Posted on 11 months ago
Pokémon Scarlet & Violet: In Service to the Brand
Like a lot of self-described Pokémon fans, I’ve found myself consumed by the excitement and fervor that’s surrounded Pokémon Scarlet and Violet in the month since it’s release. I’ve easily put in over 60 hours at this point, it’s maybe some of the most fun I’ve had with a main series Pokémon game in quite a while and I’m excited to see what comes next from following the precedent for freeform exploration these games and Pokémon Legends: Arceus are setting for the series going forward. To say that there was a lot of work put into these games is likely an understatement and it shows.
I bring all that up at the top here to frame the concern that I have for the state in which these games did release in and that I think any praise of the game does need to also consider how, aside from maybe the original Pokémon games on the Game Boy, these are easily the buggiest games released to date as much as it impacts the performance of general play. “This game is really fun but wow, what a buggy mess” is the general sentiment I see thrown around when I’ve discussed my feelings about Pokémon Scarlet & Violet with other folks, and I’m personally in that camp as well even if I didn’t experience that many game breaking glitches in my own playthrough. I’ve seen lots of critiques of Game Freak that boil down to an argument that’s been used over the last few years of arguing that the developers are lazy or not interested in making games of a certain quality for whatever reason. Often cited is exactly how successful Pokémon is as one of the best selling media franchises of all time, so innovation or quality control might not seem as important with that expectation in mind.
And while I think the sheer scale of Pokémon as an entity larger than the core video games that spawned it is impacting the development process, I would be hard-pressed to call the efforts put forward by Game Freak over the past few years “lazy” as others have suggested. Without having a direct look at what happened from any of the hundreds of people who worked on Scarlet and Violet and not being a game developer myself, making any definitive claims as to what led to the bug-filled release would be disingenuous BUT after taking some time and looking at the information we have past and present related to the development of Pokémon games, I think we can make some educated guesses as to what isn’t responsible for the games’ level of polish and some potential issues that we can point to. Let’s start with some of the most common complaints I’ve seen levied against Game Freak.
why doesn’t game freak just get someone else to make pokémon games
Maybe the most common question I’ve seen every time conversations come up about the quality of recent Pokémon titles is if Game Freak should simply outsource the development more if there’s some things they can’t or don’t know how to accomplish on the Switch. And, well, if you set aside the game we did get from ILCA last year like everyone else did, to that I would respond: they already have!
Now that folks have had a chance to play through Scarlet and Violet and to take a look at the game’s credits, we can actually see that quite a bit of the people were involved with the games development that aren’t Game Freak staff. You can read them along with me on the Nintendo wiki here as the games, to my knowledge don’t have a way to replay the credits after your first watch. The first notable names on this list, to me, start under Game Programming Partners, followed by Research & Development Partners and 3D Graphics Partners. The companies listed here (Creek & River Co., Ltd, Digital Hearts Co., Ltd, Silicon Studio Corporation, Digital Works Entertainment Inc., etc.) are all, for the most part, Japanese third party outsourcing companies for either extra talent for big game development projects or for specialty work like 3D modeling or networking libraries. In particular, Creek & River is listed as having contributed to quite a few recent Nintendo titles and is heavily credited here in Scarlet and Violet’s development and Digital Hearts is a testing and quality assurance company that some folks might recognize, as it’s listed in the credits of hundreds of titles across multiple different companies just in the last 5 years alone, including multiple Nintendo games.
From what little knowledge I do have of modern game development, outsourcing is a fairly common practice and this can’t be taken as a indicator of how the game’s development alone. And the current series director, Shigeru Ohmori, has been pretty candid about getting support from outside of the core studio to make their larger games before. However, what also struck me as I went through the list of names here is how much overlap there is between the teams behind Scarlet and Violet and Pokémon Legends: Arceus.
This to me would signify that, unlike what has been previously stated, the typical structure of two separate teams working on Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet/Violet is not the case here. While both games would appear to have different directors with Kazumasa Iwao heading up Legends: Arceus’s development while Ohmori directed Scarlet/Violet, Iwao appears to be one of the only names not present in both games’ credits and a whole new slew of 3rd party companies are mentioned alongside those previously mentioned to cover Arceus’s development. Notable of those overlapping names, we have newcomers like Battle System Programming and UI programming lead Hiroki Shintani who’s credited as an ATLUS veteran dating back to 2009, and longtime Nintendo veteran Jun Ito serving as a Section Director for Arceus and AI Lead for Scarlet/Violet (not to be confused with Jun Itô, longtime staffer for FromSoftware including Elden Ring, I almost made that mistake 😅) . And most notably for me were names like 3D Map Graphics Lead Noriko Uono, who’s art credits also include other Xenoblade Chronicles X and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild! Which brings me to my next common argument:
why doesn’t game freak just get nintendo or monolith soft to help, they make good switch games
Granted, Uono’s credits to me read like that of a freelancer but she’s not the only person credited on other Nintendo or Monolith titles here! In fact, if we circle back over to the folks at Creek & River Ltd, we can see their credits do also include Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition among other large Switch titles. I could go on here but the key takeaway here is that Pokémon Scarlet & Violet are not a product of not having enough people to work on them. With over 1000 people credited across all different departments, there’s clearly a lot of labor put into making Scarlet and Violet (along with the last few Pokémon titles, arguably) experiences that as many people as possible can enjoy. AND yet with that in mind, the question does remain:
So, if we’re not tracing back the roots of Scarlet/Violet’s troubled release to a lack of staffing or specialized skills, what can we point to as some likely causes? Poor management conditions and crunch time is what I think a lot of folks can imagine as an issue here but I also think that we’re dealing with Pokémon games serving as a means of constantly reinvigorating the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. Let’s break down what that means.
