Perry asks:

How much do you think GameFreak is willing to change (HMs, Megas, Dexit/whatever you like to call it) and how much will they expand to other types of games and medias ( Pokemon Unite… ugh)? How much do you think should happen to continue their success, financially and from a fan’s perspective?

…look, I don’t want to be mean about this but… this question basically amounts to “solve game design” and I’m not going to do that; I don’t know how to do that; I’m simply not that knowledgeable about design or business.  Here are some thoughts that I have, which may or may not be of use to anyone:

I should point out, first of all, that Pokémon Unite actually isn’t Game Freak at all.  Game Freak isn’t directly responsible for… I think any of the Pokémon spinoff games, and I suspect that will probably continue.  Pokémon games outside the core series are all developed under the umbrella of the Pokémon Company, and most of them in association with Nintendo, but by many different studios.  I know that sounds nit-picky on my part, but it does matter when we’re talking about big long-term future-of-Pokémon questions, particularly if we care at all about the business side.  A lot of it is… not entirely in Game Freak’s hands, and I suspect there is a pretty strong impulse from up above towards being quite conservative with the design of the core games.

Video games are not the most profitable province of the Pokémon media empire.  The real money is in all the licensed merch – clothes and toys and so on – which is relatively decentralised.  The TCG doesn’t make quite as much money as the mainline Pokémon games, but it’s still a significant slice of the pie.  That doesn’t mean the video games don’t matter.  The popularity of everything else obviously hinges to some extent on their success, so the games do have to be good, but there has to be a certain amount of tail-that-wags-the-dog here.  I don’t think there’s much incentive for the games to ever make fundamental changes to their vision.  To my mind… if you have a business model where the basic formula of the Pokémon games never changes and another 80 or so Pokémon get added every couple of years, then that’s plenty to keep the merch engine running; it’s grist for the mill for everything else that depends on those core games.  That sounds like a good plan to me, financially.  You might never make a really great, paradigm-shifting game – but you don’t actually need to.  You know that what you’re already doing works.  Anything else is an unnecessary risk.

I think from a strictly artistic perspective it’s probably better to let that soil lie fallow for a little while – maybe don’t make another core Pokémon game for three or four years, or maybe give it to another studio and fund Game Freak to do something different, and start with fewer expectations for what the game needs to do.  Gold and Silver were explicitly meant to be, like, the definitive version of the Pokémon games, and I don’t think the series ever really got away from that, so every game is supposed to be building incrementally on the one that came before, while keeping everything the previous versions did.  In Pokémon we’re so used to that that we don’t question it, but it’s… honestly a bizarre model for game design?  And it’s ultimately self-destructive – there is no “good” way for that to end.  You keep doing the same thing until it no longer works well enough to be profitable, then end on a low note.  I’m not saying that’s the point we’re at now, or predicting it for the next game, or the one after that – I’m saying that, whether sooner or later, it seems to me like a logical inevitability.  And I kind of hope we get there, honestly, because I am excited to watch the Great Pokémon Crash when it finally comes and see what happens when we all pick up the pieces.

So I suppose what I’m really trying to say is, you can have a better Pokémon game when we dismantle capitalism.

6 thoughts on “Perry asks:

  1. Okay, speaking as someone with some game design experience and knowledge of the industry (as well as some marketing background – I’m by no means an expert on marketing but – look, my education path was less of a straight line and more of a massive spasm on a page, don’t be like me)…

    You’re fairly spot on. Pokemon is the top grossing media franchise internationally for a reason. It’s not a feat any other game franchise can manage because of the massive merchandising, and that’s not about to change. Most video game franchises rely on… ugh, video game sales… to make their profit. This… is challenging business model. The costs are almost entirely frontloaded and are often in the millions (in US currency), and games on average take around 3-4 years to develop. That’s 3-4 years until they can start to make back the spent money, and that’s all BEFORE profit, which must be pretty high to warrant the whole ordeal. That’s why crowdfunding has become so successful (especially for indie devs who can’t afford to pay large budgets up front, but even AAA devs have begun to utilize it). That’s also why all sorts of new game models are evolving, with things like microtransactions and loot boxes to try to mitigate the high costs, all while the gaming industry gets saturated with options, offering smaller and smaller slices of pie to every dev… as quickly as the industry is growing, if you’re looking to make a lot of money I don’t recommend you go into game design (unless you already own a very large studio with a strong reputation… and even then, don’t expect to be the next Walt Disney). Pokemon has done the unthinkable with how much money it pulls in and how much brand power it controls. This is because, unlike most game franchises, Pokemon is an entire media franchise. It’s capable of things other franchises can’t dream of. But enough about where they get most of their profits (which are not the games), you’re also obviously right about the importance of the games. If they stopped releasing mainline games, the franchise could certainly coast for awhile. A solid decade, at least, would be my bet, before they’d start to struggle (half that until the impact to their sales became more known), though this is assuming things like the anime would continue. Cutting out the games would be long term suicide, but they’re big enough they could make it a few years without a single mainline game announced before anyone (outside of hardcore fans) start to bat an eye… though they’d probably still see a steady decline after a year. The amount lost from the games themselves would likely be trivial to them.

