There are games that are going to sell no matter what. Grand Theft Auto VI could be released in such a broken state that it kills your firstborn, and it’d still sell a billion copies day one. Breath of the Wild 2 could come laced with anthrax, and people would buy two copies each. So it is that no matter what state Pokémon Scarlet and Violet (PSV) was released in, it was guaranteed to do extraordinarily well. That it’s so very, very broken is devastating, but was never going to significantly affect its inevitable sales. What’s more interesting is how, for the majority, they’re enjoying it anyway.
I know I am.
Only UK figures are out there just now, but these show PSV to be the second-biggest selling Pokémon game of all time, only beaten by the 3DS’s Sun and Moon. In fact, it may be far bigger than that, given this is just boxed sales figures, as Nintendo doesn’t release download data. Scarlet and Violet could easily be racking up the highest opening-week figures for the franchise, despite being the most unfinished Pokémon to date.
So why? Well, there are a lot of factors at play here. But I think it comes down to a combination of hype, nostalgia, and the fact that, as much as we like to complain, people are willing to play through broken games.
Pokémon unequivocally benefits from one of the hardest things to establish well in gaming: a formula. (Which is the polite way of calling it formulaic.) Like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Smash Bros., or many other successful franchises, audiences are looking for the game patterns they already know, but perhaps with incremental improvements. People want what’s familiar, nostalgic even, but also with enough innovation that it feels ever-so-slightly different from the last one. And while many will protest they want giant leaps in progress, and likely cite BOTW over previous Zelda incarnations, they’d also be absolutely livid if Tears of the Kingdom proved to be wildly different from its predecessor.
While PSV may have been promoted as a dramatic shift from Sword and Shield—the advent of an open world, with three times as many story paths to explore, and you can even do the gyms in any order—the reality is, as we watched the trailers, it looked just familiar enough to pre-order. You were going to buy it anyway, right? Why not get that bonus item? Look, there are Psyducks! That Nintendo restricted reviews to the day before release (to sites they deemed well-behaved enough to be allowed to review, of course) certainly didn’t help, making it very hard for any outlet to communicate to readers or viewers just how broken this game is.
Of course, we in the gaming press self-aggrandize when we even imagine that our words about a game series as mainstream as this might materially affect sales. Never mind that it will only ever be a fraction of people who will change their minds to not buy a game after seeing negative reviews. As those early sales figures show, the widespread coverage about the game’s serious issues have made absolutely no dent in its popularity whatsoever.
Well, that’s pre-purchase enthusiasm, but what about after people start playing? Well, again, niche groups are in danger of believing themselves far more representative of the general population than they really are, and in this instance, it’s the Publicly Indignant who delude themselves.
Yesterday, I wrote about how much fun I was having playing Pokémon Scarlet in co-op. Knowing how a Kotaku commenter would immediately respond, I heavily caveated the article with disclaimers that, yes, it has definitely not been released in a good enough condition. I said it because I believe it—it’s not OK for a publisher the size of Nintendo to release a $60, AAA game, knowing it’s playing like a beta build. They knew what condition it was in, but they also knew a Pokémon release date cannot be missed, due to the ridiculous numbers of dominos that would topple across a multi-billion dollar franchise. And people who read a specialist gaming site like this one are absolutely right to be angry about that. It’s just, they’re also prone to thinking they’re in the majority, and that their righteousness is representative. So much so that despite my tumbling over myself to acknowledge it, commenters still felt a need to indignantly inform me that the game is unacceptably broken, and this moral corruption ensures the game’s demise.
Yet, I bet my bum they’re still playing. I bet they’re furious, but still want to get their Koraidon to be able to climb walls, so will just do that one other Titan battle. Yes, there are a few seeking refunds, but the real majority are cracking on despite everything, except without being furious while they do it.
It also seems very likely that the amount of attention being drawn to the game by its increasingly amusing bugs and glitches might be helping, too. Sure, you’re watching a clip of someone falling through the floor, but you’re also being reminded that this new Pokémon game exists. And, apart from that bit where the guy fell through the floor, it’s bright and colorful and full of lovely, cute creatures!
But perhaps more than anything else, the truth is, you can play the game. It autosaves incessantly, and while absolutely unforgivable, hard crashes are the rarest of the game’s problems. I’ve encountered so many dumb problems with the game, but the genuine response I mostly have is to show my son so we can laugh at how silly it looks, or him to me. And then we get on with having fun with the game.
I’m far more infuriated by how the game wastes Poké Balls by refusing to catch lower-level creatures on a fraction of remaining health, than I am because every time I’m stood on a slope the game shows me its underwear. My patience is tested every time the game tells me that a Pokémon is asleep, and for no reason again tells me that the Pokémon is asleep, and then immediately tells me the Pokémon didn’t do anything because it’s asleep, before I can take another sodding turn. It’s not nearly so tested by my Koraidon disappearing so it looks like I’m floating above the ground.
As a games critic, I’m astonished by Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s janky release, and will gladly warn people away from it until it’s patched to high heaven. As an enthusiast, I’m playing it in tiny windows of spare time, trying to fill my Pokédex, shopping for new hats, and getting over-excited when my team of Pokémon evolve. It’s definitely not good enough, both in terms of its technical dreadfulness, and its lack of ambition beyond greater scope. If I were writing a review, it’d be one of those infuriating ones where I list in great detail everything I think Game Freak should have done better, and then add that I’m having great fun playing it.
The Pokémon games have a hook, and it’s a good one. There’s a reason it’s one of the most successful game franchises in the world, surviving on its core game loop for over 25 years, and continuing to do so despite a loud minority’s complaints with every new release. That minority is very probably right, but what the series’ success shows is that being right doesn’t amount to much in the face of this juggernaut. And, you know, a juggernaut you bought, and are playing, despite everything.