Pokémon releases have snowballed into a fan frenzy of sorts, sparking worldwide interest and near-universal anticipation as their storied spring or fall release dates inch closer to reality. Release events are commonplace, goodies are golden, and fans of all ages–feeling ashamed or in bliss–congregate to experience the first moments of a new Pokémon game together. It’s a rare event to see so many gamers in one place that isn’t E3, PAX, or TGS. In a way, a Pokémon launch is a unification of players everywhere.
How did Pokémon launches manage to transition from low-key box-office successes to videogaming Meccas? Surely, it’s an inherent quality of Pokémon?
Of course it is. It’s also an inherent quality of many games. The fact that these games, like Call of Duty and The Elder Scrolls, can generate unparalleled interest is a byproduct of their social underpinnings. While it is certainly possible to play games like Call of Duty in a local or single-player environment, this can be entirely lacking once one has experienced the joy of playing with others. What fun is it to kill bots that are programmed to behave in certain ways? It’s more enjoyable to beat others; to see their reactions; to win.
This is how Pokémon succeeds: the whole premise is social. In reality, the pinnacle of the game is not simply to catch them all; rather, it is to beat all of your friends with a badass team of fire dragons, rock snakes, and yellow rodents.
Perhaps Pokémon’s greatest strength is the massive amount of branding it has done to promote said interactions. Nintendo first spent $50 million in 1998 to promote Pokémon’s iminent westernization. That kind of promotion has allowed kids around the world to first know about–and later buy–Pokémon. And from producing different versions with version-exclusive Pokémon (Vulpix for a Growlithe, anyone?) to the proliferation of Game Link Cables, Nintendo has carefully prodded the ability to have friendly matches with others. Each generation brings slightly more integration, whether through the Internet, the X-Gear, or so on. However, the Big N has been very careful to maintain Pokémon’s image as a family-friendly game built around cooperation rather than commandeering six-foot tall Charizards. Ever wonder why these guys often act as Pokémon’s mascots?
Branding aside, Pokémon’s measured steps toward social interaction exhibit both Game Freak’s careful monopolization of the younger age groups whilst expanding said exposure through online integration. This is the reason we have yet to see a Pokémon MMO from Game Freak–it would violate the former even if it promotes the latter. Either way, Pokémon launches have managed to capitalize on both, and the rewards continue to accumulate as those who grew up with the Kanto region now move on to the Kalos region.
Hence, there’s still the original notion of kids dragging their parents to the store to get them the newest Pokémon (and its companion–hint, hint, the 2DS) while a new dynamic is developing–the concept of appealing to older audiences who grew up with the games. Game Freak has yet to realistically do anything about its older age groups, though we’re not exactly sure if it would even be profitable to do so: we have no idea just how many 20-somethings play Pokémon. Nevertheless, the manifestations of the big kids’ Pokémon yearnings is now spontaneously arising as said launches become larger and larger midnight events. Competitive Pokémon is also growing, and it continues to flourish ever since its true inception a few generations ago.
So, with a combination of masterful promotion dating back to the original launch and a cautious fanning-of-the-flames, Pokémon has created an empire that is frankly in no danger of folding. Even while third-party successes decimate with zealously successful launches (GTA V), Pokémon still takes the crown. It brands in a way that Mario cannot and does not brand. It sells in a way that GTA or Call of Duty cannot and do not sell. Pokémon is truly successful in the way that it balances audience targeting with social aspects.
Nintendo has demonstrated complete and utter mastery over Pokémon’s image despite the fact that the franchise is nearly two decades old. It truly will be something to behold as thousands of fans line up for various midnight launches around the world. Will it beat GTA V? Probably not. But one thing’s for sure: there are going to be a lot of Pokémon Masters out there in a few weeks.