Pokémon Retrospective, Part 3: Modern Poké-Problems

In 2012, I thought I’d outgrown Pokemon. I never bought a DS to play Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, and I didn’t feel anything when I saw the remakes of Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver on store shelves. In fact, I felt like I’d outgrown video games in general. During this time I only casually played Super Smash Bros. Melee and Mario Kart Wii with friends. I never finished Skyward Sword, and I only barely finished Super Mario Galaxy 2 and the Portal duology.

I used to think I was “too old” for Pokemon, and then Pokemon X and Y were released as the first mainline 3D Pokemon games, and I realized I’d probably never outgrow Pokemon.

And yet when Pokemon X and Y were released in 2013, the idea of a truly 3D Pokemon game intrigued me. In 2014 I played Pokemon X and, well… here I am, 8 years later, analyzing Pokemon and other video games on the internet and not even getting paid for it.

Game Informer interview with Junichi Masuda (left) and Shigeru Ohmori (right). Junichi Masuda took up the helm as director for Pokemon after Satoshi Tajiri worked on Pokemon Gens 1 and 2. Masuda has been the director for Pokemon Black and White, Pokemon X and Y, and Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee. As of June 2022, Masuda has officially left Game Freak to work at The Pokemon Company and now Ohmori is the leader for mainline Pokemon titles.

Today I’m going to talk about Game Freak’s shortcomings as a game developer and the many issues still plaguing the Pokemon series, focusing on Generations 6, 7, and 8. While I don’t want to sugarcoat the problems, I admit I have a bias in favor of Gen 6 and Gen 7. They are how I got back into video games; naturally, I have a soft spot for them. I think they still do many things right. The designs are charming, the soundtracks are always a bop, the regions have a strong theme, and I applaud the character customization. They make me nostalgic even though I initially played them as an adult. With this post I’m aiming to offer realistic solutions that the studio could implement, and they might even be already putting them into the upcoming games Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

James Turner in an interview with Game Informer. Turner was the Art Director for Pokemon Generations 6, 7, and 8 and designed several Pokemon featured in those games. As of June 2022, Turner has left Game Freak and founded his own studio, All Possible Futures.

A Sluggish Train with a Tight Deadline

Right away I need to make this absolutely clear: yes, Pokemon is the largest grossing multi-media franchise of all time. Yes, The Pokemon Company makes billions of dollars in revenue. However, this publisher has put Game Freak on a short leash. And this leash isn’t as flexible as you may think.

Game Freak showing Game Informer a sneak peek at the development process of Pokemon Sword and Shield.

I never found this information in an official interview, so I can’t say it’s official information, but if you look at Pokemon’s release dates, it’s plain to see that Game Freak has a strict deadline: they must release a new Generation every 3 years. Pokemon Black and White came out in 2010, X and Y in 2013, Sun and Moon in 2016, Sword and Shield in 2019, and now Scarlet and Violet in 2022. I guarantee you that Gen 10 will come out in 2025. The Pokemon Company is a well-oiled machine of anime, merchandise, and trading cards. Game Freak does not have leeway to veer from that course. New plushies must be on shelves every 3rd holiday. Spinoffs may get more development time, but not a mainline game.

Game Freak employees hard at work – this is actually the Gear Project team, which work on original IPs. The group is rather small compared to the Pokemon team and the R&D team.

You may think that there’s still an easy solution to this: just hire more employees. And to an extent, that solution can work. However, the larger a studio gets, the harder it becomes to communicate between everyone and get every developer on the same page. And there are certain parts of game development that just… they need time. I don’t like this quote, but I find it relevant to Game Freak’s situation: “9 women can’t make a baby in a month.” In other words, you can’t just throw more people at a project and expect it to get done faster. The time that you spend training them and getting them caught up with the rest of the team may slow your project down rather than speed it up. Any other modern AAA Role-Playing Game takes 5 years or more to develop, and these devs usually have some wiggle room to delay their game. Game Freak enjoys no such luxury.

Nintendo Life interview with Shigeru Ohmori (left) and Kasumasa Iwao (right). Ohmori has become the director for the flagship mainline games such as Pokemon Sun and Moon and Pokemon Sword and Shield, while Iwao has become the director for mid-generation games such as Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon and Pokemon Legends Arceus.

