If you were born or raised in the 90’s, then it’s nigh-certain that you are intimately acquainted with either Pokemon, Harry Potter or both. Even if you aren’t, there’s no way you haven’t at least heard of them. So other than their popularity and timing, what do these two multi-media multi-billion-dollar franchises have in common? And what is the secret to their success?
Beginning with the obvious, they both began with the same demographic. Kids aged 6-12, with a slant towards males but not exclusively so. The Harry Potter books attempted to grow up with their readership, ending with material more suitable for 14-20 year-olds. On the other hand, Pokemon has kept its kiddie tone. Despite this, many aged Pokefans maintain an interest in the franchise.
Moreover what’s similar is the way their demographics were represented within the stories themselves. Now, this is nothing new, children’s storytellers have been doing it for ages – just think Pippi Longstocking or Alice in Wonderland.
But the difference is that in the Harry Potter and Pokemon universes its not just Ash and Harry who turn 11 and get to have adventures. Instead there’s a whole wave of new wizard kids and new trainer kids beginning their adventures too. An entire generation of children who gain special powers, get to hang out with magical creatures, and more importantly, don’t have to go to public school, eat brussel sprouts, or listen to their parents.
When kids read/watch these stories, it’s not just Ash and Harry they follow along with. They imagine themselves in the fantasy world, imagine how they would stack up in the trials, the kind of spells they would learn, or the Pokemon they would raise. It’s a very potent escapism, to see yourself not just in a story, but in an entire universe, awash with potential and surrounded by others having their own adventures.
I’m sure the marketing genius of having to “collect them all” helped Pokemon along. And I’m sure that parents desperately trying to get children to read helped Harry Potter along. But the key difference between them and other colorful anime or fantasy novels is that they provided the reader with a backdrop for their own stories.
The other thing these franchises have in common, is that they both have video games which poorly reflect this potent escapism. You’d think that video games, being a strong form of escapism themselves, would be on the ball. But instead the games follow the actual plots of the books/manga, rather than their spirit.
The Pokemon games are fun, and do allow you to choose which Pokemon you raise, but your adventure is linear. The gym leaders you battle and the towns you visit are (largely) in a set order. Similarly, the Potter games have you follow Harry’s quest to a T. Occasionally you may free-roam the castle, but nothing interesting can happen while you do.
Both video game iterations of the franchises have you following a single quest in a linear fashion. This does not stack up with what our imaginations craved.
Imagine a moment if you will, a Harry Potter or Pokemon game, where you begin by creating a character (No, choosing your gender in a Pokemon game doesn’t count) . Where you can choose your own classes at Hogwarts or your path around Kanto. A free-foaming game, with optional quests, random events, places to explore and tons of distractions and mini-games to get caught up in. Perhaps even an online game, where you’re surrounded by other players each having their own adventures.
I’m not the first to suggest this. In fact non-linear Pokemon or Potter games are probably the most frequently dreamt-up dream games. And of course I’m not naive enough to think EA or Nintendo will ever bother, since they can make enough money without the work or risk involved.
But I find it interesting that video games have the potential to be what a generation of kids spent days imagining. And I find it tragic that the ‘obvious’ way to turn these beloved franchises into interactive experiences is the exact wrong one.
How would you make these franchises into games? Or are they fine as they are?