At first glance, 21 year old podiatry student Erin does not look like the archetypal Pokémon player. Yet the popular Japanese RPG series has been a constant throughout her life, after a fateful encounter on an international flight as a child.
“I was a family holiday to Hong Kong in 2007, and had been handed down my cousin’s Game Boy Color with Pokémon Blue for the plane, as a way to keep me quiet. I was actually a very quiet child, so I don't know what the logic was there, but I've been playing Pokémon ever since. I've bought a game in every generation that's come out since.”
Within a year, she’d played through 2001's Pokémon Crystal, 2003’s Pokémon Sapphire, and 2007’s Pokémon Diamond. Erin has continued to stick with the series, bringing with her every step of the way a handful of her favourites, including a Level 100 Swampert from Pokémon Sapphire - at time of writing, a 16-year-old piece of data.
Erin is not a die-hard fan. While the games are a core part of her identity - as an adult, she has recently put up a framed Kanto Pokédex poster in her room - their presence has provided an element of continuity with her childhood. Their absence would be strange - a bit like an old friend no longer being around.
Game Freak appears to have been dreading the 2013 move to 3D models on main series for some time, owing to the increased pressure placed on its design and art teams. Longtime art director Ken Sugimori stated in 2013 that shifting to 3D was “a madman’s idea”, involving throwing out a decade and a half of 2D development experience and redirecting resources into a much more complex process.
The comparative lack of expertise means that Game Freak is unable to do everything themselves. The same is true of Creatures, Inc, who have developed models and animation for Pokémon games since the series' inception. The process of creating a 3D Pokémon model involves three separate companies:
- Game Freak, which handles the development of model sheets and other concept art.
- Creatures, Inc., which takes on the bulk of modelling and animation through their Pokémon Art Team.
- Imagica Digital Scape's Bauhaus Entertainment Division, handling additional modelling and animation.
You’d think that between three companies, some commonality would be applicable and at least a few models would be transferrable, albeit to different hardware. Yet Game Freak, as leading developer, has elected to use a different game engine in every main series title since 2013.
We can safely assume, then, that the blame for creating a more complicated workload lies not in the business priorities of simply making more Pokémon, but in Game Freak itself for failing to optimize its own workflow. It is also equally confusing that Game Freak could not have created new models, considering that developers spent roughly six months arguing about the aesthetics of tall grass for Sword and Shield. The manpower was there - it was simply allocated poorly. This is especially problematic considering that, around the same time, Game Freak announced another property with far more detailed animations - Little Town Hero.
It appears, then, that Game Freak has operated at a bare minimum to produce a game that will be an almost guaranteed success.
It would be easy enough to pin the blame on Game Freak as a poor developer. Many users have already taken the liberty of doing this. But the business motivations behind Sword and Shield's development may provide a deeper answer.
This requires us to ask the question - just who owns Pokémon?
But first, some context. As an item of intellectual property, Pokémon is a product developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. However, the Pokémon brand and associated merchandise is managed by The Pokémon Company International, a joint holding company formed in 1998 and equally owned by Nintendo, Creatures, Inc., and Game Freak.
So, while the games themselves provide value, the merchandising value of the IP is developed and stewarded by TPCI, which decides which Pokémon are pushed in merchandising, which companies are given a license to produce Pokémon product, and so on.
However, with the rise of mobile gaming as an important vector for game companies, it appears that Nintendo has begun encroaching on TPCI’s role as steward of the franchise. Mobile games have provided a huge boost to Nintendo’s fortunes – by October 2019, Pokémon GO had generated over US$3 billion in lifetime revenue.
Other Nintendo mobile titles have seen lesser degrees of success. Mario Kart Tour was reported to have over 120 million downloads in its first month, yet was reported to have generated comparatively little revenue. Where mobile games are concerned, Pokemon evidently has a greater degree of staying power, hence the success of both GO and recent DeNA gacha title
Critically, neither DeNA nor Niantic own any share of TPCI.
While Niantic continues to operate independently, closer examination of DeNA (also the co-developer of mobile Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing titles) reveals that the company has been a major investor in Nintendo since 2017, having entered into a partnership in 2015. Despite having reduced its holding to 1.48% of Nintendo shares in FY18-19, DeNA's ongoing presence ensures that mobile gaming will continue to play a role in Nintendo’s future business endeavours.
Intersecting business and technology priorities have always remained central to Nintendo’s approach to Pokémon. The release of Pokémon Red and Blue Versions in the West in 1997, for example, allowed for the lifespan of the ageing Game Boy to drastically increase. This pattern of Pokemon releases driving sales of Nintendo hardware has been repeated since the new millennium. 2003 saw an increase of almost 500% in GBA sales as a result of the release of Ruby and Sapphire Versions in international markets, with similar radical increases with the release of games on the Nintendo DS and 3DS.
Nintendo admits in its 2019 Annual Report that hardware sales for the Nintendo Switch hybrid console have been driven by software releases including Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee. While the same will most likely be true for Sword and Shield despite community outrage, Nintendo’s hardware sales have drastically declined since the high point of the Nintendo DS, which by the end of its lifespan had sold 154 million units.
