It’s been a rollercoaster month for Pokémon.
In May, Detective Pikachu hit theaters, and even though it wasn’t a critical smash and couldn’t dethrone Avengers: Endgame at the U.S. box office, it proved that a live-action Pokémon film could not be an unmitigated disaster and actually be enjoyable. After the film’s premiere, The Pokémon Company announced a Pokémon Direct to unveil new details about Pokémon Sword and Shield, the highly-anticipated main series games for the Switch. If that didn’t send fans into a frenzy, they also announced a separate press conference – a week before the Direct – to discuss the brand’s overall business strategy for the coming year. It was a strange scheduling decision – with E3 less than a month away and fans hungry for new information about the first core Pokémon games for the Switch (Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee were more or less hobbies to hold us over), what could the company possibly announce that would trump it in precedence?
That press conference held on May 29th unveiled four new projects, but the highest profile (and easiest to meme) was the upcoming mobile app Pokémon Sleep, which will track users’ sleep patterns and somehow rewarded them for it in some vague Pokémon related ways. President Tsunekazu Ishihara framed Sleep as the kindred spirit of Pokémon GO, claiming it would revolutionize sleep the same way GO changed how people engaged with the real world. Besides being a very odd premise all around (and a missed opportunity to have Snorlax as its mascot), the company’s serious interest in an app that reads like a hobby, while its bread and butter Sword and Shield was imminent, seemed misplaced. The press conference also announced Pokémon Home, a cloud service that allows players to store all of the Pokémon you’ve captured and raised in the 3DS, Switch, and GO games in one place, but it was relegated to a mid-presentation slot, while Sleep got the marquee spotlight. If you consider the purpose of the press conference and its announcements, it isn’t much of a leap to consider that The Pokémon Company was shifting its focus from the mainline games in a bid to diversify itself.
A preposterous overreaction? Possibly, but the smoke has only thickened after this week’s Nintendo Treehouse presentation about Sword and Shield at E3. After a well-received Nintendo Direct that unveiled new Pokémon (including new Internet obsession Wooloo), a new generational battle gimmick called Dynamaxing, and a new open-world to catch Pokémon, game director Junichi Masuda sent the fandom into meltdown when he revealed that players wouldn’t be able to transfer Pokémon not featured in the Galar Pokédex. The last few generations have lacked a National Pokédex, but it’s never been outright impossible to transfer Pokémon over, because they still existed in the game’s code. According to Masuda, the sheer amount of species (it’s possible the count will hit 1,000 this generation) and the development time constraints led Game Freak to omit half of the available Pokémon from the code. The backlash was swift. Fans openly blasted Game Freak and Nintendo, shared screenshots of their cancelled pre-orders, flooded the official accounts with the #BringBackNationalDex hashtag, and, shockingly, begged for a game delay so that Game Freak could build all of the Pokémon in.
What’s even more shocking is how The Pokémon Company didn’t seem to think there would be a backlash to this news, tacked on at the end of the Treehouse demo. I personally don’t especially mind – I don’t play competitively and I’ve always enjoyed focusing on new Pokémon in my playthroughs anyway. However, there are plenty of fans who’ve cultivated full teams over the years, carrying them over generation over generation to use in Wi-Fi battles or official Pokémon video game tournaments. There are fans who’ve spent hours shiny hunting for their favorites, and those who actually visit GameStop to get Mythical Pokémon like Mew or Marshadow. Game Freak is effectively rendering all of that dedication from longtime fans moot, because of relatively solvable issues. It also raises questions about the future of the mainline games, since Masuda made the point that this will be policy moving forward. Will each game have different subsets of Pokémon in them, and because of that, will they be unable to interact? Will certain mainstays like Pikachu, Charizard, and Lucario carry over in each game, and will their regular slot leave other Pokémon perpetually ignored (I can live without most of Generation 5, to be honest)? Or could those huge popular favorites be on the chopping block for future games? And what of the new players onboarded through Pokémon GO and Let’s Go? Wouldn’t being unable to access the Pokémon they’ve spent hours and miles in the real world catching turn those players off from the games they were ultimately supposed to gravitate towards? The GO strategy – bringing in casual fans through the mobile game and then converting them to the mainline games – seems rather shaky with this new development.
Which begs the question whether or not that strategy is a top priority for The Pokémon Company anymore. There is no doubt that Pokémon GO was an inflection point for the brand. The global fervor it caused was unprecedented, and Pokémon hadn’t achieved such a level of cultural awareness since its very beginnings. GO’s impact on the Pokémon universe is profound; Let’s Go wouldn’t exist without it, nor would Sword and Shield’s Dynamax feature, which is clearly inspired by Raid Battles. And now, TPC is looking to expand the core tenets of the GO experience further, with Sleep and presumably future projects. Instead of serving as a gateway back into Pokémon universe, GO appears to be the impetus for a full-blown transformation of Pokémon into a lifestyle brand that touches every part of a person’s life. It’s a bold, ambitious plan, and when you have Pikachu – one of the most beloved animated characters in the world after Mickey Mouse – in their corner, how could they fail?
By ignoring your core fan base, to start. As successful as Pokémon GO has been, Pokémon’s longevity stems from a vibrant, active community that many have been part of since the very beginning. They’ve stuck through the highs (Gold & Silver), the lows (Black & White, and for some, Let’s Go) and remained loyal regardless, even when the rest of the world largely moved on. Now that they’re paying attention again, it’s unfair and short-sighted to diminish the experience of longtime fans in order to placate an audience that could easily lose interest again. Not having a National Pokédex may seem like a small gripe to newer or casual fans, but for players from the days of Red & Blue – whose ongoing dedication ultimate made Sword & Shield possible, it’s an egregious oversight. Even as someone who isn’t part of the #BringBackTheNationalDex movement, I understand why it exists and why it matters. It also puts the mainline games on a slippery slope of what else could be sacrificed due to development crunch or broader business priorities. It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where Pokémon Sleep or Pokémon Cook or Pokémon Bath take precedence over the tenth generation of mainline games (assuming we make it that far).
Of course, we’re not at that point yet. It’s entirely possible that Game Freak, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company will see the fan outrage and offer some kind of a resolution, possibly through DLC. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that the brand isn’t at least testing a paradigm shift. Pokémon is evolving (pun is of course intended), and it isn’t going to stop branching out into new areas, even odd ones like sleep tracking. In fact, it shouldn’t. But keeping relevant doesn’t mean forgetting the core of what made you successful in the first place. No matter where Pokémon goes from here, the powers that be shouldn’t lose sight of the mainline games and the fans that love them. Once they do, the entire brand suffers.
It’s remarkable that we are even talking about Pokémon 23 years later. Let’s keep it that way.