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Why Pokémon Go’s trainers don’t look like the ones you remember

It’s all about immersion

A photo shows Pokemon Go running on a phone Polygon

Pokémon Go’s art style noticeably differs from that of the main games in the series, but that wasn’t always the case. Early builds of the mega-hit Pokémon game featured far more familiar-looking trainers, as director of interaction and visual design showed off during Game Developers Conference 2017.

Niantic’s Dennis Hwang, who gave a talk on designing the augmented reality game, showed off several previously unseen looks at Pokémon Go’s design elements. These ranged from different versions of the overworld map and a variety of takes on the appearance of the battle screen, but it was the development studio’s original iteration of the trainer avatar that was most striking.

pokemon go gdc Allegra Frank/Polygon

Look familiar? The bust on-screen, used as the avatar in a very early prototype, was borrowed wholesale from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, the third pair of mainline titles in the role-playing series. Other screens showed the female trainer from those games as well, but neither one made it past the early stages of development.

pokemon go
Older, pre-release versions of Pokémon Go tried other cartoon-y takes on the avatar.
Allegra Frank/Polygon

“[In] the original IP, the trainers have a much younger look as the target audience tends to skew younger,” Hwang explained. “But for us, the avatars, we wanted to kind of elevate them to an older generation slightly.”

The reason for that wasn’t just demographically driven. Hwang spoke at length of the importance of avoiding cognitive dissonance, which he described as what happens when “your brain is struggling to make sense of ... two things that are clashing together.”

In the case of a location-based game like Pokémon Go, players risk losing immersion when the augmented version of reality on display in battles and beyond becomes too cartoonish. Even though the final overworld map design in Pokémon Go is abstract and Niantic’s has yet to implement complex time-of-day or weather effects, Hwang cited the avatars in particular as too close to the line between believable and otherwise.

pokemon go
Niantic initially tried to create more dynamic time of day effects to aid immersion.
Allegra Frank/Polygon

“We didn’t want some super stylized big-headed, small-bodied characters running on the map when you’re the real game hero. We kind of wanted to match the virtual with the physical.”

That’s paid off in a big way, Hwang explained. Although there are the occasional Pokémon fans who take issue with how different Pokémon Go’s art style is from the main games, Pokémon Go trainer costumes have become a popular cosplay option. The trainer’s look has become iconic, and an even wider array of customization choices are on the way to allow players to make their characters look even more like them.

At the same time, Niantic is working to bring Pokémon Go closer to its handheld game counterparts. CEO John Hanke said during a talk at Mobile World Congress this week that there’s a refined multiplayer component — including PvP and a revamped gym system — in the works, which Hwang echoed throughout his own speech.

For now, though, Pokémon Go remains its own unique take on the gotta-catch-’em-all formula, from its art style and beyond.

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