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Pokémon Snap had a different kind of focus | Why I Love

Tag Games CEO Marc Williamson believes developers could learn from the Nintendo photo safari's escapist tourism without pressure

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Marc Williamson, CEO at Tag Games, which is working with Adult Swim on Pocket Mortys and with NaturalMotion on CSR2.

I should make this clear from the off, I'm not much of a Pokémon fan. I completely missed out on the initial craze in the mid '90s. Back then I was filling up my gaming life with more “mature” games; competing with my friends in GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, exploring the futuristic universes of Deus Ex, or playing Counter-Strike with my roommates.

But in the year 2000, I was returning home for the Christmas holidays for the first time since starting University. My 12-year-old brother was playing Pokémon Snap and as I watched him play, I was intrigued. With a couple of weeks to kill at home over the holiday season, I decided to start my own save file.

Pokémon Snap was an on-rails shooter that traded ammo for film

Pokémon Snap was an on-rails shooter that traded ammo for film

What instantly struck me was that the pace of Pokémon Snap was so different from what I was used to playing. It was such a lean back and relax experience that was so alien to me from other gaming experiences. I didn't know the difference between Pikachu and a Poliwag (I still don't, to be honest, and usually refer to them as the "Main One" and "Swirly Belly"), but that wasn't what kept me coming back.

Back then, there was the Pokémon anime on TV and Pokémon Red, Green, and Yellow on the Game Boy, with a big fanbase. I wasn't part of that following, and didn't know much about the world of Pokémon, but what was great about Pokémon Snap was that it functioned as a solid entry point. They installed the game into hotels everywhere and had prominent stands in Blockbuster where you could print off your favourite snap onto a bunch of stickers.

The N64 technology at the time was starting to get a little long in the tooth and we were seeing what the next generation was able to do with Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, but these simple animations and colourful characters were able to produce an experience that allowed me to get lost in a joyous, simple world. I could absorb the world of Pokémon at my own pace, without the pressure of potentially losing a fight. Sure, Professor Oak's scoring method was bizarre, but that made the game better. It wasn't frustrating; it just made you want to go back and try again.

"The lack of threat and violence was a refreshing change of pace... I wasn't being attacked and stressing out about my HP declining"

Until that point, most of the games I had played centred around some sort of conflict and violence or, at the very least, were incredibly competitive as with racing games. Pokémon Snap took some elements from these, as it was fundamentally an on-rails shooter, yet the lack of threat and violence was a refreshing change of pace (although I did enjoy bouncing an apple off a Pokémon's head). I could still shoot - albeit with a camera instead of a gun - but I wasn't being attacked and stressing out about my HP declining. I could just… chill. The challenge of collecting them all and getting those grades from Professor Oak felt immediately intuitive to me.

Pokémon Snap isn't a long, complex or particularly deep experience, but the fact you can play the same route many times over and have a slightly different experience -- trying to get better pictures each time -- was just the thing I needed to relax after my first term at University away from home. Essentially for me, it felt like the game equivalent of binge-watching daytime TV; I could just tune out of everything else that I had on my mind.

Photo mechanics have been embraced by many games but are rarely the focus

Photo mechanics have been embraced by many games but are rarely the focus

I still seek out these experiences in games now. I can't count the number of hours I've spent exploring worlds looking for interesting things and avoiding the main story progression. Now, when I play a game like Fallout, Zelda, or Red Dead Redemption, I take the time to appreciate the smaller details and systems designers implemented that offer a more relaxing experience than the more urgent main missions.

As developers, it's a shame that we spend so much time building incredibly detailed and rich worlds, only for people to rush through them completing missions rather than taking time to linger around, indulging in the side quests. I'm a big fan of open world titles like No Man's Sky, Abzu, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture that embrace this kind of low key, playful exploration. I think there is a lot more potential for these kinds of experiences.

"Pokémon Snap had a deeper impact on my career than I ever would have expected when I first tried it that quiet Christmas holiday"

The photography elements of Pokémon Snap have been incorporated into a lot of games as an additional element. Games like Wind Waker, Spider-Man, Dead Rising, and Red Dead Redemption 2 use this mechanic, but capturing images in these games is rarely the main goal (with the exception being the Fatal Frame series where you capture ghosts with an enchanted camera). Pokémon Snap managed to take what would usually be an ongoing side quest or mini-game and spin an entire adventure out of it!

This is why I still think a lot about my time playing Pokémon Snap. When I started up my first games company, our first title was a relaxed frustration-free experience for the Nintendo DS (though sadly this title never got released), and I think Pokémon Snap had a deeper impact on my career than I ever would have expected when I first tried it that quiet Christmas holiday.

As we know, games are a great form of escapism. These types of games offer a kind of virtual tourism without pressure, where you can explore and relax at your own pace. I think that's why games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons have found such a huge audience, especially in the current climate where navigating the real world can be quite stressful.

I was excited to hear the announcement of a new Pokémon Snap coming to Switch, but I still have a soft spot for the original. I still have the N64 cartridge, and I've recently bought a converter to play N64 games via HDMI just so I can recapture this experience two decades later. It's been a lot of fun getting back into the flying minecart thing again, throwing apples into Pokémon faces, trying to get that ultimate snap.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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