A Comparative Study of Pokémon GO and Spore’s Game Design

An essay for game design class at PolyU

Introduction

The game industry is growing at a fast speed and enormous games are released each year. Game analysis provides practitioners with the opportunities for learning through the success or failure of published games, and help them build better games. As games become more sophisticated, higher requirements are also put on game analysis. Effective game analysis should not merely focus on game play, graphics, sound, and replay-ability. Rather, games should be played and analyzed in a complex context to convey their complexity.

This study analyzes the game design of Pokémon GO and Spore with a comparative approach. This study contains the following chapters with focus on different aspects of the two games: background information, game play, player psychology, social and cultural effects, and innovations and effects on future games.

The background information chapter covers the introduction, history, basic game play of these two games, so as to provide the foundation and context for deeper analysis of them.

The game play chapter uses the MDA framework (Hunicke, LeBlanc, & Zubek, 2004) to compare the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics of the two games.

The psychology chapter examines the effects of these two games on players’ psychology, including analysis of fun, motivations, learning curves, and so on.

The social and cultural effects chapter compares the effects of these two games on the society, and in different cultural context. This chapter also covers how the game affect players view on the real world.

The innovations and effects on future games chapter discusses the innovations in design methods and technologies involved in these two games, and how they affect the design and production of games in the future.

Background Information

Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO is a mobile game featuring the capture of Pokémons in real world environment through the use of location-based augmented reality (AR). Pokémon GO enables players to capture, hatch, train, and battle with Pokémons with their mobile devices, thus realizing Pokémon fans’ dream for becoming Pokémon masters in real world. This game is developed collaboratively by Niantic and The Pokémon Company. Niantic provides the necessary technologies for implementing the game, while The Pokémon Company provides the intellectual property (IP). Google released a game inside Google Maps with similar concept called Pokémon Challenge during the April Fool’s festival of 2014. Pokémon GO was developed based on that concept and with the help of Ingress. Pokémon GO was first unveiled in September 2015, and was released in July 2016 in selected countries and regions.

Figure 1. A picture showing a player playing Pokémon GO on his phone

Pokémon GO became a hit after its release in a short time. People came out of building to the outdoor environment to catch Pokémons randomly generated based on real world locations. This game also became a hot topic. As the Pokémons generated in this game can be seen and captured by any player, this game is capable of gathering players to a single place with the generation of rare Pokémons in that place. Suddenly, some places are filled with Pokémon GO players. VentureBeat points out that Pokémon GO achieved more than 500 million downloads in the first two months and has generated 500 million U.S. dollars in revenue till 15 September 2016.

Figure 2. Pokémon GO players

The hit of Pokémon GO results vastly from the popularity of the Pokémon series and the use of AR technology. Pokémon is one of the best game IPs in the world. Pokémon series has a history of more than 20 years, since the first release of Pokémon Red and Green in February 1996 on Gameboy, and there are around 20 main game titles released on various platforms under the Pokémon IP. According to Fandom (2016), Pokémon series is the second best selling game franchises in all time with 289 millions of copied sold worldwide (Pokémon GO excluded).

Figure 3. A huge collection of Pokémon games

In despite of its hit, Pokémon GO received mixed critiques after release. Positive critiques point out that Pokémon GO extends the boundary of games and encourages players to explore the outside world. Critics also praised the concept of turning players into Pokémon trainers in real world. While negative critiques focus on the shallow game play, safety issues and technical issues (Peckham, 2016). It is the author’s opinion that the use of AR contributes more to the promotion process than the game itself. Although Pokémon GO became a global phenomenon after release, it lost players quickly after the first two months. According to Slice Intelligence (2016), the number of in-game buyers dropped by 79% since it reached its peak on 15 July.

Figure 4. Population of Pokémon GO players (Slice Intelligence, 2016)

Spore

Spore is a game designed by Will Wright, the creator of multiple important titles in the history of games such as SimCity and The Sims, and developed by Maxis, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts. Compared to Pokémon GO, Spore is a brand new IP. Spore features the evolution of a species from a spore to the lord of the universe, by providing players with the ability to control the evolution of a species with meaningful choices in a highly dynamic point of view. Spore also features procedurally generated planets and a large database of user-generated content (UGC). Will Wright (2007) stated in his Technology Entertainment Design (TED) talk that he was inspired by Drake’s equation and Powers of Ten. He thinks Spore as a toy, which provides players with a ground for experiment and failure by trying out different alternative ways of evolution. He wants make players feel like George Lucas, who created the Star Wars series, by truly playing the role of the god. Wright also stated that he wants to use this game to help people calibrate their long-term thinking and he believes that Spore is the kind of “toy” that changes the world.

