Invisible Power And First Order Optimal Strategies

Remember back in the old days of pokemon when you’d end up with a move set like this:
Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 5.04.04 PM

Ah, the nostalgia! Now that we have more perspective, we can critique that move set a little more intelligently.

  1. They’re all attack moves
  2. Half the moves are low base power
  3. It gets rekt by anything with a ground type

So here’s an interesting question: Why did we end up with movesets like that to begin with? Well, aside from stuff like not knowing what moves do (lol gen 1), the reasoning was straight-forward enough: they all visually move us toward our goal (read: shrink opponent health bars) and if you’re going to do damage, may as well get the Same Type Attack Bonus, right? By comparison, moves like Thunder Wave, let alone Growl seemed to do little at all.

This is a great example of a First Order Optimal Strategy. It’s really straight-forward to figure out, and it’s at least somewhat effective until you get deeper into a game. While it’s true that any skilled Pokemon Trainer would be able to tell you many ways to improve that moveset, it’s important to resist the temptation to say that such an inoptimal strategy is useless fluff that adds no value to the game. After all, it’s very important that players who are just starting out have a place to start from. The last thing most of your players will want to have to do is to have the work of understanding the game they’re playing imposed upon them before they actually get to have fun with that game.

Generation 2

Let’s go back to move set examples. Here’s an example you might see from Generation 2:

CaptureWe can see that there are some pretty major improvements over the last one:

  • Gengar is a fully evolved pokemon. Way to take advantage of those improved base stats!
  • Type coverage! There is some in this set!
  • All the moves are special types, which lets them take advantage of Gengar’s high Special Attack, rather than relying on its lower Attack.

Assuming it’s the same player who made this moveset, they’ve clearly improved! On top of the goal of “reduce the enemy health bar to zero”, this player is now taking into account the different types of pokemon they might face, and has brought different types of moves to try to score super-effective hits on more different types of pokemon. It should be noted that this is in spite of the Same Type Attack Bonus, so we can see that the player has realized that the potential value of being able to score super-effective attacks can be greater than always getting the STAB.

We can also conclude that the player is now taking their pokemon’s stats into consideration, evidenced by their evolution of their pokemon and aligning their moves to be Special category moves. Of course, there are still a few things that could be worked on (we haven’t even talked about how overpowered “switch” is as a move yet, or held items), but what’s really fascinating is looking at the types of improvements that were made.

You haven’t mentioned “Invisible Power” yet

Extending this discussion into current dominant strategies in the Pokemon metagame is beyond the scope of this post, what I was trying to point out was that when players decide which strategies they want to use, there tend to be some mechanics that are more “visible” than others. More players will sooner recognize them as useful than other mechanics. In our examples, we can see that the attribute of a move doing damage is noticed almost immediately and appreciated. It’s only later on that things like having more stats, or trying to hit weaknesses become considerations as well. It’s important to note that the amount that these considerations contribute to winning or their “power” isn’t necessarily correlated with the visibility of these contributions. That is to say, players don’t necessarily tend toward attack moves more because it’s more important than having type coverage. Indeed, while all advanced players should always be keeping type coverage in mind, it is a very valid choice to trade a move that immediately does damage for a move that does something else useful. However, because type coverage doesn’t get noticed as quickly we might call it’s power less visible, or in an extreme case “invisible”.

This can be a major problem for games because it basically means that it’s difficult to understand how to play the game correctly. Some common culprits for less visible power include:

  • abstract things
    • stat steroids
    • probability/statistics
  • gradual things
    • Damage over time effects
    • HP regen effects
    • movement speed
  • pure information
    • vision in fog of war
    • range
  • incomplete things or small changes
    • healing, especially if it doesn’t heal its target fully
    • reading “300 damage” vs reading “360 damage”

This list is by no means exhaustive, just a bunch of things I could think of off the top of my head. Next week, I’ll talk about a few ways that I’ve seen designers handle this problem.




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