Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are already the fastest sellers of the year (in a year full of record breaking games, including another Pokémon one), and the single fastest selling exclusive game of all time. They’re really well designed at their core, and have a lot of merits to their name. Unfortunately, those merits come buried under a mountain of caveats — these are not polished releases. In fact, they are as close as it is possible to get to being the exact opposite of polished, without being outright broken (and they often veer into being dangerously close to broken anyway).
The past one week since the games’ launch has seen a lot of discussion around the technical state they launched in, and rightfully so, because — what happened? How did they release in SUCH an unpolished and unfinished state? How do the visuals and performance feel like a step back from Pokémon Legends, which released just ten months ago? How did a game published by Nintendo, a company legendary for its insistence on polish and quality, launch in this state?
Pokémon games have never actually been technically polished, or even competent really. Going all the way back to the original releases on the black and white Gameboy, and every release since, these titles have launched riddled with bugs, glitches, and just an overall lack of finesse and polish. Glitches have almost always been practically synonymous with Pokémon. In fact, the most famous video game glitch of all time, MissingNo, comes from Pokémon Red and Blue. People continue to discover new ways to break those 26 year old games to this day — because they simply were not technically well put together.
This continued on — Pokémon Gold and Silver aren’t really great looking titles for the Gameboy Color, and come with glitches of their own. Ruby and Sapphire were actually the most polished Pokémon releases at the time of their release – but they are even further behind their contemporaries on the same system they released for than Red/Blue and Gold/Silver ever were. Diamond and Pearl bordered on being unplayable, coming not just with a series of glitches and bugs of their own, but also a framerate so painfully slow that EVERYTHING in the game seems to move through treacle and mud. X and Y never managed to hold a steady framerate and barely leveraged the 3D feature of the system they were on. Sword and Shield launched with a distinct lack of polish and ambition, and technically felt like 3DS games accidentally ported to the Switch. Even the series’ most “polished” entries, technically speaking — Black/White on the Nintendo DS, Sun/Moon on the 3DS, and Pokémon Legends on the Switch — didn’t look or perform to the standards of their contemporaries on their respective platforms.
So Pokémon games have always lagged behind technically. How they look or perform has never been a factor in their appeal at all (if it was, the series would have died at the first release, rather than becoming the behemoth that it is today). But even accounting for this spotty history of technical (in)competence, Scarlet and Violet feel particularly egregious. The games LOOK bad, they RUN bad, and they have so many basic QA touches missing, they can often feel like a beta build accidentally pushed out to the public.
A very large part of this can be attributed to the very unique circumstances surrounding this game’s development. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are full open world games — massive ones at that — developed in three years by a 200 person team, in the middle of a pandemic that wreaked havoc on game development around the world, and caused innumerable delays across the board. Even developers with existing pipelines for the games they’re making have struggled with the pandemic — for Game Freak, they were figuring out how to do a brand new style of game requiring totally new tech for the very first time in a time frame that is unrealistic for most open world games to begin with, with a team size that is tiny for the scope they were aiming for, WITH a pandemic thrown on top. They were also, during this time, totally overhauling the structure and progression of their games, designing infrastructure for totally seamless online co-op (which is still the best implementation of online co-op in an open world RPG I’ve seen, to be honest), coming up with a hundred plus new enemy types, updating another few hundred enemy types for this game, balancing their entire battle system around PvE and PvP, AND also working on other games (we’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s a frankly insane amount of things to take on with a team this small, in a time frame this tiny, for a game this size, in the middle of a pandemic. It’s almost a wonder that it didn’t come out even MORE broken.
None of this is to excuse the state the game launched in, mind you, because ultimately this is still a full price product they chose to sell in this state while being aware of said state, but it’s to give people an understanding of why things turned out the way they did. Especially because we haven’t actually really discussed the elephant in the room — this wasn’t Game Freak’s only release this year. It wasn’t even their only BIG release this year. Just ten months before Scarlet and Violet, they launched ANOTHER open world RPG.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus launched in January of this year, and was an even more dramatic departure from series norms than Scarlet and Violet are. Taking cues from Monster Hunter in structure and Breath of the Wild in flow and gameplay, and being a dramatic rethink of Pokémon in pretty much every regard, from narrative to gameplay (it’s even partially an action RPG! Can you imagine, a Game Freak developed Pokémon game that’s NOT purely turn based?), it was developed by a smaller, splinter team within Game Freak — effectively splitting their internal resources across not one, but TWO massive open world RPGs that represented a total rethink and overhaul of their development pipelines. So that 200 person development team I keep mentioning? It wasn’t actually that. It was even smaller.
