When you think of Pokemon games, you most likely think of Nintendo's popular titles on Game Boy, DS, and even consoles. The franchise's tabletop offerings, however, have existed almost as long as the series itself, spanning all the way back to the 1998 launch of the Pokemon Trading Card Game.
Now, roughly 12 years since the card game's debut, the Pokemon Company is taking steps to digitize the long-running collectible card game with the free-to-play browser title Pokemon Trading Card Game Online.
In a recent interview with Gamasutra, The Pokemon Company's senior director of online and community management Andrew Finch and consumer marketing director J.C. Smith discussed the project's background, and explained why the company felt the need to bring this long-running paper card game to the web.
In particular, Finch explained that this new service will help connect players who can't always get in touch with other fans of the Pokemon Trading Card Game.
"We know kids have a lot of demands on their time now. There are so many commitments on them, so many things pulling them in different directions. The local tournaments and things like that aren't always convenient. They're not always in the same town you're in," he said.
With this in mind, The Pokemon Company set out to create a service that expands the long-running card game into a new medium, while maintaining its paper-based roots. In particular, the game requires players to buy new cards at retail to expand their virtual collections.
"Some other online games make you decide paper and digital. We don't want anyone making that choice because we don't think it's a meaningful choice. We think the interesting thing is for people to play Pokemon and to play with people around the world. Sometimes that is online, and sometimes that is face-to-face. Both of those are meaningful experiences," Finch said.
A Pokemon Game…Without Nintendo?
Perhaps surprisingly for a Pokemon video game, Pokemon Trading Card Game Online has very few ties to regular series publisher Nintendo. (Previously, the company had published a Game Boy title based on the Pokemon card game in 1998.)
While The Pokemon Company is in part owned by Nintendo, J.C. Smith noted that the company -- and this project -- remain independent from the major Japanese publisher.
With this independence in mind, The Pokemon Company specifically chose not to develop their game for Nintendo platforms like the Wii or 3DS, as the web provided a much better environment for live updates and player connectivity.
"We stuck with the web for a couple of reasons, like the flexibility," said Finch. "We really see [Pokemon Trading Card Game Online] as a service that's going to grow and change with the game. As powerful a platform like the DS is and the wonderful things you can do on it, it's a kind of fixed platform. You put out a product, and it is what it is. The trading card game now has in the U.S. almost 12 years of history, and every three months, we put out new product for it," Finch said, stressing the importance of regular game updates.
"It's always evolving, always growing, always changing. We needed a platform that could keep up with the medium we were trying to support."
Further distancing the game from its Nintendo-based counterparts, this new game features an angular, flat-shaded art style that stands in contrast to the series' typical anime-inspired look.
Finch explained that this difference helps establish the game as an extension of the real-world card game, rather than a new entry in the Pokemon canon.
"Pokemon cards don't exist in the classic Pokemon universe," he said. "The intent of the card game is it's a window to that universe, so the characters in our game are meant to be from our world."
Delving into the game itself, Finch explained that many Pokemon TCG collectors don't even know how to play the game, so the Pokemon Company created a suite of tools to help change that.
"Trading card games are immensely difficult to learn unless you have a friend who can sit down and teach you. But not everybody has access to a friend," Finch said, "The first thing we did is we created some learn-to-play tutorials."
"For one of our early tests, we brought in kids who owned cards but didn't know how to play. We gave them cards to play with and asked them questions about it, and they just made stuff up," he explained. "Then we had them play through the tutorial we made, and we gave them the same cards again, and it was night and day. It just proved to be a very powerful tool."
In addition to the tutorials, the game also features a full single player campaign where players battle CPU opponents, as well as a a suite of online features that lets players chat, trade, and battle with others to test their card-playing prowess.
Launch Now, Monetize Later
Unlike a typical free-to-play game, Pokemon Trading Card Game Online currently has no functioning monetization system within the online service. Finch said that for now, "it's monetized through the paper card sales, essentially."
If you boot up the game right now, however, you'll notice the game currently supports two forms of virtual currency: tokens, which players earn in-game, and gems, which players currently have no way of obtaining.
Finch explained that gems will eventually become the game's form of monetized currency, which players will be able to purchase and spend on in-game items for their avatar. Since the game is in beta, there are currently no items available to purchase with either form of currency.
"The thing is, right now it's about increasing access and awareness and basically general skill with the game, as opposed to putting a product on the market that we're trying to make revenue from," said Finch. "We have that product, and it's the paper card game."