3 timeless lessons from Pokémon on designing enduring worlds

650 million downloads & $1 billion in revenue later the monster success of Niantic’s Pokémon Go is undeniable. The Pokémon franchises 1996 Gameboy origins is well known gaming lore, but did you know the pocket monsters we’ve been chasing worldwide have 2,000 years of history behind them?

 

1) Tap into your culture’s creative lineage which has persisted to the modern day

The idea of exploring mountains and seas to catch and battling elemental monsters didn’t spring from Pokémon alone. It has centuries of history in the mythology of Pokémon’s homeland of Japan.

Master onmyouji Abe no Seimei with his shikigami monsters
The five elements

The Yin Yang and elemental weakness/resistance theory that formed the basis of Onmyudo was transmitted to Japan via trade with the Chinese Tang dynasty in the 6th century.

The Tang dynasty in turn were influenced by the mythology of the older 1st century BCE Han dynasty, who wrote imagination provoking bestiaries like the Classics of Mountains and Seas detailing exotic lands and fantastic monsters found within them.

Nine-tailed foxes are among the monsters detailed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas…

In turn Han dynasty sources claim this knowledge came from legendary 30th century BCE emperor Yu the Great who commanded mystic dragons to master the elements. This ancient Chinese mythology blended with native Japanese animism, through the centuries producing many colorful tales of humans commanding monsters in strategic duels taking into account the strategic weakness and resistances of their monsters.

18th century woodblock print showing magicians of Japanese mythology competing with their monsters

 

2) Draw from that which has been tried & proven by peers

As technology advanced the Ancient East Asian storytelling tradition of monster catching and battling endured into the 20th century and adapted with the technology of the times. In the 60’s the hit scifi TV show Ultraman captured the imagination of Japan with larger than life heroes battling giant monsters, some monsters were even stored in capsules and fought alongside the hero. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri has talked about the influence of Ultraman on his hit game franchise.

Early concept art by Ken Sugimori, “Capsule Monsters”

By the 1980’s the ultra-modern nation of Japan saw a renewed interest in ancient fantasy, popular new fiction like Teito Monogatari prominently featured the monster commanding onmyouji of old transplanted to the world of 20th century Japan.

Some readers may know Teito Monogatari through its movie adaption Doomed Megalopolis

The occult boom of the 80’s also coincided with the widespread adaption of home computers and video game consoles, leading to new video games like Megami Tensei based on popular novels where ancient mythological monsters appear in the present day but could be controlled by computer programs much like how ancient onmyouji controlled them with seals brushed onto paper.

Awesome Shin Megami Tensei cover art by Kazuma Kaneko
Like Pokémon the journey begins with a professor, and then you upload monsters into computers

Megami Tensei game mechanics greatly influenced the turn based elemental monster catching, battling, and evolving gameplay of Pokémon . While the single player Megami Tensei series had a hardcore cult following on home consoles, Pokémon added a social element of face to face interaction on the widely popular Gameboy portable.

 

 

3) Distill the best from your own personal experiences

Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri spent his childhood in the suburbs of Tokyo exploring tall grass, streams and trees for beetles to battle with, tadpoles and other pocket sized critters to collect, earning him the title of ‘Dr. Bug’ from his schoolmates. His interest in the emergent media of video games also lead him to start the fanzine Game Freak, which in time became the game company that would develop Pokémon.

Beetle Sumo is still popular across Japan and Southeast Asia

As Tajiri grew older those bits of wildlife in the city steadily disappeared under the concrete of urbanization. Where once was grass was now pavement, the pond now a mall, a generation of children were growing up without the same neighborhood access to nature as Tajiri did. But this new generation also had something he didn’t at their age, games on portable electronics that let players play on the go.

With the help of modern technology Satoshi Tajiri digitized his childhood experience of exploration and creature catching to a new generation growing up in the big city.

 

Cultural lineage, proven methods of peers, and personal experience all came together in the 1996 release of the first Pokémon games, resulting in 30+ million sales worldwide. Sequels came out on Nintendo portables and regularly sold 10+ million copies but never quite reached the numbers of the original.

Into the 21st century Pokémon has been adapted by Niantic to reach the widest global audience, mobile. Like how the original Gameboy Pokémon drew from contemporary titles, Pokémon Go’s mechanics are based on Niantic’s previous geocaching mobile game Ingress. But the element of Pokémon monsters rooted the AR mobile game in a concept of exploring a world full of monsters that has entertained humans for millennia. As ancient civilizations told stories of fantastic monsters on far away mountains and seas, we can now find them by walking down the street.