Pokémon Masters officially released today, and that has a lot of people excited. The newest Pokémon game puts the focus on the trainers behind the Pokémon, bringing back characters from all over the game's history. You form teams of three trainers, and their trusty Pokémon, for battles that are different from the usual turn-based fare. All in all, it has the makings of a truly unique Pokémon experience. One that gives longtime fans things they've asked for for years. Unfortunately, it's a mobile game. That means a system that's heavy on grind and microtransactions and isn't the least bit shy about it.
Pokémon Masters is available on iOS and Android, and can be downloaded now. Playing is a different story, thanks to server issues. Many players can't get past the connection screen, leading to frustration similar to that of Pokémon GO's launch back in 2016. And like Pokémon GO before it, Masters is free-to-play but with purchasable in-game currency that lets you unlock more stuff.
Watch Out, Pokémon Masters Is A DeNA Game
The key difference is that Pokémon GO's PokéCoins can be earned completely in-game. If you don't want to spend a single dollar on Pokémon GO, you can still battle in gyms to earn the coins needed for necessary supplies. Pokémon Masters, however, draws a clear line between paid currency and earned currency. And if you don't have paid currency, you can't even participate in certain pulls. Naturally, the strongest characters are on these paid-only pulls. So, as many fans are pointing out, Pokémon Masters is looking "pay-to-win" right from the start.
(UPDATE: After corresponding with a representative of Pokémon Masters, I want to apologize for what might not have been my best wording. Readers might have taken the above to imply that the best/rarest characters in Masters are locked behind paywalls. What I meant to say is that all characters can be obtained through regular banners, but the paid-only banner offers a guaranteed rare character. So paying does give you a clear advantage. "No parts of the game are behind a paywall and all sync pairs can be earned without spending money," said the Masters rep. The issue many day one players, and we at TheGamer have, is a launch celebration that is paid-only and guarantees a rare character. You don't have to spend money, but a guaranteed rare launch banner that only takes paid currency certainly sets a precedent of asking you to.)
The practice is very common in Japanese "gacha" games. The system presents a selection of items that are dispersed randomly. Players pay a small amount to play the gacha. The rarer items are the better ones, usually stronger or more popular characters, and so players find themselves dropping a lot of money to get their favorites. Many criticize the system for preying on players by locking the best content behind a paywall or extreme luck. Japanese mobile gamers, however, can't get enough of it. DeNA, the developer of Pokémon Masters, has a history with gacha.
Heavy gacha implementation might be expected from DeNA, but Pokémon is a different story. Nintendo and The Pokémon Company maintain a family-friendly brand image. Preying on fans, a lot of which are children, with gacha goes against that image. Sadly, the tides are shifting there. Nintendo tried to make a mobile game with a flat price in Super Mario Run, but sales fell short because many people found it too expensive. From that point on, Nintendo dipped its toe further into microtransactions to the point where Mario Kart Tour looks to be full of them. The Pokémon Company, meanwhile, is more than happy to leverage fan nostalgia to make that microtransaction money, says DeNA.
Day One "Balance Change"
At this point, some might be saying "Just play the game, no one's making you spend money!" To which they'd be right. Until they see another example of how DeNA is tailoring the game to keep players addicted. Evolving Pokémon, a staple of the series, is present in Pokémon Masters. The process requires items called Evolution Crystals and Shards. Just before release, DeNA put out a "balance change" that greatly multiplied the number of Crystals and Shards needed to evolve.
Players who have played since the beta remark that there's no balance involved in evolution items. It seems like DeNA just wants to slow progression to keep people playing longer. Evolution Shards and Crystals cost hundreds of thousands of coins, so even increasing the requirement by two will force players to put in hours more work. Giving them more time to get invested and spend money.
Pokémon Masters is available for your mobile device now, if curiosity or nostalgia still drive you to give it a chance. Just think twice before you drop real money into your adventure.