Talking Point: The Pokémon Trading Card Game for iPad is a Smart Move

A sensible approach to the tablet market

Nintendo is likely to be weary of those ready to tell it — in ever authoritative tones — that it should pitch up its tent in the iOS and Android gardens and bask in the glow of golden revenues. We imagine that while the company is happy to debate the issue, it'll have little tolerance for those that declare the inevitability of immense profit is just a few smart device games away; the issue is far more complicated and full of risk than some would care to admit.

There's an undeniable trend in the gaming market showing that the smart device market is increasingly overpowering the 'conventional' games industry in pure revenue. That is fact, but what is less definitive is whether companies more attuned to producing console and handheld games can make the billions their shareholders demand from these ares. If recent years have taught us anything it's that iOS and Android are notoriously difficult to master, with viral successes and big hits sometimes coming way out of left-field, with key brands hitting a critical mass — whether an original idea or a rip-off of a sadly overlooked game — and rolling with it.

The unpredictable, often chaotic nature of those stores also means that there's a long list of publishers and developers that have made sustained bids to truly crack the smart device market, but still rely on the old-fashioned idea of games that require controllers to make their millions. The list of companies with varying degrees of success is long — Sega, Square Enix, Ubisoft, EA, Activision and Capcom are among them. There have been high points, but none of these companies are packing up all of their big-budget studios and simply 'going mobile'; the promised land of smaller screens hasn't obliterated the need for conventional games.

We're in a rapidly changing environment, of course, which naturally prompts some to criticise Nintendo as acting too slowly. The company has more to lose than software publishers, however, as moving content away from its systems to smart devices immediately devalues its hardware business. It's been making losses, but it's had hardware struggles in the past — on each occasion it's recovered; if Nintendo jumps recklessly away from its existing business models, there's likely to be no going back.

Those declaring the reveal of The Pokémon Trading Card game for iPad to be game changing revelation, in that respect, are getting ahead of themselves. The Pokémon Company, to start with, has always had a relatively independent mandate — despite its affiliation and ownership by Nintendo — in pursuing its goals to boost the brand. Pokémon as a phenomenon is licenced and diversified in unique ways — compared to Nintendo's core properties — due to the manner in which the franchise has come together; it's become as important for 'mon to have films and TV shows as games, while merchandising is equally big business. It's also not as simple as saying that Nintendo's other properties should all follow the same road; that'd be akin to saying Level-5's Professor Layton should have been expanded in the same way as Yokai Watch has been — it's not that simple, and consumer's desires can be unpredictable and temperamental.

Over the course of many years Pokémon has sustained impressive levels of success; the mainline series of games on Nintendo's handhelds have been the driving force. Yet that selling power hasn't often translated to the many spin-offs of Pokémon into other game genres; the dungeon crawling games, brawlers and safari style camera games — as examples — haven't been failures, and these diversions wouldn't keep coming if they weren't making some money, but the truly staggering sales remain the preserve of the coloured or alphabetised core games. Rather like our Layton / Yokai Watch comparison, if it was easy to make every game with Pokémon in the title a smash hit selling over 10 million copies, Nintendo, Game Freak, The Pokémon Company et al would have done it long before now.

In that respect it makes perfect sense for The Pokémon Trading Card Game to come to iOS, as it can throw its hat into the virtual card game market and see if the right combination brings not-quite-pocket monster revenues. Importantly, Nintendo is targeting iOS with the sort of app that can potentially flourish on the platform without undermining existing products on its own hardware. The last equivalent product on a Nintendo portable was on the Game Boy Color, which recently saw a release on the 3DS Virtual Console in Europe. An argument can certainly be made that Nintendo's undermining that VC release — number one in the recent bestseller chart in the European 3DS eShop at the time of writing — but we think this is a fair example of justified opportunism. It's a re-release of a title originally released in the West way back in 2000, after all.

Even accounting for the semi-independent nature of The Pokémon Company, let's consider what Satoru Iwata said back in January in a presentation to shareholders, on the subject of Nintendo leveraging smart devices.

The traditional definition of a video game platform imposed a restriction in which we were unable to connect with consumers unless they purchased a Nintendo system. Given that the competition for consumers’ time and attention has become fierce, I feel that how we will take advantage of smart devices is an extremely important question to answer. However, in order to be absolutely clear, let me emphasize that this does not mean simply supplying Nintendo games on smart devices. Taking advantage of smart devices means connecting with all consumers, including those who do not own Nintendo’s video game systems, through smart devices and communicating the value of our entertainment offerings, thus encouraging more people to participate in Nintendo platforms.

Cross-promotion of the TCG and the video games is a key goal of The Pokémon Company, bringing the previously disparate competitive communities together at competitive tournaments, but likely to also use each respective area to promote sales of the other. In our interview with J.C. Smith, the Director of Consumer Marketing for the Pokémon Company International, he talked up the importance of accessibility and promoting the brand to a wide range of people, with the affiliate company developing the app internally — Game Freak and Nintendo's development teams are, we imagine, busy enough already.

This is a beta test obviously, but we want to make sure people can have the ability to learn and play the TCG any way they want. We’ve been doing the trading card game online on PC and Mac for four years now; for us, it’s all about getting people to play and having a touch point into how to play the trading card game. We’ve always done stuff that was right for expanding that audience, so it’s nothing different than [what] we have been doing. In fact, we put out the Google Maps app that allowed people to search for Pokémon. We like to do things from a marketing standpoint that make sense to reach our audience.

When you compare the philosophies outline by Iwata-san and J.C. Smith, the principles are essentially the same. The key point, too, is that it's been possible to play the TCG on PC and Mac for a good period of time, so in many respects this iPad app is long overdue. Nintendo left the virtual representation of the TCG largely dormant for a decade after its Game Boy Color outing and has since seen it used an area to test out other markets. In some respects it's showed the company's willingness — even at one step removed as it is, in a sense, with the management of Pokémon — to expand horizons. The key is that the TCG and video games are unique experiences from each other, so this is far from the scenario of the sequels to X & Y not being on Nintendo hardware, which remains inconceivable at present.

We can understand why there can be uncertainty and discomfort around this announcement, nevertheless, and we've read multiple viewpoints arguing that this app would have suited the Wii U — with the GamePad as the obvious control option — particularly well. Yet Nintendo does have to be smart about not throwing away opportunities, and the modest performance of some spin-off apps and games on its own hardware suggests that the main series is a very different beast. The card game market does fit iOS nicely, however, and let's not pretend that cold-eyed business and profit targets aren't behind this app — we can expect in-app purchases and credits to be absolutely integral to the experience.

The complexities of business ultimately put this product at the feet of The Pokémon Company, which has released other 'apps' for the franchise before now, with this TGC announcement merely the latest. In the current market, however, it's unsurprising that it caused some to wonder whether it meant Nintendo was 'going mobile' with games. The answer's simple — it's not. We bet it's interested to see how this app performs, however, as it is the perfect candidate to be a success on iOS, drive consumers towards Pokémon and, by extension, closer to Nintendo hardware.

It'll be interesting to see how this Pokémon Trading Card Game performs on iOS. Its success would reward smart thinking, and can boost Nintendo sales rather than harm them.

Where do you stand on the TGC app for iPad. Are you for or against it, or perhaps unsure? Let us know in the comments below.

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