The Pokémon culling is a disaster, here’s how it can be salvaged

Pokémon trainers around the world were shocked to learn that not all their carefully raised Pokémon, their friends, will be able to accompany them on their next journey. This news came from game director Junichi Masuda who sheepishly admitted at E3 that the full roster of Pokémon wont be playable after a lengthy preamble to soften us up with excuses. A week on, with the frenzied backlash dying down, this article will examine exactly what the culling of Pokémon means, evaluate the reasons given by the developer Game Freak, and make recommendations for how both Pokémon fans and The Pokémon Company can rectify the situation.

This is a long article, and some of it will cover ground that Pokémanics understand already, so I’ve created a table of contents to help readers skip to the main subheadings.

Skip to 24:54 for the confession

The Pokémon Culling, explained

The game director of Pokémon Sword and Shield, Junichi Masuda of Game Freak, announced that only Pokémon included in the Galar regional PokéDex would be transferable and playable in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Based on previous Pokémon games, that means that around about 100 new Pokémon will feature and maybe 200 to (optimistically) 300 old Pokémon will be available to play in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon that are not included in this list, ie. the majority of Pokémon, will not be able to be transferred into the new game and will have to remain on an application called Pokémon Home. Until your favourite Pokémon appears on Serebii’s list of known Galar regional Pokémon, there is no guarantee that you can transfer them to Sword and Shield. Pokémon that you carefully raised from an egg to be powerful performers in battle, or Pokémon who evoke cherished memories will remain stuck in limbo in Pokémon Home.

The community reaction

In the minutes that followed the live demonstration and discussion, there was initially confusion. Some had already tuned out to discuss other aspects of the game, or simply thought they hadn’t heard Masuda properly. Concerns persisted though, did Masuda just say we couldn’t transfer all our Pokémon to Sword and Shield? The first stage of grief is denial, and some trainers suggested Masuda’s remarks had been mistranslated, or they selectively picked details to believe in while ignoring others. As the days wore on though, everyone moved to the next stage, anger, and the community began tearing itself apart.

Further clarifications from Game Freak only inflamed the situation when they made comments suggesting that they’d been considering this change for a long time and it may become the norm going forward. By now the fanbase had begun revolting and #BringBackNationalDex was trending worldwide on Twitter.

As Pokémon communities exploded, some misguided sycophants began defending Game Freak. Based on the hashtag, they pointed out that the National Dex hadn’t been a thing for years. Or that this is less disruptive than when Pokémon Black and White only featured new Pokémon until after you completed the main quest. While not wrong, these points miss the fundamental point of contention that upset Pokémon trainers had. The issue isn’t that all the Pokémon won’t be included in Sword and Shield, it’s that our personal Pokémon won’t appear.

An emotional bond

People form emotional connections to their Pokémon. Even when we grow older and realise they’re just bits of computer data, 1s and 0s, we still have a genuine attachment to our unique Pokémon for the experiences we shared together. Personally, my efforts to complete the Pokédex represented a completion of childhood ambition honouring my time spent with each of the games. For others, Maybe one Pokémon reminds you of the road trip you took as a kid, or maybe you discovered your love of fossils through a Pokémon and became a palaeontologist as a result. Maybe, your childhood friend died of a rare cancer and he gave you his treasured Pokémon on his hospital bed. Actually, that last story is incredibly intense, if you check the date stamps you realise that it was still resonating with people years afterwards, when Absol gained angel wings through mega-evolution (another omission) and it’s resonating again now because people are hurting for this guy.

As humans, objects or even bits of data like Pokémon become ciphers through which we remember and cherish the past and our memories. By removing the ability to transfer all our old Pokémon from earlier games to Pokémon Sword and Sheild, Game Freak is severing that connection.

A breach of trust

The only instance this is comparable to is when Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were released and constituted a hard break from the previous generation of Pokémon. This move caused some consternation at the time but the limitations of the hardware were understandable and the new, more complex Pokémon mechanics meant Pokémon trainers actually got a reasonable trade off. Furthermore, the original games were only just over four years old at that point (at least outside of Japan) so sentimental bonds with our Pokémon weren’t as developed yet.

Despite the hard break between the GameBoy and GameBoy Advance Pokémon games, The Pokémon Company still felt it important enough to include the ability to bring Pokémon from the Gameboy generations of games to the present in the 3DS eShop re-releases of the games. And, following the re-releases, some motivated people managed, via hacking tools, to transfer their Pokémon from the original cartridges all the way through to the latest games. This underlines just how important transferring Pokémon is to not just the players of Pokémon games but the developers too.

