Toxic as Muk

At E3 2019, Pokémon producer Junichi Masuda made a startling admission. With over 800 pocket monsters across 7 Pokémon generations, it was time to make some cuts. “We knew at some point we weren’t going to be able to indefinitely keep supporting all of the Pokémon,” Masuda stated in an interview with USgamer. And indeed, when Pokémon Sword and Shield launched later that year, less than half the Pokémon from previous generations were included. For the first time, players would not be able to complete National Pokédex.

Fans were outraged. Many claimed Masuda and Pokémon development studio Game Freak had gotten lazy, complacent with the repeated sales successes of their games without putting in the effort. Many more controversies would follow—some justified while others fabricated. It was a PR disaster.

How did this happen? The question is simple, but the answer is much more complicated. A year later, let us look at what went wrong.

Great Expectations

An artist’s rendition of Pokémon in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (Image via Reddit.)

The Pokédex controversy, known as “Dexit,” could be boiled down to a single argument: Game Freak could not put every existing Pokémon into Sword and Shield, and fans disagreed with their reasons why. But before diving into that, we need to understand some basics about the software development lifecycle.

Every software project has a design phase in which the people in charge make high-level decisions about what to include and what not to include, a process called scoping. It was likely at this stage, which typically occurs early in development, that the decision to cut Pokémon from Sword and Shield was made. It should be noted that such decisions are not arbitrary (Masuda himself said the process was “very difficult”); they are made based on what is deemed most important and what trade-offs are needed to accomplish those goals.

Masuda gave several reasons for the decision to cut Pokémon from Sword and Shield, noting specifically the lack of development resources to model and animate all 800+ existing Pokémon, and the difficulty in balancing each one for battles. Regardless of whether these explanations were true (more on that later), the biggest problem is not the explanation itself, but that Masuda and Game Freak made the decision while completely misreading fan expectations. Pokémon fans wanted the full National Pokédex, but Game Freak deemed that feature unnecessary—a dissonance between creator and consumer.

It also did not help that Sword and Shield were being developed for the Nintendo Switch. The idea of playing a mainline Pokémon game on the big screen for the first time conjured up old dreams of beautiful, massive open-world environments where players could “catch ’em all”, a dream that was shattered by Dexit and some random tree textures that signaled to fans that this was not the home console Pokémon game they were expecting. In an act of mob anger, people started trying to dig up dirt on Game Freak.

#GameFreakLied

A collage of various reactions to the #GameFreakLied hashtag. (Image via KnowYourMeme.)

In November, just days before release, a 4chan poster claimed to have ripped models from Pokémon Sword and Shield, revealing that they were reused from previous games and seemingly contradicting Masuda’s claim that previous Pokémon were cut due to a lack of development resources. The hashtag #GameFreakLied started trending on Twitter, reiterating the claim that the decision to cut Pokémon from Sword and Shield was made purely out of laziness and complacency.

Now, I do not like the word “lie.” It implies malicious intent, which is a particularly bold accusation, and something I doubt was going on here. A more reasonable explanation would be that Masuda misspoke, or that Game Freak just decided to change their mind about recreating all the Pokémon models from scratch. Regardless of whether or not Game Freak “lied,” however, it is important to remember again that such decisions are never arbitrary. Game Freak does not take pleasure in fan backlash; if they could include every Pokémon in Sword and Shield, I am sure they would.

A common counterpoint to Masuda’s explanation is that, if the problem was truly a lack of development resources, couldn’t Game Freak just hire a bunch of animators to finish the job? Surely, a multi-billion dollar international video game and entertainment franchise could afford it. But simply adding more people to a development team does not instantly solve a problem, as demonstrated in the seminal software engineering book “The Mythical Man-Month.” With not much time between Dexit and release, hiring a bunch of new people to work on a nearly-completed game was simply not possible.

