This is only the second time I’ve talked about a game before it’s even released – and both times, it’s been about the now-yearly release of a new main-line Pokémon title. I usually prefer to let something sit in my mind before I go back to it with properly-formed thoughts, but this franchise really gets me pre-emptively invested in a way that nothing else quite will.
And it’s not just me – the discussion around the upcoming Switch release has been especially contentious, moreso than about any other game in the franchise… except for last year’s Let’s Go, which I admit to being a bit critical of perhaps a bit too early. Maybe it’s because the culture around game announcements overall has been more jump-the-gun recently, or if it’s because the series has actually been taking more chances with its games (or, most likely, a mixture of the two).
This time, it’s less about the actual form of the gameplay itself – that’s making hit-or-miss changes like it always does that will realistically only have small effects on the game’s main play loop and perhaps larger effects on the 1% of folks who play these games in a competitive way.
Instead, the point of contention this time is about scale.
It was revealed through gameplay demonstrations and interviews about two months ago that, for the first time since… last year (or 2004, if you’re willingly not counting Let’s Go because it followed a slightly different mechanical format), the newest games wouldn’t be including every single member of the series’ roster – at least at launch.
And whether the knee-jerk reaction was because having all previous Pokémon available every time has become the norm, or players were more simply afraid that they’d have to leave their personal favorite Maractus behind in the game that it came from, people were very vocal about the decision.
Which – and this may be the passive Midwesterner in me coming out – is a totally reasonable thing to have done; both to make that decision and to have been upset about it.
There’s been way better looks at the situation by properly-qualified people who work in the industry, but by all accounts, this is a scaling problem baked into the very core of a series that started with 151 individualized party members and has only grown upward from there, to something in the realm of 900-1000 unique monsters once you consider how many of them have permanent and impermanent alternate forms. It says something when the overwhelming response from artists and animators to this debate has broadly been to the tune of “They have how many? And they didn’t start making cuts years ago?” It turns out that giving design updates and even a basic set of characteristic animations to hundreds of Pokémon – many of whom share nothing in common conceptually – is an incredibly time-consuming process.
And that’s while downplaying the notion of contemplating all of their unique abilities in whatever environment Game Freak using, then balancing all of those options for gameplay – and, admittedly, a lot of these guys have always been left in the dust or excelled above the others, some deliberately. But the supermajority of monsters are all at least serviceable in their own way for normal players, with few-to-none being especially ripe for exploitation, and that’s certainly not nothing. Cutting and re-introducing playable characters has been the norm for the majority of character-focused video games like fighting games, sports games, and even more story-focused role-playing games for ages. We shouldn’t exactly be surprised when we start to see the same thing happen in this case.
And there are good arguments in the other direction, too – as noted, news of came out of Pokémon being “cut” somewhat indirectly during an interview, rather than in a more direct form of communication, which led to the impression that this was being hidden from players and in turn set the whole exchange off on a wrong foot.
And there’s the fair criticism that Pokémon is the absolute largest media franchise in the world by revenue, beating Winnie-the-Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Star Wars all out by at least a cool 25% each (~$20 billion) despite the others all having somewhere between 19 and 72 years of a head-start, and these games are the primary face of that series. Surely they could afford to hire more artists and programmers to address what is almost purely a problem of scale (one of the few development problems you typically can address with more resources).
The issue with that line of reasoning is the nagging “If not now, when?” – even if the development team could address these issues now, when is it appropriate to start scaling back? When they would have to plan for 1200 individual Pokémon? 1500? At some point, we have to make peace with the fact that the core concept of the series just isn’t sustainable in a realistic way, especially while maintaining the level of polish that helps bestow these creatures with such an endearing charm.
So, the question that remains is how we can react to this in a responsible way.
We can let our concerns be known to those who can help course-correct the situation in a favorable way – albeit we have to be careful to keep language supportive, as this unfortunately has a tendency to slip into hostility even without intent. It can be disappointing when a product isn’t what we hoped for or even expected, but it shouldn’t be enraging for any party involved.
We can trust that the developers will eventually return to our personal favorites, and look forward to giving them more time in the sun – albeit that this is less likely for certain situations than others (consider poor Glameow, who has only been normally accessible without trading in a single additional game since her debut).
We can celebrate what we have, and remember that the old games aren’t going anywhere, especially with the quality of modern media preservation. I can still use Mareep to my heart’s content, just not in the new games – and the idea of her is still there in the broader scope of things. Even if it’s annoying to have to leave her behind for now, that doesn’t diminish what she’s been up until this point.
But most importantly of all, we can be empathetic. We have to acknowledge that this is inevitably a harder thing to do than it will look like from our side of the screen, and that design decisions don’t typically get made because a team is lazy or under-achieving. They get made because problems are tricky to solve without making trade-offs, or that the real world places constraints on what real humans are capable of. We can put ourselves in their shoes and say, “I love these, but we don’t need to hold onto all of them all the time, and that’s okay”.
We don’t have to settle for being fed something awful. But we don’t exactly have to bite a well-meaning hand, either.
If you’d like to see an exercise in putting the last two of these points in particular into practice, I’ve been re-visiting the design and lore behind each Pokémon in the series over at my concurrently-running blog, Dextraneous. The site will continue to updated daily throughout August, and then regularly until it exhausts all the available Pokémon, which should be sometime in half a decade from now. I wasn’t exaggerating about the scale problem, honest.