Still Catching 'em All
Pokemon's success speaks to Nintendo's strengths, proving the demand is still strong
A friend asked me a most peculiar question last week. He's in his late twenties, works in banking and has never previously expressed an interest in playing videogames, so I was a bit taken aback when, a few beers into a night out, he took a deep breath and popped a question he'd clearly been building up to for some time. "What," he asked nervously, "is the difference between a 3DS and a 3DS XL? Which one is better?"
He wasn't asking about a potential gift for a relative or anything of that sort. Well over a decade since last engaging with games, he's seen ads for Pokemon X/Y and, in a sudden burst of nostalgia, has decided that this is exactly what his daily commute needs. (Besides, several of his friends bored him to tears talking about Monster Hunter 4 at a bar the other day, and he might as well give that a shot too.) He's the very model of a lapsed gamer, and while he was a bit embarrassed about asking me which version to get - largely since my own hobby has attracted more than a little ribbing from him over the years - he's perfectly happy and comfortable to be coming back into the Nintendo fold.
He's not alone. I walk through a university campus in Tokyo every day, and each day my 3DS fills up with Street Passes from players - all of them over 18 and almost all of them presently engrossed, their avatars tell me, in Pokemon. Before you dismiss this as a Japanese phenomenon (outside of major urban centres, it's certainly rare for Street Passes to be described as "filling up" in the West), take a look at your own social network feeds. Plenty of people all over the world in their twenties and even thirties have been bitten by the Pokemon bug over the past week.
"Plenty of people all over the world in their twenties and even thirties have been bitten by the Pokemon bug over the past week"
All told, Pokemon shifted about 4.2 million copies in its first week on sale worldwide. It's since added another half a million in Japan alone - along with western sales, it's probably safe to say it's well over 5 million units now. These aren't GTA numbers, but they're extraordinary nonetheless, and the history of the franchise suggests that Pokemon X/Y will have an extremely significant long tail, selling strongly right up to Christmas and beyond. Final numbers are tough to predict, and will probably be reined in somewhat by the 3DS' limited (but rapidly growing) installed base - but top-selling instalments in the Pokemon franchise have headed towards the 20 million mark. A lowball estimate for X/Y would probably be around 12 million lifetime sales.
Pokemon achieves an extraordinary thing which is extremely hard to replicate but which Nintendo has mastered - simultaneously creating huge nostalgia and longing in the minds of adult gamers who played the originals in younger years, while also continuing to appeal to a new generation of children. For every adult we see on a nostalgia trip, there are a handful of children either hugely excited about the new game, or desperately hoping for it to turn up in gift wrap at Thanksgiving or Christmas. That's really where the long tail of the product will come about; Pokemon is inherently a schoolyard social experience and its popularity will gradually snowball in the months to come, helped along by excellent brand recognition among present-buying parents and relatives. Nintendo is still a trusted brand for families, while Pokemon is something even grandparents feel pretty comfortable buying for youngsters - all of which makes the 2DS, clearly aimed at assuaging the fears of parents worried about the effects of 3D screens on young eyes, into a clever move for the company.
Plenty of games manage one thing or the other. Lots of games engage a young audience very successfully, and are pretty great in their own right at the same time - Skylanders is a good recent example - but have little to offer older audiences and limited likelihood of enjoying nostalgia sales in the future. Others successfully tap into a vein of nostalgia while failing to attract newcomers, an accusation which can be levelled at much of the output of Japan's busily churning JRPG factories over the past few years. In both cases, the problem is arguably one of focus - Nintendo somehow manages to create new Pokemon games, the most ruthlessly commercially targeted products in the games industry, in a manner which focuses on creating beautifully tuned, deep and engaging gameplay for all ages, rather than pulling two hard on the levers marked "nostalgia" and "you know, for kids!".
Nintendo's success with Pokemon X/Y - its ability to continue doing what it has been doing for the past 30 years, adhering to a formula that it's been following since the 1980s and a specific franchise it's successfully propagated since the late 1990s - is of genuine importance to us because we find ourselves in an industry that's absolutely convinced that this formula no longer works. You don't have to go very far to find executives claiming blithely that Nintendo (along with other gaming brands, like PlayStation) is no longer a brand that resonates with children, that today's young people no longer have any recognition for the dedicated gaming stars of yesteryear. Instead, apparently, they're entirely focused on the iPad, the iPhone, the Kindle Fire (really, marketing company who sent me an email this week telling me that America's children want nothing more this holiday than a Kindle Fire HD? Really? Might I suggest conducting your poll somewhere other than Jeff Bezos' lawn?) and just about anything else that will play Angry Birds. I like Angry Birds as much as the next man - actually, I like it quite a lot - but I can't help but find something deeply suspect in all of this.
"Yet now we look at dubious surveys and completely anecdotal evidence and decide that dedicated gaming is doomed for youngsters based on the fact that it only appeals to a certain segment"
You see, I actually remember being a kid who played games at school, and I remember that had you done a straw poll of everyone I went to school with - sure, they all knew what "a Nintendo" was, but the number who actually wanted one for Christmas paled in comparison to those with other wishes. There were the kids obsessed with sport, the kids who were into music, the kids who preferred Lego or who wanted an Amiga - even in the supposed golden age of Nintendo, the company's appeal was limited, and the same can be said for the golden age of PlayStation 1 in my teens.
Yet now we look at dubious surveys and completely anecdotal evidence ("hey, my kids want an iPhone instead of a 3DS this Christmas, so all kids must be the same!") and decide that dedicated gaming is doomed for youngsters based on the fact that it only appeals to a certain segment - the same segment, perhaps, that has always been entranced by Nintendo's offerings or those of other platform holders. Competition from smartphones and tablets unquestionably plays a role in making life hard for 3DS - and even more so for PlayStation Vita, which lacks Nintendo's software leadership - but especially in the children's market, these devices are far from ubiquitous and, in many of their incarnations, far from being appealing as gaming platforms.
Pokemon's success reminds us that plenty of thriving market potential still exists beyond the tablet and smartphone. This is not to denigrate the success of those devices as gaming platforms; I personally play more on my iPhone than I do on my 3DS, as do many others I know, but I still wouldn't give up my 3DS entirely for a smartphone, because it offers me gaming experiences I simply can't have on the phone. Plenty of others feel the same way, it seems - and even in the children's market, there are plenty who are keen to engage with consoles rather than being satisfied with F2P and touchscreen controls. They may not be the majority - ultimately, they will certainly be a minority - but there are enough of them to sell millions and millions of units of good software at solid prices.
This isn't a new message, but it's a strong illustration of an old one - we're not an industry trending towards a new, single solution, we're an industry exploding with diversity. Diversity of content, diversity of consumers and yes, diversity of platforms and of business models. There's room in this industry for a Pokemon game on a logic-defyingly popular dedicated handheld platform to sell five million units in a week or two. There's room in the same industry for Supercell to be worth $3 billion off the back of a pair of superbly balanced and genuinely likeable F2P juggernauts. Neither of those sides of our industry is going to go away any time soon.