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Video Game Empires: Pokémon and Civilization

Ryan Ackerman (3L)

How do you build a video game empire, selling millions of copies effortlessly each time a new installment is released? If you asked Firaxis and Game Freak, the developers of Civilization and Pokémon, respectively, they would probably tell you to make essentially the same game every few years, slap a new number on it denoting a new generation, and then take your millions to the bank. A simplification for sure, but it doesn’t change the fact that playing either of these games is not a marked departure from anything that has come before. However, with the recent releases of Civilization 6 and Pokémon Sun & Moon (the “7th generation”), it’s fascinating to see how these two franchises are responding to shifts in the gaming world in very different ways.

Civilization 6 is fundamentally the same game that Civ has always been: an abstraction of history over a turn based (not real time) engine. The point is to lead your people from humble beginnings to the heights of greatness with victory conditions possible in a number of different ways. The relatively peaceful strategies of cultural or scientific victory remain, with the diplomatic victory at the UN from Civ 5 replaced with a religious victory condition in 6. Militarily, the new barbarian units are relentless, meaning that your hopes of starting early with monuments and libraries will have to take a backseat to at least some military involvement at your borders. I’ve seen the AI toppled by barbarians, so a new player ignores them at their own peril. Despite that relatively minor disturbance to early game strategies, nothing much has changed since 5, although they do seem to be listening to the community and improving communication of details (especially the AI’s intentions) to streamline the micromanagement of your empire.

Pokémon too has changed little from its earliest incarnations. You simply run around a region with your favourite monsters, either collecting them all or battling your way to champion status. Where Firaxis seems to listen to its fan base, the developers of Pokémon seem to be trolling everybody with their design decisions. Some of the most acclaimed features such as the ability to auto-run (without holding that pesky B button) in HeartGold and SoulSilver (not to mention the monsters following behind you like in the tv show), were seen in one generation and never seen again. The monsters are sometimes cool, clever, or interesting, but often are equal parts cheesy, simplistic, and stupid. It really doesn’t matter; people still collect them all.

Each new generation of both franchises primarily tinkers in the margins, improving some features, adding and dropping others, continually making the games feel different while keeping play fundamentally the same. However the gaming world is changing. More titles are being released and different types of games are beginning to challenge the orthodoxy of these two ancient behemoths of video games franchises.

Civilization is predominantly trending towards a “board game” feel. The new mechanics of drawing policy cards to fill your government is a great example. It implements a common board game mechanic and because of it’s computerized roots, can do things no board game can match. Here, it stacks bonuses for keeping the same government type, rewarding stability at the expense of the amazingly adaptive government system. The map mechanics of unstacked city districts also feels very much like the board games Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and the like. Tile laying prowess is rewarded by adjacency bonuses and later wonders or policies that will stack with careful planning. Firaxis has made clear that Civ’s path forward will be to move away from the more role-playing experiences in rival games Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis.

Pokémon seems to be travelling in the opposite direction, simplifying things in Sun & Moon to such a degree that experienced players might even find it condescending. Now when you’re launching an attack, it will tell you beforehand if it will be super effective or not very, no memory skills required! Developers have made it clear that progressing through gyms is not the primary method of advancing in Sun & Moon. Instead, the game is broken into many small “trials” to collect z-crystals, and generally explore the islands. From there, a player may face off against a “Totem” (think boss pokemon), and then challenge the island leader to unlock the next island. This seems to be a convoluted replacement for “beat gym and advance to the next area”, but they want to get away from Pokémon being all about battling. The goal is clear, tap the market of people whose gaming is limited to an hour a day on their smartphones, and who cannot be bothered to remember the type matchups or level up their Pokémon to beat a particularly difficult gym leader.

The gaming world has clearly shifted. With Firaxis’s and Civilization’s dominance of the 4x market under direct attack from the massively in depth titles from Paradox, they decided to make the ultimate board game. Pokémon Go’s runaway success has obviously had a major impact on how Game Freak sees the future of Pokémon’s fan base, and it seems to be responding by attempting to get those casual gamers to purchase a gaming system and experience Pokémon in full. In any case, both franchises will sell in the tens of millions and be played for hundreds of hours by devotees of both.

Civilization 6 was released October 21, 2016. Pokémon Sun & Moon was released November 18, 2016.