The life cycle of a toy craze goes something like this: clever development and marketing to hook the kids; stampeding of the stores; frenzied and heavily publicized searches for the sold-out commodity; hand-wringing from self-styled children's advocates; and inevitably, the waning of the item's popularity until many, many years later, when it becomes a symbol of times gone by.
The American incarnation of Pokemon--a raft of products including a video game and card game, in which human "trainers" try to catch 151 cute, resourceful monsters--has passed through the first three stages in a great hurry.
In fact, a culture of Pokemon has spread across the country, nurtured by the shrewd hand of Nintendo, its Japanese creator, and aided and abetted by licensing agreements for Pokemon products and the general blessing, or so it seems, of many parents. Kids are playing Pokemon and scooping up all things Pokemon--buying them, selling them, collecting them, trading them, bidding them up and down, and even leveraging them.
The movement began in Japan in early 1996, where many billions of dollars have been spent since on Pokemon products. Pokemon, introduced in the United States via a cartoon show in September 1998, is expected to generate $700 million in retail sales here in 1999.
That includes video games, the ubiquitous trading cards and about 1,000 other Pokemon products--comic books, notebooks, key chains, dolls, T-shirts, backpacks, CD soundtracks--from nearly 100 U.S. companies that have licensing agreements with Nintendo of America, based in Redmond, Wash.
Pokemon, or "pocket monster," has contributed generously to the 250 percent jump in Nintendo Game Boy sales in the first quarter of 1999, as well as the near-doubling of Nintendo stock since March.
Pokemon is at once plural and singular. They are also intensely social creatures, inspiring scads of Pokemon leagues, tournaments and contests across the country. Pokemon.com is one of the most popular kids' Web sites.
As a Pokemon player, you assume the role of a "trainer"--you catch, train and fight with Pokemon. As in the "rock, paper, scissors" game--or, more recently, Dungeons & Dragons--each Pokemon has special strengths and weaknesses that may apply to one situation but not another. Each one, for instance, has a designated number of "hit points," which tell you how much damage it can take in a battle before being knocked out. Some--but not all--have "resistance," which means that a Pokemon can take less damage when attacked by a Pokemon of a certain type. So some Pokemon are harder to catch than others. The object is to catch all 151 and become the No. 1 Pokemon Master in the world.
Collin Wilson, 10, of Falls Church was an early convert. He was introduced to Pokemon through the video game.
"I liked [the game] and then started collecting the creatures" on cards, Collin said. He has about 600 cards, more than anyone he knows. Like many kids, he is also collecting the Japanese-language cards. "They have a whole bunch more, and have a lot more value." Collin wants to learn Japanese so he can read the cards not yet translated into English. He's a card player as well as a collector.
Collin's sister, Melissa, 7, also plays with Pokemon cards, but she doesn't know how many she has and isn't interested in the video game. Her favorite character is Caterpie, "because it's a caterpillar, and I like caterpillars." She says she does not want to learn Japanese.
Their father, Eric Wilson, is also sold on Pokemon even though they've been bad for business. Wilson has as online company, Toysact2.com, that sells used video games and toys. "I'm not getting any used Pokemon stuff," Wilson says. The Pokemon craze, especially the cards, has cut into his sales of video games.
Pokemon is "absolutely the biggest thing I've seen," Wilson says. "Tamagotchi [the virtual pet] was hot just because supply wasn't there." But unlike Tamagotchis, Pokemon cards are comparatively cheap, he says, with a pack of 11 selling for about $3.
Collin, Melissa and their dad were among the mob at the Pokemon trading-game tour at Tysons Corner Center earlier this month. Images of the Chicago Board of Trade floor came to mind, says Eric Wilson, as if the kids "were trading corn futures."
Anthony Morley, 11, of Arlington prefers the video game to the cards--"it's a little more challenging, and it's more fun to play." He also attends sessions of a Pokemon league at another mall, the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, where kids trade cards and play one another every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
His 5-year-old brother, Diego, also plays Pokemon. "He's okay at the card game," says Anthony. "He can't really read the words, but he knows what to do," because Anthony taught him how to play.
