On 28 June, 2019, the highest grossing media franchise in human history took the first - and probably largest - step toward its own potential extinction, by spitting on good faith of its highly dedicated, generation-spanning consumer base. Junichi Masuda
, one of the directors of Game Freak
, the game development
company for the Pokémon
series of Nintendo
video games, shook and infuriated the fan base with the following announcement.
Thank you to all of our fans for caring so deeply about Pokémon. Recently, I shared the news that some Pokémon cannot be transferred to Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. I've read all your comments and appreciate your love and passion for Pokémon.
Just like all of you, we are passionate about Pokémon and each and every one of them is very important to us. After so many years of developing the Pokémon video games, this was a very difficult decision for me. I'd like to make one thing clear: even if a specific Pokémon is not available in Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, that does not mean it will not appear in future games.
The world of Pokémon continues to evolve. The Galar region offers new Pokémon to encounter, Trainers to battle, and adventures to embark on. We are pouring our hearts into these games, and we hope you will look forward to joining us on this new journey.
June 28, 2019
The negative backlash to this announcement was immediate and enormous, prompting Game Freak's product development planner, Shigeru Ohmori, to make the following statement in an interview with Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, in an extremely misguided attempt to be conciliatory.
This time Masuda and I had a lot of discussions. It had already been very difficult to bring all of the Pokémon to Pokémon Sun and Moon, but this time the hardware was Switch and we had to remake all of the models from scratch, so we had to make some choices. But if you play Pokémon Sword and Shield, I think you’ll find that even if there is a restriction to the number of Pokémon we can bring over, things like the wild areas and the story will have a very large volume.
There are several problems with all of this, so let us address them one at a time.
First, Ohmori's statement is a bald-faced lie. Back in 2017, the advent of Pokémon GO, a mobile game, Game Freak announced that it had "future proofed" all Pokémon 3D models, to guarantee they will be compatible on subsequent console gaming systems and handheld devices, including mobile phones, without the developers needing to rebuild every model from scratch for every single game. These "future proofed" models were announced to be agnostic to the screen size and resolution of future devices, by virtue of using enough polygons per model that they should look seamless even on large screen televisions. Furthermore, the models were stated to be backed up across multiple redundant locations. If this claim of future-proofing were not a factor, Ohmori would still have been lying: several days before the November 2019 release of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield to the Nintendo Switch, a group of dataminers extracted the model data from the game files of a stolen copy of the games: every model in Sword and Shield is identical to the models used in the previous several years' releases for Switch and Nintendo 3DS. No new models whatsoever were made of previous generation Pokémon, for Sword and Shield. Game Freak employees made further attempts to pacify the fanbase, some claiming understaffing, overworking, and other issues in the development team, were hindering the team's ability to get every Pokémon into the game. Arguments broke out on Twitter about this, under the hashtags #thankyougamefreak and (later, in retaliation for the seeming abuse of the sympathies of gamers) #fuckyougamefreak.
Second, the Pokémon franchise slogan in English-speaking territories is "Gotta Catch 'Em All!" The entire core premise of these games, dominant over every single other factor of gameplay, is the collection of every species of Pokémon, to fill out the pages of a Pokémon index - a Pokédex. There are over 800 Pokémon at the time of this writeup, and as the dataminers verified, Pokémon Sword and Shield contain around half that total. Do not mistake the meaning of "contain," here: this is not a matter of whether or not these Pokémon can be caught in Sword and Shield. It is perfectly expected among Pokémon players that each game will focus on the region where it is set, having mostly only that region's Pokémon, and requiring trading across the various games, to bring in Pokémon from other games. The problem here is that Sword and Shield do not provide any way for nearly half of all Pokémon species to enter the game and be counted in the Pokédex. The dataminers showed that it simply can't be done. This is why this controversial decision by Game Freak has been called "Dexit" by Pokémon fans: similarly to how less than half the population of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the shocking "Brexit" referendum of 2016, Game Freak's decision to have just under half the total Pokémon species absent from these games is shocking, and has prompted similar wounded outrage.
Third, the Pokémon franchise has spent the past twenty years encouraging players to single out specific Pokémon to be their personal favourites. The fanbase treat the specific Pokémon in one's team of six to be symbolic of the personality and values of the player. There are several hundred trillion possible Pokémon teams, and time and again, ad hoc internet surveys have demonstrated the truth of the idea that every single Pokémon is someone's favourite. Back in 1999, Game Freak itself codified this idea for the fans, by having the NPC Karen of the Elite Four declare the following, in the games Pokémon Silver and Pokémon Gold:
Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favorites.
