Does Nintendo Have A Scalabilty Problem?

I don’t know what this is, but I’m pretty sure it has a fan club. (Image from Bulbapedia)

Nintendo and Game Freak found themselves in a bit of hot water over E3 week after producer Junichi Masuda declared that not every Pokémon would be available in Pokémon Sword and Shield (although the door was left open for them to be added in future updates). Fans didn’t take the news very well, and while I try not to get too worked up over decisions like this (after all, in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a video game), I have to admit I was a little disappointed by this for a couple of reasons:

  • Going back decades, the precedent was that once a Pokémon was created, it was part of the universe for all eternity. Even with the technical restrictions of the DS and 3DS, the game always had room for what eventually became 800+ monsters. Breaking with tradition now, when Game Freak and The Pokémon Company suddenly have the power of the Nintendo Switch behind them, seemed a bit baffling.
  • Starting from G3, Pokémon had touted its ability to bring monsters from older games into newer ones, even going so far as creating a paid service for folks to store and eventually transfer Pokémon to newer games. How would you feel if the monsters you had been carrying around since Ruby and Sapphire were no longer usable in your favorite franchise, with no guarantee that they would ever be used again (especially if you had been paying for this privilege up to now?)
  • With Pokémon Sword and Shield being the first HD mainline game, I think people (myself included) was excited to see all our favorite monsters would look in HD. If a monster gets cut right before perhaps the best-looking showcase of Pokémon ever, that’s naturally going to make its partisans a bit salty.

All that being said, I can see where Masuda and his colleagues are coming from: Pokémon is a bit bloated with monsters, and it’s only going to get worse over time. Even if Nintendo/Game Freak/The Pokémon Company magically decide to support all 1000+ Pokémon that Masuda revealed were present, what happens when G9 kicks that number to 1250+, or G10 tops 1400? I’m starting to think of the total Pokémon count the same way I think about the U.S. national debt: Sure, we’ve managed to reach/support an astoundingly-large number without society collapsing in on itself, but is continuing to push that limit really wise?

What’s interesting, however, is that Nintendo is starting to run up against what’s essentially a scalability problem on several fronts:

  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Up to now, characters have been added and cut from game to game, so fans mostly knew what to expect. For Ultimate, however, not only did everyone come back, but the long-awaited addition of Banjo and Kazooie have inspired people to believe that maybe, just maybe, their own favorite characters of yesteryear have a legit shot at inclusion. Any SSB games beyond Ultimate are going to be a letdown if they don’t include the full roster, so how does Nintendo keep the next game within a reasonable scope and still avoid a fan backlash?
  • Super Mario Maker 2: In Super Mario Maker, Nintendo made a point of including 8-bit sprites in the game for nearly every amiibo figure they released (sorry Shovel Knight). This gave the original Mario Bros. theme a flair and a personality that none of the other themes had, and helped justify the purchase of all those dust-collecting amiibo figures we’d all been stockpiling. This raised an obvious question for Super Mario Maker 2: Would it support all of the amiibo figures released up to this point (like all my cool Splatoon 2 figures), and support upcoming figures as well (like, say, Banjo-Kazooie)? The answer, to my surprise, is that SMM2  has no amiibo support at all, which dodged the support question entirely but annoyed players by removing a well-liked feature from the franchise.

The list could go on and on: Gear and weapons in Splatoon 2, villagers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons…heck, even Fire Emblem draws ire when the most-popular characters aren’t available in some form. What’s a reputable gaming company with visions of sustainable profits to do?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Increase the lifespan of games: If Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is really is ultimate version of the game, then why do we need any more of them? Instead, the company can support a game over a longer timeframe, making changes incrementally through DLC and patches rather than throwing everything out and starting fresh. Additions can thus be smaller and more manageable, and no one gets mad because Dunsparce isn’t available in Pokémon: Infinity Wars. Unfortunately, this only delays the problem for a while, as eventually it makes sense to rebuild a game from the ground up rather than supporting a legacy title.
  • Bring back Virtual Console: If Super Game 2.0 doesn’t have the items or characters you liked from 1.0, you can always go back and play the original game…but that’s easier said than done, as time and hardware changes make finding older games a bit of a challenge. Virtual Console helped solve these issues by giving old games new life on newer consoles, but Nintendo seems to have abandoned that strategy on the Switch (is this lackluster NES Switch app really all we’re going to get?). While this may not always be feasible for single-player games (how many times can one person go through the Kanto region?), it remains an arrow that the Big N has inexplicably left in their quiver.
  • Open the spigot wider: You could potentially increase the rate at which characters, items, etc. are added to the game, in hopes of diluting the response when any one of those gets cut somewhere down the line (assuming an even distribution of popularity across all options – in other words, don’t get rid of Pikachu). Of course, if you’re cutting because you don’t have the time/space/cycles to maintain so many options, adding more options that you can’t support isn’t a wise decision either.
  • Allow for more fan-modding: Nintendo doesn’t like it when people make unauthorized modifications to their software, but when they give folks an above-board avenue for doing so (think Super Mario Maker on steroids), the results can be pretty impressive. (The jury’s still out on SSBU custom stages.) If an old character or item could be recreated by an ambitious player and shared with the world, it might take some of the sting out of not having it in the game originally (and perhaps take some of the heat/burden off of Nintendo in the process). It would take some time to build out the proper controls/processes for this to work, but it’s an intriguing idea nonetheless.

Truthfully, none of these options are completely satisfying, nor will they quell the anger of the masses forever. In the end, what’s happening with Pokémon is likely the new reality for it and other franchises like it going forward, and we’re going to have to get used to it. Still, there are better ways of handling a situation than the current Pokémon debacle, and Nintendo would be well-served to consider some of them for the future.