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Chinese Media Giant Tencent Has a Plan for Pokémon

Hi everyone, this is Zheping in Hong Kong. I spent the last few days trying to destroy them all. That, essentially, is the goal of the new Pokémon game, Pokemon Unite, which launched on Nintendo Co.’s Switch console this week. The game was made by Tencent Holdings Ltd. in partnership with Pokémon Co., and unlike the U.S. hit Pokémon Go, its focus is battling other Pokémon rather than catching them.

Tencent, the sprawling social media and gaming behemoth, has high hopes for Unite. Right now, the climate in the country for tech giants is tense, but Tencent’s ambitions haven’t diminished. The new game showcases its strategy to fuel global growth by teaming up with the owners of prized international intellectual properties.

The social media and gaming powerhouse is already Nintendo Switch’s sole distributor in China, and it works with companies like Activision Blizzard Inc. and Krafton Inc. to publish games for its domestic market and elsewhere. As of this May, Tencent had closed 51 video game related deals, versus 31 in the whole of 2020, according to researchers Niko partners. Of those, 12 are investments made in foreign studios, in places from South Korea to France and Sweden. Through its spending spree, Tencent is likely to secure distribution rights, as well as an inside look into making games for a console-heavy global market.

The company has come a long way from just a few years ago, when Tencent was infamously known for its copycat titles. In 2019, it authored a mobile game called Lets hunt monsters, borrowing the same map-cruising and augmented-reality concept behind Pokémon Go. Only in that game, Pikachu is swapped out for Chinese mythological beasts.

Pokémon Unite is more ambitious. Though after I downloaded it and fought a couple rounds of battles, the game seemed strangely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It pits two teams of five players against each other in a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, similar to Tencent’s own League of Legends.

Like all MOBA games, the Pokémon avatars have unique moves and roles. My Pikachu, for example, is a fast-moving ranged attacker, capable of using thunderbolts to stun enemies. Unlike most MOBA games, Unite doesn’t have an enemy base for you to destroy, but you collect Pokéballs from defeating opponents, and slam dunk these virtual items into some ring-shaped zones to score points.

I have to say I’m not a huge fan of Unite. The gameplay, art quality, and character designs are not bad, but none of them are astonishing to me. I can imagine, though, who will be its core target users: diehard Pokémon enthusiasts and casual MOBA players, particularly those who want something less involved than Valve’s Dota 2 or League of Legends.

Both of those groups may not have played many Tencent games before. The company thinks this might be how they start. —Zheping Huang

Source: Bloomberg