Thought Bubble: Pokemon Is Still The Master

Pokemon launch event
Fans dressed in costume at the Pokemon X/Y launch event in Toronto. (photo by Megan Patterson)

I haven’t played a Pokémon game since the first one came out in 1998, so I was pleasantly surprised to play the X/Y demo and find that it was still the Pokémon I remember. I caught a Pikachu, beat up a poor little girl’s dragon, and devastated a Professor. I’m excited to buy a copy and dress up my character in all the adorable new outfits even though I am now a 27-year-old woman with more than one grey hair.

But even with new features like Mega Evolutions, Pokémon – at its core – remains the same. In an industry that prizes innovation, the fan anticipation for X/Y was astounding, resulting in a 3DS record for first day sales, and highly rated reviews from both users and critics.

So what is the secret to Pokémon’s enduring success? I had the opportunity to attend the Toronto launch event, and the crowd spanned kids as young as five to people my own age, about half of them dressed in costume to show their love for the series. X/Y has brought a lot of older gamers back into the franchise, and it’s not just nostalgia that’s doing it.

Nintendo understands franchises. TechCrunch guest blogger and veteran game designer Tadhg Kelly compares Nintendo’s strategy to that of comic books rather than other game or tech companies, since both make their money by rebooting the same franchises over and over, taking into account changes in the audience and the effects of new technology. There’s a reason comic book publishers continue to do well in an industry that’s struggling with digital. They understood the impact of eBooks – especially with younger audiences – much more quickly than traditional publishers.

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And it’s true: Nintendo prefers to innovate with its game systems while its franchises evolve to catch up, and it understands that it commands a brand loyalty that few other game companies have. Its consoles may not sell well at first, but the company is patient and savvy enough to realize that the right franchise can turn sales around. Both Nintendo and the comics industry have learned to add original ideas without making big changes that alienate the fans of their franchises. For Pokémon, that means most of the changes are the result of features on the 3DS.

Chespin-Fennekin-Froakie
You begin Pokemon X/Y by choosing one of three starters: Chespin, Fennekin or Froakie. (Nintendo/Game Freak)

Nintendo doesn’t care that its games might be considered dorky or childish. It has a distinct brand and public image; it sticks to it, and it works. Pokémon X/Y sold out in Japan before it even released, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD resulted in a significant boost in sales for the Wii U, at least in the U.K. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was also the game of summer 2013, if we go by my Twitter feed.

Pokémon also benefited from a smart marketing campaign. Very few details were released prior to the launch of the game, at least compared with many other video game franchises (coughAssassin’sCreedcough). The starters and a few other Pokémon were announced in January, and afterwards they let out trailers announcing new features like the horde battles every few months. When a new trailer was released in Japan before the latest anime film in the series, no cameras were allowed. But since that trailer announced a brand new Pokémon, fans decided that hand drawing it from memory would have to do.

The second the new starters were announced, Tumblr erupted with Fennekin fan art. Mega Evolutions were confirmed in August, but which Pokémon would be able to use this new feature was kept under wraps right up until launch. Nintendo also made the smart move to launch the game worldwide at the same time, no doubt in part to prevent spoilers and leaks.

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It doesn’t hurt that ‘90s nostalgia is a pretty big trend right now either, though I wouldn’t say it’s the main reason Pokémon X/Y has done so well. Nintendo knew exactly how to make the right new choices with the franchise while retaining essential Pokémon-ness and the game was marketed in such a way to keep fan anticipation high.

What do you think, Pokémon fans? Have you bought Pokémon X/Y yet?

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