Fedor Protkov, Julio Mavares, Kyle Gapulan, Patrick Vasile
Instructor Carolyn Jong
ENGL 255B: Video Games and/as Literature
31 March 2017
Pokémon is arguably one of the most successful and recognized video game franchises around the world. The Oxford dictionary defines Pokémon as “a series of Japanese video games and related media such as trading cards and television programs, featuring cartoon monsters that are captured by players and trained to battle each other.” What started as “the hobby of a man named Satoshi Tajiri who enjoyed catching insects and tadpoles near his home as a child,” (Madden) has become a $42.5 billion empire. The appearance of the first Pokémon video game was in 1996, that same year debuted the Pokémon trading card game and later the anime series, manga series, movies, toys, stores and even a theme park.
In this paper we will discuss how Pokémon video games and other media were successful despite using a platform that featured a strict quality control and had the exclusive rights of the Pokémon franchise. This approach would also help the video game industry. Nintendo, founded in 1889, established a new quality assurance process in order to avoid the mistakes that led to the 1983 video game crash. In this process basically “if a company wanted to make a video game, they had to play by Nintendo’s rules and live up to their standards.” (Kratz). “Pokémon is a Japanese media franchise owned by The Pokémon Company, a consortium of Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures.” (Harris). Nintendo has total control over the Pokémon name and yet they were able to produce a multi-million-dollar franchise. For more than two decades the phenomena that is Pokémon is still very strong in many different types of media. Its catchphrase, “gotta catch ‘em all,” has influenced millions of people around the world.
One of the reasons that contributed to the Pokémon’s initial and continued success is how Nintendo, founded in 1889 as “the Marufuku Company to manufacture and distribute Hanafuda, Japanese playing cards,” (Kent) employs exclusivity in its plans. In 1983, the video game industry nearly collapsed due to “an oversupply of poor quality games from third-party developers” (Flynn and Kerr 99). Profits made in the industry dropped dramatically from $3.2 billion in 1982 to $100 million in about a year. This drop is particularly significant since the video game industry reached a peak in 1982, only to suffer as much of a downfall in such a small span of time. The crash was largely due because so many games were being released at the time that general public became unable to distinguish the video games from each other, which means that it became increasingly difficult to know which games were produced with quality in mind. This situation later led the public to invest less in the market and resulted in substantial losses and ultimately, the bankruptcy of several video game and computer companies across North America.
In order to withstand the collapse of the videogames industry, Nintendo decided to lock down its systems in a way that only a controlled number of authorized parties would be allowed to develop titles for its systems, to the dismay of some. The oversaturation in the video game console market in North America also pushed Nintendo to introduce and implement the Nintendo seal of quality, which assures that whatever merchandise bears the phrase (and today, the seal) “has been evaluated and licensed by Nintendo for use with its systems” (Nintendo). Despite the opposition this strict licensing policy met, to say that the Nintendo Entertainment System (released in late 1985), was widely successful would be an understatement. In fact, the Nintendo Entertainment System’s sales were so significant that Nintendo is often credited for putting an end to the video game industries economic crash. Nintendo also went on to become one of the most powerful video game companies by 1995, the other being SEGA (Flynn and Kerr 100).
Some links can be bridged between Nintendo’s use of exclusivity then, and their relevant franchises today. Nintendo’s most popular franchises are exclusive to their platforms, which makes it so that it would be impossible to play their games without purchasing their systems. Nintendo is not only locking its systems down to first party developers, but also locking most of their popular IPs to their platforms, aside from recent mobile ventures like Pokémon GO, Super Mario Run, Miitomo and Fire Emblem Heroes on Android and iOS mobile devices. In this way, one can see how exclusivity works in both of these approaches and how they play off of and reinforce each other.