With Pokémon Legends, somehow, things worked out (it ended up as one of the most celebrated and acclaimed games in the series, and was a massive seller beyond Nintendo and Game Freak’s own expectations). But with resources within Game Freak being so thin to begin with, it turning out well was pretty much the death sentence for a second, even bigger open world RPG game that they planned to launch just ten months later. It was never going to work.
The infuriating thing here is that Legends’ existence gave them an out right then and there — it could have been their game for 2022, and Scarlet and Violet could have been pushed into next year. Even with the near annual cadence that they insist on for some reason, they could have still met that and given Scarlet and Violet a lot more time in the oven (which they obviously clearly needed). Hell, even Legends itself could have gotten more time — rather than awkwardly launching in January, it could have been a Holiday release, getting more time to polish some of its own technical deficiencies out, all while Scarlet and Violet got a lot more time to, well, be finished. But the decision makers at Game Freak and The Pokémon Company decreed otherwise, and, well, here we are.
People often like to criticize Game Freak as being lazy or coasting on their laurels, but that’s obviously nonsense. No developer willingly choosing to release not one but TWO open world RPGs in the span of ten months, both of which are a total departure from anything they’ve done before in scope and content, can be called lazy or coasting. They’re obviously trying. With Legends, they even succeeded. Hell, even with Scarlet and Violet, the actual core design of the games is brilliant, and they’re probably the best mainline Pokémon generation games since at least Black and White. The developers are obviously talented and ambitious people — it’s the executives and decision makers who are continually making things difficult for them.
As for what the next step is for Game Freak and Pokémon, it’s hard to tell. Scarlet and Violet were a big success, and given the strength of their core design, they’re likely to continue to be so. Legends received the kind of prestige and acclaim Pokemon hasn’t received in a very long time. In spite of the poor decision making at Game Freak, the franchise itself is in a good spot. But they obviously can’t continue to launch games in the state they launched Scarlet and Violet — do it enough and you burn goodwill and it ends up actively damaging your brand. Something needs to change.
The path forward for Game Freak and TPCi is clear, actually — it’s just unclear if they will actually commit to it. Game Freak needs to invest in expanding greatly. They need to be double, triple the size they are now if they will insist on pushing out open world games once every 2-3 years. That part is non negotiable. If they want to maintain their current release cadence (which I assume they will want to, because it tied into the whole Pokémon multimedia empire which is the train the IP is so big to begin with) then they need a lot more manpower. Even for experienced and more technically competent developers, open world games can take 4-5 years across thousands of developers to make — and few of those open world games have the scope that an open world Pokémon game is expected to.
So — staffing up is essential. But they also need to overhaul their tech. It’s no longer suitable for their ambitions. They want to make these big, sweeping open world games, and that’s awesome, and they should do that, but their tech stack is absolutely and obviously not suited to that at all. Look at the state Scarlet and Violet launched in! I’m not asking for Pokémon to move to third party engines (though, to TPCi’s credit, they actually have experimented with that as well), stay with your internal tech if you want — but update that internal tech if that’s what you’re doing. Open world games are dime a dozen on the Switch, and they all almost universally look and run better than Pokemon Scarlet and Violet — so maybe leverage the tech behind some of those other games to make your own games run better.
In terms of actual design and ambition, this series is currently better than it has ever been, with Legends being a home run and even Scarlet and Violet being great under all that jank. The designers are doing great, and nothing there needs to change. But the tech and the decision making has to. It has to — Pokémon deserves better. Not just the brand and its implicit promise, but also its fans, and even the developers who are clearly toiling away to deliver the best and most ambitious titles the series has ever seen, only to see their work get disparaged because of the poor decision making and technical debt that causes it to be released in a near broken state.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.