Deep Dive on Route 128: The Devolution of the Post-Game
Nearly a decade ago, Pokemon fans were presented the most complete entries in the mainline series, Pokemon HeartGold and Pokemon SoulSilver. With an expanded main story, following Pokemon, Poke-athelon and a plethora of other great additions, these games offered spectacular replay value. Even more, their enormous post-game, with an entire second region, an updated Battle Frontier, and legendary Pokemon quests, has cemented HGSS as the gold standard of Pokemon games. Unfortunately, despite the widespread acclaim among fans, Pokemon has never reached such heights in any future iteration and, at least in recent years, there appears to be no real attempt at recapturing that post-game glory.
Beginning in Generation 2, there was an obvious effort by Gamefreak to satisfy fans with activities to do outside of completing the Pokedex (which was exceptionally difficult to finish as a result of limited cross-generation compatibility). A revisit to Kanto and, with Pokemon Crystal, the introduction of the Battle Tower provided players with new challenges to conquer. Daily and weekly events like the bug contest, Clefairy dance, and Pokemon breeding offered reasons to power on throughout the week.
Generation 3, while initially scaled back with Ruby and Sapphire, quickly evolved into exceptional post-game entries with the Sevii Islands of FireRed and LeafGreen. Then, Pokemon Emerald gifted fans with the most iconic post-game activity to date, the Battle Frontier. The seven facilities provided unique challenges and with a surprising amount of difficulty, it only allowed the very best to defeat all of the Frontier Brains.
Along with the aforementioned HeartGold and SoulSilver, Generation 4 continued to expand upon this theme with the introduction of the Fight Area in Diamond and Pearl and the return of the Battle Frontier in Platinum. Not only that, players were given access to a home and the freedom to explore the underground of Sinnoh. The first introduction of true cross-generational Pokemon transfer also allowed players to incorporate previously inaccessible Pokemon into subsequent replays.
While a bit of a downgrade, Generation 5 offered the Black Tower and White Treehollow as well as the Pokemon World Tournament to test trainer strength. The introduction of seasons further provided unique areas to access which encouraged revisits to the game with some regularity to fully complete it. Pokemon fans were also given their first real post-game story with the Looker missions. Even the oddly placed access to a hard mode gave longtime fans the type of difficulty setting they had often begged Gamefreak to include.
With the introduction of Generation 6, the disappointing trend of minimal post-game activities began to fully emerge. X and Y offered an additional town in Southern Kalos and access to the Battle Maison. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, while possessing a moderately engaging Delta Episode, finished with the same Battle Maison, a lore-less shortcut to legendaries, and a tease of the beloved Battle Frontier that never came to fruition via patch.
Generation 7 offered even less post-game content with the Battle Tree (an almost literal reskin of the Battle Maison), some interactive events with the Ultra Beasts, and the Rainbow Rocket episode in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Outside of completing the Regional Dex, as the National Dex had not been incorporated in Generation 7, there was little to engage with in the post-game. Festival Plaza offered a fun side-activity but did not provide the interconnectivity among friends that fans had long desired. Overall, many accessible areas of the map lacked much of the depth and post-game promise that players had anticipated on first encounter.
There are a lot of ways this trajectory has been interpreted by the fanbase. One of the most common has simply been to categorize Gamefreak’s decision as lazy or a copout so that they can churn games out at a faster rate. There is certainly some truth to that, but the issue is far more complex and can likely be heavily reflected in our consumer habits of the last 20 years. In order to understand why this post-game devolution has largely morphed into an epilogue quest and battle facility, some key pieces of information should be noted.
Increasingly, the timeline between the release dates of new Pokemon games has become congested with 2011 and 2015 being the only years in this decade to not release a new mainline title. Unsurprisingly, a tightened timeline to create the next game limits the amount of features Gamefreak would want to invest into any particular entry. Furthermore, couple that with their 143 person team (over 300 people were involved in creating Breath of the Wild) and it is not shocking that post-game features would be one of the first cuts in a development cycle.
Beginning with Pokemon Crystal, there has also been a very steady market performance from each genre of mainline Pokemon games. New generation games ( Ruby/Sapphire, Diamond/Pearl, etc) average 15 to 18 million in sold copies. Remakes average in the 10 to 13 million. Lastly, expansion games have performed the worst, only averaging 6 to 8 million copies per iteration. Regardless of the handheld device or the increased fragmentation of the gaming market, these numbers have held relatively steady for over 15 years.
Almost without fail, Pokemon has had the same release model since its inception. Each generation offers two versions with different mascots and exclusives. After a year or two, an expanded game is offered that will almost always bridge the exclusive Pokemon gap while providing additional features and areas throughout the game. Beginning with Generation 3 and with every successive handheld, Pokemon has begun to offer remakes of older versions. In over 20 years, Generation 6 was the only exception to the rule when they did not launch a third title. Based upon Zygarde’s existence and the manner is which he was shoehorned into Sun and Moon, “Pokemon Z” was likely scrapped in favor of getting another generation onto the Nintendo 3DS. While there are certainly legitimate criticisms of the necessity of this type of game-making structure in 2019, the consistent sales history has validated the business model. All of this to say, for nearly 20 years, Gamefreak has retained an almost identical structure and achieved almost identical sales regardless of temperament by the fan base for any particular entry.