For folks who don’t know, the Pokémon namesake or franchise is not solely in the hands of Game Freak, despite being the original developers and company behind Pokémon. It’s not just owned by Nintendo as the original publisher, either. The simplest way it breaks down is that Pokémon’s ownership is split three ways between Game Freak, Nintendo and Creatures Inc, another video game studio who worked closely on Pokémon’s development and the creation of the Pokémon trading card game. Or, that’s almost how it works until you also factor in The Pokémon Company, which was founded by the three owners of Pokémon mentioned here in 1998 to act as a sort of brand manager in the wake of the games absolutely exploding in popularity after Red and Green’s initial release. To further complicate matters, Nintendo solely owns the trademark for Pokémon and Pokémon character names in a similar relationship to other co-developed Nintendo titles (Fire Emblem with Intelligent Systems, Kirby with HAL Laboratory, etc.) where the developing company only shares the copyright. I’ve also seen some speculation that because Creatures was originally founded by former staff of Earthbound developers Ape Inc. that Nintendo has an undisclosed stake in Creatures as well and I wasn’t able to find any information that confirmed this? Ape was originally founded with an investment from Nintendo, so this wouldn’t surprise me, and I did find some wiki’s referring to the company’s original name as “Ape Nintendo Inc.” when looking up who owns Creatures but I couldn’t find any source on that info. Creatures and Ape are also listed as distinctly different business entities as far as I can see but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that is definitive proof of them not being linked to Nintendo financially.
Long winded tangent aside, the larger point here is that a lot of hands are involved in the direction of Pokémon as an entity alongside Game Freak themselves, which includes the direction of the Pokémon games. And Pokémon, as a franchise, is more than just video games at this point! It’s also trading cards and mobile games and toys and manga and animated shows and movies and live action movies and even jets! The Pokémon Company hasn’t reported the franchise earnings on their website since 2019 but game and merchandise sales continue to stay in the top 10 highest grossing in their respective categories every year, with retail sales going so far as to surpass the numbers of the video game counterparts worldwide. But, of course, all of this hinges on a steady stream of Pokémon releases to make sure that every year, there’s more in the way of new or updated Pokémon designs for the rest of the production pipeline…
I think what we’re dealing with here when it comes to the gradual decline in polish on Pokémon games is not just a problem of poor management but specifically a cycle of poor management dictated by the demands of a production cycle that just isn’t sustainable for any one development team, no matter how large to manage. Game Freak is likely juggling deadlines imposed far in advance by the other working partners involved in making sure that the Pokémon trading cards, anime, toys, and so on are able to release alongside Scarlet & Violet and make sure that the company executives get the holiday cash flow they’re expecting. I can’t imagine being any of the QA testers or other entry-level employees involved in such a monumental project like what’s being attempted with Pokémon and being told that the game can’t get another 6-8 months because it would disrupt multiple projects across multiple companies all at the same time. The yearly release schedule that we’ve come to expect from Pokémon is one that I suspect many Game Freak employees aren’t happy about either but also want to make sure they can keep their jobs in an industry that is already especially difficult to keep steady work in if you’re not keeping with the work culture.
There’s an old principle in software development that I’m reminded of here that says “if you try to solve a late software problem by just throwing more people at it, you’ll only end up making it later.” In the case of Scarlet and Violet, we may never know whether this is a problem of management for Game Freak, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo or even all of the above but there is a clear division of labor issue here that needs to be resolved. I would wager a guess that, even though adding 1000+ Pokémon models into a game such as this would be a challenge in any time frame, it could easily have been one of the difficult decisions the development team had to make as demands kept increasing with no flexible deadlines. It would certainly explain why we got our first core Pokémon title from a new developer in ILCA in the way of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl to make sure Game Freak would actually have the time needed to make Legends: Arceus and Scarlet/Violet games that were in presentable shape. We may never know the full story behind the scenes without hearing from the developers themselves and so all we truly have to go off of is the information we are given with the games themselves.
let developers take breaks for once
So is this kind of constant crunch and forcibly imposed development schedule something we should just expect? As it stands, we haven’t seen a year without a Pokémon release since 2015 now. Should we be treating the memory leaks and lack of overall polish as a given for Pokémon going forward? Absolutely not, and we’ve already seen evidence of Pokémon as a brand shifting to fit the needs of the developers, rather than the other way around. In a recent video, the folks at Did You Know Gaming did a big compilation of research to look at the history surrounding the long rumored “Pokémon Gray” and “Pokémon Z” titles that were never released. Among other insights, the data uncovered highlights a potential release schedule used internally by the game’s developers, with one source coming from a datamine of Pokémon X/Y in 2014 and another from the datamining of Pokémon Sun/Moon in 2020. The important info to know from this digging is that it confirms that the same year we didn’t get a new Pokémon game, 2015, it would appear there was a Pokémon game planned, listed as the KALOS_RESERVE.
And sure enough, the Pokémon anime continued without needing a new release with the series Pokémon XYZ, creating chances for never before seen Pokémon to appear in the anime a whole year ahead of an in-game appearance not seen since the anime first started airing in 1997! 2015 allowed Game Freak to take a break and work on games besides Pokémon for a change with Tembo the Badass Elephant (it’s a fun game, I promise), and the subsequent release of Pokémon Sun & Moon in 2016 also marks one of the only times since the series’ move to 3D that the “unique mechanic” of the previous generation, Mega Evolution, was able to carry over into a new series of games, alongside the new introduction of Z-Moves as well. That tells me that the possibility is clearly there for management on all sides to not make the labor involved in Pokémon games an afterthought. And my hope is that, despite what the exceptional sales numbers would suggest, Nintendo, Game Freak, Creatures, and The Pokémon Company knows from the public outcry that their workers and their games deserve better.