When it first exploded on to screens of varying shapes and sizes back in 1996, Pokémon almost instantly became one of the biggest success stories in not only video games but entertainment in general. Even now, the series is routinely making more money than Star Wars and Hello Kitty combined in profit within each business year.
But since the Generation 3 (Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire) releases for the Game Boy Advance, a subset of vocal fans of Nintendo and Game Freak’s brand would accuse the developer of having somewhat of a ‘one step forwards, two steps back’ approach to the series’ development —but why?
Kaizen Game Development
It’s true that Game Freak have cut content and gameplay styles from prior titles each and every time they have developed a new generation of entries for the popular monster catching series. It isn’t because they’re lazy, but because they’re putting their focus instead into new experiences and ways for the player to interact with the world of Pokémon.
Despite having co-ownership of perhaps the largest and most popular entertainment brand in the world, Game Freak still had an internal staff of only 143 people as of the end of 2018. Keeping the team somewhat small allows the company to maintain lower development costs but this sometimes comes at the price of the scope the franchise can aim for.
With each title the company must pick and choose their development goals very carefully and each games director must decide what is most important to them with each release.
In some ways, there’s an almost ‘kaizen’ development philosophy over at Game Freak. Used in everyday Japanese, the word kaizen means “change for better” without having the implication or subtext of the change needing to be a ‘continuous’ one that directly follows on from what came before.
This idea of ‘kaizen’ can most clearly be seen in the many times Pokémon titles have experimented with ideas only to not continue to develop and expand the idea in a following release, such as the day/night system in Generation 2 (Pokémon Gold & Silver) or the changing of weather seasons in Generation 5 (Pokémon Black & White). It was also apparent when the company removed HM (Hidden Machine) moves that date back to the series debut in favour of introducing new methods of making sure the player would experience the story in the correct order as they advance on their adventure.
There’s No Sugar In Green Tea
It’s also important to note that over in Japan, almost everything is a tailored experience and video games are no exception. Nintendo’s own Jordan Amaro (designer for the Splatoon series) once said as much, when western fans were met with the culture shock of Splatoon 2’s Salmon Run mode only being open and available to play at certain times that Nintendo scheduled in advance.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Amaro talked about the difference between eastern and western game design, stating that “In Japan, everything is tailored. You’ve probably heard Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk, in which she went to a restaurant in Japan and tried to order sugar in her green tea. The people at the cafe said, “One does not put sugar in green tea,” and then, “We don’t have sugar.” But when she ordered coffee instead, it did come with sugar! In Japan, there’s a sense of, “We’re making this thing for you, and this is how we think this thing is better enjoyed.”
Gotta Catch …Some Of ‘em?
In an attempt to explain the somewhat controversial decision to for the first time limit the roster of Pokémon that are available to use in the upcoming Generation 8 titles Pokémon Sword and Shield, Game Freak co-founder and Pokémon series producer Junichi Masuda became the target of ire from fans when he made the statement that “We already have well over 800 Pokémon species and there’s going to be more added in these games … Now that they’re on the Nintendo Switch, we’re creating it with much higher fidelity with higher quality animations.”
Fans dissatisfied with his response immediately began to compare models and animations to those from previous titles that released for Nintendo 3DS, finding many similarities and even some recycling of models and animations from Generation 7 (Pokémon Sun & Moon). It is of course likely that a lot of the animations are for new attacks or features not shared between the games such as Pokémon Camp, a cute mini-game where you can bond with your Pokémon over curry on a camping trip to increase their secret happiness stat and provide other as yet unconfirmed bonuses for your monster friends.
Masuda went on to say in clarification that “We knew at some point we weren’t going to be able to indefinitely keep supporting all of the Pokémon, and we just found that Sword and Shield would probably be a good point to go back and re-evaluate what would be the best selection of Pokémon that appeal to the widest audience …”
He also talked about wanting to tailor Pokémon Sword and Shield in regards to balancing the experience of competitive multiplayer battles, explaining that he wanted to ‘give all the Pokémon that appear in the games a chance to shine‘. This decision was likely a long time coming and is similar to the development strategy for fighting games or MOBAs, competitive large character roster genres that regularly cut, alter or introduce new characters in later releases to try and ensure that player vs player matches remain both interesting and fair to play regardless of which character you want to choose.
The Tailored Experience
With that in mind, there’s still a lot to love about the tailored experience that is Pokémon Sword & Shield if you’ve measured your expectations and decide to enjoy what’s there and not just notice what’s ‘missing’ from past entries in the series.
There will be new Pokémon friends and new adventures in an area based on the United Kingdom called Galar. You’ll be able to experience all new types of play in the ‘Wild Area’, an easy to explore sandbox with not only variable weather but gigantic Dynamax Pokémon that you can capture with your friends in Max Raid battles via Wi-Fi.
For the first time ever some towns Gym Leaders will vary depending on whether you’ve bought Sword Version or Shield Version – and as mentioned earlier you can now camp out with your Pokémon. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to fill out the new CurryDex too, a delicious menu of at least 100 delectable curried treats. Gotta cook ‘em all.
Pokemon Sword and Shield release exclusively on Nintendo Switch on November 15th 2019.