The Pokemon Trading Card Game doesn't understand the word 'quit'. Even though its popularity ebbs and flows over time, it only seems to have become more stubbornly prominent since debuting in the mid-'90s. How does it keep players coming back after more than 20 years?
Atsushi Nagashima knows a thing or two about that. As game director for the Pokemon Trading Card Game, he's been responsible for one of the best card games in the world since 2007. With the TCG now celebrating its 25th anniversary this year via bespoke 'Celebrations' sets that bring back beloved cards, I was able to catch up with him for a chat – and was surprised to hear what he thinks is at the heart of the game's success.
License to delight
Having joined Creatures Inc. (the organisation behind Pokemon's TCG) in 2001, Mr. Nagashima has seen a lot of ideas come and go. And even though the game is constantly changing with each new set, he maintains that its secret sauce isn't really tied to mechanics or reinventing the wheel. Making sure gameplay doesn't go stale is important, yes, but there's an even greater priority in his eyes – making people happy.
"The basic rules for the Pokemon TCG have remained unchanged since its first release," he says. "With each new series, however, we go above and beyond to explore new mechanics, new approaches to illustration and graphic design, and other options to delight, surprise, and entertain our fans."
To Mr. Nagashima, this sense of joy is baked into the Trading Card Game's DNA. Because individual Pokemon are so beloved, a great deal of work goes into figuring out "how we can convey the new charm of each Pokemon through cards."
However, that's just one part of the picture. Pokemon is supposed to be for everyone, so making sure nobody gets left behind is another of the team's priorities. "Pokémon cards offer many different ways to have fun, including collecting, trading, enjoying the illustrations, creating decks, and battling Pokémon," says Mr. Nagashima.
"It's very important to us that people can enjoy the cards in their own way. And we are always adding changes, such as new mechanisms or artistic touches, to ensure that these different ways of having fun remain fresh and enjoyable. Of course, this can be difficult with such a long-running and beloved franchise, but we've made many unique discoveries about Pokémon cards along the way. The ability to draw on this past experience to create something new is one of the TCG's strengths."
Still, this isn't a one-way street. Social media has brought about a sea change in how fans interact with those behind their favorite games, and that connection has become a driving force for the team. To be precise, Mr. Nagashima observes that they can see how it makes people feel first-hand.
"We are able to see fans react in real time," he says. "With the release of Celebrations, I am reminded again that it is this passion from our fans that drives evolution in the Pokémon TCG."
Challenge and reward
With all that in mind, what does it look like to work on one of the biggest brands out there? Even 25 years on from those original sets, the team still kicks things off with the same source of inspiration – the video games that started it all.
"When choosing themes for expansions, we start by looking at how the world is depicted in the Pokemon video games," he explains. "We begin by selecting four or five main Pokemon, while keeping in mind things such as Pokemon types in the existing game environment."
"Based on that selection, we begin exploring the broader world view, at which point a simple illustration of the image is created. Next, we put together our mix of Pokemon, looking at issues such as type balance, evolution balance, character popularity, and play mechanics. From there, we work on data and illustrations for each individual card."
That doesn't mean the team would rather play safe, of course. A good example would be TAG TEAM Pokemon-GX, featured in 2019's 'Sun & Moon - Team Up' range. As more powerful cards that combined multiple Pokemon and offered a higher reward when defeated, balancing them with other cards caused a fair share of headaches.
"There were a great deal of challenges involved in creating single cards with multiple Pokemon on them, such as which Pokemon to pair, or the mechanics or art styles to use," he notes. "But it was a rewarding challenge. It was a new take for Pokemon, and players and collectors were very happy with the cards we created. I'm glad we pushed ourselves."
This emphasis on providing a good experience for fans was a constant theme throughout my interview with Mr. Nagashima. As the 'Celebrations' name would suggest, it's what the event is all about as well. Per a separate talk with the official Pokemon website, Mr. Nagashima explained that this is "a chance for long-standing players and collectors to revisit familiar cards and memories, or even to get their hands on special cards they missed in the first edition."
It's a neat summary of Mr. Nagashima's view on how to keep the Pokemon Trading Card Game relevant even after two and a half decades. The trick is never losing sight of why we fell in love with it in the first place.
Pokemon Celebrations cards are available now, and although many box sets have already sold out, it's worth keeping an eye out to see if more stock appears for this year's Black Friday Pokemon card deals or Cyber Monday Pokemon card deals. If nothing else, at least we can rely on some good Black Friday Pokemon deals in 2021.