The objective is to ensure the survival of Pokémon for several centuries: The leader of Pokémon shares their ideas for Pikachu and friends.
As a young boy, Satoshi Tajiri had a keen interest in insects. Living in Machida, a suburb near Tokyo, he would spend his summers searching for bugs and adding them to his collection. Although his classmates teased him and gave him the nickname “Mr Bug,” Tajiri’s passion for bugs would eventually lead to his greatest accomplishment – creating the popular franchise, Pokémon.
After thirty-three years, the initial pair of ambitious Game Boy games has grown into the top-earning media franchise globally, surpassing giants like Star Wars and Marvel. Tajiri stepped away from his endearing creation in 2012, and his company Game Freak is now a part of the larger Pokémon Company. The COO of the company, Takato Utsunomiya, is currently sitting in front of me in Yokohama.
If you have ever watched a Pokémon Presents live stream, you will surely know Utsunomiya. He is known for his flashy Pokémon shirts and always being well-groomed. As COO, he has revealed numerous new generations of Pokémon to the world. He proudly states, “My job is to constantly think about Pokémon every single day.” Their ultimate objective is to ensure that Pokémon continues to thrive for many years to come, even beyond our own lifetimes.
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Focusing solely on adults may seem like the obvious choice since they have a higher disposable income and their reactions can be seen in real-time on social media. However, it is crucial to also consider the interests of younger children. As they are very straightforward, they will not engage with something they do not enjoy. Therefore, it is important for brands to stay relevant and engaging to capture the attention of younger audiences.
Though Tajiri and co’s original characters, from Charizard to Chansey, Gengar to Gyarados, are still the most enduringly recognisable, there are now more than 1,000 little monsters for today’s kids to catch. While some recent designs have moved away from the insects and believable animals of old – see Pokémon inspired by swords, chandeliers and even ice-cream – Game Freak’s designs are still Pokémon’s biggest asset. Can the developer still design monsters as iconic as the original 151?
Utsunomiya believes that there is potential for the creation of numerous new Pokémon, and it is necessary to make them more attractive in order to pass them on to future generations. Game Freak has a strong ability in generating fresh ideas for Pokémon, with young adults who grew up playing the game now contributing to the process.
Tajiri initially envisioned Pokémon as a video game, with the Game Boy’s link cable serving as inspiration for the trading and battling aspects that are integral to the franchise. However, in 2023, the video games are just one component of the larger Pokémon universe, which also includes an ongoing anime series, movies, trading cards, merchandise, and spin-offs like Pokémon Go. With such a diverse range of products, how crucial are the video games to the overall success of the franchise?
According to Utsunomiya, video games are a crucial aspect of the brand and will continue to be so in the future. He believes that games provide the most immersive experience of the various Pokémon settings, and the team strives to make them as lifelike as possible. In earlier games, there was a disconnect between the descriptions in the Pokédex and the actual gameplay. However, with titles like Legends Arceus and Scarlet/Violet, players can now see Pokémon like Bidoof building dens and travelling in groups, adding a new level of realism to their surroundings. Utsunomiya also mentions that there is still much more potential in accurately portraying the Pokédex descriptions in future games.
In recent years, Pokémon has faced some challenges. The games released in 2022, Scarlet and Violet, were not visually impressive and experienced many technical issues. This resulted in backlash from fans, unlike any seen before in the franchise.
Utsunomiya explains that even if we do not respond publicly, we are constantly monitoring the feedback and discussions taking place within the community. While there may be some differences in opinions between the community and our goals, our ultimate aim is to keep Pokémon alive for a significant period of time. We trust that our fans and players share this same goal with us.
Pokemon has expanded beyond just its games and has started to integrate into real life with new apps such as Pokémon Sleep, a sleep-tracking app, and Pokémon Smile, a dental hygiene companion app. This shift makes it seem like Pokemon is no longer just about battling monsters, but also about becoming a part of our daily routines as mascots.
“Sleep is a necessity for everyone. Utsunomiya finds it amusing that by adding some entertainment to a daily activity, which cannot be avoided, there is a chance for growth. He mentions how Pokémon is highly popular in the Americas, Europe, and Japan, with a combined population of around one billion people. However, there are still over seven billion people outside of these regions. The goal is to expand the fandom of Pokémon to the rest of the world and adapt to their values and cultures.”
Those unfamiliar with the Pokémon craze or those who have lost interest since the early 2000s may be surprised to learn that these collectible creatures are more popular than ever. While the original Game Boy games remain the top-sellers with over 46 million units sold, the 2019 release of Pokémon Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch has already sold 26 million copies, and the entire series has sold over 460 million units. Additionally, the mobile game Pokémon Go still boasts an estimated 80 million active players. It is evident that there is a lasting appeal to Japan’s most successful entertainment export. While Tajiri’s initial quest was to capture bugs, the Pokémon Company now has a much larger goal of capturing the world’s attention.
Utsunomiya believes that there is a universal appeal to Pokémon. Initially, video games were seen as a boys’ activity in Japan, but it was soon discovered that a wider audience, including diverse groups, were playing them. This was also the case globally, as the games had a broad appeal. Utsunomiya hopes that Pokémon can bring people together regardless of their location or identity.