Little Monsters, Big Bucks

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Unlike the Mario Brothers, the pocket monsters from the Pokémon video game did successfully break out into other media. In fact, when Wizards of the Coast, the folks behind Magic: The Gathering, produced a kid-friendly Pokémon trading-card game, it almost took over the brand. (The card game is now produced by The Pokémon Company, a Nintendo affiliate spun off in 1998.)

The billion-dollar question is how? Pokémon game director Junichi Masuda sees three pillars to its success — solid gameplay, believable characters and the element of communication — but mainly that foundation of unwaveringly excellent videogames:

“A kids’ brand generally doesn’t start with a videogame,” says J.C. Smith, Pokémon Company’s director of marketing. “Because we have that great base that’s a rich experience, it makes the other pieces easier to sell.”

Pokémon was, and is still, the creation of hard-core gamers with an adoration for the medium. Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori started their company Game Freak in the late ’80s, naming it after a black-and-white gaming fanzine the pair used to print up and sell around Akihabara. They started cranking out passionate, well-designed games that today are cult classics: Mendel Palace on the 8-bit Nintendo; Pulseman on the Sega Genesis.

As a kid, Tajiri would throw different species of bugs into bottles and watch them fight. This would eventually inspire 1996’s Pocket Monsters, a game for the aging black-and-white Game Boy in which players searched through tall grass to capture 150 fantastic creatures, then pit them against each other in battle. It was a smash success in Japan, and Game Freak’s days as a maker of low-selling cult games for their fellow geeks and freaks of Akihabara were over.

One of the company’s first hires was Junichi Masuda, whose background in both classical music and computer programming made him an ideal multitasker for a small company. After writing the theme songs to most of Game Freak’s releases, he moved into game directing. His guiding principle in creating appealing games, he says, is sports.

“With Pokémon, what we concentrate on is that the gameplay is really solid — like a sport, like soccer or basketball,” Masuda said in an interview with earlier this year. “It’s a game that people can play on and on, and not get bored of it.”

It’s amazing how unusual that focus on a good game really is.

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