Figure 5. Spore

Spore was released in September 2008 and its development began in 2000. It was first revealed in Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2005 and officially unveiled in Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2005. Since then, Will Wright and EA talked about and promoted Spore in different events such as E3 2006 & 2007, and the 2008 DICE Summit. The talks and promotions raised players’ exception to a high level so that most people thought Spore would open up a new chapter in video game history, but they also foreshadowing the great disappointments from players after release. The good reception of Will Wright and his former games such as SimCity even took players’ exceptions to a new level. When Spore was released in 2008, players found that EA omitted a huge number of features that they promised in the finally released version, and the game felt dumb and shallow compared to other “Will Wright Games”.

Figure 6. Will Wright talking about Spore in TED

Although Spore was not well received by most players, its sales and reviews were not as dissatisfactory. Sales data can only be found from game industry analysts as EA did not publish the overall sales figure of Spore. According to Reuters (2009), EA should have sold 2.2 million copies of Spore in 2009, and the new “Spore” related titles such as “Spore Galactic Creature” could help EA offset the 50 million U.S. dollars in development cost. Compared to players’ review, Spore got better receptions from game critics. It received 8.8/10 from IGN (2008) and 9/10 from Eurogamer. Spore also got a Metascore of 84 on Metacritic, a website which gives a final score by aggregating reviews from multiple leading critics.

Conclusion

Pokémon GO is a mobile game released in 2016 with recent AR technology, and Spore is a classic PC released in 2008. Spore undergone a lengthy development period of around 8 years while Pokémon GO was developed in less than two years. Spore was developed by EA while Pokémon GO was co-developed by Niantic and The Pokémon Company. Both Pokémon GO and Spore attracts enormous attention from the industry and player before their releases, and received mixed critiques after release. Both games are innovative in game design and use cutting-edge technologies for their development. But in terms of marketing and sales, Pokémon GO is a huge success compared with Spore.

Game play

Pokémon GO

Mechanics

Game play of Pokémon GO is shallow and straight forward. The game flow starts with avatar creation and decoration, after which the player is put on a map based on real world geological locations. Pokémons are generated semi-randomly with reference to the real world environment. For example, water Pokémons are only generated nears lakes, rivers, and seas. The main goals of this game are to catch as mush Pokémons as possible and constantly train them to reach higher combat power (CP).

On the map, player can find special locations tagged as PokéStops or Gyms. Players can get supplies at PokéStops when they are close enough, and they can battle with other players at Pokémon Gyms for the domination. Avatar of the player who dominates the Gym will be displayed on the map along with his/her Pokémon.

Figure 7. Map view in Pokemon GO

Pokémon GO also has a built in shop which sells several items. Most used items include Incense, Lures, Poké Balls, and Egg Incubators. Incense and Lures attract Pokémon to the player. The difference is that Incense only attracts Pokémons to a single player while Lures attracts Pokémons to a PokéStop so that every player can see and catch them. Poké Balls are used to catch Pokémons. While Egg Incubators creates extra slots for hatching eggs so players can hatch multiples eggs at the same time.

Dynamics

Dynamics in Pokémon GO include the position of the players and Pokémons, the CP power of PokéStop dominators, and availability of PokéStops. To find more Pokémons and encounter rare Pokémons, players need to walk around in real world and explore new places. Players are also encouraged to approach different PokéStops to get supplies.

Aesthetics

In the MDA framework, the aesthetics are the resulting emotional response and feeling of players when playing instead of the overall appearance of the game (Hunicke, LeBlanc, & Zubek, 2004).

The heart of this game lies upon the capture of Pokémons. All other activities in this game, including battle, training, evolving, are based on the capture of Pokémons. When the players try to achieve their goals, such as dominating Pokémon Gyms, what they need to do first is to find and capture Pokémons. The capture of Pokémons feel innovative and fun in the beginning, but soon would destroy the fun of purchasing other goals due to the high rate of repetitions.

The content of this game is the large library of different Pokémons, but there lacks corresponding mechanics to support this content. Although the content is substantial, the shallow game play prevents it from being explored and enjoyed by the players.

Spore

Mechanics and dynamics

Spore is divided into five unique stages and each stage has its own mechanics. It’s fair to say that Spore is the assembly of five smaller games.

Figure 8. Stages of Spore (Will, 2007)

The first stage covers the genesis of life. This stage is quite similar to the game flOw developed by thatgamecompany. Player plays the role of a single cell creature, which grows larger and smarter by eating other creatures. After eating enough creatures, the player evolves and get to land, and the game switch to creature stage.

The second stage is like a role-play game (RPG), similar with World of Warcraft. In this stage, player is presented with a creator, where they design their own creature with pre-made parts. Apart from designing, the player control the creature to fight, collect, and socialize, during which the creature gets DNA points. After gaining enough DNA points, the game enters the third stage.

