Because grievances should be aired in a calm and reasonable manner.
So for the past… 7 weeks or so, there has been a vocal outcry expressed by the hardcore Pokemon fandom towards the latest mainline titles in the series, Sword and Shield, which were recently shown off in greater detail via their own Pokemon Direct and a playable demo at E3 2019. Both of which I was quite positive towards, for the most part, but this newly released footage struck a nerve with the greater and more passionate fanbase the series has accumulated over the past 2 decades. Now, it is easy to brush this off as a fandom being a gaggle of whiny children, but the situation here is a bit more complicated, and has occupied a non-insignificant segment of my thoughts for several weeks, so it’s as good of a topic for a Ramble as any, I guess.
Firstly, let’s examine this situation for people unaware, or future folks wondering what this here hubbub was all about, and why people are saltier than a salt mine over this game. One, Pokemon Sword and Shield play things safe and do not shake up the game in the manner many expected, given how it is the first “console” mainline Pokemon game. Two, Pokemon Sword and Shield do not look as good as other Switch games, or games from technologically inferior consoles. Three, only certain Pokemon can be transferred into the game due to developmental challenges encountered by Game Freak and their development partners.These criticisms have varying degrees of validity and reasonableness behind them, but in order to understand the fervor that these evoked, it is important to look back at the modern history of the series and note how the most impassioned segment of the audience, whom I dub fanatics, have felt about the series, and why they are so butthurt over Sword and Shield. And seeing as how I am going to be talking about this group a lot, I should probably explain what I mean by “fanatic”.
Part I: Golden Era and Disappointment Era
When I use the term fanatic, I am referring a cynics prone to delusions of grandeur. An individual who invests a large amount of their mental and emotional real estate towards a singular thing, and believes two key concepts. That the individuals crafting the thing they like are incompetent or have principles that go against their ideals, and that there is some ethereal loosely defined idealized state that this thing could, should, and must adopt or else it will languish. This is something easily instilled through a lifetime involvement with a piece of media, shared universe, or collective idea, spanning well beyond the likes of comics, music, movies, multimedia juggernauts, and so forth into sports, technology, companies, and so forth. I dub them fanatics because they are clearly fans, but they seemingly do not know how to conduct themselves in a calm manner, realize how futile their fascinations are, or are so enamored with something that they do not care about how they look to the outside world.
Pokemon instilled this mentality by creating a continuous media empire that has not suffered any dramatic dips in output since its very inception, remaining consistently popular, and doing quite well. I mean, it’s the highest grossing intellectual property in existence, so I’d say The Pokemon Company has done an okay job at keeping this train going. All of which is centered around the mainline games, the ‘real’ and core titles that make up this series and introduce the elements, characters, and locales that other media and merchandise is derived from. As the most core component of the series, it naturally has the most core and dedicated fans, who have developed a more bitter and vindictive outlook due to how, from their perspective, they have been slighted or wronged by the developers of these games for nearly a decade.
Fanatics, generally speaking, did not really rise into prominence beyond tightly knit local communities, BBS users, and zine subscribers until the advent of the internet, or in the case of Pokemon, once the bulk of the audience, school-age children, were old enough to begin dwelling into online communities, which coincidentally happened after the first generation of the series, so I’ll be skipping over GameBoy and GameBoy Advance eras, and will begin with Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, the first titles for the Nintendo DS.
In short, these two games… kinda sucked. Even after a year-long delay, the final product was littered with small and large problems, including slow gameplay, odd pacing, poor distribution of Pokemon, and generally not being very fun. All of which disappointed dhte community, who was hoping for something more substantial, rather than yet another safe entry, one that most certainly did offer a slew of new mechanical changes such as the physical/special split and the introduction of online battling. But… these games were largely replaced in the minds of many fans by Pokemon Platinum, a title that ushered in what fanatic canon considers to be the golden age for the series. A glorious era wherein children frolicked, feasts were common, and fertility flourished across the land, with GameFreak offering its supporters with the fine fruits of Pokemon Platinum, HeartGold, SoulSilver, Black 2, and White 2. And maybe Black and White, depending on who you ask.All of these games are commonly considered to be amongst the best in the series, as they offered a great deal of content, introduced appreciated or novel features, were largely polished, and came out frequently from one another. They established a new standard that the fanatics accepted (I mean, they still bitched and moaned when they were new, but that’s just life), and in turn raised the expectations leading up to what I like to call the Disappointment Era. Because in accordance to the fanatics,in 2013, one year after the release of Black 2 and White 2, a great revolution was announced… but the final product left people feeling disappointed… and that disappointment continued… and continued… and continued… and continued… and is continuing as I write this article.