    So yeah. What you said is correct, the important thing is the games continue to exist and keep the status quo. Any massive changes are a huge risk to a relatively stable multi million dollar IP. Pokemon is indeed in a business model that no other game compares to, and this model makes rapid growth a bigger risk than ever. Most game franchises require constant change or else core gamers will lose interest. To Pokemon, Core gamers’ interest is an afterthought. They require slow change. A big change might generate more interest… but it might also lose interest, and the risks of losing it are probably higher with how mainstream it has become. They certainly need games that review above average, that enough people buy and talk about, but what hardcore fans don’t recognize is… they aren’t the target demographic. CHILDREN are. This was why “nat dex” boy otters didn’t matter. The game still sold like gangbusters. More importantly, it was still popular. Changing the mechanics too heavily might be attractive to adult fans, but children are attracted to the familiarity. To them, the same formula has only been used for a few gens because that’s all they’ve gotten to know. TPC needs games that those kids will like, because then those kids will buy their merch, and merch is much more profitable.

    Basically what I’m saying is… people who complain that TPC is making dumb moves don’t have backgrounds in game design or, more importantly, marketing. These are all the smartest moves. They’re not dumb. A bad marketing department doesn’t accidentally create the top grossing franchise. They’re geniuses there, it just so happens the best choice for a business often doesn’t create the best results for consumers. You’re right… it’s capitalism. They have one of the best set up business models in the world and they’re not about to risk ruining that.

    That being said, from a game design standpoint? It’s not great. Heck, the whole system works against good game design. It is indeed likely NOT the game developers making the conservative choices. Developers don’t enjoy making the same thing repeatedly. It’s boring and goes against what they were taught. But the guys upstairs want a game they don’t have to worry about. Throw some cool new gimmick in that we can market and otherwise keep it close to last time, because last time was good.

    To continue to succeed, TPC just needs to keep doing what they’re doing until, idk, the heat death of the universe. The fall of capitalism. The extinction of humanity, whatever hard limit is out there. They’re on a great path.

    To actually improve things though? Ignoring the fact that it’s an unnecessary risk that corporate doesn’t want? Well:
    1) Pull the reigns away from Game Freak. Hate to say it, but Game Freak isn’t the largest studio. They don’t have the resources to build anything bigger than what we currently have. They’ve been doing their best though so stick them on other projects and give them some creative control. But let a bigger studio handle development.
    2) Looser deadlines. As stated, 3-4 years of development are average, more if you want a really polished AAA game. As it currently stands, either Pokemon has a 2 year dev cycle (way too short for a quality game) or overlapping dev cycles (splitting resources even more and creating other problems). Stop that. Spread them out, every 4 years we can have a new one. Maybe 5 sometimes. Let another studio hand some remakes to fill some of that time.
    3) Give them creative freedom to push the boundaries. Pokemon is intentionally held back, unlike most genres. It’s unnatural. Kids don’t notice but it’s still bad game design.

    Doing all this would result in higher quality games but it would create more risks and likely cost more investment with an unknown payoff. Pokemon exists to sell the merch. It’ll keep scraping by to do that.

    And yeah, spinoffs aren’t Game Freak. They can’t be responsible for Unite. They likely hate Unite. Not much they can do though. They’re too busy working insane hours to shove new games out every couple years while understaffed.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for adding all this! I’m sort of… peripherally aware of all this stuff from being theoretically interested in game design, but I don’t feel I have the direct experience to speak with authority on any of it – and of course the actual inner workings of the Pokémon Company are kinda shrouded in mystery to a certain extent.

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      1. Oh yeah, there’s definitely inner workings that all of us are unaware of, this was mostly a “what’s going on from a game dev perspective” sprinkled with some marketing knowledge. There’s definitely choices that are a complete mystery to me, like choosing to work with Tencent for Pokemon Unite… but overall I understand why the series changes so little and follows a very different design model. They’re in a wholly unique situation that I don’t think a single other gaming IP is in, not even Mario.

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  2. “every game is supposed to be building incrementally on the one that came before, while keeping everything the previous versions did” Oh PM, honey, you’re being way too generous XD

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  3. Also, though this is my biased opinion due to my own political stances, but I’d imagine the series would’ve died years ago without Capitalism, or more specifically a free market, corporate crony capitalism and corrupt overcompensating copyright laws can go die in a ditch.

    Liked by 1 person

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