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'Pokemon Go' co-developer talks of rocking an industry

Blockbuster app is also helping to boost sales of console games

Tsunekazu Ishihara, president of "Pokemon Go" co-developer Pokemon Co.

TOKYO -- Since "Pokemon Go" was first released in the U.S. in July, the smartphone app has been downloaded more than 600 million times around the world. The game has become a global phenomenon, and its enormous popularity is lifting the sluggish game industry as a whole.

Tsunekazu Ishihara, president of "Pokemon Go" co-developer Pokemon Co. (Niantic of the U.S. and Nintendo were also involved) recently sat down with The Nikkei and discussed how the game, meant to be played outdoors, has influenced consumers and maybe changed the future of video games.

Q: Pokemon and Nintendo both grew through console gaming. But the domestic market for console games and related products has now shrunk to about 300 billion yen ($2.64 billion), less than half the level in 2007. What is your take on this?

A: In the gaming industry, the smartphone is increasingly becoming the key tool -- as a gaming device and for promotion. [To make Pokemon characters known among consumers,] we have Pokemon anime series airing in 95 countries and regions. This has been costly and time-consuming, requiring us to communicate with broadcasters in each region.

The number of smartphone users around the world has exceeded 1 billion. This is enormous compared to the number of console game players. It makes it convenient for us to share information through the smartphone. "Pokemon Go" has become so popular, attracting as many as 600 million users, because it's a smartphone app.

Q: Japan's market for gaming apps has expanded to 1 trillion yen. Do you think the console gaming market will continue to shrink?

A: The smartphone is basically a device for people who are 13 and older. Even small children can play console games. Pokemon Go has helped Pokemon fans in their 20s and 30s who had left Pokemon behind to rediscover the charm of the game series and the characters.

We rolled out "Pokemon Sun" and "Pokemon Moon" for the Nintendo 3DS in November. Initial shipments topped 10 million, a record for a 3DS game title.

Interestingly, "Pokemon Go" is helping the elderly, people in their 50s to 60s, discover the fun of smartphone games. In Western markets in particular, "Pokemon Go" players are typically shifting to console gaming. Altogether, the number of players is increasing.

Q: How will the way businesses develop and sell games change over time?

A: Today, for game developers, it's a must to launch titles in all markets at the same time. Information can spread instantly online. If not, the excitement of those living in a region where a title has not yet been released could dissipate by the time they do get the chance to buy and play the game. We used to roll out titles in Japanese first, and editions in other languages would typically come six months later. However, we released the latest series in nine languages all at once.

Q: A series of accidents while playing "Pokemon Go" have been reported, including critical ones. What's your reaction to this?

A: We intended to make a game for people to play outdoors, instead of at home. The potential that players could become too involved in playing the game [that they might walk into danger] was already an issue at an early stage.

To avoid the danger, we also released "Pokemon Go Plus," the smartphone-linked wearable device, so that "Pokemon Go" players do not have to always be looking down at their smartphone screens. Together with Nintendo, we are thinking of developing a new device that can be played more safely.  

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Yuji Nitta

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