Pokemon X and Y were met with a myriad of criticism from the greater community, who found many aspects of the game to be wonderfully implemented, while others struck fans as being bizarrely unpolished or rushed, such as the limited 3D camera of the main city, a lackluster narrative, a lack of post-game content, a brazen lack of difficulty, and an overall underwhelming shift to the next dimension, with the game being constructed, for the most part, like a 2D game. These games are also cited as being the beginning of ‘Generation I pandering’, where the games began putting more emphasis on the original 151 Pokemon in order to broaden the appeal and capture the interest of lapsed fans. A move that fanatics take offense to, as pushes many other Pokemon to the sidelines while offering the spotlight to the most iconic ones.
Then came the Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, remakes of two highly beloved games that, likely due to time constraints and a limited developmental resources, were unable to bring back much of the content that people loved from Pokemon Emerald, didn’t address many of the issues people had with X and Y. Um…I was actually expecting there to be more reasons, but I guess these two factors really are to account for the vast majority of butthurt on display here.
2015 was an off-year for Pokemon, something that some thought would be remedied with a Pokemon Z, a third version of X and Y, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the next point of note would be the 2016 release of Pokemon Go, a casual mobile game that did away with most of the mechanics that fanatics came to know and love, contained only the original 151 Pokemon at launch, and was the biggest success story for the series since the 90s, reinvigorating the brand, but also making the fanatics feel like they mattered less. However, they did get a new mainline entry meant to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the series, in the form of Pokemon Sun and Moon.
Titles notable for greatly upgrading the world construction and the overall presentation, creating a fully 3D world with significantly more detail than before, while offering a greater story focus. A shift that resulted in the game being very linear, tutorialized, and filled with short unskippable cutscenes or conversations that irked many of the fanatics, who found this approach to be immensely limiting, and were once again miffed that this wasn’t a game they could dump hundreds of hours into via post-game content. Also the online systems shifted from being a passive persistent system into a designated online area. Presumably due to technical restraints.
So over the span of 4 years Game Freak did show notable improvements in their 3D efforts, yet did not release a game that necessarily please the majority of these fanatics. Many of whom were looking at the recently announced Nintendo Switch as being something of the salvation for the series, a new platform that will be the home to Pokemon going forward, providing Game Freak with a platform where they can make *insert Pokemon dream game here*. It was a leap in power well beyond what the studio had ever experienced before, and there was a level of excitement in the air for the rumored third version of Sun and Moon, titled Pokemon Stars.
Then come June 2017, Game Freak revealed that, no, they’re actually just making updated and slightly expanded versions of Sun and Moon, named Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Titles that were met with a fairly muted reception leading up to release, yet were still picked up by many of these fanatics as, well, it had just enough new stuff to justify a purchase. But not enough to make the game feel as if it was more than a moderately improved version of the originals that made some changes that were frowned upon, and carried with it the same problems from before. Considering this was the first straight upgrade over an existing game since Platinum in 2008, which offered a myriad of improvements, this struck many as being especially lacking.
So yes, let’s put that down as yet another slight against the fanatics, who almost immediately began salivating for the ‘real’ next game in the series, the one that will mark the Pokemon series’ glorious HD debut on the Nintendo Switch. Then, come May 2018… it was revealed that instead they were getting a Pokemon Go themed remake of Pokemon Yellow. Also known as the most ‘casual’ ‘Generation I pandering’ entry in the series that regressed the series’ mechanical complexity by removing breeding, abilities, and even battles against wild Pokemon. Yeah, Pokemon Let’s Go put a load of people into a tizzy, the butthurt was palpable upon launch, and only grew as time went on. Mind you, some of these criticisms are wholly justified. I still can’t believe they shipped a game with motion controls that unintuitive…
So, here we are in 2019. The slights against series fanatics are building up, and the butthurt from a lack of a ‘real’ Switch game is still pulsating with a concerning redness. Then comes Pokemon Sword and Shield, the first mainline entry built from the ground up for an HD console that many fanatics wanted to be as impactful and vast as things like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, or Xenoblade Chronicles 2. These people wanted a revolution. They wanted Pokemon to be fresher than the freshest Holland tulip. They wanted to transform their dreams into reality. They wanted an unprecedented jump well beyond anything previously seen by this series that, hardy har, despite being about evolution doesn’t evolve much from game to game.
