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The RetroBeat: How Pokémon is celebrating its 25th anniversary


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I’ve been a fan Pokémon for as long as it’s been in the U.S. I got into the original Game Boy games back in 1998 (two years after they debuted in Japan). My love soon extended to the trading card game, anime, and all sorts of merchandise.

Somewhat to even my own surprise, Pokémon is even more relevant than it was when I was a kid. The franchise managed to be a “fad” long enough that it is now a cultural institution. And now Pokémon is celebrating its 25th anniversary, a huge milestone for any brand.

I had a chance to talk with JC Smith, the senior director of consumer marketing at The Pokémon Company International. I asked how Pokémon has managed to stay relevant after all these years, and we talked about the ways the franchise is celebrating this milestone.

Still catching them all after all these years

GamesBeat: Throughout these 25 years, we’ve had these main tenets of Pokémon: the games, the anime, and the cards. How have these pillars remained so strong throughout the years?

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Smith: It’s a testament to our creators, frankly. They’ve always had an eye on how to make each experience better, and for each of those three pillars, there’s different approaches. Video games follow the technology of the times, making it easier for the game to be played or shared with others or enjoyed with others. Graphically, there’s obviously been improvements in 25 years. And the card side, it’s diving deep into the love of the Pokémon and continuing to find gameplay mechanics and treatments for the cards. If you look at a foil card 25 years ago, or even 15 years ago, it’s nothing like the texture and the feel and the look and the quality of the cards now.

The accessibility [for the anime] right now has been huge for us. Being able to have it available on Netflix is a huge benefit. That’s how a lot of kids are discovering Pokémon or discovering shows and brands these days, surfing through that. All that, combined with just the fact that we’ve been around long enough now that parents, kids, and multiple generations are playing with all these different touch points, has really made, frankly, our lives a lot easier, because there’s this passion that they have, and that they pass along. It continues on as we continue as a brand. We count ourselves very lucky in that way.

GamesBeat: That generational point is interesting, because I have nephews and nieces now. They almost seemed to discover Pokémon more on their own than through us pushing it on them. Is that visibility something intentional, or does it just come with the popularity of the franchise?

Smith: Part of it is the popularity of the franchise. There’s more talk value, because there are so many different touch points, so many ways for people to come across Pokémon and enjoy it for themselves. When it launched initially, you had three very strong pillars, but now we have apps out there. If you’re into the Pokémon Go experience, there’s a whole new entryway into a casual gameplay that’s so unique and so true to Pokémon that we have a lot of opportunity now that, thankfully, our creators have been great at taking advantage of. Just getting experiences out there for all kinds of people.

GamesBeat: Talking about the cards, I feel like five years ago we all thought that was going to become a mostly digital affair. Instead we’re seeing the cards become as popular as ever. What do you think it is about those cards that’s made them stick with that in-person, physical aspect, even when digital is an option now?

Smith: There’s a balance that’s struck. There’s a lot of benefits to digital, but people still love to have something tangible, something collectible, something to show off to their friends. They’re not always carrying around a laptop. Kids especially. Showing off their TCG [trading card game] online collection is great, and that’s awesome. It’s great for gameplay. But taking your card binder to your friend’s house and showing it off and having that tangible interaction with people is a huge plus of the TCG. It allows for a lot more face to face sharing of passion and excitement. That, I would say, is the core.

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GamesBeat: When you want to celebrate something like a 25th anniversary for a franchise that has all these different pillars, is it hard to synergize all those different aspects? Or is it more just letting each sector do its own thing? Is there an effort to consolidate it?

Smith: For us it was really about creating a celebration that lots of different types of fans could enjoy. We spent a lot of time talking about, OK, what is the big celebration moment? You’re seeing the music videos and the Pokémon integrated into concerts, things like that. Fantastic for a general audience. But then we look at the next step. The people that have been around for 25 years, how do they want to experience this? And so there’s a lot of nostalgia, but there’s also a lot of regions and variety there. We settled on finding that through line being traveling through the regions of the last 25 years and giving people a chance to play with their favorite Pokémon, and be introduced to Pokémon they maybe didn’t start out playing with, but now they’re really passionate about them. And then the products came from that.