Expanding this beyond just the dates and sales numbers, every type of game has a natural lifespan in which people will dedicate a significant amount of their gametime. Long-standing franchises like The Legend of Zelda or open-world Mario games (64, Sunshine, Odyssey) have years-long development cycles for their entries which are built around expansive stories. These entries frequently require graphical and physics overhauls which allows developmental time to be placed in a myriad of additional features. Ultimately, when these games release after many years, players can expect fully immersive games in which hundreds of hours can easily be sunk into completing the main story and the abundance of missions and new areas that open up in the post-game.
Pokemon’s development and release cycle does not mimic this. Instead, in more ways than one, Pokemon correlates with some long-running FPS games like Call of Duty. Almost yearly, a new game is released and multiple development teams interconnect so as to allow a couple of iterations to be in production simultaneously. Reasonable graphical enhancement usually occurs with each game as well as introducing some exciting new features or quality of life improvements. Often times though, several of these improvements are entirely missing from the next iteration and it can take years for these widely-enjoyed features to become a staple in the series. On a broad level, the symmetry is there. All of this is to say that Pokemon does not and has not ever enjoyed the same type of lifespan as a lot of other traditional Nintendo RPG games. Game series that churn out new entries with this frequency rarely anticipate high usage rates after several months. With around 30-50 hours needed to complete the main story and usually another 10-20 to complete major side quests or post-game missions, a game built for a one-year lifespan will have already occupied the average gamer for 1-3 months.
Furthermore, the lifespan of any game can be improved with the introduction of downloadable content, or DLC. Properly utilized, DLC provides additional features created after the launch of a game to provide users with new means by which to engage with it. Depending on the content, this can have significant improvements on its natural lifespan. Super Smash Bros has successfully incorporated that type of DLC into its last two entries to widespread acclaim by its fanbase. Despite that success on a Nintendo platform, Pokemon has been unwavering thus far in creating additional content for games after they have been released. Given the short lifespan of their current game model, Gamefreak knows most people will be moving on to another series after a few months.
However, longtime fans have always been looking for ways to milk every bit of value and replayability out of each entry. With “Gotta Catch ‘em All” as the long-standing motto of the series, Pokedex completion could usually occupy their needs until the announcement of the next title. Unfortunately, with the highly criticized decision to cut the National Dex, and the Pokemon accessibility that comes with it, there is now a gaping hole in how players can engage with the games after completing the main story. If Gamefreak aims to both maintain status quo and quash fan outcry (which has very quickly gotten to an interesting place), they will likely course correct before Pokemon Home launches in 2020.
Returning back to the matter at hand though; all of the pieces are there to understand and answer the initial inquiry: Why has the post-game become so lackluster?
Facing increased pressure to improve development cycles and not seeing significant sales increases on iterations with engaging post-game activities, Gamefreak has ultimately deemed extensive post-game largely unnecessary for games built to have relatively short lifespans. Rather than placing additional development time into post-game activities for the possibility of a marginal sales boost, Gamefreak has instead prioritized shortening the development cycle between games. That business assessment is broad and does not even begin to dive into the complex nature of Nintendo, Gamefreak, and The Pokemon Company but it rationalizes a game development decision that has been unpopular by fans.
Unfortunately, the bottomline is that mainline games are only a small portion of the franchises’ income. If there is no financial incentive to create an engaging post-game, and so far there is not, Gamefreak would rather dedicate time and manpower to creating and marketing new games and Pokemon. That is where their real profit is and the devolution of the post-game has not negatively impacted it.
There are fair arguments to be had over whether or not this is really the best business model to lead Pokemon through the next decade, but as of Sword and Shield, this is quite clearly their intended route forward. More importantly though, their low-effort post-game development model has been incredibly reliant on four factors, two of which no longer exist.
- Pokemon will release another mainline entry in two years or less.
- Sales number will stay steady regardless of what is provided in the post-game.
- Even if the post-game is minimal, completing the Pokedex will keep fans busy until the next game is announced.
- The cost of the games was only 40 dollars or less.
1 and 2 are still unknown, although based on the historical data, they will likely hold true for at least another generation. However, 3 and 4 are entirely outdated now. With the widely criticized decision to exclude some Pokemon (final number still pending) from the Galar Region entirely, fans are more actively acknowledging what they view as flaws in the aforementioned Pokemon business model. Couple that with the fact that these games will jump 50% in cost from previous generations, there is a real concern that future entries will not meet the content justification to be purchased.
How Gamefreak intends to navigate these murky waters is still unclear. What is known though, is that the continued devolving of the post-game for the past decade will face increased scrutiny if legitimate features are not added to Sword and Shield. The internal justifications they could lean on simply do not hold true anymore.
Pokemon is facing an identity crisis as it makes its long-awaited migration to the console and 20 years of worldwide popularity will give them a reasonable window of time by which to satisfy fans. While amending the National Pokedex will resolve the current outcry, Gamefreak must confront its post-game problem soon if they wish to maintain stable sales for the series. Otherwise, despite all of the hope and expectations of the Nintendo Switch and Pokemon merger, fans will likely walk away disappointed in the long run. After decades of success, that would be such a preventable travesty.