Last week the Pokémon company announced that they would be extending the shelf life of Pokémon Sword and Shield with paid DLC scheduled to release later this year. Providing add-on content for a premium has become second nature in the gaming industry, but the mainline Pokémon series has traditionally avoided paid DLC by relying on special edition re-releases instead (Yellow, Emerald, Platinum…).
Considering my personal opinion that Game Freak’s latest Pokémon release lacked substance, I was initially disgruntled at the thought of having to pay extra for content that I believe would have made Sword and Shield a more complete package in the first place. Now, after having spent some time thinking about the role these upcoming expansions play in the future of the franchise, I’m convinced that this was not only the right call for Game Freak but a step towards the modernized Pokémon era that many of us long-time fans have been waiting for.
The Missing Slice
Nintendo’s post-launch support for their first-party titles this generation has ranged from nonexistent with Super Mario Party to just alright with Breath of the Wild to mind-melting astonishment with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I was relieved to discover that Pokémon’s first attempt at delivering paid DLC involved expanding upon virtually every key asset of the Sword and Shield experience- placing the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra packages closer to the Smash Bros. side of the spectrum. Both expansions will introduce new landmasses to explore, rivals to face, stories to complete, items to collect, Gigantamax forms to try out, legendaries to find, and (of course) Pokémon to catch. That last one, in particular, is notable because it includes over 200 Pokémon that were mourned in the controversial National Pokédex purge of 2019.
No matter which controversy or criticism you support, the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra appear to be tackling it head-on. As I stated in my review, the biggest problem I had with Pokémon Sword was how most of its most significant accomplishments took a backseat to the formulaic and frustratingly linear single-player campaign. I enjoyed the Wild Area quite a lot, and I remember being stunned to discover that there was only one of them in the entire game. These expansions directly respond to my criticisms by promising seamless exploration with plot threads and other mysteries organically integrated within the new Wild Areas themselves.
But Game Freak’s choice to strike back by bolstering up the Wild Areas and reinstating a few more Galar region visas bring up a valid point of discussion: Is it right to pay more for what many believe were baseline expectations, to begin with? Hunting for legendaries, engaging in post-game content, and unleashing the Gigantamax forms for the starter Pokémon are all great additions, but they are also all examples of things that have historically been expected in the core game itself. I think the reason Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s paid DLC works so well is that the game was already satisfyingly complete without it. Joker and Banjo-Kazooie are icing on the cake. Armor and Tundra feel more like putting back the slice that was noticeably missing in the first place.
In an era where development studios readily support lackluster releases with free remedial content updates (No Man’s Sky, Diablo 3, Destiny…), I understand the community backlash encompassing the $29.99 Sword and Shield expansion pass. It’s this exact reason that left a bitter taste in my mouth after finishing the Pokémon direct, despite feeling genuinely excited about the changes Armor and Tundra would bring to the table. After spending some time to sort out my mixed reaction, I still stand by much of my original sentiment. With that being said, the business realities of the Pokémon franchise make it incomparable to games like No Man’s Sky, Diablo 3, Destiny, or pretty much anything else for that matter. Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, and although that doesn’t make the brand immune to criticism, it does change my perspective on the role these paid DLCs play within the colossal Pikachu empire.
Pokémon is a Business
Since the release of Pokémon Platinum in 2008, the series has more or less adapted to an annualized launch schedule similar to the Call of Duty franchise (missing only 2011 and 2015). The difference is that Call of Duty has three separate development studios tirelessly pumping out new installments every year. As of right now, mainline Pokémon only has Game Freak, and so the studio has needed to rely on special editions (Ultra Sun/Moon), remakes (Omega Ruby/Sapphire), and reinterpretations (Let’s Go Pikachu!/Eevee!) to produce the nine titles since Platinum. I’m not even taking into account that Game Freak doesn’t only make Pokémon titles. In 2019 alone, they released Pokémon Sword and Shield, Giga Wrecker Alt, and the Switch exclusive Little Town Hero. It’s been an astonishingly demanding decade for the studio, and you would be hard-pressed to find another triple-A game developer operating under similar requirements.
