Value in Pokémon Go Collectibles Appear to be Future ‘Tradable Assets’
I knew that Pokémon Go was a “thing” when I was standing in line with my kids at the grocery store playing it, scanning the environs for a Squirtle or Jigglypuff, and I noticed that the people in front of us had their phone out and they were playing, too.
I knew that Pokémon Go was a “thing” when I was standing in line with my kids at the grocery store playing it, scanning the environs for a Squirtle or Jigglypuff, and I noticed that the people in front of us had their phone out and they were playing, too. Then, we went to the pool the next day and sure enough, there were roving groups of players congregating around a sign that was recognized as a Pokéstop by the app. Within days of its release, memes were formed, politicians started referencing it and shares of Nintendo went through the roof. It’s been quite a while since Pokémon was such a major, mainstream cultural concern.
In the olden days of 1996, cards such as these were the primary way that Pokémon players attempted to “catch ‘em all”—at least in the real world. The wildly popular video game titles for Nintendo’s handheld consoles were something of a precursor for Pokémon Go mania.
Over the past 20 years, the Pokémon franchise has produced thousands of products above and beyond the video and card games. It would be impossible to catalog all of the Chespins and Charmanders, let alone all of the Pikachus. The game’s concept is itself a perfect summation of the collector’s experience, functioning as almost a meta-comment on the nature of collecting things—“gotta catch ‘em all” is the tag line, and anyone who has collected baseball cards, depression glass, automobilia or whatever has certainly felt the tug of that impetus. Pokémon, at least at this subtextual level, is quite brilliant. Of course, you can’t make your baseball cards fight each other and your depression glass doesn’t evolve into ever more powerful and more awesome forms.
In the real world of collecting, there hasn’t been much of an increase in value of Pokémon collectibles—everything valuable, such as rare cards or promotional items and the late 1990s-issue board game that I myself badly want—has held steady in the weeks since Pokémon Go released. I would strongly caution against over-valuing any kind of Pokémon product at this stage, despite the sudden and widespread popularity of the brand. Not because Pokémon isn’t a sought-after collectible brand or because I think Pokémon Go won’t last, but because what this app does is so different and so unique that most of the past products may not be relevant to folks like the office manager at my kids’ dojo who is playing it, without any previous knowledge of what has come before.
The genius of Pokémon Go is that it brings the central actions of the franchise—exploring, collecting monsters, and battling with them into the real world. Players must find and collect Pokémon out in the real world, visiting real-life locations to replenish Pokeballs and other supplies. Then, you do battle with other users’ Pokémon in “Gyms.”
Instead, I regard Pokémon Go as very much a reboot. Its emphasis on real-world exploration, social interaction and, of course, collecting is striking at a very different, much broader demographic. It is hitting the “casual gamer” crowd hard, and these are people that tend to be either Pokémon players that gave it up at some point or that have never played it before. They aren’t going to go scouring eBay for rare collectibles. That’s for the hardcore crowd, which I don’t think is going to expand as a result of the app.
However, when analyzing this app from a collecting and valuation aspect, there is a major twist in the tale. Just this past week, it was announced at San Diego Comic Con that the developers are working on incorporating a trading element. This will enable players to swap out their Meowth for a Snorlax with another player. That’s cool and fun on its own and I’m very interested in this aspect of the game. But with that also comes the potential for more enterprising players to monetize it.
Just like with the Star Wars Trading Card app, where users will pay real money for exclusive, rare and chase cards to complete digital sets, I one-hundred-and-ten-percent anticipate that we will see a market develop around people buying and selling Pokémon. Of course, the app will not officially support this, but it is almost certain that you will be able to buy a high level, evolved Pokémon from another player simply by paying them and then giving them your user name to complete the transfer. We will also see players “farming” Pokémon and developing them specifically for resale.
The Pokémon Go Plus, coming in September, connects to your phone via Bluetooth and alerts you when Pokémon are nearby. This device will hopefully prevent people from walking off cliffs or wandering into the Korean DMZ. I expect short-term supplies of this device to be low, thus escalating its aftermarket value, but in the long term it will not likely have much interest to collectors.
I would expect for Pokémon Go, especially at its degree of cultural uptake, to develop its own robust collector’s economy in the coming months or years—provided it doesn’t prove to be one of those Internet-era fads that lasts a couple of weeks and vanishes. As for now, it seems to be growing and with there are already “exclusive” Pokémon that you have to catch at certain places, like McDonalds restaurants in Japan. I can’t even hazard a guess at how much someone in the Midwest United States would pay to “trade” for one of those. The world waits for the trading to be switched on and then all bets are off.
So, the real value, at least as far as monetization goes, is going to come from the buying and selling of these digital assets more than from Pokémon collectibles and merchandise. Call me old fashioned, but the notion of “digital collectibles” strikes me as strange. I suppose the upshot of it is that there’s no need to store everything if you manage to actually catch them all!
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and more than a decade of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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