in exchange for 1 extra candy. Powering up a 40 CP Pidgey will cost you 200 Stardust and 1 Pidgey Candy. And those numbers grow as CP increases. You also have the option to evolve it for 12 candies which will also increase CP.

Doing the evolution math. Evolving one Pidgey into a Pidgeotto requires you to capture 4 and transfer 3 of them. To evolve it again to its third and final form, Pidgeot, requires 50 candies. That is another 13 Pidgey to catch and transfer. Running it through a calculator tells us that after consuming 16 other birds we have a Pidgeot with a whooping 140 CP.  Dragonite eat that for lunch. You would still need to capture Pidgey until the Miltank comes home before your Pidgeot even has the slightest chance to succeed in battle.

This process is not very effective. Furthermore, during all this grinding you will probably find other Pidgey 10 times as powerful as the one you are trying to power up. It makes more sense to just use them instead. Especially since the statistics of a Pokémon does not increase like in the Gameboy games. Powering up only increases CP. The underlying base statistics does not increase. Thus it is favorable to just replace your Pokémon when you find a stronger one.

This causes problems for the player. The game is not exactly clear with how its mechanics work. But looking at your Pokémon you will quickly find two big buttons for power up and evolution. First time playing, it seems like you should press them. You do and get positive feedback since the Pokémon gets stronger. Obviously you did good! So you press again and again till you have used up all the Stardust and Candy. The next day you find the same kind of Pokémon but with way more CP. Then you realize that all that boosting was a mistake. You should have waited instead of spending. Optimally you should not spend anything until late game when wild Pokémon does not increase in power anymore. At that moment you want as much resources as possible since powering up will be more expensive. This is impossible for a new players to know and they get punished for it hours after they have done this beginners mistake.

So the system has problems. But why did Niantic go for it?

Poké Balls and Microtransactions

Niantic wants you to capture Pokémon and never stop. A look in the game’s shop makes that clear.

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The Pokémon Go shop

Here you can buy seven different types of items through microtransactions. Three of them are used for hunting Pokémon. Lure and Incense attract the monsters and Poké Balls are used for capturing. The fourth item is an incubator for hatching eggs. All of these items revolve around acquiring more Pokémon. Two of the other items are permanent upgrades to the inventory size so you can store all the items and Pokémon. The last item, the lucky egg, is the only item used for leveling up since it doubles experience. However, that is the trainer’s level. Not Pokémon level. Increasing the trainer level makes Pokémon with higher CP appear in the wild. Increasing the incentive for the player to look for more creatures to catch.

The slow power up system in Pokémon Go is a result of its monetization system. In Red and Blue, players would catch one of each Pokémon and focus on a select few to train. This player behavior is definitely not desired when you have a virtual store that sells Pokémon hunting gear. Thus every aspect of Pokémon Go makes the player catch more. Training and evolving one Pokémon requires you to catch hundreds of other monsters. Doing results in experience points that levels up the trainer, causing Pokémon with higher CP to appear. Which of course leads to even more capturing.

Some last words

After a long journey in Pokémon Red/Blue, you finally stand victorious as the Pokémon League Champion. Professor Oak, the world-renowned Pokémon researcher, congratulates you on your achievement. He then turns to his grandson, the former champion, and says:

Do you understand why you lost? You have forgotten to treat your Pokémon with love and trust.

One can wonder what Professor Oak would say if he saw what all the trainers in Pokémon Go are doing. A game where Pokémon are transferred away and replaced constantly as their trainers find other Pokémon with slightly higher CP. Though one can hardly blame the players since Niantic has carefully designed for this behavior to fit Pokémon into a free-to-play model.

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Super Mario Maker: Let’s-a-go!

I recently got my hands on Super Mario Maker which lets you create courses for everyone’s favorite plumber to run and jump through. The course editor is easy to use and offers a lot of depth. Therefor I thought I would take this opportunity to write about level design. Starting with an analysis of my first Mario-course. If you have Super Mario Maker you can download and try out the course using the ID-number below.

Course: Let’s-a-go!
ID: 3E9B-0000-0020-9712

Course Analysis

With this course I targeted beginners who had never played a Super Mario game before. The course would need to be fairly easy and teach the basic mechanics through gameplay. In order to achive this, I tried to utilize techniques highlighted by Extra Credits in their analysis of the first level in Super Mario Bros. Techniques which are also brought up by Mario creators Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka in an interview with Eurogamer. Both of which I highly recommend you to check out if you are interested in level design. Also, since Super Mario Maker does not have a checkpoint system, I tried too keep the course short so it would not frustrate new players.

