If you have been following this blog for a while, you may know that I’m a pretty big Pokemon fan. My wife and I have played almost every game in the series, we have matching Plusle and Minun plushes, and I even wrote an entire article about my predictions for generation 8. Because of this, when I discovered a Kickstarter game that looked like it was planning to basically be the MMO version of Pokemon my feelings were…a bit mixed.
The game I am referring to is called Temtem, and a few months ago it raised over half a million dollars on Kickstarter, with nearly 12,000 backers. Those are some very impressive numbers, and they show that this is an idea that people definitely want. And on one level, I agree. Having more creature-catching games in the marketplace is never really a bad thing, and I think having some real competition would probably force Pokemon to become even better than it already is.
That being said, I have a lot of problems with how Temtem is going about this. While every game takes inspiration from other games, there is a difference between being inspired by a game and ripping it off wholesale, and I’m not really sure which side of the line Temtem is on. In addition, a lot of the changes that the designers did make to the Pokemon formula are, I believe, somewhat misguided, and won’t have the effect that they hoped.
The Sincerest form of Flattery
Temtem does not try to hide the fact that it is heavily inspired by Pokemon. The entire premise of the game is taken directly from that inspiration. In this game you play as a young child who travels around a series of islands to collect and battle creatures known as Temtem(s?). You battle other trainers, build your team, and aim to become the best.
If that was where the similarity ended, then it would not really be an issue. There is very little in this world that is truly original, and these core mechanics are the foundation for an entire genre of games that have been inspired by Pokemon. However, the similarities go much further than this.
Temtem does not simply copy the broad strokes of Pokemon, but has also taken a number of very specific details as well. Each Temtem has up to 3 stages of evolution, you can carry 6 of them with you on a team, and you must battle 8 special trainers (called “Dojo leaders”) to become a Temtem master.
You can also breed Temtems to inherit stats and learn new moves that they couldn’t learn otherwise, find specially colored “luma” Temtem that are extremely rare, and face against the evil “Clan Belsoto”. All of these details, and many others, are ripped directly from Pokemon.
The question is, how much can a game copy from another game before it goes too far? That’s a bit of a tricky question. It is possible for game mechanics to be patented – Monopoly was patented in 1935, and in 1994 Richard Garfield applied for a patent for Magic: The Gathering. However, this process is lengthy and time-consuming, and very few game makers undergo this process.
Another reason many games do not patent their mechanics is because it is bad for the industry as a whole. The field of game design thrives off of borrowing and combining elements from other games, and if everything was patented this would stifle creativity. Imagine how difficult it would be to design games if mechanics such as “experience points” or “skill trees” were patented!
However, copyright and trademarks are a bit of a different issue. While patents have to be applied for in a lengthy process, copyright and trademark are assigned automatically to the creators of a given work. These protections apply to the creative elements of the game, such as names, characters, and artwork.
There have been many legal battles in the past around games copying other games, and most of them revolve around copyright infringement. While you are unlikely to get into legal trouble for copying another game’s mechanics, you can get into serious issues for copying their appearance.
However, over the last few years things have gotten a little murkier as far as what parts of games can be protected. One example is the legal case between the games Yeti Town and Triple Town. In this case, the makers of Triple Town sued Yeti Town due to similarities to their own games. The two games were almost identical from a gameplay perspective, but Yeti Town tweaked the appearance and graphics of the games in order to appear distinct.
Yeti Town motioned to dismiss the case, believing that the changes they made to the game’s appearance meant that they were legally allowed to copy whatever they wanted. The Judge, however, denied the motion to drop the case, believing that there was enough evidence to take it to trial. The core of the decision seems to go down to the separation between the idea of a game, and the expression of that idea. You cannot copyright the core idea behind a game, but you can copyright how that idea gets expressed.
In the past this simply meant the art, music, and characters, but the Judge’s statement took a more expansive view of what can be copyrighted in a game. Specifically, he claimed that elements such as “plot, theme, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, and character” could be protected. The case ended up reaching a settlement, and copyright control of Yeti Town ended up being transferred to the makers of Triple Town.