The third stage is the tribal stage, which has simplified real-time strategy (RTS) style game play like Age of Empires. In this stage, players dominates the continent either by wars or forming alliances. The game enters its fourth stage after the player dominates the continents.

The fourth stage starts when the creature suddenly develops high level intelligence. This stage is similar with strategy games such as Civilization V. The player needs to select his/her own way of conquering the world, either by military, religion, or economy. After dominating the world, the creature builds a spacecraft and enters the space.

The fifth stage focuses on space exploration. The game play is limited to flying, trading, collecting, and modifying planets. Spore simulates an enormous universe, and this results in that the game play in the fifth stage is as repetitive as Pokémon GO. Players get tired of flying across planets and galaxies very quickly.

Aesthetics

The player has access to unique creators in each stage. The creators enable players to create wonderful creatures, buildings, and spacecrafts within minutes. Will Wright (2007) believes that players love creating things, and the process of creating brings tremendous empathy to the creations. But in the game, creations in former stages lose their importance in later stages. For example, in the fifth stage, players can only see the creature through the communication panel, and the appearance of creatures does not have apparent impacts on the game play.

Each stage of Spore also provides players with its unique aesthetics. As mentioned in the last parts, each stage resembles a classic game play pattern. But Spore only provides the shallowest aspects of these games. Also, the transitions between stages are not smooth enough. For example, from the third to the fourth stage, the creature suddenly gains the ability of building complex structures and vehicles after dancing beside campfire. The transition makes player feel a sense of isolation.

Conclusion

Both games have a breadth of content. Spore has a huge number of user-generated content while Pokémon GO has enormous different Pokémons. But unfortunately, the shallow game play of both games cannot support their content. The first four stages of Spore are shallow, just as the whole game play of Pokémon GO. Although the fifth stage of Spore is deeper, it includes too many repetitions. So both games do not provide sophisticated mechanics for the players to dive deeper to the content.

The reason for lacking of depth of Spore may be the immature technology, as its development began 16 years ago. While the reason for Pokémon GO may be the target audience and the platform. It is the author’s point of view that both games can be improved by putting more efforts on the game play design. Spore can deepen the design of the four stages to provide richer game play and longer play time, instead of rushing to the final stage. While Pokémon GO can provide more flexible and sophisticated battle and social systems.

Psychology

Empathy

Both games involves tremendous empathy in their game design. In Pokémon GO, players think themselves as Pokémon trainers, so that they value each Pokémon they catch along their journey. But the design for evolving Pokémons break the empathy. Players need to transfer repetitive Pokémons with lower CPs for the good of Pokémon with higher CPs of the same kind. So players quickly lose empathy on weak Pokémon and only focus on the best ones. In Spore, the design of creatures, buildings and vehicles brings tremendous empathy to the creations. But as stated before, the creations soon become not important at all, and they are hardly to been seen during the most part of the final stage. So both games create empathy in players but also break it quickly.

Learning curve

The learning curve of both games are quite smooth. Will Wright wants players to learn by playing. The operations in Spore are easy to master for both experienced gamers and novices. And due to its shallow game play of each part, it’s also not that easy to make deep learning curves without breaking the fun. While Pokémon GO does not involve a lot of operations, the basic operations are just walking around and sliding fingers on the screen. There are not many skills involved in Pokémon GO, while how good a player performs relies largely on the time and money investment.

Motivations

Both games motivate players with different kinds of rewards. The rewards in Pokémon GO are mainly the capture of Pokémons, the supplies at PokéStops and the victory at Gyms. Among them only rewards from PokéStops are tangible. As Pokémon GO emphasized too much upon catching Pokémons, players lose motivations quickly due to repetitions. Players are also de-motivated when they cannot find rare Pokémons and cannot defeat strong Pokémons in the gyms. In addition, Pokémon GO does not provide enough stationary game play, so players need to move constantly while playing. This mechanism requires higher level motivations to keep player from quitting.

Although Pokémon GO has an achievement system, the system does not give players enough rewards to motivate them.

There are also a considerable amount of cheating player in Pokémon GO. They use programs to fake locations and “fly” around to catch Pokémons everywhere. This phenomenon further de-motivates honest players who spent lots of time and money on the game but still can not defeat cheating players.

Figure 9. A player cheating with computer programs

In the first four stages of Spore, players are motivated by the fun of creations and explorations on the map. Players are also motivated when they get stronger and grow their tribes larger. In the fifth stage, players are motivated by the exploration of uncertain universe and achievement. But as the fifth stages require the player to do all kinds of stuff and take care of all the planets and colonies, players get de-motivated quickly.

Social and Cultural Effects

Both games bring a considerable amount of social and cultural effects, with both positive ones and negative ones. But generally speaking, Pokémon GO brings about more effects than Spore as it became a global phenomenon.

