The Pokémon Company are the masters of maintaining and growing a franchise.
More than 25 years since Red and Blue was released, and Pokémon remains an icon in the industry. In the United Kingdom, one of Nintendo’s weaker markets, Pokémon is the second largest video game series (box sales) after FIFA this year. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet just enjoyed the biggest Pokémon launch ever in terms of revenue. And anyone who visited the pop-up shop in the UK in August can tell you how passionate and engaged this audience is.
Pokémon have long since learned that three years is the ideal loop for the main sequence. A new “generation” of Pokémon game is released every three years, and with it comes a new generation of cards, clothing, merchandise, events, and a new era for the TV show. Each generation introduces new monsters, new characters, and a new location for The Pokémon Company to build these things around.
Just when the fan base starts to lose interest a bit, a new generation comes along and the next cycle begins. One look at the numbers will tell you it’s a system that works.
Three years isn’t nearly enough to build a major AAA adventure game
Yet there is a problem. Three years isn’t nearly enough to build a major AAA adventure game. During its years on the Gameboy and DS consoles, Pokémon was seen as one of the most significant releases from a critical and commercial perspective. But on Switch, where expectations are much higher, Pokémon has faced unfavorable comparisons to some of Nintendo’s major first-party titles, such as Zelda. The Pokémon games on Switch just don’t run or look as good.
Certain fans understandably don’t understand why a series can make so much money and still fail to deliver visually and technically. They call developer Game Freak – one of the most prolific game studios in the world – “lazy.” They’ve called The Pokémon Company “cheap” for not reinvesting the money. But the problem isn’t Game Freak’s aim or ambition, or the budget for the games, but the time it has to build it.
As a result, Game Freak has tried to be frugal and realistic with what it does. It takes an almost iterative approach to Pokémon development, trying things out in one game before expanding in the next. It means the games don’t look as good as they could, or go as far in terms of innovation, but they still hit that regular three-year release cadence.
For most fans, especially those concerned with the wider world of Pokémon, this is fine. They would prefer this to having to wait five years between each match. But all it takes is something like a global pandemic, for example, and we’re facing a situation like we have with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, which have had serious performance issues from launch. The game wasn’t ready yet.
The title is far from unplayable. In fact, in what little I’ve played of it, it’s still a lot of fun. And I’m sure a few patches will fix many of the issues. But the truth remains that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet won’t be on many “best game” lists this year. And with the way Pokémon has evolved over the past six years, it’s hard to imagine if the franchise ever will.
This is frustrating. As a fan, I find myself playing these games and thinking ‘if only I had it for another six months’. Earlier this year, the company released Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which was a really excellent take on the series. Critics called it the best Pokémon game in over 20 years, and I agree. But it was technically lacking, it was visually poor in places, there was only one city, and the post-game section was a bit tired. I feel like Game Freak nailed all the hard stuff – the part about making a fun game – it just needed a little more time with everything else.
I wonder if Legends is the answer here. The game surprised the world when it launched in January, which is typically a dead zone for new releases. Even Nintendo had been underestimating things, with retailers selling out in some markets. There’s no indication if more Legends games are planned, but it seems sensible. Because Game Freak now has a second Pokémon series capable of delivering the kind of numbers that only the “generation” of games have managed to do in the past.
It creates an interesting opportunity. Call of Duty has long benefited from two series – Black Ops and Modern Warfare – developed by different teams, who take turns releasing their titles. Pokémon could now follow this model as well.
“In hindsight, Pokémon Legends: Arceus should have launched this Christmas”
In hindsight (and no one knew how well it was going to do) maybe Legends should have launched this Christmas. It would have given the team the extra months it needed to tighten things up, add a few features and polish the technical aspects. And while it didn’t introduce a new region or many new Pokémon, the game’s historical setting had a richness ripe for further development through maps, TV shows, and other mediums (certainly more than them).
That would have allowed Game Freak to do another year with Scarlet and Violet, which feels like exactly what that game needed.
Of course, the developer may not find it necessary. After all, Pokémon Legends and Scarlett and Violet were games created during a pandemic. There were extenuating circumstances. And aside from some internet ire, the fans generally seem pleased with the products they receive.
But I think Pokemon is better than that. Game Freak is not a developer that settles for 7 and 8 out of 10 scores. The Pokémon games released on Switch may not have lived up to their potential, but they are still ambitious efforts from a team that is clearly eager to move forward.
I am pleased to report on the continued popularity of Pokémon over the past ten years. The Pokémon Company is an industry leader in preserving and growing a franchise across decades and generations of fans. I just hope that in the future it will also lead the industry in terms of the games it makes.