Nintendo, being the video game giant that it is, has released its fair share of extremely successful games. Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Pokémon, just to name a few, are some of the largest games made by Nintendo, not to mention that they also are some of the most successful games globally. Of these games, Pokémon is one of the top five grossing games worldwide. Pokémon was first presented to the world in the 1990s, when it was released in Japan, and spread across the world (Graham). The game revolves around the development of becoming a young, Pokémon trainer. By travelling the world, collecting Pokémon and battling other trainers as well as wild Pokémon, the young trainers aims to collect the most Pokémon and fight their way to become the very best Pokémon master (The Parents Guide to Pokémon). By 2001, Nintendo dominated the market with their wide range of Pokémon products. Being one of the most successful video game franchises ever made, Pokémon has not only released 122 games, selling over 280 million units (The Pokémon Company) since its initial release on 27 February 1996, but the creators have also released a very popular trading card game, which is one of the top selling trading card games globally, selling over 21.5 billion cards worldwide (The Pokémon Company). In 1997, Pokémon had also televised a children’s television program in Japan. The show made its way to the United States of America in 1998. The story-line followed the young trainer, Ash, and his famously known Pokémon, Pikachu, on their adventure to make Ash the best Pokémon trainer ever. The TV show aired in over 95 countries and regions and is one of the most successful television shows to have ever been broadcasted. That same year, Pokémon released its first of many movies. In Japan, “Pokémon: The First Movie” became one of the top grossing films in the nation, not to mention that it was also one among the top 5 earning movies in the world (The Pokémon Company). The film brought in 9 hundred million dollars at the box office, with a viewership of approximately 72 million people (The Pokémon Company). With such Pokémon statistics, it is no wonder why it is valued at $43 billion on the worldwide market (The Pokémon Company).
Pokémon has created a culture around its name, as well has created social gatherings. PokéCon is where Pokémon fans can gather together, trade Pokémon in game, and battle amongst themselves (PokéCon). In 2004, a man, Joseph Tobin, claimed that the Pokémon craze has died down. He argued in his essay “Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon”, that in 2001, Nintendo’s Pokémon had reached its peak (Graham 144). Tobin disputed this fact before the release of the Nintendo DS, after which Nintendo released even more Pokémon games. Three years after Tobin’s claim, Nintendo released Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, creating a four year wait since their last release (Frank, Allegra). This delay is the longest that fans had to wait between generations, which quickly brought Pokémon back in the hands of gamers. Despite Tobin’s opinions, Pokémon continues to grow and gain success with the recent release of the app Pokémon GO. Notably, Pokémon has been successful and will continue to be.
A major aspect contributing to Pokémon’s success involves its level of social interactivity. There are several factors that contribute to the series’ level of social interaction, such as version exclusivity and the ability to trade Pokémon between games.
The original creator of Pokémon, Tajiri, came with the idea of the social interactivity of Pokémon through two ways; this first is his childhood memories of catching bugs in the forest. Tajira wanted children to “have a chance to collect insects and other creatures the way he did.” (West) His views on trade and social interactivity in relation to the Gameboy and the connector cable came off as encouragement to “compete with each other and exchange information.” To this end, he made certain Pokémon only available to one version of the game and vice-versa, thus the concept of version exclusivity. (West) A major aspect that played directly into this marketing strategy involved peer pressure on child consumerism. Someone who commented on this practice said that “by accepting the influence of others, children obtain cooperative relationships with others that in term permit development of independence from the family.” (West) According to his marketing strategy, the social interaction would bring about trade, which in turn leads to the desire for accumulating collections. In relation to these concepts, the Pokémon Company would then be built upon a system of “acquisition and perpetual interest in the next best thing.” (West)
Another event that had deeply touched Tajira during the process of creating Pokémon involves two children who were each playing with a Gameboy, the two devices connected by a multiplayer cable. Tajira was watching this scene and he envisioned “ants travelling along the grey cable between the machines, as if being traded by the two children.” (Mccrea) It was this scene that enabled him to work with his collaborator to properly flesh out the game’s earlier concepts and properly develop the game’s social interactivity. (Mccrea)
This story has a strong relation to the games’ social functionality. Anne Allison, an author who has written several articles concerning Pokémon, has observe the way children interacted with the games and the way the interacted between themselves. According to her writings, there were three types of “seeming-interactions at the centre of public play.” (Mccrea) First, she noted that the children would exchange information concerning gameplay. This is due to the large amounts of information and deeper gameplay mechanics that were hidden under a few simple in-game interactions. Second, she noticed that the children “are able to trade Pokémon in their quest for mastery, but also trade for social and playful reasons.” (Mccrea) Thirdly, she noticed that the children appeared in be in “a space of their own.” She describes this place as “a play environment that is imaginary, but also emotionally real, that ‘cushions’ kids from the world of school, home and daily pressures.” (Mccrea)
There are several elements that make the Pokémon games that make playing them deeply “public”. Elements include “social knowledge (by its method of rewarding competitive play and co-operative trading), a large amount of commitment to the Pokémon franchise and so forth.” (Mccrea) Such traits can be seen present in many Pokémon fans today.