Since the third generation of Pokémon games, since 2002, there has been an unwritten agreement, between Game Freak and the old fans of the series, that transferring your Pokémon from earlier adventures would always be possible. The technical accomplishments made by Game Freak to facilitate this have built up huge amounts of trust, goodwill, and deep appreciation from old fans like myself. This promise has now been shattered.

The excuses

Under pressure to explain, Game Freak doubled down on the excuses in an interview with Famitsu. There are various translations of these remarks but they all boil down to the same lies offered at E3 and by various Game Freak apologists. I’m going to summarise them all and explain why they’re not true.

So much work!

The first reason offered is that taking the time to re-render all 807 Pokémon, alternate forms, and mega evolutions, in addition to the new ones, is an incredibly onerous amount of work. Game Freak are only a small development studio after all and the effort taken to include everything in Pokémon Sun/Moon was already the limit of what was feasible.

I can really sympathise with this line of reasoning. The video game industry has an exploitative work culture and the cruel directors at The Pokémon Company has dictated that Pokémon is an annual franchise, with major releases every November. Recreating all the Pokémon for the higher fidelity of the Switch would be a massive undertaking.

But this is bullshit because they haven’t recreated anything. All the Pokémon models in last year’s Pokémon Let’s Go, and every game before then, has been created since 2013. We know this because hackers cracked the games open and found the Pokémon assets to be identical. While we can only speculate as to how many new Pokémon will be added in Sword and Shield, the task of creating new Pokémon assets isn’t even done by Game Freak. This task is headed up by Creatures, the other company that owns a third stake in The Pokémon Company and a company whose last completed work was on Detective Pikachu 3 years ago.

Even if these new games really were going to include newly created, higher fidelity Pokémon assets, it would still be possible to put all the Pokémon in the game because they could just hire more people or contract it out. This isn’t some plucky startup company, some Kickstarter game we’re talking about here. This is Pokémon, the highest grossing media property of all time, with more revenue than Star Wars or the Marvel cinematic universe. Imagine if the last Avengers movie didn’t include all the characters because – actually that’s a bad example – but the point is, they have money, they can make it happen and make sure everyone goes home at 5pm.

If the claim that they have to recreate all the Pokémon assets for Switch is not an outright lie, then it’s grossly negligent management that put the developers in a situation where it couldn’t be achieved.

Quality over quantity!

The most salient reason for the culling of Pokémon is one of quality. Even if we did want to exploit workers and/or contract out asset creation, good quality Pokémon models, textures and animations take attention, care and time. By focusing on a smaller number of Pokémon Game Freak should be able to spend more time on each Pokémon and really work to improve the animation, especially if they’re reusing the older 3D models and Pokémon texturing has traditionally been extremely simple.

The problem with this excuse is that all evidence suggests that the quality of Pokémon animations has been declining for years. The following clip contrasts some of the incredible animation from the twenty year old Pokémon Stadium game on Nintendo 64, to the pathetically uninspired effort in Pokémon Let’s Go, released last year.

Gamefreak claim they’re focusing on high quality animations.

But yeah, this is unfair. Let’s Go was always the phoned in rushed title, let’s find an example from the new game! What does another year of development look like?

It’s shit.

It’s not just the battle animations though. The Pokémon on the overworld are almost static, with Wingull coming in for particular criticism. The human animations are also lacking, featuring the same stilted movement seen in the 3DS games and not including the sort of fluid turning animations that have been standard in other games for over a decade now. There is simply no evidence of the high quality animations offered as a trade off for culling hundreds of Pokémon.

Again, this comes down to a lack of planning and investment – bad management. Seventeen years ago Nintendo and the Pokémon Company had the foresight to found a new company to assist with the workload on Pokémon games. This developer, Genius Sonority, developed three 3D Pokémon titles in their first 5 years of existence, all of which included great animation. At some point though, this investment, these resources were neglected, Genius Sonority were last seen releasing some AR mobile games that never got released outside of Japan and now operate with just 22 employees. With proper management, this team could’ve provided support and management of the burgeoning Pokédex and we wouldn’t be contemplating how many hundred Pokémon will be culled from the game.

Game balance is important.

