Where the Digimon Fall, the Pokemon Rise
When I was in fourth grade, all of my classmates were familiar with the two most popular adventure franchises of the time, Pokemon and Digimon. While it would have been blasphemous to admit this during the height of their competition in the late 1990s, Pokemon and Digimon have a lot in common. Both star child protagonists and their monster companions who evolve through experience and training, both intellectual properties started with video games, both were spun off into successful television shows, both had a theatrical movie release, both spawned robust toy lines, and both were the subject of successful fast food tie-in promotions. Each franchise was also popular enough to spawn its own trading card game but, while the Pokemon TCG has been a perpetual best seller in the gaming industry since its 1999 U.S. release, Digimon has struggled to maintain a consistent TCG presence in the western marketplace. Why have these two franchises, with similar success in other mediums, had such disparate success in the realm of trading card games? There have been a number of Digimon trading card games over the years, but this article focuses on the first, the Digi-Battle Card Game. To properly examine why this game failed while Pokemon succeeded (and to borrow a line from Digimon: The Move), we have to go back, go back to the beginning.
The Pokemon TCG officially launched in the United States in January of 1999 and was an overnight financial success. Today the game is just as, if not more popular than it was at the time of its release. Even Cubs Shortstop Addison Russell is a collector. Most Pokemon TCG collectors, especially those that collected when the game launched, are familiar with the game’s early success during the height of the late 1990’s Pokemon fever epidemic. Pokemon’s survival for all these years has helped preserve the story of its origin, but with Digimon, it’s becoming harder and harder to find reliable information about the game’s origin and ultimate downfall.
The Digi-Battle Card Game was released in the United States in February of 2000, a little over a year after the release of the Pokemon TCG. In the course of its life cycle, six booster sets and five starter sets were released in the United States, along with a smattering of promotional cards. Bandai, the owner of the Digimon intellectual property, partnered with Upper Deck to design and distribute the game in the West. Every card collector is familiar with Upper Deck, their sports and entertainment cards are greatly refined, popular, and command a sizable portion of the hobby market. But trading cards and trading card games are different animals. At the time, Upper Deck had almost no experience with TCGs. It previously handled the mass market distribution of Precedence’s “Gridiron Fantasy Football” TCG, but was otherwise a novice in the realm of collectible card games. Compared to the team behind Pokemon, Wizards of the Coast, the company that invented the trading card game, Upper Deck was facing an uphill battle in the competitive hobby market place.
Perhaps as a way to sidestep this disadvantage, Upper Deck focused almost exclusively on distributing the Digi-Battle Card Game to mass market retailers, companies like Target and Toys R’ Us, and largely ignored the hobby market entirely. Growing up, I never once saw a Digi-Battle Card Game booster pack for sale at my local game store, but they were always readily available at Target. In hindsight, this approach had a number of disadvantages. Unlike Pokemon, which had a robust organized play program to keep players engaged with the “card game” aspect of the hobby (every gaming store and even some mass retailers ran Pokemon Leagues in the late 1990s), the Digi-Battle Card Game had no organized play program worth mentioning. Pokemon League participants could earn exclusive promos by coming to league events and playing the game. Digi-Battle had nothing. Pokemon League participants had a place to go and trade their cards with like-minded collectors and players. Digi-Battle had nothing. Pokemon League participants had a reason to keep playing the game and, correspondingly, a reason to continue to buy product. Digi-Battle did not. There are more examples, but the point here is that by focusing almost exclusively on the mass market at the expense of the hobby market and failing to establish a meaningful organized play program, the Digi-Battle Card Game had to rely on the strength of its underlying brand, Digimon, and not the strength of its game play and community, to continue to be successful.
Unfortunately, the Digi-Battle Card Game’s game play was not up to the task. This was a shame because the inspiration for the Digi-Battle Card Game, Hyper Coliseum (the Japanese Digimon TCG), was extremely successful. New products for Hyper Coliseum are still being released in Japan to this day. It was praised by Japanese gamers for its easy to learn yet deceptively deep mechanics, but the strategic gameplay that helped make Hyper Coliseum a success in the East was neutered for the launch of the Digi-Battle Card Game in the West.
In the Digi-Battle Card Game, players have their Digimon face off in one-on-one battles. Each turn, a player may “digivolve” his or her Digimon to the next level (rookie to champion, champion to ultimate, ultimate to mega) by satisfying the “digi-volution” requirements set forth on the desired evolution card. Players may also play power option cards to boost their Digimon’s attack power or reduce the attack power of their opponents. Players win points by defeating the opponent’s Digimon card, and the first player to reach 1,000 points wins. If that sounds fairly simple to you, it’s because it is really is that simple. Combat essentially boils down to a slightly more complicated game of rock, paper, scissors: red Digimon beat yellow Digimon, green Digimon beat red Digimon, and yellow Digimon beat green Digimon. There are exceptions of course, and the game worked well enough to keep me and my friends entertained throughout the course of its life cycle (it probably helped that we loved the Digimon TV show), but it lacked the strategic depth and variety found in the Pokemon TCG.
Right before the launch of the second booster set, Bandai and Upper Deck parted ways and Bandai took over the distribution of the Digi-Battle Card Game. The change in management was accompanied by a change in card design for the third booster set, but the mass-market focused distribution strategy remained in place.
An example of the original design is on the left, the new design introduced for Booster Series 3 is on the right.
Bandai did experiment with the game’s mechanics, implementing new ways to digi-volve Digimon using new option cards, creating additional evolution levels, and adding new evolution requirements, but these changes did little to repair a game built on already shaky mechanics. Many of these attempts to add variety to the game play were more trouble than they were worth. For example, in the sixth booster set, your Digimon could evolve into the Mega level Apokarimon simply by removing 4 virus type Digimon from your hand. Being able to digi-volve straight from a Rookie level to a Mega level Digimon for such a low cost fundamentally changed the way my friends and I played the game. This problem could have been avoided with adequate play testing but, since there was no organized play program anyway, it probably wasn’t a priority for Bandai.
So why did the Digi-Battle Card Game fail? Upper Deck’s and Bandai’s distribution strategy, corresponding lack of a sophisticated organized play program, and shaky mechanics left the game’s success entirely dependent on the strength of its underlying license. Pokemon, on the other hand, is (note the use of present tense dear reader) a TCG with addictive mechanics and a competitive organized play community that drives interest and returning financial support for the game. The foundations for these assets were laid at the game’s inception, and it’s a good thing too. How many Pokemon TCG players and collectors do you know that also watch the Pokemon Anime? Probably not very many.All of this has been painful to write because I absolutely love the Digi-Battle Card Game just as much as I love the Pokemon TCG, so let’s end on a happy note. While the Digi-Battle Card Game suffers from a player’s perspective, from a collector’s perspective, it is well worth your time and energy. Gold Stamp (ultra-rare) cards from the sixth booster set continue to sell for hundreds of dollars on ebay even today, over 10 years after the game was discontinued. Other cards, sometimes even entire booster sets and starter sets, were only released in certain countries. For example, the French third booster set is completely different from the American third booster set. If you’re a TCG collector, tracking down cards with variances like these is challenging, extremely rewarding, and worth exploring.
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