While Pokémon has been quite a successful franchise overall, in its most recent years it has not been quite the “hit” as it was in the past (Mozur). At one point in time, Nintendo “took an early lead in mobile gaming and then proceeded to blow it” (Mozur). Due to this set back, Nintendo ended up completely turning their back on the use of smartphones and app stores as well as “partnering with other companies with potentially better ideas” (Mozur). This led Nintendo be a primarily console based franchise but the issue with that is that not everyone has the time to sit all day “in front of a console in their homes” (Mozur). More and more people are becoming what has been dubbed a “casual gamer” which is someone who plays a game that can be “put down and picked up again whenever the user likes.” (Mozur) Games such as “Clash of Clans, Game of War and Candy Crush Saga” are all smartphone based games and can otherwise be considered casual (Murgia). In Nintendo’s search for partners, it came across Niantic Inc. which was an “American start-up that was once part of Google” (Mozur). Niantic Inc. provided Nintendo with the augmented reality technology that allowed for gamers to use their smartphone’s “GPS to find, capture, fight and train virtual creatures superimposed on the real world shown by their camera.” (Murgia) Pokémon GO was released in the second half of 2016 and it became an instant global phenomenon. Within only the first few weeks of its release, through the results of an international survey, it has been estimated that players of Pokémon GO have spent over 250 million dollars on the games in-app purchases (Murgia). Through a comparative analysis of another high-grossing mobile game such as Candy Crush Soda Saga, it was found that they hit sales of 125 million dollars only after their first thirty days of release, that represented “less than half of Pokemon Go’s earnings” (Murgia). Pokémon GO’s immediate rise in popularity reflected well for Nintendo as well for within a week after its release, Nintendo’s shares skyrocketed by more than 120% (Riley). It was nineteen years ago in 1998 when Pokémon first became a hit in America (Mozur). Since then people that first played Pokémon have aged into adults past their mid-thirties. At the time when Pokémon GO was still high in popularity, “a full third of players were higher earning over 35s, which helps to explain the money being spent on in-app features.” (Murgia) Pokémon GO is an example of how beneficial it can prove for Nintendo if they chose to partner up with different companies that specialize in the use of different platforms altogether. Their partnership with Niantic Inc. allowed for them to cement themselves a place within the smartphone medium as well as introducing the possibilities of a new technology. Pokémon GO illustrates that if Nintendo chooses to do so, with their stable of characters such as Mario and Link and many more, they could all “form the basis for others to develop lucrative mobile games.” (Mozur)
When we think about Nintendo’s exclusivity of all Pokémon’s products, and an extremely strict quality assurance, we might think that these are the reasons for a game not to be popular. Instead of being an obstacle, the exclusivity approach and the quality assurance have been factors in the undeniable success of Pokémon as a franchise in different media platforms. The release of the video games Pokémon Red and Blue was the starting point of a vast universe that keeps expanding while exploring new territories as Pokémon GO did not long ago. The simple premise of a trainer that collects Pokémon and has “gotta catch ‘em all” added to great transmedia storytelling, and Nintendo as a guarantor, has made Pokémon the powerful name that is today.
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1. Do you feel more invested in a video game that is present in different media?
2. Does a game spanning across different mediums shape your opinion about how “good” a game is, and how?
3. How has globalization influenced the way the video game industry has expanded in recent years?