So what does this mean for Temtem? While it does not steal any of Pokemon’s creative elements directly, it definitely has a lot of similarities. The visual style is different, but
many of the creature designs are very reminiscent of Pokemon designs. Going back to the Judge’s statement in the Triple Town case, the plot, theme, mood and dialogue also seem to be very similar. If Pokemon did choose to take legal action against Temtem I am not sure they would win, but I’m not sure they would lose either.
While Temtem copies a lot of elements from the Pokemon games, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t add anything new. On the contrary, Temtem makes a number of adjustments to the Pokemon formula – some minor, others quite large. When drawing inspiration from another game it is tempting to make changes to “fix” what you see as problems with the originals. Unfortunately, many of the changes that Temtem makes are, I believe, not for the better.
The biggest and most obvious change that Temtem makes is the addition of online play. Specifically, the entire game is basically a MMO, where you share the world with thousands of other players on a shared server. This allows players to meet, interact and battle with tamers from all over the world in real time.
On the one hand, I think that adding more online functionality to the game could have some interesting possibilities. Imagine teaming up with a group of 5 or 6 of your friends to take on an incredibly powerful legendary Temtem that you couldn’t handle on your own, or participating in real-time in-game events with thousands of other players.
Unfortunately, the trailers don’t show any of that. As far as I can tell, the main result of the MMO aspects of this game is that the streets will be clogged and crowded with other players and their Temtem followers while you try and make your way though. Not to mention, it doesn’t appear as if the game will have an option for a single-player, offline experience.
I’ll freely admit that I am not very big on online games in general, and prefer to play solo most of the time. A lot of people love playing online, but there are others who (like me) would prefer to go through their Temtem adventure without having to wait in line behind 12 other people trying to fight the same Dojo leader. I simply think that not designing for that experience was a major oversight.
Besides the online features, many of the other changes were made to make the game more “competitive”. These changes include eliminating random elements from battles to make the game “100% skill and strategy based”, adding a pick and ban phase to competitive battling, and reducing the amount of times you can breed a Temtem (to make it more difficult to get one with perfect stats?).
I understand the desire to eliminate randomness from your game to make it more competitive, but it usually does not have the effect that people expect. I have written before about the complicated relationship between randomness and strategy, but for a quick recap: random elements do not always make a game less strategic. In fact, forcing people to respond to randomness, or to plan their strategy with it in mind can actually make the game more strategic, more competitive, and more fun.
Looking at Pokemon specifically, it’s easy to feel bad after losing a battle because the other person got a critical hit, or because one of your moves missed. However, consider what it would mean if Pokemon had no randomness at all in it. Yes, it would mean that there are no critical hits, and that every attack always does the same amount of damage. But it would also take away so much more.
Goodbye to all moves that have a certain percent chance of causing a status effect, flinching, or raising/lowering a stat. Gone are all multiple hit moves, because there can be no variation on how many times they hit. Gone are status effects that have a percentage chance of causing something to happen. And, if all moves have perfect accuracy, gone are the tough choices about which moves to teach your Temtem.
Take the Pokemon moves Icebeam and Blizzard. Icebeam has a power of 90, and is 100% accurate. Blizzard has a power of 110 and is 70% accurate. Both of these moves have their place, and neither is strictly better than the other. Sometimes you are willing to take the risk for some extra power, other times you need the guaranteed accuracy. Having a move that doesn’t always hit adds strategic depth to the game, even though it also increases randomness.
As for the other strategic changes…they are fine, I guess. I don’t really think that Pokemon needs a pick/ban phase, but okay. As for the changes to breeding, I just find those confusing. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind the “genetic degradation” score was, or why it is passed on to the Temtem’s children. It is a very strange change that doesn’t seem to add much, but I guess they want people to be more careful with breeding their Temtems?
I want to end this section with a question – who is this game for? It seems that the target market for this game is, specifically, competitive Pokemon players. It is definitely not aimed at the more casual crowd. I think that it may have some success a convincing competitive Pokemon players to at least give it a try, but I don’t think that it will last. By eliminating randomness, I think that the battles are going to end up feeling stale, and it won’t be able to sustain its playerbase for long.
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for the long-awaited next installment of the History of Game Design!