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What Pokémon Go teaches us about theme and aesthetics

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You don't need a huge property to reinvent your game

Pokémon Go has taken over the world, it seems. Yesterday I was contacted by a radio news show to talk about Pokémon, and I almost didn’t take the call because I was busy at the Cincinnati Court House trying to take over a gym. Not even jury duty could keep me away.

Pokémon Go is a powerful game that could change much about how people see gaming and its place in pop culture; so many friends and relatives who don’t play games have called asking for tips, or have just remarked on how many people they’ve seen playing the game. And this is in Ohio!

But there’s another aspect of the game’s success and creation that should be taken seriously and discussed in a bit more detail: the power of branding.

This is just Ingress

Pokémon Go is built on the skeleton of a mobile game called Ingress that offers many of the same mechanics but never took off in nearly the same way as Pokémon Go. We can deconstruct that all day, but it's at least partly due to the aesthetics and themes of Ingress, which is based much more on classical science fiction tropes.

Here’s a 2012 trailer for Ingress:

Here’s the latest trailer for Pokémon Go:

The games are similar, and they’re built in part by the same company. But the themes and approach to selling the games are markedly different. You could argue that the public’s pent-up demand for a Pokémon experience that doesn’t require dedicated Nintendo hardware has much to do with the success of Go, and that’s definitely part of the reason the game has become such a phenomena. But let’s not ignore the greater lesson about themes, aesthetics and branding that can benefit even much smaller games.

Steve Jackson Games already gets this

I love Zombie Dice. It’s a fun, simple dice game that anyone can understand, with a small footprint. You can throw it in your bag and enjoy a few quick rounds just about anywhere. It’s a popular game in our house, but it’s about killing zombies. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to kill zombies, and that aspect of the game limits its appeal.

So why stop with just zombies?

Steve Jackson Games later released Trophy Buck, a game based on Zombie Dice where you’re hunting deer, not zombies. "Trophy Buck is based on the Zombie Dice mechanic — but with four dice colors and 12 dice, it's a brand new experience," the official page states. The branding is also completely different, with images of deer and a cammo color scheme that appeals to a large population of players who may not care about zombies or dice games at all. But they’re into the idea of pretending to hunt.

I’ve seen Trophy Buck sold in the sporting goods sections of major retailers. It reaches out to a market that is all but untouched by the sort of games Steve Jackson normally releases. It’s a fun game; Steve Jackson Games isn't pandering to get a new market. The designers found a way to appeal to more people without reinventing the game completely.

These aren’t licenses; it doesn’t cost Steve Jackson an exorbitant amount to re-skin and sell these games to different markets. And the games are fun; the basic rules of Zombie Dice can be adapted to all sorts of different ideas. Like, say, dinosaurs?

Or even Batman, which is a licensed property.

The criticisms that Pokémon Go is just a reskinned Ingress miss the point. It’s not that players mindlessly follow their favorite brands; the reality is that we all have different emotional reactions to the trappings that exist around the core rules of a game. We think of those rules differently when they’re colored by how we think about science fiction, pocket monsters or even hunting. This isn’t a limitation, it’s an opportunity.

Aesthetics and branding can be just as important, if not moreso, than the rules of the game itself. This doesn’t have to mean licensing. It can be as simple as looking for opportunities to bring in players who may not normally look at your game by adjusting its setting and world.

These examples also prove that these trappings can, as long as the game supports it, be at least partially fluid. It’s possible Steve Jackson never runs out of ways to repackage Zombie Dice, and it’s always possible that Niantic has the freedom to license the guts of Ingress to other big-name properties, or try to develop more of its own.

The ways in which developers skin their mechanics matter, in other words, and there’s room for iteration. There’s even room for trying what amounts to the same game with a different skin. With a different look and feel. A well-known property isn’t necessary, although it’s always helpful.

If the gaming section of your local Walmart is too crowded, figure out how to move into the sporting goods section. It can be done.