Justification for gaming

Both Spore and Pokémon GO provide players with justification for playing games. Will Wright describes Spore as a toy that calibrates long-term thinking of people, and the game does involve some knowledge about biology, geology, and astronomy. Actually Spore has been used in biological education and has given positive feedback (Poli et al., 2012). Students who played the game during learning process reported an average of 3 extra hours spent on class materials, and those students scored an average of 5% higher in the course compared with those who did not play the game.

Pokémon GO gives the justification by encouraging players to go outside and explore the real world. This process increase level of workout, and may reveal hidden wonderful places. Pokémon GO also provides more opportunities for players to interact with strangers when they catch Pokémons at the same place. Small business like coffee shops can even make their place more attractive by using Lures at nearby PokéStops.

But the players may get in the way of non-players and perform dangerous behaviors during playing. This is what brings the safety issues of Pokémon GO.

Safety issues

Although Pokémon GO is based on real world locations, it does not provide a system that can prevent players from getting harmed during play. Actually there were multiple negative news about Pokémon GO players. For example, Pokémon Go player crashes car into school while playing game (The guardian, 2016), Pokémon GO Player Arrested After Visiting Police Station PokéStop (Gamerant, 2016). There were even people who fell off cliff while playing Pokémon GO (CNN, 2016).

Pokémon GO also brought about the fear of Black Mirror or 1988 coming true in real world, as Niantic can collect the locations of a large number of players. Some people think that there is potential abuse of the data and manipulation of players’ behaviors.

Although Spore is not based on real world locations, there may still be some unhealthy content in this game. As Spore features a large database of UGCs, some players may generate contents that are not suitable for children. For example, they can make a single creature which consists of two major part in the position of having sex.

Religions

Will Wright said that he had the fear that religious people may feel offended by the content of Spore, even when he did not intend to do so. Luckily, he did not receive many complaints from religious people or parties. Rather, he asserted that most criticisms of religion come from “militant atheists (Eurogamer, 2008).

Pokémon GO raised a discussion on whether this game violates the spirit of religions after a man got caught after playing Pokémon GO in church (The guardian, 2016). There is even an old talk from a priest about why he thinks Pokémons are evils (Pokémon Power, 2009). Until now, whether Pokémon GO has religious issues is still controversial

Reflections on Real World

The use of AR technology in Pokémon GO expands players’ view on the real world. Most Pokémon series players posses the dream of catching Pokémons in real world environment while Pokémon GO makes that dream come true, in a limited level. Although Pokémon GO combines real world and virtual world, it does not reach a level where players really feel they are Pokémon trainers.

For Spore, Will Wright has the objective of making this game meaningful and educational during game design, but the final result is not very satisfactory. The scientific facts presented in Spore are limited and deviated a lot from the real world. The Science Magazine gives Spore a total score of F for the scientific content in Spore. The critics from Science Magazine points out the tribal stage involves no kinship, which is at the heart of tribes in real world. They also asserts that in spite of its marketing, Spore clearly has little in common with science, especially evolution.

Innovations and Effects on Future Games

Innovations

The major innovation of Pokémon GO is the use of AR technology. Although Pokémon GO pushed the popularity of AR to a new level, it is not the first of its kind. Before Pokémon GO, Niantic developed another AR based game called Ingress. Pokémon GO developers even used the user tagged locations in Ingress for placing PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms. However, the use of AR in Pokémon GO is limited. Pokémon GO simply combines the GPS system, gyroscope, and camera of smartphone. There is no image recognition or something alike. So the Pokémons actually do not have interactions with the real world. In the capture screen, their positions are relative to the smartphone rather than the real world.

The innovations of Spore’s design are mainly the integration of biological, geological, and astronomical content, and the depiction of evolution is a highly dynamic point of view. Spore also pushed the development of skeletal animations and procedural generations. Some critics think that the greatest part of Spore is the creature creator. No matter how strange the creature seems, they can become vivid with the power of the skeletal animation system, and they can dance, eat, attack, and even pose. The planets in Spore are also procedurally generated. These planets form an important part of this game, and provides a foundation for game mechanics.

Effects on Future Games

The hit of Pokémon GO almost guarantees more real world based games in the future. While Spore encourages more experiments on procedurally generated worlds and integrating games with pedagogical contents.

Conclusion

In conclusion, both Pokémon GO and Spore pushed the boundary of game design and promote the development of computing technologies in different ways. Both games are good in general but have the problems of shallow game play. The differences is that Pokémon GO was a huge success in term of sales while Spore was not. Both games received mixed critiques and leads to mixed effects in social and cultural contexts, but Pokémon GO invokes more thought on games in real world scenario. At last, Pokémon GO and Spore both have meaningful impacts on future games.

References

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