The instability of Pokemon’s future in video games


The Pokemon franchise has remained the dominant media franchise even today as it did in 1997, amassing over $100 billion in its two-decade-long existence.

Even though the weird and insane “Pokemania” ended 20 years ago, Pokemon is still going strong as one of the most profitable media franchises of all time (partly thanks to Pokemon Go, but whatever). With 37 mainline games, countless spin-offs, a popular anime, and an even popular Trading Card Game, the entertainment behemoth has touched the hearts of multiple generations of kids and adults with their fantastical and recognizable creatures and the emotional bond between them and their Pokemon. Even if someone doesn’t know anything about Pokemon, they surely know about Pikachu. The most popular Pokemon to ever exist, possibly which is not debatable because he’s literally the mascot for the entire company and was even the mascot for Japan’s 2002 FIFA World Cup.

So yeah. Pokemon. It’s just a small game series. Not many people know about it. I would say it’s a pretty indie series. Only 1% of gamers know about this wacky game. I’m kidding obviously, it’s the biggest media franchise of all time. But as lucrative as Pokemon is, it’s becoming more and more unstable with every new game, and with the upcoming release of Pokemon Scarlet & Violet, it’s apparent this series is crumbling under its own weight. 

We’ve had a new Generation of Pokemon every three years since Black & White, where each project undergoes a development cycle that has had roughly one year of pre-production and two of in-engine development. In between those two, we have another bundle of games that help prop up yearly releases, being either based on games that already exist (Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon), previous releases (Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire), and some outliers that we’ll get to in a bit. Does that feel like a lot of information?

GOOD because if it wasn’t obvious enough, Game Freak has been stretched extremely thin and Pokemon Scarlet & Violet are just the newest in a line of entries to the series that makes this business model appear continually more unstable. Developer crunch and overwork is absolutely an issue for Pokemon and besides having detrimental effects on the people working on these games themselves. It’s a series that has constantly lacked polish and features that future entries are always scrambling to catch up with.

I really thought we were going somewhere after the announcement of smaller scale DLC to replace the typical B team third versions, constant recruitment of younger talent which has led to some of the most influential people at the company and outsourcing to other developers entirely for the main games. But despite releasing Pokemon Legends: Arceus back in January, giving us the most well-received Pokemon game in the last decade, we’ve had about a month to let it breathe before the marketing machine kicked into high gear and gave us an all-new region, a set of three new starters, and likely a director that’s shown time and time again that he struggles greatly under the threat of a ticking clock.

Shigeru Ohmori has never stopped working since he was given the reins of the series shortly after Pokemon X & Y. He’s a hell of a director for being able to release completed games that crumble under an intense development period. For a series with such a massive scope, and judging from the publicly leaked prototype for Pokemon Sword & Shield, in particular, it’s pretty insane what amount of worker’s teams can do in just a couple of months. But despite having such a talented developer, they continue to have an endless struggle with making an actual functional game.

Why not attempt to leverage the guys over at ILCA to shift manpower towards an actually functional game as a secondary developer for main Pokemon games that are already out and could use even more content which would give Game Freak significantly more time to Rock Polish Generation 9. Besides that, this constant need to release games in the series leads to complete uncertainty from the perspective of a consumer.

We just got a game that revolutionized Pokemon interaction, completely rethought how the most basic mechanics were understood and gave people an experience unlike anything we’d seen from the series, and then we just got a brand new game thrown straight at our faces. Gen 9 is being planned and subsequently developed for two years at this point, how much of Legend’s DNA is going to make it in?

There’s no way that they have the time between now and release to uproot fundamental aspects of Scarlet & Violet to make it more in line with what people love from Legends. So the most that we can hope for is that scraps of its design managed to make the cut. Pokemon Sword & Shield has this exact issue with overworld Pokemon (a mechanic wherein wild Pokemon can be seen wandering around in the world instead of only found in wild grass).

According to Ohmori, the team worked hard to ensure that it made it to Generation 8 after seeing the positive response to Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, but realistically that gave them just under a year to effectively re-implement how the player interacts with the main mechanic of the game. The level design of Sword & Shield wasn’t made to accommodate this type of gameplay, leading to big empty spaces in the routes that would have originally been wild grass, and the nuances that Let’s Go brought with the mechanic like size differences.

Part of me kinda wants to go back and see what a more densely designed Sword & Shield might look like if the game wasn’t forcibly built around overworld Pokemon in the last nine months and I am extremely concerned that the multitasking overworld or Ride Pokemon from Legends are gonna fall by the wayside in Scarlet & Violet, or at best are just gonna lack the finer details that are offered in those departments. I am a little worried about crowbarring the traditional battle system onto a setting where you can just walk up the seventh gym from the beginning, which is something that Legends got away with by designing the core systems around the open world and not being done the other way around. Hopefully, they end up doing that. 

Scarlet & Violet show a lot of promises. It’s a new generation of Pokemon games that promise a truly open world but much of the game’s potential is up in the air because of strict deadlines, a likely director that has struggled under those deadlines, and a myriad of features that the series is stumbling to catch up on.

The fact of the matter is that the games are getting bigger but the time to make them remains the same and judging from the way the game looks, I’d say that we’re in desperate need of some more time in the oven.