Pokemon, and Why The Games Industry Needs To Be Less Secretive

As the big industry showcase, E3 is something that has fostered a heavy reliance on secrecy. Big, dramatic announcements of projects kept deep under wraps fuel the conversation around the convention, and for a long while the entire industry has practically revolved around using its hype and anticipation to support its products. Due to the heavily controlled and particular flow of information that E3 promises, the inevitable existence of leaks disrupting this are often treated by onlookers as net negatives, somehow spoiling the fun of surprises. While the overall importance of the event has died down significantly in the last year or so, with big companies like Sony pulling out of showcasing to focus instead on streaming solutions that they have even more control over, its influence on the workings and on the overall tight-lipped secrecy of video game development over the years has been undeniable, a situation which has led to some considerable problems with understanding their production even at a basic level.

The latest example of this comes along with news on the latest Pokemon game, Sword and Shield. At Nintendo’s yearly Treehouse presentation, Pokemon producer Junichi Masuda revealed that the newest game would not be importing the entire backlog of 800 or so critters within the franchise – normally a Pokemon game will have it’s region-specific cast of creatures as the main focus before, eventually, unlocking every single Pokemon for the player to catch. In an interview with USGamer, Masuda states that “We knew at some point we weren’t going to be able to indefinitely keep supporting all of the Pokemon, and we just found that Sword and Shield would probably be a good point to go back and reevaluate what would be the best selection of Pokemon that appeal to the widest audience while keeping into consideration the balance of the battle system”.

The response to this news, however, has led to a widespread outcry from the game’s fanbase (accompanied by the trending hashtag #BringBackNationalDex), largely fueled by fans angry that the formula has been significantly shaken up within a series that is well known for a dedication to delivering a very familiar experience every iteration. When Pokemon Gold and Silver featured the entire region of the previous game along with all its Pokemon, it set a precedent for every game to come since – that fans would get access to every existing Pokemon from previous games every single time. As video game hardware improves this task gets increasingly more difficult; in 2013 the franchise made the switch to 3D graphics, which necessitated more than double the workforce from the last game, from around 200 employees to over 500, in order to deliver the same scale of game within the same time frame.

The Nintendo Switch is the first time that a mainline Pokemon title has been developed for a home console, and as a result that kind of workforce upscaling has likely occurred a second time. However, the general backlash to Pokemon scaling down its product in order to reach a reasonable development time reveals quite clearly that fans don’t seem to understand how much work goes into each game. One type of response in particular, which argues that Pokemon has been using the same 3D models since 2013’s X and Y and therefore the developers are “lazy” for not wanting to import them, completely ignores the simple fact that even if they are reusing the exact models, just re-texturing the characters for a HD screen takes up a ton of resources that makes a simple import job impossible, even before factoring in having to re-animate everything for a higher resolution or to support features that didn’t exist previously. There’s even an entire Japanese hashtag in response to this, mocking the idea that it only takes Game Freak 5 minutes to model a character from start to finish.

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While it’s easy to point at the playerbase and accuse them of lacking empathy for the developers, especially as the discussion around working conditions and unionization increases, what I think this response reveals is that the industry’s reluctance to talk about its inner workings has made it nearly impossible to actually understand how video games are made from an outside perspective. Rockstar head Dan Houser has described games as being “like they’re made by elves”, and during the SAG-AFTRA strikes throughout 2017, stories of actors not even knowing what characters they were playing were commonplace. The existence of things like Fortnite‘s absurd update pace or Pokemon‘s adherence to its gigantic cast really do seem to many like they just happen by magic, since they’re completely divorced from their actual human labour costs. Nintendo is probably one of the worst culprits of this, retaining a vice-like grip on any and all information about their projects – we’ve all made jokes about our Uncle At Nintendo referencing this stuff for decades.

In many ways the lack of understanding of process is reflected across disciplines within the entertainment industry. When the Sonic movie was delayed in order to revisit Sonic’s design, there was a large contingent of internet commenters who believed that it really was as simple as just swapping one model out for another one. The visual effects industry has a very similar labour situation to the video game industry – a lack of unionisation (and a large push to unionize), underpaid labour and the standardization of crunch and overtime, plenty of cases of volatile employment – and the ability for higher-ups to obfuscate the process and the human costs of projects under layers of NDAs and secrecy help to contribute greatly to people’s alienation from the labour that goes into these projects.

The main problem is that much of the information about labour conditions comes from those in charge, people who are paid to make their company look as good as possible. With the news of the release date of Animal Crossing: New Horizons being pushed back, Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser got in front of the product and stated that the reason for its delay was that they “need to make sure that our employees have good work-life balance”, a statement repeated by just about every publication reporting on it during the E3 news rush. The problem is that this statement is so abstracted from material reality that its main purpose is to hope that the reader will take it on good faith. Companies like Rockstar and Square Enix have previously used the deflection that people’s overtime work is “by choice” while iterating that the company “cares about its people”, statements which directly contradict actual reports of working conditions at those companies. If Animal Crossing‘s delay was done to improve working conditions, then we have no way of confirming this other than a press release from someone who would benefit from this not being the case.

Exploitation is such the norm within the industry that when a company finds itself having to step back from the gigantic scale expected of AAA games, people think it’s a sign of underperformance rather than one of the increasingly unsustainable scale of video games that has been normalised. Again, this is not to assume that Game Freak is some bastion of progressive work place politics or even that this downscaling was done to avoid overtime and crunch (far from it, considering that the company was likely developing 3 Pokemon games at once during 2017). Rather, the discussion around this shows that there needs to be a much more informed look at the actual development process of games beyond coporate-controlled messaging and speculative guesses. Independent studios like Supergiant and Double Fine have been trying to show behind the curtain for ages now, but we’re still mostly in the dark when it comes to bigger studios. Plus, it’ll make it a hell of a lot easier for game developers to unionize if they know just how exploited their co-workers are.