The strange thing about Pokémon is that not all of us are playing the same game.
There’s the game put in front of us by Game Freak and Nintendo, where we accumulate a team of six Pokémon and wander around a region fighting AI trainers, getting stronger, gaining levels, learning more powerful moves and evolving our partners… and then there’s the game of our own making, the world of competitive Pokémon, where the only worthwhile opponents are other players, all Pokémon are assumed to be at their maximum level with their optimum movesets before you ever use them, and effort training is considered essential, breeding to get good genes highly advisable, and using a poor nature suicidal. Moderately interesting, you might think, but what makes this a problem that needs to be addressed by an ‘If I Were In Charge’ rant? Well, call me crazy, but I actually believe that a lot of arguments and misplaced vitriol in the Pokémon community stem from the fact that the people on opposite sides of those arguments are playing two different games, and that one or both parties are unwilling or unable to recognise that. Possibly the greatest part of these problems relate to which Pokémon are ‘good’ or ‘usable’ and which ones are not, which is not what I plan to address today – that gets another rant all of its own – what I want to address now is what defines these ‘two games,’ what makes them so different, why I feel the gap should be narrowed, and how that can best be done.
When Pokémon is played by those most expert in its secrets, competing in tournaments or preparing for Battle Tower runs or similar, all manner of factors come into effect that are neither necessary for casual play nor explained (or even hinted at, in some cases) in the games themselves. Probably the most egregious of these, which I shall therefore discuss in detail, is the effort system. When one Pokémon defeats another, in addition to experience points it gains another, invisible, type of points, which have no official name as far as I am aware, though they are referred to by the community as ‘effort points,’ and their accumulated totals as a Pokémon’s ‘effort values,’ or EVs. Rather than increasing a Pokémon’s overall fighting ability, effort points instead increase its aptitude with just one of the six primary stats: HP, attack, defence, special attack, special defence, and speed. Pokémon tend to yield effort points for the stat or stats in which they themselves are strongest (Zubat grant speed points, Geodude defence points, and so on), with a few exceptions, the same number of points are gained regardless of the opponent’s level, there is a hard limit on the number of points that can be earned in an individual stat, and there is a further limit on the total number that can be earned across all six stats. In competitive circles, exploiting this system to help Pokémon specialise in their two or three most important stats is considered critical to effective planning. Game Freak, as far as I can tell, regard all of these principles as cloistered secrets. The games themselves make only the vaguest and most oblique references to this system. I feel it is worth mentioning, again, that there is no official terminology for any of it. There are certain NPCs within the game who can check whether your Pokémon have reached the overall limit for gaining effort points, but they will only mention that your Pokémon are “working hard,” and offer you “effort ribbons” to commemorate this hard work. Using items or services that increase or decrease a Pokémon’s effort values (such as vitamins, certain berries, or some of the food, fitness regimes and beauty treatments of Join Avenue) tells you only that the Pokémon’s “base attack increased,” for instance. Items like the Macho Brace, which accelerate effort training, only “promote strong growth” or “promote HP gain on levelling” or similar – a casual player attempting to try out these items without already understanding the system could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually do anything, especially if he or she made the mistake of trying them on a Pokémon that had already hit its cap. Even the Pokédex 3D app gives no hint of what kind of effort points you can expect to obtain from a given species – information which, extracted directly from the game’s coding by those among us with the appropriate skills, is readily available from even the most miserly fan-made Pokédex.
