Pokemon Scarlet and Violet
A UX Breakdown
Game development is full of hard problems to solve. For studios that have long-running franchises one of the toughest issues to tackle is how to keep a series interesting. Innovation is necessary to keep gameplay fresh, but it can also easily alienate longtime fans. Why does this happen in some cases but not others?
I believe it comes down to whether or not a studio understands the core emotions that make certain mechanics beloved. In games where new entries into a series are rejected, it’s often because the developers did not understand the motivations players had to play their game
The most recent Pokémon game is an example of a new game in a series that did not meet player expectations. It is currently the lowest-rated game in the series on Metacritic and has many lackluster reviews from respected sources like IGN and Kotaku. There are surface-level problems like bugs and performance issues that account for some of that. But deeper issues appeared when the developers tried to innovate on the franchise's classic formula. In my analysis, I found two core issues that show where developers misunderstood what players were looking for in a Pokémon game.
In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the first issue I identified has to do with Power.
The Power Problem
At its core, Pokémon is a game all about having the strongest team. Players really do want to be the very best. They are motivated by seeing their numbers go up and feeling like they are getting more powerful as a result of their actions. But even more important is that it feels great to be challenged. The moments that stick with players are when they overcome something difficult, like just barely beating a gym leader, or hoping that your Pokémon can survive just one more attack.
Historically, the games have used a strictly linear power progression.
Players had only one path they could take where they had to battle all the gym leaders in a predetermined order. This gave the developers the ability to control the level of challenge closely at any point and gave players a more curated experience. The developers could be confident that a player would not have a level 90 Pokémon when they got to the level 15 gym, and they could give out appropriate rewards for a given challenge.
SV drops this linear approach in favor of the ever-tempting “Open World” design.
Players can approach any gym in the game at any time, regardless of their level.
But, the gyms have fixed difficulty levels like previous games. They do not scale with the player.
The game does not communicate the difficulty, so players have no way of knowing what level a gym leader will be without challenging them.
This makes it very hard for a player to find the optimal challenge level at a given point. Most players will end up just sticking to whatever is closest.
At first, the open-world gameplay is fun. Players get to catch tons of new Pokémon and explore a whole new world, all the while leveling up their team. Without much to push them to keep moving, many trainers will stay in that early area for a while. When they go to the next area, they may quickly realize that they are many levels above the intended challenge. The gyms that are supposed to be a test are too easy.
A good battle experience where players are competing at the right level has lots of moments of suspense. The players are forced to think carefully about what moves to use, and will wonder if they can really beat their opponent. When a player is over-leveled they can just mash one attack and win without any effort.
This is a problem with momentum. The more players play and level up, the more areas become “too easy”, removing any challenge. And players that are already too strong will not be motivated by additional rewards that increase their strength.
While the game IS open-world, there is a linear power progression that presents optimal challenges. But only if followed in that order. Without any way of knowing that order, few players will stumble into that hidden best experience.
Compare the challenge levels the gyms are supposed to go in based on trainer level:
Versus my path:
After I accidentally did one gym out of order, I ended up over-leveled for the rest of the game. Which made every challenge in the game feel like a chore to get through. It felt like I was playing the game the wrong way, and that my poor experience was my own fault. I really wanted the experience of being challenged, but because I chose to go a certain direction I wasn’t able to get it. Open-world games are supposed to be exploration spaces. But instead, I felt like I had picked all the wrong answers on a test I didn’t know I was taking.
The second big problem I found is in regards to Anticipation and Excitement. Specifically, this problem is in regards to finding and catching wild Pokémon.
In past games, players encountered wild Pokémon with the tall grass mechanic. If you wanted to catch a Pokémon, you had to walk around in the tall grass until a random one jumped out at you.
With this method, each Pokémon was an individual reveal. There was a moment of holding your breath and waiting to see what you got.
As a user journey, it would look something like this...
This cycle works so well because of the slow buildup of tension and release. The crucial moment of the mechanic comes when you've realized you found a Pokémon, and you’re holding your breath to see what it is. The silhouette fades in, you can just barely make out what it is, and all of a sudden it’s revealed. If it's the Pokémon you’re looking for, or a Pokémon you haven’t seen before, the payoff feels amazing. Even if it’s a Pokémon you’ve seen a ton of times before, it’s fast enough that you don’t feel you’ve wasted too much time.
This journey would repeat over and over each time you went looking for a Pokémon. If you went looking for a Pokémon 15 times, you would have 15 different peaks of excitement and moments for tension and release.
Searching for Pokémon this way stuck around for a long time because it worked in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t perfect. Finding a specific Pokémon you wanted could take a long time, and players complained about the lack of control they had. In S/V, Pokémon tried to improve on this formula.
In S/V, Pokémon spawn in large batches in the overworld. Players can see all their options at once, and then start a battle with just the Pokémon they are interested in.
At first glance, this may seem better. Players only have to interact with Pokémon they care about, and it’s much faster.
As a user journey, S/V looks more like this:
We can compare those two different user journeys with the same amount of Pokémon
Right away we can see some issues. Players are finding the same number of Pokémon in each scenario, but are having very different emotional experiences. In the old method, players take their time and have 15 different hits of tension and release. In S/V, that’s all condensed down to one moment with less fanfare and tension. Finding a Pokémon isn’t valued as an important moment the way it was in previous games.
Players can go to a new area and almost instantly see all the new Pokémon it has to offer. In the old games, the spread-out nature of finding Pokémon encouraged players to explore an area and find new Pokémon as they go. It kept exploration exciting. When the Pokémon in S/V all spawn in a cluster at the beginning it means a player can catch all the ones they’re interested in right away. This leaves the rest of the area lacking that channel of excitement, which can make the world feel less interesting.
As a core part of the franchise, finding Pokémon should be capitalized on as a chance for tension. In the open world, searching for Pokémon could have been a great way to encourage players to explore a new region and connect with it. Instead, it ended up feeling like a wasted opportunity.
In these changes, we can see what Pokémon is trying to do. They want to update a game series that has been going on for 20 years and make it feel more modern. From their past games it is easy to tell that open world was the goal Pokémon has been working up to for a long time.
I’m always excited to see innovation in my favorite game series. These changes failed hard because they didn’t understand player motivations and why those mechanics in older games worked so well.
Players want to feel challenged in battles, or at least for them to not be a cakewalk. Players want catching Pokémon to feel meaningful.
Without these core parts of the Pokémon experience, a game will not meet the expectations set by players.