Pokemon can be fun. It features hundreds of unique collectible monsters, and best yet, you can trade or battle them with your friends. Without the option to play this type of game with others, this series might have been a fad, and may not have led to as many competing monster collection games/TV shows/card games/etc. However, something is bothering me a bit. The battling aspect of the series isn’t completely balanced. There are a multitude of issues with Pokemon’s competitive gaming circuit that might make it hard to sustain as an E-sport.
In case you didn’t know, yes, there is an E-sport version of Pokemon, and it is sponsored by The Pokemon Company International, with its own set of rules and regulations. It is referred to as the Video Game Championship, or VGC for short. I used to go to some local tournaments (which weren’t entirely local to where I lived), and noticed not only did I not stand much of a chance in most of them, but in some cases, the game balance issues were front and center.
In this article, I will be discussing what these issues are, both past and present. I will also list some of the ideal goals to work towards when fixing these issues. Some possible solutions will be mentioned, and finally, I will look back at some of the fixes (and attempted fixes) that the game designers had already put in place throughout the years. Now, let’s get started.
- The issues:
The first issue to bring up, and I’m certain that the avid Pokemon player has noticed, is that regardless of the rules used officially, the players frequently use very similar teams of Pokemon. In a game where you can choose 6 out of 807 characters, it would be boring if you see only the same 6 of them every match. While this issue is rarely this bad, it actually happened very frequently one year (I am referring to the 2016 season). In 2016, the most popular and successful team was determined very early in the season, featuring Groudon, Xerneas, Kangaskhan, Salamence, Smeargle, and one wild card pick. Most teams ran something like this, and the winner of most tournaments was some variation of this team. It should be noted that the champion of that year did not win with this team, but for most of the season, everyone saw this setup way too often.
It should be noted that the 2016 season featured special rules that allowed some of the most powerful Pokemon to be used. Many of these were banned in normal play, and a player could pick 2 of these normally banned Pokemon for their team for any given tournament. Pokemon that are actually too strong to be beaten by almost anything else are nothing new to the series. Anyone who has played the original Red, Blue and Yellow games avidly with their friends might remember how tough Mewtwo was, as well as other Psychic-type Pokemon. This is something that shouldn’t happen very often in a fairly balanced game.
There is a related problem to Pokemon that are too strong. In this case, I am referring to Pokemon that are thought to be too strong, but actually have some counter plays that can beat them. This issue is more of a player perception issue, and actually leads to many players using the same Pokemon, even if it isn’t the most optimal choice. One example might be the Pokemon Greninja, which many players used quite often. Sure, it is a cool choice, but it hadn’t made much of an impact on the VGC circuit, possibly due to some rule differences between VGC players, and those that play other formats.
Now, the next issue is one of design. As previously stated, there are (as of this writing) 807 Pokemon in the game! That is a lot of characters to balance between each other. One of the things that lead to Pokemon’s long-term popularity was the relatively consistent universe. Once a Pokemon was introduced, it is never removed entirely from the game. Some fans, particularly those that played consistently since they started playing the game, may be disappointed if any (or, heaven forbid, their favorite) Pokemon disappeared from the game. It may also be a marketing nightmare if they stop selling certain products just to remove something from the game. Keep in mind that this last statement may be why removing any Pokemon is something the creators would hesitate to do at any point. Similarly, moves and abilities might never be removed from a main series title either.
The last thing that might need to be mentioned are toxic players. I have no idea how common they are in any type of tournament (official or unofficial), but their influence is hard to ignore on the game. I had encountered my fair share of players who said I shouldn’t have won a game due to the element of chance favoring me. If more players could see that players that take the only chance they have to win, they should realize that player has more skill than those who refuse to take that chance under the false idea that an element of chance is “unfair” or “has nothing to do with skill”. As discussed in a previous article, the element of chance is essentially part of the game, and shouldn’t be removed entirely.
Incidentally, there is the issue of hacking, which I am certain has something to do with toxic players. This also has something to do with how long it takes to prepare a battle-ready team for a tournament (which, I won’t go into great detail here, is shorter now than it ever has been without hacking, and players still complain about it). Why spend under an hour (per Pokemon) catching, training, and perfecting your team setup, when you could type in a code, and have them all be ready in even less time? For whatever reason, a lot of hacking gets through the game’s servers and the tournament staff that it is still widespread. (Author’s note: I honestly don’t know how much hacking goes on, and can’t make any provable accusations, as hackers make the best possible sets for their Pokemon that are in the game’s limits, which is how they get away with it. All I can say is that one player I talked to in one tournament two or three years ago claimed that EVERYONE participating was doing it, even though it wasn’t allowed! Even so, I didn’t have any other problems with this player. If you know more about the hacking rate than I do, let me know in the comments!)