Those two layers have products that are coming together to pay homage to each of those. There’s some generational stuff that’s based on the regions, and there’s some that’s music based, and some that’s just general pop culture fun. For us, the through line for the merchandise was an important one, but really it wasn’t designed for merchandise. It was designed as, what would be fun for people to do? And our fans love to talk about which region’s best, which one they don’t like, which starters should have been in this one. It’s just something that’s ripe and really fun to explore.

GamesBeat: For a fan like me who was a 10 year old when the original came out and played it on my Game Boy, what do you think are some of the aspects of the anniversary that are going to appeal most to me?

Smith: You started with TCG, animation, or all of it?

GamesBeat: All of it. I remember going into a Hollywood Video and asking for the Pokémon anime, the first tape, and they came back with Pocahontas 2 because they had no idea what I was talking about. I was in pretty early.

Smith: That’s awesome. They had no clue what they were about to get. For fans, what we like to do is just provide a lot of different ways to celebrate. From my perspective, I’ve been working on the brand for almost 20 years. It’s fun just to have it be in pop culture. And have it be true to that. Because so many people that are out there and huge in pop culture grew up playing it. That, to me, was amazing. We have that fun layer. But the stuff that we’re doing product-wise and celebration-wise has really been the key. If you want to collect the 25th anniversary TCG that’s coming out in October. You’ll be able to celebrate, look back, and say, oh, some of these cards and these characters, these Pokémon, they were part of my early life. There’s celebrations throughout Pokémon Go. It’s going to have a musical theme going on for their Go Fest this week. There’s all kinds of ties back in that way. There’s just so many different little pieces where we’re expressing that and giving people a chance to try out what their favorite things are.

GamesBeat: You mentioned you’ve been there 20 years. You probably remember, for a while, Pokémon was kind of treated as the new fad, the new kid on the block. How do you think it was able to last past that inflection point and become this cultural staple that it is now?

Smith: I always give credit to the creators. They had a vision, and they continued to evolve that vision. They didn’t stick to the old. They always added something new. They were always listening to the fans about what they liked or didn’t like. And then they just kept putting out great content. If you don’t have a good product, no matter what us marketers do, it’s not going to sell. You can sell for a while, but if you don’t have a great product, it’s not going to last. In that sense, the creators have just come through for us time after time after time. They’ve given us something to talk about, something for fans to respond to. The combo is obviously very helpful, but I think the innovation and the expansion of the brand into other areas like apps has been a key most recently for the brand.

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Pokémon party

GamesBeat: How exactly are you celebrating the anniversary? What are some of the big events and inflection points for the year?

Smith: From the beginning we wanted to make sure all of our fans around the world could celebrate together. It’s not about local. It’s more about global. With global comes a lot of digital executions. You saw the first one in February, which was the Post Malone concert, the Pokémon throughout. We started with that so that everyone could watch at the same time. Then we fast forward to May. We had the Katy Perry video, so there’s some pop culture celebration going on there. But then there’s been stuff like limited edition products that Levis put out to celebrate the region. Things like that that we’ve designed. There’s stuff like the General Mills promotion, the McDonald’s promotion. We have so many ways that people can find some joy, find something fun to do.

There’s obviously a lot more coming up with the music stuff. We’re going to have a full album by the end of the year. More news coming soon on that topic. But there’s a lot of fun ways to celebrate that. You’ll see a lot of that soon. And then obviously the new video games coming out at the end of the year with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Just something people can immediately jump into and enjoy.

GamesBeat: We also have Pokémon Legends: Arceus coming out next year. When do you think we’ll hear more about that?

Smith: That one, we have a robust rollout, but not a lot that I can share at this time. But the team has a lot of great things to share, and you’ll be hearing from us soon.

GamesBeat: With so many Pokémon now, when you’re focusing on ones for merchandise or promotional materials, do you find it better just to rely on the same ones you know are popular? Charmander, Pikachu, Eevee? Or is it more important to branch out and include monsters from newer games or upcoming games, even ones from generations past that have a smaller but dedicated fanbase?

