Pokémon has reached critical mass

Last Updated June 27th, 2019

One of the major announcements to come out of E3 this year concerned Pokémon Sword and Shield. For the first time ever, Nintendo and Game Freak would not be including every past Pokémon in the game. For those of you who are familiar with the Pokémon franchise, this means there will be no National Dex and your Squirtle that you caught in Pokémon Go and transferred to the recently unveiled Pokémon Home is stuck there unless you can somehow catch a Squirtle in Pokémon Sword and Shield another way.

This decision has made Pokefans somewhat upset, understandably so. The very idea behind Pokémon is not just to “catch em’ all” which is now literally impossible in Sword and Shield, but also to become emotionally attached to your Pokémon buddies. Players tend to have favorite Pokémon that they have held on to via generations. Mine is a Galvantula named Sparky that I specifically bred to wipe out teams with thunder. Knowing that I will not be able to transfer him into Pokémon Sword and Shield is a bit of a bummer.

(Look at how fluffy he is!)

However, I do think that all the petitions and angry tweets aren’t going to get us anywhere, because I’m sure that Game Freak isn’t doing this because they don’t want to include every single Pokémon in Sword and Shield. They are doing this because they can’t.

The original formula

Back in the days of the Gameboy, the Pokémon formula was kind of brilliant. Each Pokémon was just a single sprite and a bunch of numerical data determining which moves it can and cannot use. Moves, however, were universal and operated no matter what Pokémon had access to them. This was and still is apparent by the amount of hacked Pokémon that circulate around with moves that they shouldn’t have, but that still work just fine in battle.

For a while, that’s all that a Pokémon was: two sprites (one facing forward and one facing back) and a bunch of data. This persisted through a few generations, until we started getting some extra animations. First it was Pokémon cry animations. Then it was Pokémon idle animations. Eventually Pokémon became fully 3D and now each one had to be individually modeled and then animated! Then Pokémon started getting unique attacks, Z-moves, mega-evolutions, and now we have this new Dynamaxing mechanics, and each of those require individual animations as well.

Now the work required to make any individual Pokémon has gotten much more intense. Now imagine that the design team has to do all that work for every new Pokémon as well as every Pokémon that anyone ever designed from the past. Eventually it just becomes unsustainable.

Just “make it work”

Much of what we have heard from upset fans in protest is something along the lines of “Pokémon is one of the most successful franchises of one of the most successful video game developers of all time. Surely they can make it work.”

Frankly, there are a lot of flaws with that argument. For one, it’s short sighted. Game Freak says that they have already hit a point, with over 800 Pokémon, where they cannot add every single Pokémon to the game with the time and money they have. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that fans are right and they can “make it work” somehow. What then? Can Game Freak continue to make it work a generation from now when they have over 1000 Pokémon? What about 10 years from now when they have over 2000?

(Accurate image of Game Freak employees at crunch time)

When DO they reach the point where it either ceases to be worth the time and effort needed to render all these Pokémon in HD graphics, or when it becomes literally physically impossible? It just becomes a harder and harder task each generation and eventually we would find ourselves right back here, right? Surely they wouldn’t be able to “make it work” into perpetuity? Would it be more prudent to just stop making Pokémon games then?

Speaking of this whole “make it work” notion, how exactly are they going to do that? The assumption is that they can throw money at the problem and make it go away. However, this is a problem of scale too. Game Freak already has about 150 employees. So do they hire on more graphic artists to model each Pokémon? Do they hire on more coders to implement the special moves, evolutions, forms, and so on? Then these graphic artists need managers and supervisors, and all these people need to somehow work underneath the same creative director to ensure that the game has a consistent visual style and theme.

Even if Game Freak had the money do to that, it would severely complicate the design process and quite possibly could give you a Pokémon game of lower quality. Even if it didn’t, however, and Pokémon Sword and Shield was the best Pokémon that it could be after greatly expanding Game Freak’s staff and paying them all full salaries, that means that they have to sell more copies of each Pokémon game to remain profitable, which means each new Pokémon game is a bigger gamble. That puts the livelihood of the entire franchise at risk. One Pokémon flop and suddenly Game Freak and Nintendo has sunk millions of dollars and tons of man-hours into a project that didn’t make up its development cost. This is the sort of thing that makes franchises die.

And somehow Game Freak is supposed to do with each new Pokémon game from here to eternity?

Nothing is infinite, nothing is forever

See, the problem with the Pokémon formula as it stands is that someday, it will reach critical mass. At some point there will simply be too many Pokémon to put into every new Pokémon game. Game Freak knows this, and so their decision to go with this new plan of abandoning the National Dex is more strategic than you may think.

