Ever since the release of Pokémon GO in the summer of 2016, the Pokémon brand has been going through a period of transition. There’s been a handful of mobile games ranging from the simplistic Magikarp Jump to the surprisingly complex Pokémon Duel. We’ve seen the company’s mascot turn into a master detective, soon transitioning to the big screen and voiced by one of the most famous actors around. Despite the Pokémon Company branching out of their usual comfort zone, they’ve stayed true to their origins with a lovingly remade version of Pokémon Yellow in the form of Pokémon Let’s Go, capturing the nostalgia of fans that have been there from the start, as well as those ready to begin a new adventure.
Pokémon is no longer just aimed at children. Staying relevant for twenty years is no mean feat and is a long way past being just a 'flash in the pan' fad. Pokémon GO continues to make millions of dollars a month in revenue and with a blockbuster premiere around the corner and the imminent announcement and subsequent release of ‘Pokémon Switch’, it’s sure to maintain appeal for some time to come. However, one element of Pokémon’s brand that could appear less innovative than the rest is the Pokémon Trading Card Game.
No game in the Pokémon series – from the humble Game Boy, right through to 3DS – could be considered a failed release, namely because The Pokémon Company continues to keep things fresh. What started as a children’s game – and the realisation of one man’s boyhood adventures – Pokémon has transcended its intended origins, appealing now to a much wider audience. Unlike the games though, the TCG faces the possibility of being left behind due to a lack of innovation. Whilst games like Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh have innovated with different styles of play and accessible digital game variants, Pokémon appears to fail at offering an efficient modern take on one of its most iconic form factors.
Clearly, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company have the desire to continue creating Pokémon cards for some time; evidenced by the carefully balanced game, their beautifully designed artwork, an easy method of play, and of course the revenue the market generates. 2017 saw Pokémon card sales surpass £100m in Europe alone, holding an 82% share in the strategic card game market. That money isn't just pocketed; the combined prize pool for the TCG, and the two video games – Pokkén Tournament and Sun and Moon – was over $500,000 last year, with the world championships held in Nashville, Tennessee.
With these sorts of numbers flying around, it may be tough to see what The Pokémon Company is doing wrong. Sales may be good, but active player numbers are sketchy. The Pokémon Company hasn’t released just how many have downloaded the Online Trading Card Game, and in some countries, there are so few places offering official league play that’s it can be tough to find anywhere at all. According to Pokémon.com, within central London and the surrounding areas, there are only two venues offering league play on a weekly basis, compared to almost a dozen when compared to Magic the Gathering.
It could be argued that there’s only so much innovation that can be achieved from a card game, but with such a solid foundation to build upon, there’s a lot that can be done to evolve the game into a standout pillar of the Pokémon franchise.
The TCG community seems to be split into two groups; those collecting the cards and those taking part in official events. Collectors can spend anywhere from a few pennies to hundreds (and in some instances, thousands) to attain the rarest and most valuable cards, whereas players intend to build the most powerful decks based on their own strategy. There is an overlap but collectors that are interested in having the best-looking and most comprehensive archive of cards may be hesitant to play with all of them, for fear of irreversible damage. Players may seek opportunities to feature in regional, national or even global tournaments for the most talented of competitors. In a more casual sense, League play at their local card shop or pre-release events – giving early access to the newest card releases – may be enough to satisfy their competitive itch; that is, of course, if they can find such a place.
Whatever their stance, each of these demographics are just as important as the other; each is willing to spend money, actively take part in events, or post about their pulls online for some free advertising – neither should be neglected. There’s one thing collectors and players can agree on, it’s the cost of their decks. One contributing factor to this is the differences between the cards released in their country of origin, Japan, compared to the rest of the world, leading players and collectors alike feeling a little hard done by.
Maybe unsurprisingly, there are substantial differences between the Japanese and international releases. Not only are Japanese cards made of better quality cardboard – very noticeable when stacked up side by side – the sheer amount of exclusive releases, from Pikachu and Mario collaborations to region-specific cards for Pokecenter openings, is staggering.
