Posted on January 5, 2023 in Technology

Pokemon Complexity Syndrome

Video games are more complex, and at the same time the developers expect to have them out the door in the same timeframe as shovelware used to get. Even theoretically simple games that already have legacy game mechanics built in can’t do it. Look at Pokemon.

Pokemon, on its surface, doesn’t seem like a super complex game. Make the funny animals spar, get some medals, make some sandwiches, curry, or pastries for them to build teamwork, and bam – you’ve got a game.


It’s not that simple.

Each successive generation of Pokemon adds around 150 new animals to the PokeDex, many of which are usually intertwined in some way via Pokemon’s evolution path. These are almost never the only Pokemon in the game; classics from previous games, ones that you can’t just make more of like Zubat, the bat Pokemon, usually appear too. Each Pokemon has a ‘type’ that determines what moves it comes with, and they can be taught some outside of that. Careful considerations have to be made so nothing comes out of the gate unplayably unbalanced, but sometimes doing that makes the game predictable – a disproportionate number of fire Pokemon starters are fire/fighting types, because the way that the designers lay out the gyms makes it nearly impossible to use any other fire combo without creating a fragile starter early on. Due to a tradition spanning back nearly 30 years, they have to use fire for one of the starters, and they can’t break that now.

The first Pokemon to come without any type weakness came in generation three – it was a Dark/Ghost type Pokemon, which seems silly because the combo seems so obvious, but it’s a great example of how obvious things stop being obvious about 450 Pokemon in. Now there are over 1000. You can’t make an army of Pokemon with no type weaknesses, it would completely unbalance the game! There’s also necessary accounting for a number of Pokemon that are legendaries with their own rules.

This is not even describing the maps, the theme, the art, the fun minigames, etc. that all change every game – that’s just the Pokemon, by themselves. The game gets another heaping handful of cute little creatures with every new update alongside a new, usually themed map, new characters, new puzzles, etc. and then recently they also switched from 2-D top down to 3-D, so all of this has to be done again in the new format which allows for 3-D movement. 3-D movement allows for cool stuff like hills and mountains, another new design element that requires programming new to the series. Even worse still is that the new design makes wild Pokemon encounters look weird if they’re not visible when you encounter them (invisible/hiding Pokemon was always the case in the 2-D games), meaning the game designers also tossed in a bunch of wandering animals to program into the game for the developers to deal with too.

The jump from 2-D to 3-D is truly one of the most ambitious things the Pokemon franchise has had to deal with. It’s understandable that it has some bugs.

The Timeline

But would it maybe have less if it weren’t so rushed? If the game developers weren’t being pushed to make it so fast? For comparison, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl came out in North America in 2007. The next game, Pokemon Platinum, came out in 2009 in North America, but it was part of the same generation of Pokemon, meaning less added complexity if only in a few spots. The next generation, Black and White, didn’t come out until 2011 in North America, and I remember playing it after Diamond and Pearl – they have approximately the same difficulty level, approximately the same art style, and they’re both 2D. The game designers had four whole years between generations to perfect the games they were making. (If you don’t know Pokemon naming conventions, each generation of game actually comes with two games that are slightly different from eachother. Pokemon Black, for instance, has a different final boss Pokemon than Pokemon White, although the differences are mainly cosmetic. So every game generation actually comes with two games, and usually more after the fact.) Diamond and Pearl came with Platinum in that generation as well as Gold and Silver after the major releases.

It’s a lot of work, that is a lot of game, but it was 2-D and they had four years. They were also designing for the DS most of the time, meaning they had a pretty substantial amount of computing power to work with.

And then things started speeding up. Black 2 and White 2 came out in 2012 in North America, and then X and Y came out in 2013 followed by Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire in 2014. The next console came out, so that slowed down production, but even so the first Pokemon game for the 3DS came out in 2016. After that, they began designing for the switch as well – Sword and Shield released in 2019 to much critical acclaim, although there were some complaints about the game’s balancing and over-tutorializing, and another set of games after that, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl in 2021. Finally, the most recent game, Scarlet and Ruby, released in 2022. It wasn’t the first 3-D game – but it’s the buggiest so far.

The Time is Why

This is a breakneck pace for games of this scale. GameFreak, which makes Pokemon, is a triple A studio to be sure, and it’s well-funded, but all the money in the world cannot replace time spent building and playtesting. Scarlet and Violet are poorly optimized, and thus have to cut corners were they wouldn’t have if they’d just been made a little better to begin with; characters and Pokemon alike tend to disappear, slide, and morph; there’s no fall damage, so once you go up you can come down wherever you like, leading to massive game skips; some of the walls and rocks and cliffs don’t have collision, so your character can fall straight through the world into nothingness. These aren’t constant, but they’re more common than they should be for a game of this scale made by a company this well-funded.

And what should the upper management expect? The games have totally changed and they’re coming out even faster than they used to in the old 2D days. The reason the games are becoming less fun is because the scripts and such have to be done faster so the game can come out on time. There’s less time to let creativity come to the writers and less time to put all the different aspects of the game together. There’s less time to make the Pokemon and the character models. There’s just less time, full stop, to make the game and give it the soul Pokemon is known for.  But hey – it came out in two years and broke records. They have no reason to stop releasing them on this timeframe.

Ultimately, the money has the final say, and customers like their games fast.