And yes it’s true that Game Freak has multiple teams working within its studio, so multiple projects are being developed simultaneously, but that comes with its own set of problems. The changes and tweaks that one team makes won’t necessarily translate to the other team. Features and improvements remain inconsistent across the franchise. Furthermore, Dev kits aren’t given out 5 years in advance; development for a new console is always a shot in the dark until that dev kit arrives. While vague ideas for Sword and Shield were probably floating around as early as 2015, true concept work didn’t start until 2016. Keep in mind, too, the sheer number of creatures in Pokemon games makes its scope significantly larger than other JRPGs.

Game Freak’s office in Tokyo. During the development of Pokemon Sword and Shield, the studio dramatically expanded its employee count to help with the increased workload of developing for an HD console.

In summary: making a Pokemon game involves more work with less time and flexibility. Pokemon is a massive cargo-laden train that has to stick to the impeccable schedule of a city monorail. When you notice how modern Pokemon games feel underwhelming in comparison to its masterpiece contemporaries like Persona 5 and Dragon Quest XI… that’s why. I don’t want to excuse Game Freak, but I want to help everyone understand what’s going on. Professional game developers are still human. There are still some elements to their development cycle that are outside of their control.

Realistic Problems and Solutions

As much as I can empathize with Game Freak, many of Pokemon’s problems aren’t necessarily related to time crunch; they’re just poor choices and poor resource allocation. I’m not a Game Freak employee, so this next section is way presumptuous of me, but I’m going to attempt to list 5 of Game Freak’s biggest problems, their causes, and offer genuine realistic solutions to them. At least they appear realistic to me.

The Dynamax mechanic makes gym battles a joke – the only time it feels balanced and like an actual challenge is during Raid Battles.

Problem #1: Modern Pokemon Games Lack Meaningful Challenge. Remember, overcoming challenges together is part of what makes these games so important to people. This issue comes from many sources. First, starting in Gen 6, Game Freak has introduced battle gimmicks such as Mega Evolution, Z Moves, and Dynamax, all of which have one thing in common: they are overpowered. Second, defeating Gym Leaders boils down to picking the one Pokemon on your team with the type advantage. Third, rival trainers no longer compel you to become better. This is a complex problem, but Game Freak has already come up with some good solutions such as Totem Pokemon and Raid Battles. I have some solutions of my own to offer as well: 1) match the gimmicks – let the opponent do the exact same things you can do, or better yet, give them a slight advantage. 2) give Gym Leaders a themed strategy, like Raihan’s Sandstorm-focused team at the end of Sword and Shield. 3) give the rivals a competitive team, with 6 Pokemon on their team, better movesets, and the Battle Tower’s more advanced Artificial Intelligence. Pokemon has a rich and complex battle system already laid out before you; all the devs have to do is actually use it to its fullest extent with an understandable difficulty curve.

I can’t believe Game Freak still doesn’t allow veterans to skip NPCs beating the basics over your head with every. single. entry.

Problem #2: Modern Pokemon Games Won’t Stop Holding Your Hand. It’s a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution: let go. Put in a skip button. Let the player figure things out on their own. The pacing of every modern Pokemon title is bogged down by its nonstop hand-holding. I get that new players need to learn how to catch Pokemon, but it’s not unreasonable to put a little prompt in the corner to let us know that we can skip it.

For the past 3 Pokemon generations, battles look mostly lifeless. The Pokemon don’t look they’re in a battle, they look like they’re waiting for the bus.

Problem #3: Modern Pokemon Battles Look Lifeless. With the advent of 3D Pokemon, the battles lack that same level of charm and livelihood that the sprites offered. A lot of that lifelessness is due to one main problem: the idle animations. All of the Pokemon just sway back and forth, blankly staring at each other. You’d think they were waiting at a bus stop instead of participating in an intense battle. The Pokemon in the 2D games often strike poses, as if they’re actually battling you. Game Freak’s games don’t need to look as flamboyant as the anime, they just needs some more idle animation. Imagine Zigzagoon always sniffing the ground, or Machop ducking and weaving. These solutions don’t need big overhauls; small changes will make a big difference. For example, Pokemon Legends Arceus made battles feel more dynamic just by having the Pokemon approach each other and giving the player full camera control. With the National Dex removed, hopefully Game Freak can manage its scope and dedicate more resources to quality over quantity. Even if Game Freak didn’t add a single new attack animation, one new idle move would do wonders for making Pokemon feel more alive.

Routes look more and more like curved lines with small offshoots rather than complex paths that would make you feel actually satisfied with exploration.