The final excuse revolves around game balance. The reasoning being that the Pokémon available must be carefully curated to ensure a gradual increase in difficulty in the single player experience and a diverse, yet fair multiplayer experience, free of exploitative moves or centralising around key Pokémon. By limiting the Pokémon available, Game Freak can ensure both of these goals are met and avoid unforeseen balance issues by excluding unfairly advantaged Pokémon or obscure, broken tactics.

History proves that Game Freak have shown a callous disregard for balance in the past and have successfully limited the Pokémon available without taking away the ability for bring our old friends from past adventures to the battle. Previously, moderating the single player experience was done through a hard restriction on transferring Pokémon over until after a player had completed the single player story and by using the in-game Pokémon badge system to limit the effectiveness of over levelled Pokémon. For multiplayer, online Pokémon tournaments and Pokémon World Championships introduce different rules each year which restrict the Pokémon and items available. These restrictions provide balance to competitive play but don’t preclude us from using our old Pokémon outside of competitive tournaments.

Furthermore, given the series history of power creep and unbalanced multiplayer metagames, the argument has long been made that the incredible diversity of tactics on offer in Pokémon is one of the key sources of balance. Those who follow the competitive scene closely on Smogon and other battling communities know that the metagame is ever changing and an oft neglected Pokémon can suddenly surge to prominence if it is found to be an effective counter to a new offensive strategy developed the month before. Restricting the Pokémon available will only lesson the depth of play and the range of situations any one Pokémon battle could throw up. If the metgame begins to centralise around Landorus, Kangaskan, or Garchomp, as it has in the past, reducing the pool of Pokémon reduces the chances of finding an effective counter strategy. Much like Smash Bros or Capcom vs SNK, the competition comes from the chaos.

What can we, powerless consumers, do?

With despair setting in, Pokémon trainers have been discussing what we can do to help persuade Game Freak to alter their plans for the game. Having agreed to not do (anymore) death threats, there are three broad protesting options; boycott, organising, and direct action.

Boycott

Many people are suggesting a boycott of the game. As the theory goes, you have to make companies hurt financially for them to listen. I’m just going to stop you right there and say no. Without boring you with neoliberal theory, all you need to know is that boycotts don’t achieve anything because they are a passive form of protest. They don’t send a message because they involve doing nothing. As counter intuitive as it seems, bitching and moaning on Twitter is actually, really, a more effective form of protest than boycotting because a non-action like boycotting doesn’t send a message. If the truly aggrieved actually follow through with their boycott it might reduce their projected sales 2%. It is a guarantee that if such a minor decrease in sales was even brought up in a management meeting there would be at least half a dozen reasons suggested before “fan boycott” was brought up. Such reasons might include; ineffective marketing campaign, economic downturn, trade war, strong competition, Brexit, overly optimistic sales projection. The decision, if any, from such a meeting would probably be to reduce resourcing of the next Pokémon game by 5% and Masuda will promise to personally put in 10% less effort. Besides, no one follows though with boycotts anyway.

A screenshot taken of theModern Warfare 2 Boycott Steam group taken soon after the launch of the game, showing a large numbers of members playing the game.
Great moments in gaming boycotts

Agitate, educate, organise

If you want Game Freak, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company to hear our anger, we have to hurt them where it counts, their feelings and their reputation. We need to mock them, make them look stupid, make them feel stupid. Agonising is therapeutic at first, but to really make this effective, to carry some momentum and keep everyone interested you have to make it fun. Memes are good, I’ve posted fun ones I’ve found below, but you need some informational and emotional heft to back them up. We need to express ourselves, explain why this sucks, why we want to bring our Pokémon, our friends, with us. Share the story of Omastar, of the shiny Absol, share your stories, share this article. Naysayers and Masuda apologists will try to demoralise us and by saying that such a campaign would only help promote the new games but the truth is nothing terrifies companies more than losing control of their marketing message. If the cultural narrative around the new Pokémon games is one of fan disappointment, the Pokémon Company will freak out and take our demands seriously. So make those memes to agitate, promote informative articles to educate, and organise around hashtags on social media to take control of the narrative.

Direct action

The most effective form of protest is the sort of direct action the Pokémon hacking community are proposing. The Pokémon hacking community are some of the most dedicated and technically minded people on the planet, they’re neurologically wired for this and they do it for free. If hackers manage to patch in the culled Pokémon, Game Freak, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company will look truly pathetic. We should all support their efforts as best we can.

Our demands

Anyone of the following courses of action by Game Freak would go a long way to placate angry Pokémon trainers and restore trust in the community. We must be vigilante though and demand as much as we can from a position of strength. Scabs who bring a compromised position to the negotiating table will be kicked out of the IWW Pokémon Trainers’ Union.

