Pokemon Unite badly needs to avoid the gacha trap

To protect the world from microtransactions, to unite all players within our faction

Pokemon Unite – The Pokemon Company and Tencent Games’ upcoming MOBA – has already received a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons.

Pokemon Unite gameplay

Despite a much-hyped trailer launch that a franchise loved by millions will always receive, things haven’t been getting any better for the game.

Pokemon Unite trailer
Pokemon Unite’s official trailer

Keeping aside people’s opinions about the companies behind the game, there’s a lot going on with the game itself that doesn’t quite feel right.

Pokemon Unite is a “free-to-start” game

Pokemon Unite will be a team-based 5v5 MOBA-style game, and according to Pokemon.com:

Pokémon UNITE is planned as a cross-platform game for Nintendo Switch and mobile devices and will be free-to-start.

It doesn’t help that Pokemon Unite will have most of its playerbase on mobile (the rest being on Nintendo Switch), a platform that regularly puts out overly microtransaction-heavy games.

The only thing that’ll make this worse if it turns out to be a gacha game similar to Pokemon Duel, a mobile PvP game that shut down in 2019. Gacha games works around providing players with in-game items such as new characters or abilities via randomized boxes.

Similar to Pokemon Duel, Pokemon Unite will also have timed matches, five players on each team, weaker Pokemon somehow being able to defeat stronger ones, and Pokemon evolving in the middle of the match.

I played Pokemon Duel back when it came out in 2017, and I enjoyed the first seven months of the game because I kept getting lucky. I liked the uniqueness of a Pokemon board game, I liked how good the Pokemon looked, and I liked how I kept getting ridiculously lucky with lootboxes as a free-to-play player.

It was certainly fun while it lasted! I always had the best figures that let me win enough monthly rewards that I would use to redeem lootboxes when the next set of Pokemon released.

At the end of the seventh month, when my luck ran out, I had two options: A) pay for Gems B) uninstall. With a game that relied entirely on randomness – right from what Pokemon used what move, to what box contained what Pokemon – there was no option to keep playing and hope the next set of lootboxes will be more rewarding.

Power creeping figures in a never-ending loop

Pokemon Duel let players have plenty of great figures when gems were abundant in the beginning. Everyone had a Blastoise, Mewtwo, or a Delphox, and everyone who had played for over a week had a similar player rating. Then the game released the Legendary Birds that could easily counter a Blastoise, Mewtwo, or a Delphox. Then came the Deoxys types that could mow over Legendary Birds with ease.

Following those were Sceptile and Blaziken who were better than all of the figures mentioned above. Months later, the Legendary Birds suddenly got buffed. Now you had Mega Evolutions, and for Mega Mewtwo to sell, Mewtwo needed to be stronger than before. He was buffed, and now he could easily battle Zapdos, which had never been the case before. The power creep was just so Onix-pected.

It was all about creating that perfect team, and it depended on people who were willing to pay for it.

Pokemon Unite's layout
Top view of Pokemon Unite’s layout

Why the gacha trap works for PvP games

Imagine if rock-paper-scissors were a mobile game and you could easily obtain all three abilities: rock, paper, and scissors. One month later, you suddenly have a magma rock in the in-game shop that defeats both paper and scissors. Who wouldn’t want to buy that? Except that once you’ve bought that, you would now be wishing you had saved for the crystal hacksaw in the shop that tears through magma rock, paper, and destroys scissors.

A game structured like this lets you have fun for a while, and then it relies on you wanting more – except the game won’t give it readily this time. It wants you to fall in love and stay stuck in a loop of “Oh I’m losing, I can’t quit now” and “Oh I’m winning, I can’t quit now”.

What can Pokemon Unite really do?

If a PvP game like Pokemon Unite has to earn after you have downloaded it for free, it needs to keep you wanting to be the very best, like no one ever was. So holding back your credit card is the real test, hiding it is your cause.

A good solution to monetizing this game would be via a good free-to-play model like Pokemon TCGO, but that’s already out of question with the “free-to-start” descriptor. It could be implemented if Pokemon Unite were less lenient with the in-game currency.

The game would have to find that sweet spot where:

  1. The in-game prices aren’t so high that you can buy a PC game with the same money.
  2. Free-to-play players don’t have to play 12 hours a day to make up for it.

One big issue with monetizing a Pokemon game is how Absol-utely no one really cares about skins (except for Squirtle with sunglasses). We want our Pokemon looking like the Pokemon we grew up with, meaning a cosmetic-only item shop wouldn’t work either.

A solution that could work is a Battle Pass model. An affordable monthly Battle Pass that always costs X amount of gems and returns slightly less than X amount (the rest would have to be earned through something like login bonuses) if you complete it – that would work as well.


The Pokemon Company needs to be careful with how they structure the in-game purchases for this free-to-start game, considering the love-hate relationship players had with the “free-to-download” Pokemon Duel. Every Pokemon game has a large following of people who absolutely love playing it, but another game with the same lootbox model just won’t look good for the franchise.

Who knows, maybe they’ll do it again and two years later, I’ll be writing puns about the next Pokemon game. Let’s just hope the next one is free-to-discuss and free-to-write-about.

If it is, I’ll Raichu another article about my gacha experience with Pokemon Unite.

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Rahul Abhyankar

I'm a 25-year-old writer and digital marketer based in Toronto.
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