Amongst the fanatics, the belief that their expectations should be catered to was normalized. People began assuming that these expectations were within reason, that Game Freak would deliver upon these desires, that they had the ability and clout needed to pull this off. Despite the fact that Game Freak has historically been a fairly small developer, began taking on various smaller projects to avoid franchise fatigue, and the jump from 3D handheld game development to HD console development ain’t bloody easy. Yes, Let’s Go was them testing the waters and seeing what they could do with this hardware, but expecting them to go from what was extensively an HD remake of a GameBoy game to a high fidelity open world affair that is comparable to the output from significantly larger and more experienced studios who had more time is… kind of absurd.
Some might say that they should have seen this coming, known what was happening in gaming, staffed up, brought in more studios to help out, and created the Pokemon game that true fans deserve after all these years of consumption and emotional investment. I say that Game Freak as a company does not, can not, and will not cater to the wild desires of a niche audience who will buy the games anyways, is dealing with situations that are unknown to anybody without direct ties to the company, and may not want to revolutionize things. As such, I do not consider it reasonable to criticize these games for not being something they aren’t.
The mock-ups look nice, it is fun to play make believe with Pokemon, and yes, The Pokemon Company could indeed afford it, but they are a very conservative entity that desires to keep the series going, and likely wishes to retain the profits that the current games are bringing in until a change is materially demanded. Plus… when people say they want a revolution or dramatic change to something, and point at things they like telling companies to do this or that, it typically does not turn out brilliantly. Then there’s the fact that once you go all in like that and make a ‘Pokemon of the Wild,’ people will only whine and moan if a traditionally styled game came out afterwards, claiming that the old ways are antiquated, boring, objectively worse, and so forth and so on. Also, why bother shaking things up when the games still sell a cool 10 to 15 million?
Part II: Graphical Fidelity and Game Freaks
Graphical fidelity as a force have been shaping this industry… basically forever. How does one predominantly experience the vast majority of games ever made? By looking at them. How are games advertised? Through visual media. What do people expect most in every subsequent piece of gaming hardware? Better graphics. What is a game most likely going to be mocked for across social media platforms nowadays? Bugs with a clear visual effect. What do people associate such bugs with? Bad graphics. What is the most obvious sign of a bad game? Bad graphics.
It is all something pushed by console manufacturers, game publishers, and so forth, who want their games to be the best looking and most eye-catching products on the market. This mentality has shaped much of the gaming landscape, with many finding graphical fidelity to be paramount, and even if they say they put gameplay first, they’ll probably mock a title for looking like a “last-gen game” if it suits their fancy. The mainline Pokemon games, having been based on less capable lower fidelity handheld entertainment systems, were not help up to higher standards until it jumped to a console, where people, fanatics especially, have very different graphical standards, and Sword and Shield supposedly does not live up to these standards.People can point at a myriad of examples of somewhat similar games on the Switch that look better, and they do have a certain point to be made there. It is not among the most technically impressive games for the system, and it does indeed have a few areas where the graphical performance is underwhelming. However, considering the facts on hand and the developmental situation, I struggle to see why this warrants such frustration other than reality failing to live up to one’s lofty fantastical dreams..
Do you kids remember the early HD era and how everything looked like garbage then because developers struggled to make higher fidelity worlds, animations, and everything else that goes into making a video game? Do you remember how that put a stop to expansive JRPGs for a hot minute because HD towns were too hard to do? I mean, you do realize that Game Freak has, for years, been operating in a very old Japanese developer sort of way, where they lacked the structure and experience to take on HD development until recently, and that transitions such as these are typically not easy, right? I am not saying that criticizing them is wrong, or that people should feel sorry for Game Freak, but some perspective and acknowledgement of the reality of the situation will probably do a lot to curb the rampant butthurt I’ve seen spark up around this game’s graphics. Which in turn brings me to another point.