Typically, to coincide with each generation of Pokémon games there would be an accompanying set of cards. Most recently, featuring Gen VII Pokémon such as Litten, Zeraora, and Mimikyu is the Sun and Moon series. Each set is split into subsets that are released periodically over the course of the series’ lifetime. Barring a few exceptions, this has been the case for nearly the entire lifetime of the international TCG.
Three or four subsets that may be released independently in Japan are often bundled together before they have a release internationally. Not only does this lead to the cards taking longer to get in the hands of non-Japanese territories, but it also lowers the chances of pulling the cards players and collectors want. For example, in Japan, if you wanted a specific card from a subset, that might be one card in 70. Whereas in English, the Lost Thunder set, for example, has a total of 236 unique cards: 20 of which are ultra rare and a further nine are hyper/secret rares, and oh boy, when it comes to secret rares you could easily spend over £120 on a box of 36 packs of ten and not get a single one – they are that hard to come by. Naturally, this bumps the price of some cards up exponentially – and with some decks requiring four of that same card to perform at their full potential, it becomes an extremely expensive hobby for players and collectors alike.
The Pokémon Company has been keen to bridge the gap between global releases of the Pokémon games since X and Y – where simultaneous worldwide release dates were brought in. This seems to have been forgotten with the TGC, but by reducing the number of cards in each subset and offering a more vibrant and interesting selection of promotional cards to global players, the game becomes more desirable for players and collectors alike.
Accessibility, in general, has been a problem. As mentioned earlier, some players may find it tough to find places where they can play regular league games without having to spend time and money to travel to their nearest venue; believe it or not, the same can also be said with the online game. The Pokémon Trading Card Game Online has been around since 2011, with players building decks from code cards found inside physical TCG booster packs. Bizarrely, it's officially only been available to download for PC and Mac, with limited support on Apple and Android tablets only. So, what’s the excuse? Sure, screen sizes of mobile phones pose a challenge when attempting to show detailed play areas, but a full version of Hearthstone has been available on mobile since April 2015. Looking to the future, a mobile version is essential for the game to continue growing. To complement the full PTCGO, there would be an appetite for a shorter ‘rush’ format, one better suited to mobiles and quickplay. Yu-Gi-Oh has a variation named Duel Links that shortens playtime significantly by halving the size of player decks and hands. That app alone boasts over 60 million downloads since launching in 2016.
Obviously, there’s another massive platform missing here too. Indie devs have been quick to praise just how easy the Nintendo Switch has been to develop for - it’s no wonder there are now over 1800 games available to play. The form factor of the Switch, its touchscreen, and popularity, makes it inconceivable that there hasn’t already been a port of the PTCGO for Nintendo’s hybrid. Before ported, mind you, it would be worth revamping the design. Avatars in-game look like a first draft, the menus are convoluted, and it all seems a far cry from the polish and esteem that Nintendo/Pokemon fans have been accustomed to over the years.
Nintendo isn’t afraid to try new things, especially when it comes to reinventing what they started out with over 100 years ago: cards. Animal Crossing, one of their most beloved exclusive IPs, benefitted from the release of a staggering 400 amiibo trading cards across four different series’. Each pack included three cards with unique NFC functionality for New Leaf and Happy Home Designer on the 3DS, as well as Amiibo Festival on the Wii U.
Repeatedly over the last couple years and as recently as April last year, Nintendo has been updating patents for similar NFC-enabled cards. With any right Joy-Con having built-in NFC/amiibo functionality, and Nintendo showing no signs of slowing down their production of amiibo products, this could be a sign of an additional Pokémon card expansion with a modern take. Cards could be scanned into the game – either the PTCGO or Pokémon Switch – in a snap, and could even work with NFC inside phones.
Simple changes, like bringing the digital game to more people, or a modern take on a traditional medium, like cards with amiibo functionality, would build on an already solid foundation. Either could be enough to evolve the TCG from what it is now, to dominating playgrounds all over again whilst keeping the series fun and exciting for everyone. The imminent Switch Pokémon release presents a perfect opportunity; not only for a new era in the biggest turn-based strategy game series of all time but a complete transformation of the such a pivotal part in the franchise's early success.
Do you think the Pokémon Trading Card game needs a revamp? Or do you think it's never been better than it is right now? Let us know with a comment.