Problem #4: Modern Pokemon Offers Little Exploration. Routes have become increasingly linear with little to no secrets tucked away and no reason to backtrack. I remember walking into the first cave of Pokemon Sword and Shield feeling so excited to get lost in a new labyrinth littered with beautiful gems, only to realize that its design was less like a tree with branching paths and more like a pruned stump. I don’t need to think about where I’m going. Legendary Pokemon don’t feel like an event or a discovery, they’re just a box the devs check for you near the end of the game. The end result is this hollow feeling that I’m just breezing through the game without a second thought. The solution to this one is pretty complex, but if Pokemon really is going Open World, then all they have to do is look to the other great Switch RPGs like Breath of the Wild, Xenoblade, and Skyrim for inspiration on how to make exploration interesting. I don’t mind if Game Freak copied their homework for a Generation.

I know many players dislike Pokemon Sun and Moon, but I found its story the one shining exception to the unfocused and detatched storytelling that most Pokemon games espouse in recent years.

Problem #5: Modern Pokemon Stories Aren’t Compelling. Game Freak has fallen in love with cutscenes and wants to make epic tales like its fellow JRPGs. Unfortunately, Game Freak decided to focus these stories on NPCs rather than on your own journey with your Pokemon. In Pokemon Sun and Moon, it works. Lillie’s character arc is satisfying, the real villain is unsettling, and the action cutscenes are impressive for a 3DS game. In Sword and Shield, however, the story was so rushed and uninteresting that the game would’ve honestly been better if they had scrapped all of the cutscenes with the Darkest Day and Eternatus and just focused on the gym challenge and your rise to stardom. And that’s the solution I offer to Game Freak. Less is more. Use the environment as a storytelling piece. Put the NPCs in uncomfortable situations. Let them develop on their own. Use battles to tell stories and relationships. Leave clues behind. Let the player put together a story by themselves. Sun and Moon‘s Lillie, Professor Kukui, Guzma, Gladion, and Lusamine are all compelling because half of their story is in the subtext.

I still love many things about these games — the little vignettes with your follower Pokemon in Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee are charming details that I can’t get enough of.

Hope for the Future

Not all is doom and gloom in the modern Pokemon scene. Many games have oddly specific strengths that just… don’t carry over to their sibling-games. They’ve already done the hard work of creating solutions in isolation, Game Freak just needs to put these solutions together into one game. Judging by the gains made in Pokemon Legends Arceus, Pokemon is on track for making that kind of improvement. It offers plenty of challenge, it allows you to learn and solve things on your own, and the story mostly takes a backseat to your own adventure with your Pokemon. I feel optimistic for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet; I believe that they will be solid additions to the franchise. I really hope they are. I can’t go back to how the fandom was in 2019. I guess we’ll find out for sure in about 4 months.

I know Pokemon can be a divisive subject on the internet, but I write about this because I want the fan base to improve and think more realistically about the series moving forward. It doesn’t mean that people should throw away their standards, but it does mean to have reasonable ones.

For my final post next week, I’ll be talking about my experience with the Pokemon fandom, how the games bring people together, and contrary to common belief, I actually have a lot of positive things to say about the fandom!

Sources / Further Reading:

  1. https://youtu.be/sBKLgee1-NQ
  2. https://youtu.be/LATFFz27Hsw
  3. https://youtu.be/F0Z3unZ-3Vo
  4. https://youtu.be/9l8V_eQ6wGQ
  5. https://youtu.be/qJk3wrvL6To
  6. https://youtu.be/5SlzAXoO6CE
  7. https://youtu.be/SetEyeL4qDg
  8. https://www.nintendolife.com/news/2022/06/junichi-masuda-leaves-game-freak-for-new-role-at-the-pokemon-company
  9. https://nintendowire.com/news/2022/06/09/james-turner-has-left-game-freak-to-form-his-own-studio-all-possible-futures/
  10. https://www.destructoid.com/game-freak-talks-pokemon-sword-and-shield-development-struggles/

2 thoughts on “Pokémon Retrospective, Part 3: Modern Poké-Problems

  1. I’m curious why you’re not a fan of that quote. (9 women, baby, 1 month) I think it distills one of the big misunderstandings about software development into an easy to parse concept. In manufacturing, you can just add another machine, but software doesn’t work the same way.

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    1. It’s true that it conveys the misconception perfectly, which is why I still use it, but I can’t help but feel creeped out by the wording. It has undertones of the religion I grew up with that I don’t care to remember.

      Like

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