Lets-a-go-1

First screen of the course

The course starts with a simple screen where nothing is moving. It sets up the player’s first challenge, walk right, jump up the ledge and hit the ?-block. She has plenty of time to figure this out since nothing here can kill her and nothing dangerous will appear until she has moved so far right that the screen starts to scroll. This will not happen unless the player has been able to jump up the ledge. This is important since jumping is the most vital mechanic in the game. The huge arrow sign is placed there by default and can not be removed. It tells the player that right is the way to go but personally I feel it is redundant since right is the only way to go. According to Extra Credits, the player will instinctively know the way since Mario starts on the left hand side of the screen, facing right. Thus I would remove the sign if it was possible.

Lets-a-go-2

The first enemy and block formation

As the player moves further the screen scrolls and a Goomba appears. This angry looking fellow is an enemy which must be avoided by jumping over it. Since the player already cleared the ledge, she has all the knowledge she needs to accomplish this. Should she fail, she will be brought back a short distance and can try again. While jumping over the Goomba she can hit the blocks above which alters her trajectory and might send her back towards the Goomba, hitting it from above. She will then discover that landing on an enemy will defeat it.

There is a reason why the blocks are placed where they are. Going from left to right, the first ?-block contains a coin that the player gets by hitting the ?-block from bellow. The second ?-block also hides a coin, nothing special there. The third and fourth blocks also have coins but their underside is blocked by brown brick blocks. If the player tries to hit them she will not be able to break through. That is because she is small, regular Mario. If she transforms into the larger Super Mario, she can destroy the bricks and reach the ?-blocks. How does she transform? By touching a red Super Mushroom. Where is this mushroom? In the last ?-block. Hitting the last ?-block releases the mushroom, which travels to the right, falls and bounces against the green pipe before hitting the player and triggers the transformation. If she now goes for the bricks, they will break. By now the player is familiar with the power-up system and how she can interact with blocks.

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Jump training over pits

Moving on the player encounters some pits of varying sizes and Goombas that falls into them. Here she can observe the enemies movement pattern from a safe distance. In case the player yet has learned how to defeat them, she might do it now if she falls into a pit. The main reason for these pits is to teach the player how to jump over them. A skill needed very soon as she will encounter bottomless pits that results in death if you fall in. Coins above the pits are at different heights. To grab them all, the player must jump over the pit utilizing a strange property of the jump mechanic. The longer you hold down the jump button, the higher Mario will jump. The varying heights of the coins indicates how long the button must be pressed to clear the jump.

Lets-a-go-4

The player has kicked a  Koopa shell

After jumping over a bottomless pit a new enemy appears. A green shelled Koopa Troopa. This turtle enemy retracts into its shell when jumped on. While in this state the shell can be kicked away across the ground, defeating any enemy in its path. Should it hit a wall it will bounce in the other direction. If the player is not cautious she will be hit. This section of the course showcases all that to the player. A new player will probably not react fast enough before getting hit by the ricocheting shell. But with the mushroom available here, she will also probably be big. Therefor she will not die by the shell, just shrink down into small Mario. There are also some blocks in the air which the player can jump up on to avoid the shell.

Lets-a-go-5

Run after the 1-Up!

The block the shell hits contains a green 1-Up Mushroom that grants the player an extra life. The 1-Up moves to the right and will fall down a narrow pit if the player is not fast enough. Mario can walk and run. Most beginners never run and the purpose of this part is to force them to speed up. If they run, they can get the 1-Up and maybe also discover something else about Mario. When Mario runs he can run straight over small gaps like this narrow pit. A beginner may not be able to stop or jump before the pit and thus discovering this property to running by accident.

All in all, there is a lot going on in this section with the Koopa Troopa enemy. I fear it might be too much. It could overwhelm beginners so they do not take in all that this part has to teach. Possibly there would be needed a section before this where the shell does not ricochet off anything. This way the player would be more prepared.

Lets-a-go-6

Course cleared!

The course then ends with the classic stair formation from Super Mario Bros and the flag pole that acts as the goal. The stair is effective as it hinders the player to go back and forces her to touch the flag pole. It also playfully invites the player to get as far up the pole as possible, which results in a higher score and even a 1-Up if she manages to touch the very top.