Does graphical fidelity actually matter much? Maybe I have just been sticking my head in the dirt for years, but I distinctly remember a time where people going out and saying they would be content with the graphical plateau for video games being the PS2 generation. When people declared that so long as games looked as good as that and were in HD, they would be happy. It is a mindset that I prescribed to, and believe that I have practiced to an extent, placing art direction and aesthetics above all else, and voicing most of my criticisms about those factors or assorted technical issues or obvious limitations. I personally do not care about Sword and Shield having poor textures and lacking animations in spots, and while I do recognize these things, I see no reason to fuss or place much emphasis on them.I personally would much rather see a discussion over the world design of Sword and Shield, contemplating how they are mingling in more realistic visual design elements seen throughout the world itself with the distinctively stylized character and Pokemon models. Or how the lighting affects the look over the world. Or… or even just the animation, which people have been comparing via cherry picked examples for quite a while going back to the Pokemon Stadium games, along with Pokemon Colosseum, XD, and Battle Revolution for fodder to make Sword and Shield look less good.
This comparison is a reasonable one, but in doing so, many seem to have forgotten the circumstances that these games were developed under, and the rest of the game these animations were attached to. In short, these older animations were mostly designed largely around being 3D Pokemon battle showcases where the number of Pokemon that were modeled were introduced gradually, and many other factors were given less emphasis. But rather than make a blanket statement, I’m going to give another history lesson.
The Pokemon Stadium trilogy, counting the Japanese exclusive 1998 entry that only contained 42 playable Pokemon, were designed as peripheral games to the original GameBoy titles, meant to stage Pokemon in a 3D environment above all else. Not that it stopped them from fitting in some dope mini-games, but that’s another matter entirely. Their job was to bring these Pokemon to life beyond that of a static sprite, and the animators were afforded a great degree of freedom in doing so. Plus, they were only doing a few at a time, ported the models and animations forward, and this was all before the HD era, so asset creation was not as intensive.
Also, holy dirty wet potatoes, these older animations are slow, and I’m sure that people would be complaining about that if a similar pacing were adopted in the main games, which would just lead more people to turning off battle animations entirely, because this isn’t 1999 and nobody has time to watch a 20 second intro animation each battle. No, seriously, I counted it and Pokemon Colosseum battles take 20 seconds to begin. Screw that. I value more expedient animations over elongated and generally unnecessary attention to detail, and if that makes me crazy or wrong then… okay. It’s better than being unreasonable, like fanatics complaining about how they’re recycling ‘handheld-quality’ animations in this ‘console game’. Or pointing out the canonical appropriate Wingull flight animation as a sign of incompetence. Or citing optimization issues with the demo like they truly mean anything. Or being a completely unprofessional and generally toxic individual who dismisses the work of these developers as laziness or incompetence. Or stirring up a ruckus so they can abuse the Youtube algorithm and profit off of people’s impulsive tendencies to narrow in towards negativity.
Part III: Balance and Quality
For as much as I like to belittle and place myself on a pedestal over people whose actions I disagree with dubbed fanatics, there is one point where I do believe that they have every right to be upset. At the tail end of the public E3 2019 demo of Pokemon Sword and Shield, series producer Junichi Masuda unceremoniously and needlessly announced that only Pokemon found within the Galar Pokedex could be transferred to Sword and Shield, meaning that several hundred Pokemon will not be available within the game, and players will not be able to transfer many of their favorites forward, or use them in multiplayer.
When asked why this was the case, Masuda stated, through an interpreter, that this was done to maintain the graphical quality and expressiveness of each Pokemon, and improve the balance of the game. All of which… sound like lies. Pokemon has had and been utilizing HD-ready high fidelity model since 2013, so they should already be high enough quality. The battle animations are being optimized for efficiency, not expressiveness. And Pokemon has never been a particularly balanced affair. It’s busted, exploitable, relies on randomness, and requires a lot of wasted time to even get past the outer escallon of online battles.
Things only got worse when it was hinted that this trend may continue indefinitely. That each mainline game will only allow certain Pokemon to be transferred in. And that Game Freak is undecided as to whether or not they will remedy this with post-launch DLC. I am a moderately reasonable individual who is theoretically capable of accepting bad news if it has a well explained and understandable reason behind it. But that is not what is happening here, and the emptiness of this explanation was only furthered by a reiteration of the same sentiment two weeks later.
Then about another two weeks later, it came to light that the real reason why Sword and Shield will only feature a fraction of available Pokemon is that the models had to be remade for this game, as there were issues in transferring the 3D models for each Pokemon, and that they need to make specific models for Dynamax Pokemon. Both of which I honestly struggle to believe. Why wouldn’t you invest millions into looking for a way to transfer the models over when it will take millions to recreate them? Why would Dynamax forms need their own unique models when Pokemon take up a similar amount of screen space regardless of their form? Why did you save the models in a format that wasn’t future proof? Why is your messaging here so confusing?