Patch it

The most obvious and simplest solution is to put all the Pokémon in the game, most likely via a free update, when they’re ready. They have plenty of time to do this too because no release date has been given for Pokémon Home, the halfway house enabling Pokémon to travel from older games to this one, and frankly Pokémon fans have been conditioned to wait for it it anyway, just as we were with Pokémon Bank updates. The Pokémon Company could probably even get away with charging us for DLC and we’d pay it.

I’m not optimistic though. According to the various translations I posted earlier, Game Freak “have not made a decision” as to whether they would work on such an update. I however can offer a translation from PR gobbledygook to straight talk and “have not made a decision” means “no”. I say this based on Game Freak’s history of offering absolutely no content post-release in the past unless it was in the form of a full priced new edition of the game. In the 2013 developer round table when asked about DLC to Pokémon X and Y, a game that would go on to be released seemingly unfinished, Game Freak said they were “exploring the possibilities“. No content patches or DLC ever appeared.

Delay it

No explanation has ever been provided for why Pokémon is now an annual series. The pressure The Pokémon Company put on Game Freak to push out a major entry into the series every year has left us with unfinished games, quick rehashes and rushed development. Nintendo don’t force this on Zelda, Metroid, or Mario – at the same E3 where Masuda broke our hearts, Nintendo announced that Animal Crossing was being delayed because they wanted to continue developing and polishing it without overworking staff. Even Assassin’s Creed, which Ubisoft has thousands of people in multiple time zones working on, skips a year every now and then. The slave masters at The Pokemon Company should just delay Pokémon and give us a game that both the fans love, and Game Freak can be proud of.

Make Pokémon Home the main event

So far, Pokémon Home has been touted as a successor to Pokémon Bank, which is strictly a Pokémon storage application like Pokémon Box before it. However, when the game was announced they also mentioned it would include online trading functionality. What if they added more to this? What if they added Pokémon Aime type functions? What if they added item management and Pokémon breeding? What if… they added Pokémon battling to Pokémon Home?

If they added online and offline Pokémon battling to Pokémon Home, it would become the focus for many Pokémon trainers. The “main games” like Sword and Shield could just become fun side adventures that tell the story of a small town kid catching Pokémon and saving the world. Games that introduce a whole new region to explore and catch new Pokémon in. When we’re done with these side stories, trainers can migrate their monsters to Pokémon Home where the real battling takes place.

If Pokémon Home was the full featured experience for all the Pokémon from our earlier journeys, it wouldn’t matter so much that Galar customs denied our Pokémon a tourist visa.

Make the culling real

If, as some suggest, the Pokémon culling is a way of removing Pokémon from the canon, then The Pokémon Company should stop being cowards and just straight up declare some Pokémon extinct. I mean, if you’re going to alienate your fans, have some conviction and do it properly. While I know every Pokémon is someone’s favourite, I think top of the list of Pokémon to declare extinct is Jynx because she is racist as shit. Perhaps I’ll make a full list one day of the Pokémon that should go, but for now comment below with what Pokémon you think should die!

Game Freak could actually make this a real moment too. What better way to embed themes of environmentalism and protecting biodiversity than just straight up declaring multiple species of Pokémon extinct? Imagine the engagement that would happen if the outcome of an online in-game event saved a species of Pokémon from extinction.

A turning point

The truth is, this revolt has been years in the making. Pokémon trainers have been having a whinge for years. Longtime fans had conditioned ourselves into accepted half arsed games like a neglected partner, sticking around only because of the sunk emotional and time investment. By removing the ability to bring our companions from past games to Galar though, Game Freak severed the connection that was keeping us coming back to these games and we’ve snapped. If The Pokémon Company don’t fix this situation, the Pokémon culling will mark the permanent decline of this franchise.

Gotta catch ’em all

One thought on “The Pokémon culling is a disaster, here’s how it can be salvaged

  1. Some of the points to debunk the “excuses” is very misinformative when it comes to actual game design.

    Delaying the game wouldn’t solve anything either because it would also mean delaying other mediums tied into the game such as the anime and trading card game. And what this article also fails to mention is that remakes of older games and updated re-releases of current gen games exist to help bring back the missing Pokémon. Fans were already speculating Sinnoh remakes for Gen 8, so now it’s one of their best opportunities to bring every mon back.

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