Conclusion

As of writing, 68 people have played the course, according to the statistics kept by Super Mario Maker. 75 attempts have been made at the course and  67 of those have resulted in a successful completion. Resulting in a Clear Rate of 89,33%. Meaning only one player gave up and did not complete the course. Pretty descent numbers for a beginner course. Players die at two different places. The first is the very beginning by the first Goomba. Since it is supposed to teach players on how to deal with enemies, this is expected. The other place is the pit before the Koopa Troopa. Most likely the players have just failed the jump on their first try but it could also indicate that the players fell in trying to avoid the Koopa shell. Overall the Koopa section, feels to chaotic as it introduces many new properties. The course was made short to make it less frustrating for beginners when they die. But it could have been a little bit longer to introduce the Koopa Troopa in more controlled environment. But no player has actually died by the Koopa directly. Which means they are either hit as big Mario or manages to avoid the shell.

References

Eurogamer. 2015. Miyamoto On World 1-1: How Nintendo Made Mario’s Most Iconic Level.

Extra Credits. 2015. Design Club – Super Mario Bros: Level 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design.

This was an anlysis of my very first Mario course. Please leave a comment if you have any feedback!

Looking Back Before Moving Forward

Tytte Bear was released a little over a month ago. Since then I have been taking some time off to reflect upon what has been accomplished and what the next step will be.  I have arrived at some conclusions and made a few decisions. Now I will share them with you.

My first conclusion is that Tytte Bear is a success. Investors, economists and pretty much any normal entrepreneur with the intent on making money would probably not agree on that. And they would be right given the result of expenses versus income. But I am not an entrepreneur. I am just a guy who wanted to make a game. Making money would certainly be nice but it was never the main goal.

My goals was to finish the project within six months, do it on a minimum budget and avoid putting in crazy overtime hours. Scoping the project was the biggest challenge because of three reasons. First, I have never started a company before. Second, I had never finished and released a game before. Third, I would have to do everything myself. True, I had Hanna who did all the graphics, for which I am truly grateful. But everything besides that (game design, code, audio, economy, website and marketing among else) would be on my desk.

I did manage complete above goals . For that reason I deem Tytte Bear a success. Off course, everything did not turn out perfect and there were features cut out. For example there were plans for more enemies and more levels. But those would have required either delaying the game, crazy over time or hire people. The first two options would take too much time and I would probably become miserable in the process. The last one was never really an option since I could not afford it.

The game has also received very few downloads and the reason is simple. I spent too little time on marketing. It is a full time job. But marketing is not my strong side nor an area I am keen to spend my time on. I rather write code. I could give the excuse that my invisible game is because of a crowded app market but I see that as a lame excuse. More or less every business is crowded. Walk into  any store and there are tons of products competing for the customers attention. If people can not see me outside the store, why would they see me inside the store?

In my personal opinion Giron Games have been a major success since I have a game released and learned a lot doing it. Alas, it is a business and in that regard it is a major fiasco. Thus I have have decided to let the company die. But do not be sad. It is more of a reorganization than a shutdown. This site will still continue but it will be as a site for personal hobby projects. Tytte Bear will continue to be available on Google Play. In fact, version 1.1 released a few days ago. In it, all ads have been disabled and removed! This autumn I will pick up my university studies again and it will take most of my time. Though I have started to tinker with a new project. The image below might have something to do with it.

Cheers,
Andreas Mikko, founder of Giron Games

shmup_prototype

Then And Now

Tytte Bear will be released tomorrow! So let us take look in the rear view mirror.

Back in November 2014 I fooled around in the Unity game engine in order to prepare lectures. Though the focus was to create good lectures, those preparations also resulted in a prototype of what eventually would become Tytte Bear. At this point, development consisted of a few hours a week but by the end of January 2015 there existed a functioning prototype. The prototype consisted of a player avatar, a door, a switch, a simple enemy and graphics made with MS Paint or borrowed from the internet.

TytteBear_prototype

Early Prototype

Proper development started in February 2015. This is when we started thinking about things like art style, story, level design, menus and introducing feed-back so the player actually knows what is happening. By the time March came around, the game had come to a stage were it began to resemble the final product.

TytteBear 2015-03-10

Tytte Bear In March 2015

A lot of work remained. The enemies had no animations, doors and switches consisted of red boxes and there was no sound! Also missing were the berries you collect, level select, save functionality and a lot more.  All of which have been added in the past months and have taken us to were we are today!