Many have praised the game for fostering friendships among kids who might not otherwise meet, playing a nonviolent game. Pokemon also gets points from some parents for encouraging children to read (the text on the cards), do some math (as they figure out scoring) and even learn to leverage a little (as they ponder which trades are worth their while).
Pokemon has its critics. They say kids are succumbing to peer pressure, spending too much time and money on a trend manufactured by those with purely financial interests.
More than 4 million of the video games have been sold in the United States. The card game, which has the same object as the video games, is complicated. It includes 151 characters (in the United States), such as Pikachu, Poynta and Diglett, who have various hit points, energy levels, retreat costs and weaknesses. Some evolve into higher Pokemon beings.
For those who prefer to take their Pokemon more passively, there is also, of course, the weekly "Pokemon" television show on the WB network, now the top-rated children's TV show in the country, according to Nielsen Media Research. The video "Pokemon: Seaside Pikachu" has been topping the bestseller list for all videos, not just children's titles. And coming to a theater near you on Nov. 12: "Pokemon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back."
Unlike Power Rangers (a bit aggressive) or Barney (a bit saccharine) Pokemon tends to be liked by many parents. It's sort of the toy equivalent of their child's nice friend: easy to have at the house; cute in a quirky way; polite by kid standards; never really mean; and sporting a sly sense of humor, also by kid standards. Kadabra, for instance, "emits special alpha waves from its body that induce headaches even to those just nearby"--a level that seems more accessible to parents than to kids. And the characters don't die. Like Scarlett O'Hara, they just faint.
The development of the original Pokemon, the video game, was long and intense.
It has also been calculated to push all the buttons of the collective kid conformity-based population. Japanese video-game creators Satoshi Tajiri and Tsunekaz Ishihara spent six years designing the creatures and the game. Ishihara is also credited with developing the trading cards.
The video game was introduced in Japan in February 1996 and immediately became a hit. Tajiri, president of a software firm called Game Freak, is still working on additional Pokemon video games for Nintendo, one to be released next month in Japan, says Gail Tilden, vice president of product acquisition and development at Nintendo of America.
At first Nintendo was not entirely convinced of Pokemon's potential in the United States. Some of the company's executives weren't sure it would translate, says Tilden.
"In Japan, role-playing games are a large genre," she says, "but here sports games or action-oriented games" are big.
Tilden includes herself in the original camp of skeptics. Even though everyone acknowledged that Pokemon was a "brilliant game design," the Nintendo executive says, "we did not know how much of a mass market it would be."
While the video game was the first Pokemon product to be released in Japan, the TV show was the debut here. Nintendo chose the TV show, says Tilden, "in part because we didn't know if the video games were going to be the lead product, but perhaps kids would get into the TV show. Happily, the video games are the lead product."
Restrained though the initial enthusiasm may have been, the U.S. launch sparked an explosion. The genius of Tajiri and Ishihara's video creation may well have found its marketing match in the promotional team at Nintendo, now launching a global Pokemon strategy.
Pokemon mania persists in Japan and Australia (where it was launched simultaneously with its U.S. introduction) and is about to descend on Europe. The TV show has premiered in Britain.
The creatures have rolled over all the "Star Wars" paraphernalia and claimed vast stretches of prime real estate in virtually every toy and video store, not to mention bookstores, card stores and now 7-Elevens. They have staked out major territory on the online auction site eBay, where there were 34 bids as of Friday for a regular-edition six-box factory case of trading cards--offered for $232.50.
Every Pokemon permutation seems to flow into and reinforce the others: The TV show introduced the Pikachus and Rattatas soon to come on the video game, which whetted the appetite for the onslaught of trading cards, which helped spawn the 1,001 Pokemon products, which kids might want to bring along with them while they're waiting in line to see the new Pokemon movie.
Timing has been shrewd, to judge from the sales. Releases of new video games and booster packs of cards are spaced to let enough out to create demand but withhold enough to sustain suspense and longing--for the next purchase.
Nintendo's licensing of Pokemon has played a pivotal role. To many people "this may look like an overnight sensation, but in reality it is the result of a very strategic marketing plan" by Nintendo and subsequently by its licensing agents, says Charles Riotto, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association in New York. There were "very savvy licensing people" who recognized the potential of Pokemon, he says, and who were essential in driving the launch.