Of course, all of this discussion only matters if—and this is a huge “if”—this leak from 4chan was even real. Given that Sword and Shield have been out for several months and no one has come forward with similar accusations since then, it does cast doubt the veracity of the claim, which some had already postulated was faked. This notion was further compounded by another “leak,” which allegedly showed a choppy cutscene from Sword and Shield that was eventually proven false.

9.3/10

IGN’s video review for Pokemon Sword and Shield. (Video via YouTube.)

Upon release, Pokémon Sword and Shield reviewed well—about on par with previous entries in the series. For any other game, this would have been the end of it; the game turned out fine, despite a development cycle rife with controversy. But leave it to Pokémon to bring out the worst in gamers.

Somehow, people could not comprehend that, after everything they had seen, Pokémon Sword and Shield could possibly be any good. Fans wanted so badly for the games to be panned, to punish Game Freak for their laziness and complacency. IGN gave Sword and Shield a 9.3/10, which spawned dozens of angry commenters accusing the reviewer of nostalgia bias. Other outlets gave similar scores, and both Sword and Shield currently rest at an aggregate rating of 80/100 on Metacritic, which indicates “generally favorable reviews.”

Even post-release, the anger continued. The reveal of an expansion pass for Sword and Shield, in place of a typical “director’s cut” version of the game, stirred up controversy yet again, with people accusing Game Freak of being greedy (despite the DLC costing a fraction of a full-priced game). Even when Game Freak announced that it was adding over 200 more returning Pokémon to the games free of charge, people raised their pitchforks yet again—Game Freak had implied that they weren’t adding any more Pokémon post-release, so, of course, #GameFreakLied, despite doing what the fans wanted. Game Freak’s attempts to appease its fanbase, no matter how hard they tried, could not quell the anger that had spawned from Dexit.

The Pokémon Problem

Ash’s Muk. (Image via Pokémon Wiki.)

At this point, I should make an admission of my own. Although it may seem like I am a Pokémon apologist, the reality is—I hate Pokémon. I find the games repetitive and not very fun, and I have the word “Pokémon” muted on Twitter. With that said, here are some concluding thoughts from an outsider perspective.

First, Game Freak needs more time to develop core Pokémon games to meet fan expectations. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Pokémon is much more than just a video game franchise; to give the next Pokémon games more time would mean delaying the anime, the movies, the trading cards, the toys, the merchandise, the events, and a whole host of other things that The Pokémon Company, which handles everything Pokémon-related internationally, needs to plan in advance. As such, the entirety of The Pokémon Company needs to restructure how they approach the franchise in the future to avoid a similar PR nightmare from happening again.

Second, Masuda needs to learn how to talk to fans. It is apparent that he does not completely understand the Pokémon fanbase, and his statements and explanations are often perceived to be veiled half-truths by his audience. It could be a cultural thing, or perhaps a need for a better translator, but whatever he is doing right now is not working.

Finally, some Pokémon fans—particularly older ones—need to start accepting the fact that the franchise may no longer be for them. Pokémon is over two decades old at this point; those who played the original Pokémon Red and Blue as kids have since grown up and had kids of their own… and these are the people who are disappointed that the franchise has not grown up with them. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault—people grow out of things all the time—but Pokémon games have always been targeted towards children. From this point of view, perhaps the decision to cut Pokémon doesn’t seem all that drastic; after all, if kids today didn’t grow up with the original 151, why would they care that some of them didn’t make the cut?

To end, I guess all of this is to make the following point: the “lazy game dev” trope is tired and often misused as a false scapegoat for the real issue at hand, whether that be one of development time, communication, or an aging fanbase. Even if Pokémon Sword and Shield had turned out to be bad (and may I remind you that it didn’t), it would have almost certainly been an issue of project management, not developer laziness. Calling a developer “lazy” is ultimately meaningless—and the sooner we rid ourselves of that notion, the sooner we can have real conversations about how things like Pokémon can be improved.

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