To say that it is a blow to the psyche of the players, to have many of their favourites completely unobtainable in these games, is a gross understatement. Many Pokémon players do "gimmick runs" of the game, such as trading a single Bulbasaur into the game at the earliest trading opportunity, and then doing a solo run with it: using Bulbasaur and no other Pokémon, to complete the game, without evolving it into its stronger adult forms. Some solo runners take immense pride in having used a Bulbasaur (or a Magikarp, or another similarly delicate Pokémon, for the bragging rights of it all) to complete every single main series game, and this is the first time it is completely impossible to do so.
The fourth concerning issue about Dexit is what future is being set up by this first move against the will of the players and fans. Game Freak created a utility called Pokémon Home, which players can use as cloud storage for their Pokémon from previous games, in order to migrate them into future games. Pokémon Home has a very significant flaw: any Pokémon sent into it cannot be returned to its game of origin, meaning that if it is not transferable into a future game, it remains "trapped" inside Pokémon Home, permanently unusable to the player. This loss of the use of one's long-term favourite Pokémon would be bad enough already, but worse yet, Pokémon Home is a paid subscription service: any player who uploads their entire history of caught Pokémon into the service will now have those Pokémon held hostage within the service, for however long it takes Game Freak to create a game that allows them to transfer in. To make this worse still, Game Freak did not release a list of which Pokémon are and aren't transferable to Sword and Shield; they only announced that not all Pokémon would make it, implying a relatively small cut from the roster. If the dataminers had not released the full list of Pokémon cut from these games, Game Freak would have allowed users to create this "hostage situation" for themselves, without ever being told ahead of time, cornering a huge portion of the userbase into a continuous subscription. The fans regard this move as obviously exploitative and unethical, and fans feel as though they are being punished for their nearly twenty-five years of brand loyalty, which they have carried over to their own children.
Fifth, this move by Game Freak is cementing a suspicion the fan base has held for some time: Nintendo uses games to sell consoles and merchandise; it does not use consoles to sell games, and this dynamic can and will be used to exploit the buying choices of gamers. While many gamers purchased the Nintendo Switch console in order to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, at least as many players purchased the Switch months in advance of the release of Sword and Shield, strictly for the purpose of playing these Pokémon games on the Switch. Game Freak cultivated a large amount of optimistic trust earlier in the lifespan of the Switch with spin-off Pokémon games for Switch,Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! The fans, convinced these popular games represented a positive direction in the development of the series, pre-ordered Sword and Shield months in advance of the release date, but more importantly, they bought more Switches, often several Switches per household, in order that siblings and spouses can trade and battle Pokémon with each other. By the time Dexit occurred, Nintendo had already reaped the enormous financial success of selling countless Switches to gamers eagerly anticipating Sword and Shield, who were willing to jump the gun on buying the console long ahead of the games' release. Past that point, it could be argued that Nintendo had already gotten what it wanted from the players: once the consoles sell, the games do not need to be as excellent as the players are led to expect.
It is unclear at this time whether this move is the first death knell of the Pokémon franchise. Many players have canceled their pre-orders of Sword and Shield, hoping the sweeping cancellations and Twitter hostilities combined will show Game Freak that the player base will not tolerate this treatment. In this era of Downloadable Content and microtransactions in gaming, squeezing players for every last penny while rushing out unfinished games, the players are certainly right to be suspicious that Game Freak will jump on that same financially abusive bandwagon. Pokémon fans have always historically been touchy about how Nintendo can lead them around by the nose every time it releases a new console and a corresponding console-exclusive Pokémon main series game. They have also been touchy about the use of multiple game versions, with version-exclusive Pokémon, forcing players to either buy both games to catch every Pokémon, or coordinate trades with a friend who has the opposite game version. Fans know from experience that - to a certain point - Game Freak is already cheerfully exploitative of player buying decisions, treating the multiple game versions as a positive feature rather than an obvious money-grab. Now that the consoles cost $300 USD, and the games cost $60 USD, respectively twice the prices of previous Nintendo handheld systems and games, touchiness is fully justified: first the players have been cornered into an extremely expensive new console purchase, if they wish to continue the series, and now the series itself is flatly rejecting the wishes and intentions of the lifetime-loyal fans, which are what they have always been: to catch 'em all.
Iron Noder 2019, 17/30