A key player was 4 Kids Entertainment, based in New York. It now negotiates licensing agreements on behalf of Nintendo outside of Asia, except for the video-game software and hardware, which Nintendo has kept for itself.
Among the biggest licensing companies is Wizards of the Coast Inc. of Renton, Wash., publisher of the Pokemon trading cards (including the translation from the Japanese). More than 2 million of the two-player starter sets have been sold to date, according to Wizards spokeswoman Jenny Bendel.
Wizards has been struggling to keep up with demand, she says, having exhausted most of the card-printing capacity in the United States. The company recently bought the Game Keeper retail chain, which has three stores in the Washington area and does a very brisk business in Pokemon cards and related products. Wizards also sells cards directly, on its Web site, www.wizards.com.
Hasbro Inc., says Nintendo's Tilden, is "our master toy license," producing anything in the Pokemon toy-related category, such as Pokemon Monopoly, plush toys, beanbag toys and collectible figures.
Plymouth Inc. of Radford, Va., makes Pokemon theme books, portfolios, pencils, pens, pads, binders and other school supplies, selling to mass-market retailers such as Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target. "It is amazing how fast [the Pokemon market] heated up," says Rich Pappas, vice president of marketing. The company has added an extra shift to the one it typically has, and "most of it is Pokemon," says Pappas.
Nintendo is "trying to create the total Pokemon experience" by coming at it from all sides, says Venkatesh Shankar, a former Mattel Inc. executive and now a marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. A term called the "whole network effect" applies here, he explains--a product or service that involves interaction among people reinforces its growth. The telephone, fax, video game and Internet are classic examples, he says. When these technologies began to catch on as forms of communication or play, others didn't want to be leftout and quickly jumped in.
The way Nintendo has capitalized on this, he says, "is pretty astounding." But savvy marketing is not new to Nintendo.
Back in the early '80s, when the video-game business was flagging, Nintendo resurrected it with its eight-bit system, the next step in game technology. This was largely because it had a much better understanding of how kids and parents behaved than did its major competitor, Sega, says Shankar, who conducts studies on the business of video games. Nintendo's ability to build multiple franchises has created a "Pokemon culture that has given it tremendous returns," he says.
Ron Goodstein, a marketing professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, agrees that Nintendo is a master marketer, especially in its understanding of pacing.
"Pokemon didn't get pushed" on the kids, the way the latest round of "Star Wars" characters were. "At some point you're going to saturate the market." The TV show, he says, was a smart way to spark children's interest. The affordability of the cards is another plus. "It's the kind of thing kids can buy with their allowance," Goodstein adds.
Julie Creighton, an independent toy consultant, calls Pokemon "inspired" for its ability to cross gender boundaries. And at a time when kids dismiss playing with toys at younger and younger ages, Nintendo was able to create a game that dramatically broadened the range it appeals to (about 6 to 14 years old), she says.
Pokemon's vendors also realize the value of a scarce commodity. When children buy the 11-card booster packs, they don't know exactly what they're getting. Some of the characters were made intentionally scarce, such as Charizard, who has 120 hit points and a 100-point attack damage (those are good things). So kids keep pestering their parents to buy another pack, hoping it will contain the cherished card. Of course, more money, strategically placed with a collector who is willing to sell, will also get you one of the rarer cards.
Like Beanie Babies, some of Hasbro's Pokemon toys have already taken early retirement, making them rarer and presumably more valuable.
"Catch them all before they retire!" urges Pokemon.com of battle figures Kakuna and Beedrill, whose production stopped in April.
Predictably, there are now a few Web sites urging children to resist Pokemon's battle cry.
One site, titled "Welcome to . . . Pikachu on a Stick," displays an impaled Pokemon and denounces the "Pokemon disease," warning that it will leave children "miserable and moneyless," adding: "I know because it happened to me."
Pokemon is only the latest in a string of toy crazes to capture the imagination of America's youngsters--and the dollars of their parents.
Cabbage Patch Kids (Mattel)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates Toys)
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Bandai)
Tickle Me Elmo (Tyco/Mattel)
Beanie Babies (Ty Inc.)
Furby (Tiger Electronics)
SOURCE: Toy Manufacturers of America