Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Pikachu Problem

Typhoid Rats by Kev Walker
I didn’t expect this to be my “first post in a long while” written piece because, after all, this is regarding card game design that isn’t “serious.” By that I mean fan game design. While certain fan art can be a serious work of art, most are simply …just fanism. And this, I believe,  is the case for a Magic: The Gathering set that I veered off of my “serious” path of doing a “four colors matter” set to work on: A Pokemon Magic set. 

I Choose You

Doing a Pokemon Magic: The Gathering set has been attempted before by other enthusiasts, for sure, but just as with many others who do fan art or fan fiction of, say, Pokemon; this doesn’t stop those artists from doing yet another awesome illustration of a Gyarados or a slash romance between trainers Red and Blue. This set is just something I need to get out of my system. It’s an expression of my love for the franchise (Well, the first generation of Pokemon mostly) through the medium that I love to work with: game design.

Originally, I was messing around with working on a Pokemon Magic: The Gathering set back in college. I knew less of what I was doing in Magic set design then than I do now (not that I am as competent and polished as an actual Magic R&D card designer at the moment), so I thought I’d take another crack at it. It also helps that I just got a shiny new laptop bringing in all sorts of increased productivity and possibilities.

Now, before working on the skeleton of the Pokemon set’s design, I have to find my themes in both flavor and mechanics. Since I’m using an IP that is already fully-fleshed out, I need to leverage that into whatever mechanical themes I’d be focusing on. So what is the flavor of Pokemon?

What? It's Evolving!

Obviously, the most important part of Pokemon is the monsters themselves. So this means this Magic: The Gathering set would be heavily creature-focused. How focused on creatures? Math time: the average Magic set usually has about 50% of its cards as creature cards. The normal number of cards in a set that isn’t basic land is 229. How many Pokemon are there? Over 600. Holy crap. …The good thing is that the number of Pocket Monsters initially capped at 151 in the Pokemon Red & Blue games (Generation I). Also, the first generation is the only generation I truly love, so I’m partial to this decision on a personal level. Anyway, since 50% of 229 cards is 115, and that 151 Pokemon (let alone any non-Pokemon creatuers like Gym Leaders) is well over 115, that means this set will definitely be creature-oriented.

Now, there’s a lot more to Pokemon than just that fact that there’s a bunch of monsters. There are the 15 different types of monsters (17 in the second generation of Pokemon onwards) and the strength & weaknesses among them, Pokemon battling, catching Pokemon, and evolving Pokemon. This last trait is something that is inherent to the very nature of Pokemon and is something that most Pokemon do. When Pokemon gain enough experience and level up, they evolve into a different Pokemon, usually into a larger, more-developed version of their previous self.

Thus, I believe evolving – an important aspect of Pokemon – needs to be represented mechanically. Now, I haven’t figured out what the evolution mechanic would be, yet, but I did think about something important related to evolving: Not all Pokemon evolve the same way. Usually, a Pokemon evolves by leveling up enough to a certain level. However, in other cases, some Pokemon evolve through exposure to some kind of elemental Stone or by being traded.

Evolution Charm by John Avon
The various methods of evolving a monster is a great design in the Pokemon games. Your first experiences of evolution might have been with your starter Pokemon or with the evolves-very-early-in-levels Caterpie or Weedle. Then, as the game goes on, you find out that there is more than one way to evolve a Pokemon, which keeps the evolution mechanic exciting. The pinnacle of the evolution of evolution (hehe) was that Eevee not only evolves through an elemental Stone, but evolves into one of three (now, like, seven or something as more Pokemon games are released) different Pokemon depending on which one of three elemental Stones you chose to use on it. Exciting!

When designing a Magic: The Gathering set, when you introduce a new game mechanic (evolving a Pokemon creature card), you start with the simplest form of that mechanic, so players can learn the new mechanic in its least complex form. Then you further develop that mechanic with new twists when the mechanic appears again in a subsequently-released Magic set that continues the same theme as the first set (the Pokemon theme).

I can’t just throw in all 151 Pokemon into the first set of what would be a Pokemon block (sets in the same world that are released within a few months of each other are called a “block”) because some of those monsters have the more-complex version of the evolution mechanic. Well, I could always just ignore any twists in the evolution mechanic found in the games and settle for one set with all Pokemon creature cards evolving the same way. However, I believe that doing this would be a disservice to the flavor of Pokemon.