With this in mind, it is small wonder that mainline Pokémon games have been released with increasing frequency. Nintendo has published one Pokémon RPG a year since 2016, and since 2008 only two years have not hosted an RPG release (2011 and 2015). Increasing development frequency appears in this instance to have encouraged Game Freak to cut corners and increase market value for Nintendo shareholders despite not holding stock in Nintendo itself. Meanwhile, a minority shareholder such as DeNA with no control over TPCI appears to be capable of far outstripping any reliance upon games to sell hardware and generate revenue.
Pokémon games on Nintendo hardware in 2019, it appears, can no longer rely upon nostalgia alone to succeed.
Instead, they must compete with a far more lucrative, accessible golden child - mobile.
Given the sheer degree of market penetration Pokemon games and products possess, it seems impossible for the entire fanbase to be upset by a change to one facet of a diverse media franchise, even if it does undermine the ethos of the games themselves. However, the responsibility for the enduring success of the franchise lies in a dedicated fanbase who, from childhood onwards, have continued to play, diligently purchasing all entries in the series and providing a bedrock for the cultural explosion of Pokémania in the 1990s, and the neo-Pokémania that ensued after the release of Pokémon GO in 2016.
Feelings of nostalgia, whether for the culture of the 90s, experiences of one’s childhood, or something else altogether, is entirely responsible for the continued success of the series. It even features as a core element in this Sword and Shield release trailer, aiming to build a feeling of continuity across 20 years of game development.
This is particularly ironic considering the approach of Nintendo and TPCI towards fan-directed projects. In 2016, Nintendo lawyers forced the developers of Pokémon Uranium, a fan-made game in development for over nine years, to shut down the project after multiple Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices were issued.
This is despite Uranium having received critical praise at release, including a nomination at The Game Awards 2016. Development ceased immediately, and the game remains unplayable in its original form, which included online functionality such as Pokémon trading and battling.
TPCI has also adopted a similar combative approach to non-game fan projects. Also in 2016, TPCI issued a series of YouTube copyright strikes against orchestral composer Braxton Burks' Pokémon Reorchestrated YouTube channel. Burks, who works to re-arrange Pokémon soundtracks into pieces playable by a live orchestra, still has his pieces available on other platforms including Spotify, and has argued that any licensing issues are specific only to YouTube.
Around the same time, beginning in 2014, TPCI had coordinated the Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions orchestral world tour. While one cannot blame TPCI for wanting to protect this facet of its brand, by forcing fans away from engaging with their favourite content, its custodians may have jeopardised the financial health of the very intellectual property they have carefully stewarded for two decades.
In its drive to increase the financial value of the franchise, then, it appears that Nintendo has taken advantage of its market reach, both in terms of handheld consoles and Pokémon GO users, to continue to provide value for its shareholders. The intersection between cultural and financial capital is a struggle Nintendo has been forced to contend with previously.
Blake J Harris’ 2014 novel Console Wars details the outrage among parents and users when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1991 with no backwards compatibility for Nintendo Entertainment System titles. Nintendo’s decision to choose financial interests over catering to users allowed SEGA to gain a solid foothold in the North American market for home consoles, thereby commencing in earnest the so-called “console wars” between the two companies.
Today, the same decision appears to have been made. While Sword and Shield have yet to be released (and with little or no data available for pre-orders), a useful barometer for the opinions of long-term users lies in Pokemon’s community of competitive battlers. In a thread on competitive battling Reddit community r/stunfisk, users seemed to agree that capitalisation and increasingly rushed release schedules to sell new hardware was responsible for jettisoning the National Pokedex. Reddit user Skelemoon made the observation:
“What irks me is that Game Freak is heavily implying that they’re cutting the National Dex due to a lack of manpower, and then go around and announce the new IP they’re working on while people are upset at the National Dex statement. And then keep their stance on the subject while having both titles look like 3DS games.”
Contributors also noted that the third-party competitive system, which utilizes tiers of Pokemon based on usage in tournaments, would have to be replaced entirely with a system that prioritises Nintendo’s own Video Game Championship (VGC) system, which may drive away users from the already small (by Esports standards) competitive community.
The increasing focus on gimmicks was also noted – prior to 2013, non-core gimmicks optimized to take advantage of new hardware such as the Nintendo DS touch screen came and went, without any impact on gameplay. The introduction of Mega Evolutions in 2013’s X and Y Versions and Z-Moves in 2017’s Sun and Moon, both to be jettisoned along with the National Pokédex in favour of the bigger-is-better Dynamax mechanic, presents another problem. Reddit user Kaonicping argued that the high processing power of the Switch, capable of running AAA titles such as Overwatch and Dark Souls, has presented Game Freak with a missed opportunity for development:
“Overall, I am fairly bitter towards GF since they had the power to make a truly incredible game but chose to make a hollow one with cancerous gimmicks slapped on. I wouldn't be too bothered at all if this were a one-off due to a real lack of time, but this is seriously bad news since it's apparently the plan going forward.”
Shifts in the detailed battling metagame were also noted – a move away from the exclusive use of a handful of Pokémon in certain tiers was highlighted as one welcome change, with the health of the metagame increasing with the creation of new strategies. Yet, the loss of many moves, particularly those only obtainable through the transfer of old Pokémon from previous generations capable of ‘breeding’ moves across generations, was also cited as a major problem, potentially driving away users who have spent years sinking time and labour into optimal team creation.