What seems to me the biggest question is why? Why include in the game such a complicated system for raising Pokémon more effectively and then go to such lengths to hide it? The effort system as it currently stands was not a part of the original games – Red and Blue used much simplified version which had no great impact on strategy since Pokémon could reach their maximum in all five stats (rather than only two, as now), requiring no actual decision-making on the part of the players. The system that now exists was created in Ruby and Sapphire. Clearly someone, at some point, felt that a more complicated version with greater strategic ramifications was the way to go; there must have been a deliberate decision that this would make things more interesting – but actually telling the players how it worked would have given the game away. One could argue that talking about this stuff directly would be immersion-breaking. One could not argue that this actually matters. It certainly doesn’t stop terms like “level” and “experience points” from being flung around with abandon, and those are no less abstract. Even if we concede that point, it’s not exactly difficult to articulate the basic principle of the system in terms that make sense in-universe: Pokémon who fight a lot of fast Pokémon get faster, those who fight a lot of tough ones get tougher, and so on. The main reason, I think, has to be that you don’t need to know this stuff to finish the game. Your AI opponents always have EVs of 0 in everything until you reach the Battle Subway, so anything on your side is a bonus. This is most noticeable in the case of speed, since speed is the only all-or-nothing stat – Pokémon on a playthrough team will almost always pick up effort points in speed somewhere, so even ‘slow’ Pokémon like Vaporeon can often outrun higher-level AI opponents. The same goes for egg moves (most of your opponents aren’t exactly going to have optimum movesets either), natures (nature boosts become most important when you’re really trying to push a particular stat to its maximum – which, as we’ve established, you’re probably not doing) and just forget about breeding for perfect or near-perfect stats (hell, in Black and White 2 you can’t even access the day care until after defeating the Champion). Why dump it all on new players when they don’t need to know it? These things might give you an edge, but the work you have to put into them is often disproportionate to the benefits… as long as you’re keeping to yourself, fighting AI trainers, and mostly staying away from the Battle Subway.
Here’s the other big disconnect: it is natural, once you reach the end of the game, to want to continue using the Pokémon who have got you this far when you take on the Battle Subway or enter a tournament. They’re your friends, right? Your partners? Isn’t that the whole point? Well, yes, but unfortunately it is in many cases (okay, probably most cases) a bad idea. In fact it’s often regarded as nothing more or less than a typical rookie mistake. Your in game team will almost certainly not have ideal EVs, they are unlikely to have egg moves, they may have natures which are neutral or even detrimental to their chosen combat roles, and some of them could have HM moves that you want to keep shackled to them for convenience’s sake (probably the most important one here is Fly – it’s incredibly useful to have, and against an AI trainer it’s decent enough, but using it against another person is practically handing your opponent a free switch and possibly a very dangerous set-up turn). You could keep using your story team, but starting fresh is much better. Reminiscent, perhaps, of Ash setting off for Hoenn and leaving all his Pokémon behind – but, then, he did keep Pikachu (another move which would be suicide for all but the most skilled players). Part of the difficulty is that, although EVs can be reset using Pomeg, Kelpsey, Qualot, Hondew, Grepa and Tamato berries (we just need to make them a bit more widely available in the game, and make their importance clearer), and dependency on HMs can be played with using ideas I’ve discussed already, there’s no way to change a Pokémon’s nature, or make it learn an egg move in retrospect – and it’s hard to argue that there should be. What is to be done?
I have no intention of suggesting we get rid of all this complexity. On the contrary, I think a major contributing factor to Pokémon’s enduring success is that it is easy to learn, but difficult to master. What I do suggest is trying to ease people into it. Shouldn’t the games at least acknowledge all of this, and provide challenges that test those skills? To start with, it’s easy enough to add basic tips in dialogue with townspeople, exactly the way Pokémon does all the time. “Did you know that fighting a lot of fast Pokémon will make your Pokémon faster? And I think fighting Pokémon with a high defence will strengthen your Pokémon’s defence too. I wonder why…?” “My Machoke has a Modest nature, which means its special attack is higher than normal, but its attack is lower than normal… only… what special attacks can a Machoke use?” “Sometimes Pokémon hatch from their eggs knowing moves they wouldn’t normally be able to learn! Is it because one of the parents was a different species…?” Further on in the game, players could start receiving tasks that require them to raise a Pokémon’s EVs, or breed Pokémon for a specific result. A trainer might lend you a Pokémon, asking you to raise (for instance) its base special defence so it can win a Gym battle against a leader with powerful special attacks. “I’ve heard that you can raise a Pokémon’s base special defence by giving it Zinc… or by fighting a lot of other Pokémon with high special defence, like Ledian and Gothorita.” Ideally, the Pokémon named will be ones that are common nearby. Successfully increasing the borrowed Pokémon’s special defence EV to (let’s say) 40 will be rewarded with a fistful of Grepa berries (and possibly some other item or technique as well), and the explanation “Grepa berries reduce a Pokémon’s base special defence. Sounds crazy, right? But if you lower its special defence, you’ll be able to raise its other base stats more! For some Pokémon, speed or attack might be more important!” Another time, Professor Tree might ask you to help explain a curious problem. “The other day, I met a trainer whose Zigzagoon knew the move Pursuit. There are a lot of Pokémon similar to Zigzagoon who can learn that move, like Rattata, Buizel and Purrloin, but I don’t think Zigzagoon can. Do you think you could try to bring me a Zigzagoon that knows Pursuit so I can understand how this happens? I’ve heard that the old woman who runs the day care with her husband knows something about Pokémon that know unusual moves.” Success will earn you, for the umpteenth time, the Professor’s gratitude. Completing two or three more assignments like this, perhaps, could unlock the ability to view a Pokémon’s breeding group and the egg moves it can learn on your Pokédex.