O.K., better plan: Use the second generation of Pokemon (a hundred more of them exists in Generation II to bring the total to 251 Pokemon) and include only Pokemon that have the basic evolution in the first set. The more-complex evolutions would only be in the second set. Ignoring for now the reworking of the number of monsters for figuring out how creature-saturated these two sets would turn out to be, there’s a wrench thrown into the design: Pikachu.

I Choose You, Too: Electric Boogaloo

Pikachu is a Pokemon that has become the mascot of the whole franchise. In the anime, the main character persisting throughout the series is Ash, a Pokemon trainer who owns a Pikachu that has been with him since episode one. Since there’s a limit of six Pokemon that a Pokemon trainer can carry at one time, all other captured Pokemon exceeding six must be put into a special storage (Don’t worry – Professor Oak cares for them. Somehow). So, whenever a new season starts where Ash would catch new Pokemon, Ash makes sure to empty his roster of six Pokemon. …except for Pikachu – because Pikachu is SO important. Pikachu even has its own Game Boy game version – Pokemon Yellow. And even various incarnations of Pikachu that are not Pikachu are released in later generations!

But why is Pikachu a problem for the Pokemon Magic: The Gathering set design? It’s Pikachu’s evolution. Pikachu evolves not through the basic form of evolution but by Thunder Stone, one of the elemental Stones. O.K., so I can just have the Pikachu card in the second set, right? No way. What kind of Pokemon set would be without a Pikachu card in it? The first set would be without Pikachu. Pikachu represents Pokemon. I believe that the theoretical players that would open up the theoretical booster packs of the first Pokemon set should be able to find a Pikachu card among the first few opened quite easily. So, Pikachu will need to be in the first set, but the evolution mechanic execution needs to accommodate for this problem.

Isamaru, Hound of Konda by Christopher Moeller
On an aside, while I can include a legendary creature named Red’s Pikachu (Red is the name of the trainer in the Pokemon games Ash is based on), and this particular Pokemon would never evolve just like in the games and anime series: 1) I believe that Red’s Pikachu needs to be at least be a rare card, if it existed, which means it’s going to, well, rarely show up in booster packs; and 2) Red’s Pikachu at the common rarity is too weird with that name (most, if not all, other Pokemon creature cards would have just the name of themselves with no possessive noun affixed to it) and would mean putting the “legendary” supertype at common, which has never been the convention for legendary creatures (and for good reason). If the “legendary” supertype is ever put on common cards, this set is not the set to explore such an avenue in Magic: The Gathering design.

So, Pikachu will be a common card (the most prevalent card rarity) named simply Pikachu. I’m not getting into what to do about the color or colors Pikachu would be or whether its Lightning Pokemon type will be represented – What’s most important, currently, is how the execution of the evolution mechanic will impact this special corner case.

What I could do is have the evolve mechanic appear on the evolved forms of Pokemon only and then put it on a Raichu (the evolution of Pikachu) card which would appear in the second set. However, would this work with whatever the evolution mechanic would eventually end up actually doing?
Additionally, I need to look out for the “baby Pokemon” that was introduced in Generation II, which introduced a pre-evolution of Pikachu named Pichu. A baby wrench in the design, too. So, using the convention of putting evolution on evolved Pokemon, Pikachu would need “Evolves from Pichu (Reminder text.)” (Or however the mechanic would be templated). Though, these baby Pokemon evolved through Happiness Level in the games (Oh, boy. How complex).

Gotta Catch 'Em All

Here are the next steps in the set: Find out what other themes in Pokemon can be represented mechanically and figure out how the evolution mechanic will work exactly. From there, I can then make sure to figure out an execution of evolution that would still accommodate Pikachu’s problem.

This is the current stage in this fan-tastic Pokemon Magic: The Gathering set design – and I'm totally halting development of that more serious “four colors matters” set because of this (No worries, I'll get back on it). This peculiar issue with Pikachu prompted me write about it in this blog post, thus kick-starting my return to writing about Magic design. Thanks, Pikachu. It also helps that I was amused at the opportunity for a cute and whimsical title for a game design blog post: The Pikachu Problem.