- The Goals:
OK this section will list what goals might need to be achieved to claim that the competitive Pokemon game is balanced. These will be listed from bare minimum to the perfect pie-in-the-sky achievement of game design. These will not show the exact methods to get there, or even the additional issues that will be faced along the way, it will just be what the designers should be trying to achieve.
- At least 3 Pokemon of each type in the game are useful. Pokemon types are vital to keeping each other Pokemon in check, with the differing weakness and resistances to limit each others powers, similar to rock-paper-scissors. I say 3, just so there is some semblance of variety.
- Most Pokemon of each type is likely to be useful. Here, I am suggesting more variety is good. If the game can achieve this, players won’t get too bored from seeing the same opponents over and over again.
- With the exception of joke/gimmick based Pokemon, all fully evolved Pokemon are useful. Let’s face it, this is a hard task to get right, and not all Pokemon are created equal. At this stage of balancing, the designers acknowledge that some of their treasured characters won’t make the competitive cut. This is one of the more likely scenarios in the long run.
- Every fully evolved Pokemon is useful. I’m almost certain that many players would like this to happen. This goal does cut down on the number of characters to be used in the game in comparison to the final goal.
- Every Pokemon in the game has some sort of use. Considering that there are currently 807 Pokemon in the game, and that number will climb once the unnamed switch game comes out next year, the odds of getting this to happen are very slim. It should be noted that most competitive games with multiple playable characters aim to have all characters be useful and counter one another. It is sort of a shame that this doesn’t get close to happening in Pokemon.
- Possible Solutions
Here, I will list some solutions to this problem. Keep in mind that these are possibilities, and are not guaranteed to happen, or to even work as expected.
- Enact Symmetry. This very simple solution probably won’t work or happen. Symmetry means that everything is equal. If this happened, all Pokemon would look different, but play the same. This “solution” would lead to a very fair game, but also a boring one. A similar way to do this could include everyone uses 6 Pokemon that is categorized a certain way in each of their teams. This is like how each chess piece has different play styles but both players have the same number of each piece in the same orientation on the board. This would force everyone to use a similar team composition, and to arrange them somewhat differently. It might work, but forcing less creative team setups to not exist may make the problem worse.
- Add new counters to existing powerhouses. This is an obvious solution, and one of the most likely. Doing this too much may just lead to more powerhouses, making even some moderately strong Pokemon look weak. This might actually be why the game looks the way it does.
- Improve existing Pokemon that are relatively weak. This happens more than you might think. Pokemon already in the game have been improved when new Pokemon are introduced. Here’s a quick list of how some Pokemon have changed:
- Gained new moves.
- Gained or changed abilities.
- Some stats have increased.
- Gained a new form/Mega Evolution
- Type has changed (when new types have been added)
- Any of the above parts can also be altered to strengthen or weaken a Pokemon.
- Weaken stronger Pokemon. This rarely happens directly. This usually happens when a new type is introduced to counter a powerful Pokemon type. Examples included bringing in dark-types to counter psychic-types, and creating fairy-types to counter dragon-types. Also, sometimes moves a Pokemon gets are altered to make them weaker. When the Sun and Moon games came out, Smeargle could no longer learn or use the move Dark Void, limiting its ability to put foes to sleep.
- Create an adjustable online ban-list. This is no doubt one of the easier ways to fix balance issues with the game. I am suggesting that the Pokemon designers make a ban-list they can edit. It should be view-able by the players whenever they need to see it. To ensure that this is done right, this will require lots and lots of play-testing. While I am sure that The Pokemon Company does this to some degree, they do not have an army of testers that is roughly equal in numbers or thought processes as the fan-base. To make up for that, they have to observe the play stats of countless online matches. They have to look at how often each Pokemon is used, what it wins or loses against, and under what circumstances these things occur. While the Pokemon global link offer some insight on this for players, it doesn’t show everything. It doesn’t currently show how often each Pokemon is used, though it does show the ranking of its usage (it shows the ranking based on how often it is used, without the percentage of battles it is used in). The current ban list is based on a Pokemon’s Pokedex number (which means whether it is legendary, mythical, or not). No common Pokemon is currently banned, at least officially, though it is something they should consider until a Pokemon has changed in strength, or the game is re-balanced in some way.
And that just about wraps up what might need to be addressed to fix the Pokemon competitive game. This list is by no means comprehensive, and mostly covers issues in the VGC scene, as well as the game’s official rules. But what do you think would fix this game? Are there any goals or fixes I may have missed in this article? What changes would you like to see to help balance the Pokemon games? Tell me all this and more in the comment’s below!