As I watched today’s Pokemon Direct, I waited for a new game announcement. Given Game Freak’s habit of releasing updated versions of old Pokemon games, I expected the company to announce something along the lines of Pokemon Sharp Sword and Solid Shield. Instead, Game Freak revealed an expansion pack for the games, which with any luck will become the standard for the franchise going forward.
When Pokemon Sword and Shield released, the fan response was…interesting, to say the least. Many gamers complained —rightfully so— about the dexit which Thanos snapped half the National Dex out of existence, and Sword and Shield’s graphics didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of other Switch games like Super Mario Odyssey.
Plus, gone were Z-Moves and Mega Evolutions, replaced by Dynamaxing/Gigantimaxing. However, many players still enjoyed the games’ core experience and changes.
Pokemon is not like other franchises, though; it’s an experience where the future is as important as the past. The series is a monster collecting marathon that is refined and refreshed every generation to keep audiences hooked, but it is also balanced so old, existing Pokemon and tactics are just as viable as the new ones. This ain’t Magic: The Gathering, where every new expansion introduces mechanics that make old ones obsolete (even though, like Pokemon, you can use older Magic cards in your modern decks).
When you think about the Pokemon franchise as a whole, you appreciate how much it builds on itself instead of reinvents the wheel. Each entry dreams up new Pokemon and new gameplay features, but the games keep the core experience and gameplay loops unchanged, and fans love it.
Moreover, up until Sword and Shield, the games built on themselves by selling new, standalone versions instead of the more efficient method of releasing DLC.
Take, for instance, Pokemon Sun and Moon. You defeat Lusamine, the Elite Four, Professor Kukui, and everyone else who challenges you and then complete your Pokedex. What do you do next? You buy Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which provide the same challenges but also add bonuses such as Necrozma, the Ultra Recon Squad, Team Rainbow Rocket, and Ultra Space.
Imagine if the Pokemon Sword and Shield expansion pass was applied to Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Instead of starting from scratch with a new Alolan starter and creating a new team of Pokemon, you can begin from where you left off in Sun and Moon and jump right into the Necrozma, Ultra Recon Squad, Team Rainbow Rocket, and Ultra Space content. That’s essentially what we will get with the Sword and Shield Expansions. Perfect for the modern gamer who has more work and less time on their hands.
I feel as though this new direction is a boon since the franchise has slowly ballooned out of control.
Had the dexit not occurred, Sword and Shield would feature just under 900 species of Pokemon, possibly more if we count Alolan and Galarian variants. Catching ’em all might have been a fun exercise back when there were only 150, but 900? Plus taking the time to fill out your Pokedex with data on shiny versions and breeding Pokemon with perfect stats to ensure competitive play viability? Sounds like a full time job.
Now, producer Junichi Masuda admitted in an interview that Game Freak couldn’t “keep indefinitely supporting all the Pokemon,” and he was right. So many were culled for Sword and Shield because supporting that many Pokemon, as well as constantly developing more, is untenable.
Compare Pokemon to another franchise, such as Final Fantasy. That franchise’s core roster of monsters stays the same from entry to entry. The RPG mechanics and art styles shift around more than the game board of Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII, but the series relies on tried and true monsters like the Tonberry and Chocobo, with new creatures rarely appearing outside their premier title. Pokemon, on the other hand, introduces new monsters every game and keeps them around, which exponentially piles on the amount of work needed to keep battles balanced in subsequent entries.
Pokemon’s use of expansion passes seems like a far more sustainable option, especially if it lets developers take their time balancing returning Pokemon to avoid the looming threat of crunch. Plus, this strategy gives players a chance to slow down and smell the Roserade and actually catch all the available Pokemon before they’re given a new selection of monsters to capture, train, and breed.
Moreover, in past entries, players needed to store Pokemon in Pokemon Bank or borrow a friend’s console if they wanted to transfer their collection to a new game. If you want to use your reliable Sword and Shield team in the DLC, it will be waiting for you in the save file, no trading or Pokemon Home necessary.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking: isn’t introducing older, popular Pokemon in DLC a greedy tactic to nickle and dime players with nostalgia? Absolutely not. The direct’s hosts stated in no uncertain terms that the base games will be patched so players can obtain older Pokemon such as Volcarona, Garchomp, Nidoking, and Walrein without buying the expansion pass.
And, even if the expansions didn’t bring back old favorites, they will still do what Pokemon games have done in the past —introduce brand new monsters. We can expect the kung fu panda Urshifu, a Galarian Slowpoke line, what appear to be new Regis and new forms for the Kanto legendary birds, and Gigantimax forms for the Galarian starters. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if the best new additions are yet to come.
Fingers crossed for new Eeveelutions.
The expansion pass functions exactly like an updated Pokemon game but without requiring players to start from scratch before they get to the new content for less of a cost.
With any luck, Pokemon will embrace the expansion pass for future titles and provide constant content to keep gamers playing.
It’s a strategy that has worked successfully for many games, including MMOs. And, with any more luck, future mainline Pokemon games can take the next big step and introduce an ongoing adventure where players are provided a steady trickle of new content and Pokemon, not unlike Pokemon GO. But, one step at a time for now.