Smith: That’s the beauty of what we do. We have so many personalities in the Pokémon world, so many looks, so many styles, so many different types that we can play with. We can find one that’s appropriate for the moment. Most recently we celebrated Bidoof Day. Just a fun little thing. Bidoof merch is not a huge merch piece, most likely. I actually don’t know the numbers. Maybe it’s always been huge? But to me, that’s cool. That’s fun. Let’s try it out and see what happens.

Like Halloween, there’s a lot more ghost types involved, or those that look horrifying as characters, that might scare a little. We have the stuff we can do at the holidays. We just have a lot to play with. But the Pokémoncenter.com team is probably the one that can do the most, because they’re able to say, hey, let’s do a limited run with this. You see that right now with some of the characters featured on the Bear Walker skateboards. Snom is one of the characters featured on the Bear Walker skateboards. You wouldn’t think there’d be a huge merchandise push around Snom, but there is, because it’s a cool, cute character you can have some fun with.

GamesBeat: Memes push so much of what goes on culturally these days. We’ve seen some big Pokémon memes, like the surprise Pikachu face. When stuff like that happens, is there an urge to step in and own that and play with it? Or is it better to let that stuff happen organically amongst the fans and the internet and so on?

Smith: As much as we love it, if we got involved, it would probably be less cool. We want to lean into it when it’s appropriate. But the true stuff, the true passion comes from the fans and how they celebrate with it. Which is why we kind of want to leave it open-ended. How do you want to celebrate? We provide lots of opportunities, but they’re going to create their own moments. They’re going to create their own, hey, did you see this clip and this one section of this video, it’s just hilarious? At the beginning of the year, I don’t know if you remember seeing the contraption video, where we had the journey through the regions with the Pokéball rolling through. One clip on the rooftop in Unova is a clip of surprise Pikachu, that scene. We wanted to accentuate that without making it too commercial, because the fun of it is being a little counter to the norm.

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GamesBeat: Pokémon fans and Nintendo fans are often confused about the exact nature of that relationship. How involved is Nintendo proper in these kinds of anniversary events? Or is it mostly just a Pokémon Company gig?

Smith: Because we’re the manager of the brand overall, we’re in charge of every piece of the puzzle. Nintendo is specific to the video game side. In those celebrations, obviously, very tight with them. But when it comes to the music celebration or the TCG or the animation, that’s all the team at the Pokémon Company International, working on that and coming up with the fun ways we’re approaching it. We talk to them, obviously. We coordinate like we do with DeNA or Niantic on expressions. But for us, it’s really ours to drive. We need to come up with it. We need to be the ones in the seat. We’re the ones tasked with doing that for the creators, to make sure that the brand is strong and loved and loved by a variety of people.

GamesBeat: Nintendo is expanding into theme parks. Is that something we’ll ever see more of from Pokémon?

Smith: I wouldn’t count anything out, but we have nothing to share. We’re always open to new ideas, let’s just say that. And obviously Nintendo is diving into that space. We have a partner that can report back on how that works.

GamesBeat: It seems like one of the key tenets of Pokémon’s success is the willingness to jump into new technologies like AR, new entertainment fields. How does that happen? Does it take a lot of planning, a group of people looking for what the next big thing is, or does that happen organically as well?

Smith: It’s a mixture of both, frankly. There’s a lot of great, let’s explore and see what would be fun. And there’s a lot of people saying, hey, have you seen our technology, wouldn’t it be fun if … ? The story of our partnership with Niantic is a well-told one, but it started with a couple of people that worked together on an April Fool’s prank with Google Maps. Finding ways to find Pokémon on a Google map, they gamified it. That group of people kept in touch as that Google Maps team started turning into Niantic, and that’s where that idea was born. Hey, we have a cool technology. What would be a fun way to mix the two? So there’s a nice balance now, partly since Pokémon’s been around for 25 years, of people coming to us and us seeking them out. Just skunkworks figuring out what rings true. Obviously Pokémon Go is one thing that did.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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