If you compare Pokémon’s development cycle with The Legend of Zelda franchise, the outcome is not even remotely fair. A common opinion I heard leading up to the release of Sword and Shield was that some fans wanted the games to be Pokémon’s “Breath of the Wild” equivalent- insinuating a major evolution for the series. But The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released nearly six years after its predecessor. In the six years before Sword and Shield, Game Freak was responsible for Let’s Go Pikachu!/Eevee!, Ultra Sun/Moon, Sun/Moon, Omega Ruby/Sapphire, and X/Y. All of this to say that, if the Pokémon franchise wants to maintain an almost yearly release schedule, sacrificing the usual expectations to take baby steps into the future has been one of the few options Game Freak can take in order to innovate within the franchise.
But then why not change the need for so many Pokémon titles? Couldn’t Nintendo or the Pokémon company wave their wand and give Game Freak six years to revolutionize the franchise? Didn’t this exact thing happen with Assassin’s Creed when Ubisoft announced that they would be moving away from their yearly release schedule? It’s true. Pokémon can probably afford to take breaks for the sake of creative integrity, but unlike Assassin’s Creed, there’s no financial reason for the franchise to do so. Regardless of how dissatisfied me or anyone else is with the relatively slow growth shown throughout Pokémon titles, people spend money on these games, hand over fist, year after year. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new generation, remake, or special edition; the love for the brand is so strong that Pokémon sales are beyond what most other games could possibly hope for. Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, the “enhanced” versions of Sun and Moon, have reportedly sold over 8.57 million copies- making them one of the best selling games on the 3DS.
The video game business is a business, and the demand for Pokémon is a constant reality that is seemingly never quenched. I’m not a financial analyst, but if I were to guess, asking the corporations in charge to go a couple of years without a Pokémon release just so that each installment feels like a perfectly designed leap forward seems unrealistic. So if Game Freak wants to realistically advance Pokémon in all of the ways their fans seem to expect, they will have to do so within the confines of the monetary expectations for the series. Pokémon can’t have a “Breath of the Wild” moment because “Breath of the Wild” moments can’t happen on an annual basis.
New Route Forward
Which brings me back to Pokémon Sword and Shield, a pair of games that I felt didn’t take the necessary steps to create a new and compelling Pokémon experience. Also, a pair of games that set records as the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch title and most successful launch in the series. It was undoubtedly the right financial move to release Sword and Shield a year after Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee!, but I’ll admit that I was guilty of seeing this choice as Game Freak being OK with the lack of meaningful innovation. It left me apathetic towards the future of the franchise and made me initially skeptical of the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra expansions. Although I standby my opinion of Pokémon Sword and Shield, I can't deny that paid DLC has the potential to offer Game Freak a path out of the current annual Pokémon cycle.
Continuing to improve upon the foundation of Sword and Shield with purchasable upgrades frees Game Freak from needing to develop new titles (Ultra Sword and Ultra Shield) while still making financial sense for the series. The Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra are proof that Game Freak knows what we want from our Pokémon games. If this DLC strategy works, Game Freak can finally take the time they need to create an experience that accurately encapsulates their original vision instead of progressively inching forward with individual game releases that are consistently criticized. What’s to stop them from continuing to work on Sword and Shield well into 2020 and 2021 for that matter? They could introduce a second expansion pass in 2021 if they need to, satisfying the monetary Pokémon necessities while still being able to progressively turn Sword and Shield into the games they always wanted them to be. The games that a large portion of the community were originally hoping for- National Pokédex and all.
The newly announced paid DLC plan for Pokémon Sword and Shield allows the franchise to take the six years that made a game like Breath of the Wild possible in the first place. We’ve been asking for a new era of Pokémon and hoped that November 15th, 2019 would simply transport us into that next generation. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean the groundwork hasn’t been laid out to make it happen. I wasn’t happy with Pokémon Sword, but I now suspect when it’s all said and done, I will be looking back at this generation as an essential step forward for the franchise. If a paid expansion pass is what it takes, then bring on the DLC.