Another step forward could be to make EV training a less mechanical process. If you have the appropriate resources (namely, a complete set of Power Weight, Bracer, Belt, Lens, Band and Anklet, a Pokémon with an active strain of Pokérus – something else that could stand to be explained more clearly – and money to blow on vitamin drinks) it can be done pretty quickly, but if it happens that you don’t, fighting two hundred and fifty Zubat because you want to be a sweeper can be a pretty sad process. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something in the middle? A training method which is still a fair bit slower than fighting wild Pokémon with the full kit, but less monotonous? I suggest, therefore, EV training mini-games. Six of them, each in a different city, adapting common arcade-style game archetypes to the task at hand. A ‘match three’ game, for instance, has your Pokémon use its special attacks to destroy groups of matching blocks, earning effort points in special attack, while a ‘block breaker’ game has your Pokémon practice its physical defence by knocking back the heavy iron ball. Your Pokémon gains a fixed quantity of effort points for every ‘stage’ or ‘level’ you complete, and you can switch Pokémon at the end of any stage. You can also win prizes, like rare berries, for high scores, and different Pokémon with different moves will be able to affect the games in different ways (a Pokémon with a water attack, for instance, might get a higher score for destroying red fire-patterned blocks in a match three game, for instance). These games could easily be introduced as tests of skill, run (possibly for a fee) by trainers who pride themselves on their ability to help Pokémon improve in one particular stat.
Finally, let’s play around with egg moves a bit. I am very hesitant to allow Pokémon to obtain egg moves after hatching, since it not only risks undermining the whole point but also opens up the possibility of combinations of egg moves that would not normally be possible (to pick a random example, you can’t breed a Venomoth with both Morning Sun and Agility, because there is no Pokémon in the Bug group that can learn both), which is not something I feel comfortable doing. However, I do want it to be possible to, say, teach your starter a move which is normally only available as an egg move… so I’m going to have to make it very difficult, and place enough restrictions on the process that most of the time it will be just as easy to breed for the move. I am going to do this with a highly specialised and slightly insane move tutor: the regressor. The regressor is a rather unhinged old man who lives alone in a hut on a mountain somewhere, and has discovered how to teach Pokémon what he calls their ‘secret techniques’ – that is, their egg moves. He claims that he can do this by ‘regressing’ Pokémon, so that they remember what it was like to be an egg, on three conditions. First, the Pokémon must be perfectly in synch with its trainer (its happiness and respect must both be at maximum). Second, the Pokémon must not already know one of the ‘secret techniques’ (if it does, he’ll scream at you and tell you which move is the problem). Third, (he does a little dance and makes a ‘whoop’ noise as he explains this part) the Pokémon has to make a teensy, tiny sacrifice: 400,000 experience points. Exactly what this means in terms of level varies from Pokémon to Pokémon, since there are six different experience tracks, but for most it will knock them from about level 74 back down to level 1 (or from level 100 to about level 84). Regardless of what happens to their levels, they also revert to their youngest evolutionary forms (even if they don’t evolve by level) and lose any moves that are incompatible with their youngest forms. That should be enough of a sacrifice to be worth thinking twice.
My aim here has been to reduce the distance of the jump you have to make between playing Pokémon on your own and playing Pokémon competitively. The difference between an AI opponent and a human one is still going to be a big hurdle, and I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to fix that beyond vague exhortations to Game Freak to make their AI ‘better.’ Hopefully, though, actually being able to produce expert Pokémon off the bat will soften the blow a little – and maybe make the game itself more interesting at the same time.