I previously commented that this does not necessarily affect me and my experience, as I am not a ‘hardcore’ player of Pokemon. I go in, play the campaign, get all the new Pokemon I can, spend over 100 hours doing stuff (320 hours in the case of Pokemon X), and then leave the game behind so I can move onto something else. I don’t play the multiplayer because it makes me want to hurt myself. I never liked the battle facilities. I was too much of a scrub to get Marshadow or Zeraora, or Melmeltan, so I don’t have a living Dex any more. And I have no real interest in breeding the ultimate life forms after having tried, failed, and realized how little I truly care about maxing out IVs. However, that does not mean I don’t understand why this angers people and, well, they have every right to. A long-standing feature being taken away and for a poorly explained reason.Again, there’s so much fuss about this title that it is possible that Game Freak may feel their hand forced to announce long-scale DLC plans for Sword and Shield, and intentions of changing their development structure to better accommodate HD game development, as what they have been doing as of late simply isn’t sustainable, even after they supposedly increased staff size from 143 to 227 over the past year (assuming this is an accurate source). I would honestly love for them to announce plans to improve this game after launch, cater to their audience, and, by in large give into the aggressive feedback offered. I understand where these fanatics are coming from, and while I disagree with so much of their methodology and manner of expressing their displeasure, I do ultimately see their goals as a well intentioned. They want the series to be better, to draw in more people, and to be an impressive game that is free from any negative or dismissive stigma. They want evolution, they want improvements, and the same goes for anybody who cares about this series.
Pokemon is a very special, happy, and pleasant thing for a lot of people. It is a persistent and regular reminder for multiple generations of a happy carefree time in their lives where they could imagine themselves going on a great expansive journey, achieve great things, and befriend supernatural pets to aid them in their wondrous quest across a fantastical world. They want these games to grow with them, for whatever vague feeling that defined these games to be evoked and iterated on to be evoked once more. They want the series to reach the heights of its contemporaries and be a shining example of what video games are and can be.
It’s something that many feel the series has not achieved in quite a while despite all these technical improvements, and fairly rapid turnover given modern development cycles. While I will stress patience as a virtue, going through so many of these games so frequently, hopping from X to Alpha Sapphire to Moon to Ultra Moon to Let’s Go Eevee, I have developed a strong desire for a Pokemon game I can adore with no strings attached. Yes, I will admonish those who let these innocent desires give way to hatred or fury, but I cannot blame anyone for wishing for something more. Though in all honesty, I just want a bunch of quality of life fixes, streamlining, and overworld battles. After that, you can just shovel out the same basic game and I will buy it on an annual basis without question. …I should probably explain what I mean by that in more detail, but I’ll save that for November’s Ramble, when Pokemon will be a bit more topical.
Update (7/31/2019 17:15 CST): Hours after this post’s publication I came across an article from USGamer that interviewed various game developers about their thoughts on the decision to not include every Pokemon in a single game. They claimed that such a decision was sensible, due to the inherent complications associated with porting models forward. As elaborated in an Ask a Game Dev Tumblr post about the article, 3D models are rather complex, and Pokemon’s have a rather significant number of unique details to account for. So, you have detailed models that need to be brought to a dramatically different development environment, and need to look right in said environment.
Animations might not work right, the models need to be adjusted based on their polygon count, texture maps need to be updated or replaced, and lighting maps need to be revised heavily when dynamic lighting is introduced. This is not something you can really ever future proof, despite what I, and many others, were led to believe, and while it would be possible for Game Freak and their partners to chase after this technical horizon while constantly updating everything, that would not be sustainable. I realistically have zero game development experience, so I was not aware of these technical limitations, and fell into the fervor around this kerfuffle, so that’s my bad, and I apologize for making baseless assumptions due to my technical ignorance.
However, Game Freak and The Pokemon Company have a responsibility to manage their brand, market these games, and explain why features are being removed in an understandable manner. They offered several explanations, but never clearly stated the technical reasons for their decision to limit the number of Pokemon available in Sword and Shield. Saying that detailed 3D models need to undergo extensive maintenance and tweaking when introduced into new development environments, especially ones as different as the 3DS and Switch, would have been a far better explanation than citing that this is just done for quality purposes. Well, assuming that this speculative explanation is true, and since it sounds a whole lot more believable than anything officially stated by Game Freak or The Pokemon Company, I’m gonna say it is until a better explanation comes along.
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