The Ultimate Longitudinal UX Project: The Legacy and Modernity of Pokemon
Video games occupy a unique intersection at a pile of design theories. Game design, story design, character design, user experience design, interface design... all of these practices and more must come together to create a cohesive whole. And if a franchise is lucky, they get to try it over, and over, and over again.
In it's 20 year history, Pokemon has iterated on its UX across an incredible 15 generations in the core series alone, with multiple generations featuring multiple titles (27 total). With each generation, features have been added, tweaked, and removed. Graphics have improved and complexity has grown. But Game Freak's designers never lost their ties to the original formula.
I was a true original player - I clearly recall the explosive popularity of Pokemon when I was 9 years old. I had never been allowed video games beyond whatever came with my parents' grey Win95 Compaq, but somehow I managed to squeeze a translucent purple Game Boy Color and a copy of Pokemon Red out of my father one day at the Northern Lights Fred Meyer's in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska.
I loved every aspect, even the slow, plodding pace of my avatar's walk. It was my very first video game, what did I know? I had my team of six and a backpack full of items. I fought wild Pokemon and other Trainers. There was only one way to access anything - through layers and layers of menus, with either A to confirm or B to cancel. That was it.
Fast forward to the next Pokemon game that really recaptured my attention - Pokemon X, the first of the modern generations housed on the Nintendo 3DS. It caught my attention because it was one of the first to boast a significant number of original Pokemon in its roster. It was a good marketing move on their part, clearly and effectively targeted at potential returning adult players like me.
I was blown away. I knew the games had been growing, but I wasn't prepared. On the 3DS, vibrant color and joyful animations made the Pokemon that much more real. A new feature let you play with and "pet" them on the lower touch screen, something my younger self would have literally died over. New categories of items opened up new gameplay possibilities - and interface challenges. But the previously clunky menus were now navigable both with buttons or with the touch interface on the lower screen, meaning you could get around the increased content much faster than you could in the original schema.
Even in the two generations since, the masters at Game Freak have continued to iterate. For example in the latest game, action-based interfaces have become contextual. Previously, the Pokeballs, objects that allowed you to catch a monster (one of the most important aspects of the game), were menu layers deep. Now they're accessible with one action, but only when you're fighting a wild monster. It's the only time you need them. To me it means their designers are working to question previous interface assumptions and innovate simple but meaningful changes, even today.
The Pokemon games have been around now for two decades, and in that time they have proven themselves masters at iterating upon their own designs, capable of letting go of what isn't working and innovating in ways that are meaningful to users of all ages. Though the legacy of the original Pokemon is clearly in its DNA, the designers of the newest set of Pokemon games, Sun and Moon, have not let the past keep them from creating a clean, beautiful, and accessible user experience.