Pokémon Sword and Shield is a game of firsts. It’s the first Pokémon main line game on a home console. It’s the first to have an open world. It’s the first to have HD graphics, so on so forth. So it makes sense for it also to be the first Pokémon game without a National Dex. This game is going to feel different, so it’s the perfect time to make major franchise defining changes. Imagine if Game Freak announced this shift when Pokémon Sun and Moon came out. We would be even more upset than we are now!

National Dexing through sequels

It’s not like we aren’t eventually going to get something reminiscent of a National Dex anyway. Look at it this way. Nintendo never releases a single Pokémon game in a generation. They always release a special third game in the series, or a pair of sequel games sometime after their original release. That’s what Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were.

Beyond that, Nintendo usually plans some sort of Pokémon reboot every generation too. These are games like Heart Gold and Soul Silver, remakes of past Pokémon games using a new generation’s engine.

Here’s the strategy. Pokémon Sword and Shield comes out and they have a decently large but limited Pokedex. Then, either Sword and Shield 2 comes out, or Pokémon Gun comes out, and they add more Pokémon to that Dex. They won’t have to remodel or recode any of the Pokémon that were already in Sword and Shield because that work is already done. Aside from a couple balance adjustments they can just copy paste (not literally but you get my meaning) the Pokémon they already coded and modeled into the game. Then they release a remake, like Pokémon Shining Diamond and Precious Pearl or whatever, and they do the same thing. They port in all the Pokémon from the last four games and code/model even more. Eventually, by the end of the generation, you will have something reminiscent of a National Dex.

Of course, whenever we get the next Nintendo console this cycle will have to repeat itself and even then there will be a point at which Pokémon reaches critical mass again, a point at which there will simply be too many Pokémon to code and model in the span of a console generation.

Pokémon Home

I think, maybe, the Pokémon fandom is just going to have to accept that we are not going to see full National Dexes anymore, and yes, this does present problems with services like Pokémon Home. In fact, I’d say Nintendo’s biggest faux pas was marketing Pokémon Home and Sword and Shield at the same time. If Pokémon Home came out last generation and was compatible with Sun and Moon people would have rushed to adopt it. Now, however, it feels putting Pokémon into Pokémon Home is kind of like putting them in prison. You can’t transfer Pokémon back out of Pokémon Home to any game except Sword and Shield. So if your favorite Pokémon isn’t in Sword and Shield’s Dex, they are just stuck in your Pokémon Home account, unable to do anything. Sparky nooooooooooooo!

However, that’s just the case in the short term. Nintendo’s plan for the long term is to have Pokémon Home be compatible with literally every Pokémon release, casual or otherwise, from this point forward. Without a National Dex, this actually makes Pokémon Home much more valuable. It’s the only way to get your favorite Pokémon into games that actually CAN use them. If my Galvantula becomes suddenly usable on whatever Pokémon game comes out on Nintendo’s next generation console, Pokémon Home is the only way I will ever be able to use him again! Otherwise he will be stuck in Sun and Moon or even worse, back in Black and White where I first caught him.

You might be asking “How does Pokémon Home work? Wouldn’t they need to code/model all the Pokémon there too?” Well, no. Since it’s a much more lightweight program they will likely only use menu sprites in Pokémon Home. Otherwise, it’s just data, and that’s much easier. Once they get all the Pokémon that exist now into Home they will just need to add the new Pokémon in each generation. If Nintendo is telling the truth and Home is going to be a pseudo-eternal piece of software, then it won’t ever reach critical mass, unless they make so many new Pokémon that they can’t store their info on a server anymore…. which is near impossible.

However, if they DO decide to create something like Pokémon Home 2, an upgrade that requires them to re-code and re-implement the whole National Dex again, then Home might eventually reach critical mass as well.

Critical mass

Pokémon is a series that was designed to always get bigger, a game that always builds on the content it already has with more and more content. Frankly, no video game can continually get bigger. No growth anywhere, in anything, can be infinite. It’s unsustainable. That’s why there has never been another game quite like Pokémon. All that’s happening now is that Pokémon is falling in line with pretty much every other video game out there. Its content won’t keep growing, but rather will change with every new release.

If anything, the anger and disappointment fans are feeling now is a testament to how emotionally effective Pokémon was and is as a franchise. Nintendo successfully made us bond with small pieces of data. I may not give a crap about the ten million Zubats and Bidoofs I’ve tossed away over the years, but I do still care about Sparky, and while he may not be able to be my team wiper in Sword and Shield, I have confidence that I’ll see him in a current generation Pokémon game soon enough, National Dex or no.