Screenshot_2015-06-16-10-45-33

Tytte Bear Final

Add Clever Pun Here

Maybe you are wondering what “Tytte Bear” actually means and why the game is called that? Well, it is tightly connected with the evolution the main character Tytte. In the beginning  there really was no name. The game was referred to as “Stealth 2D” or “Project Stealth”. The character was called Punchy since the placeholder graphic were a black blob that interacted with things by punching on them.

tytte_bear_punchy

Punchy’s spritesheet

When more proper graphics were added I started thinking about an appropriate name for the character that could also serve as the game’s title. I found none. It was not until weeks later, when we added collectibles to the game in the form of lingonberries, that I had the idea to look up the word “lingonberry” in different languages. Mainly because the berry is red like Tytte’s coat. Turns out in Norwegian and Danish they are called “tyttebær”. Though the pun might be obvious to you now it was not for me. I just picked out “Tytte” since it is a rare girl’s name  in Sweden. I then tried out different subtitles. Most related to lemmings and other small rodents because that was the inspiration for Tytte’s design. But none of the subtitles sounded any good.

One day I was listening to the theme song from Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. Yes, it happens sometimes. In that moment it struck me that “bear” and “bær” is written and pronounced pretty much the same. The difference being the English word referring to an animal and the Norse  word to tiny fruits. Also, our small “rodent” kind of looked like a tiny bear. For this reason the name and title became “Tytte Bear”, a pun on “Lingonberry” and “Lingon Bear”.

From Zombie Trolls To Wolverines

The development of the main character was pretty straightforward since we early on knew what kind of animal it should be. This was not the case with the enemies that patrol the levels. In early prototypes the enemies were represented with a happy smiley-face.

smile

Obviously a smiley isn’t very threatening so the placeholder had to go. The initial idea was to use John Bauer-like trolls. The concept process went from horrifying zombie trolls, to some less zombiefied trolls and finally scrapping the trolls in favor for wolverines. At one point we also played with the idea of the enemies carrying objects like lanterns. The lanterns were scrapped but you can see some lantern (and stick) sketches in the concept art below.

TytteBear_troll1 TytteBear_troll1 (2) TytteBear_enemy_concepts TytteBear_wolverines TytteBear_wolverine

 

Tytte’s appearance

From day one it was the decided that Tytte Bear would feature a subarctic theme. Therefore the characters should be based on the wildlife in those regions. For the player’s avatar we needed a small creature to fit within the non-combat based gameplay. The artist were given the highly detailed instruction “Give me a Norwegian lemming or something” and she started drawing. Below are some of the concept art she delivered.

TytteBear_Concept TytteBear_Concept_Color TytteBear_Concepts TytteBear_FinalDesign

We finally ended up with this design:
TytteBear_FinalDesign_Color

 

 

The Non-Violent Stealth Game

This is the story about the ambition with Tytte Bear, why Tytte carries a stick and how it all ties to Solid Snake.

I’m a big fan of Metal Gear Solid. No, not the one for PlayStation. Though it’s pretty good too. I’m talking about Metal Gear Solid for the Game Boy Color, also known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel in some parts of the world. Being on the GBC the graphics were quite limited. The protagonist, Solid Snake, looked like a gray, pixelated rice corn.  On the other hand, lacking graphical horsepower it made the game focus more on actual gameplay rather than endless cut scenes and that is a good thing in my opinion.

Now, what does a coarse super-spy have to do with a cuddly, berry collecting, furr ball? Well, I wanted Tytte Bear to have the same general concept as Metal Gear: A two-dimensional stealth game with a bird’s eye-view. Though I also wanted the game to be suitable for children, thus Solid Snake’s habit to punch (or shoot) every problem in the face wasn’t going to cut it. This stealth game was going to be non-violent.

Thinking up a non-violent stealth game isn’t easy. Violence is a common element in the genre. Throw it out and you need to replace it with something else. Preferably something that enhances the “stealth”. Our first decision was to make the protagonist, Tytte, a small animal and the enemies predators. Which provides a reasonable explanation to why you can’t fight them. Though, we still wanted Tytte to interact with the enemies in in some way. Therefor we equipped her with a magic wand that could temporarily freeze enemies. This resulted in two problems. First of, it was too effective! You could freeze enemies over and over and they couldn’t do anything. Secondly, it was kind of boring with this block of  frozen beast blocking the way. Then we remembered the old prank were you tap someones shoulder and as they turn around you walk past them on the opposite side. We tried this by turning the wand into a regular stick. Which was easy since it kind of was a stick anyway. By poking an enemy with the stick, the beast will turn towards you, giving you an opportunity to sneak past. But it also introduces a risk factor since you might be spotted if you’re to slow. The screenshots below shows it in action.

The stick also opened up some other possibilities but we’ll take that another day.

TytteBear_poke_1

Sneak up behind

TytteBear_poke_2

*Poke*

TytteBear_poke_3

Sneak around

TytteBear_poke_4

Made it!