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.

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Latest comments (12)

Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 4 years ago
Not just nostalgia, but there's plenty of depth in pokemon games to appeal to older players as well. It might just look like an elaborate game of rock paper scissors, but once you start looking into competitive battling and EVs, IVs, all of the ridiculous breeding mechanics, and the huge amount of strategies people have come up with (just look at this for an example), it's not very difficult to see why plenty of older people enjoy it for reasons other than nostalgia.
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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 4 years ago
If I recall correctly the 'Gotta' Catch 'em All' tagline (which this article title reminded me of) has not been the series tagline for some time now. I remember years ago that there was a lot of amateur speculation that Pokemon's success was down to the addictiveness of trying to catch them all, but it seems that even after dropping that angle the games remain fiercely popular.

I think what helps with Pokemon is that it's audience is evergreen; every time there is a new generation of children there is a new generation of consumers ready to replace any that had been lost. Some of them then go on to be life-long fans and the Pokemania continues on.
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Isaac Kirby Studying Computer Games Development, University of Central Lancashire4 years ago
I think there are 2 more factors in this that have not been addressed:
Firstly: Pokémon is both "Casual" and "Hardcore". The casual players can happily make a team of pokemon that appeal to them as cute / cool etc. And can have a lot of fun with them. It also allows hardcore number crunchers to EV train, breed etc in search of the "Prerfect" team. This duality in its appeal is like the Harry Potter books, its a childs book, but the adult covers are there to give it a veneer of acceptability.
Secondly: It's age. It's pushing 15 years old now, and initial players who are now between 20-30 may have small children. I have 2 friends with children from wayward teenage antics. Both regularly play games with their children, and DS is a favoured format, for pokemon trading, Mario cart and other games. This effect will only increase as the games industry gets older. It's happened in other mediums for longer, My Dad took me to see Lord of the Rings only because he'd enjoyed the book as a kid. The Games Industry may soon get an sharp rise in "Parent Nostalgia" brands making a comeback.
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Show all comments (12)
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd4 years ago
Excellent article Rob and I agree with the comments that it does have a pretty significant "hardcore" appeal as well. Pokemon remains one of the most powerful and unifying brands of gaming.
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Steven Hodgson Programmer, Code in Progress Ltd4 years ago
One thing I love about Pokemon games is the lack of hand holding, I think the only time it takes control away from you is when its teaching you how to catch one (usually after you've already caught a bunch). It lets you freely explore the world and mechanics, and rewards you for getting to the deepest part of a cave with a legendary to catch or defeat.
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Pete Thompson Editor 4 years ago
Pokemon has never appealed to me.. But good to see that it still sells in significant numbers since it's appearance in the mid 90's..
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William D. Volk Researcher, Human Health4 years ago
Nintendo's reluctance to move legacy titles to iOS/Android and the success of Pokemon, gave GungHo a huge opportunity with "Puzzle and Dragons" to tap into the love of the franchise. Amazing results.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd4 years ago
@ William Pokemon made more in a week ($200 million+) than Puzzle & Dragons has earned lifetime, so let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Puzzle & Dragons is Bejeweled with a quarter-assed version of Pokemon mechanics thrown on top. It's far from a replacement to the breadth and depth of the real deal, and no one would ever consider it a replacement. That doesn't mean there isn't value to the game, but that also doesn't mean it detracts (or adds) anything to Pokemon. It is a time waster for mobile, not something people are going to devote 100 hours to like Pokemon X and Y.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
@Nicholas: ...Which ab-so-lu-te-ly KILLS me because can you IMAGINE what that Pokemon game would do had Nintendo had the foresight to make a Wii U version that connected to the 3DS one? Gah! (GIF of raining moneybags knocking Iwata and Reggie Miis out COLD)..

Between that and an Animal Crossing Wii U game (again with 3DS functionality), I'd bet we wouldn't be seeing people dump on the platform like they are currently. I call that proper planning in my book. Hell, when I first heard about the Wii U, I thought Nintendo would go for at LEAST a Pokemon game within the launch/launch window, Oh well...

And I don't even play Pokemon games anymore, mind you. I just know if it's on a Nintendo console, it'll automatically generate revenue. OK, unless it's a game where you take pictures of them and don't get any RPG elements, heh...
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
Complete the quote according to your personal preference:

Games are
(a) a series of inane victories achieved in rapid succession at varying difficulty
(b) a series of interesting decisions
(c) a never-ending feeling of incompletion

If you still believe in (b), just administer one dose of the Stanley Parable and join the the cursed legions of the monetized at the next midnight release.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd4 years ago
@ Greg I would kill for a new Pokemon Snap on Wii U honestly...
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
@Nicholas: Oh, I could see it working fantastically well on the Wii U with all those new Pokemon, a bigger map and yep, some sort of cross platform ability with the 3DS. I actually thought that up when watching that first Wii U demo where they were showing off the GamePad's potentials. Of course, as usual I thought up a LOT of game ideas looking at that pad, but not many of them seem to have been thought up by people making games for the system...
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