The ownership of portable gaming's biggest franchise isn't as twisted as Giovanni's Wild Ride.
Last week's introduction of Pokémon Go was famously teased by The Pokémon Company as having "new company partnerships", which set off a brief torrent of speculation about what that could mean. Some people took it as a sign that Pokémon would be going all mobile going forward. In reality, it turned out to be an arrangement co-ordinated by the late Satoru Iwata to create an alternate reality Pokémon RPG for mobile, with the blessing of Nintendo.
So how can this happen? How can a franchise so intrinsically tied to Nintendo platforms, on the level of Mario in terms of sales, go mobile like this separate from the Nintendo/DeNA partnership? Essentially, Nintendo's role in the franchise is different than every other series under their control.
Whenever a Pokémon game shows its copyright screen, it's always shown with four names and 1995 - the year of release. In order, the companies are: Pokémon, Nintendo, Creatures, Game Freak. We'll set the first aside and look at the role of the other three.
Nintendo has a couple of roles in the handling of Pokémon. The most obvious thing besides providing the consoles is the publisher outside of Japan (Pokémon Company is the publisher in Japan) and handling distribution of the titles. However, there is one other key role which is in the small print of any Pokémon game and in the legal information on Pokemon.com: "© 2015 Pokémon. © 1995–2015 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./GAME FREAK inc. Pokémon, Pokémon character names, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, Wii, and Wiiware are trademarks of Nintendo."
The key takeaway there is that Nintendo owns the trademarks on the name Pokémon, all of the actual Pokémon past/present/future, all the game names and pretty much every other identifying mark about the franchise. If somehow GameFreak wanted to take Pokémon away from Nintendo, it would necessitate a series-wide reboot since Nintendo owns everything from Abra to Zygarde.
Nintendo studios have also contributed to the franchise in other ways - HAL Labs were the primary developers of the Pokémon Stadium games, and Nintendo provides the network infrastructure and localization support for all games through Treehouse. As a result, Nintendo gets the publisher's share of the cost of a title, with Pokémon Company receiving a portion of.
In relation to the other companies, Nintendo owns a 32% share in The Pokémon Company, and a small (not financially significant for Nintendo) stake in Creatures Inc.
Creatures was founded originally as a successor company to Ape Inc, the development company most notably responsible for Earthbound. Creatures staff aided in the development of the main series Pokémon games, and the studio itself has developed titles such as the PokePark series for the Wii, the Pokémon Ranger DS series and the Pokédex 3D app for 3DS.
Creatures's main role in Pokémon now, aside from the development support help, is to handle the design of merchandise. This includes the Pokémon Trading Card Game cards and other toys and merch (including the Intern Pikachu).
Game Freak Inc
Game Freak is an independent developer who developed titles such as the NES title Mendel Palace and Sega Channel game Pulseman (available on Wii Virtual Console) before developing the original Pokémon game. GameFreak are the chief video game designers - the original title screen of Pokémon Red/Blue has only their trademark - but allow small teams to develop side projects to this day. Examples of this are Drill Dozer (2006), HarmoKnight (2013), Solatiba (2014) and Tembo the Badass Elephant (2015).
Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori, two of the most prominent names in the creation of Pokémon, originally founded Game Freak as a gaming magazine in the late 1980s before reorganizing into a video game company.
As Pokémon was about to launch outside of Japan, it had already conquered its homeland. It was decided to set up the first Pokémon Center stores in Japan in 1998 to support the fanbase there. A holding company was set up to run the operations of the store, which would grow into being the official brand managers of Pokémon after a rename to The Pokémon Company. The company's shares are 32% owned by Nintendo, with similar proportions to Creatures and GameFreak.
Pokémon Company handles oversight and quality control for the games both mainline and spinoffs, the cards, anime and other projects as well as handling events such as the World Pokémon Championships. The key for Pokémon Company is that they have freedom to bring Pokémon experiences to other platforms, even if the main games are Nintendo handheld exclusives. Pokémon applications have been on mobile platforms since 2011 and there are Pokémon games in arcades since the release of Pokémon Tretta since 2012, with development of these games and apps handled by trusted 3rd parties.
The Pokémon Company website also cites "cross promotions" on their business page as one of their duties, but do extend a significant amount of control over how the Pokémon can be represented. The most striking example is how the Pokémon Amiibo are handled - although they are fully supported in the Super Smash Bros games and give item drops in Hyrule Warriors, they don't make sounds in Super Mario Maker and flat out don't work with Yoshi's Woolly World.
In addition to the main branch in Japan, there is also Pokémon Company International. The US branch was founded in 2000 with the assistance of new Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima, and the UK branch was founded in the same year. In 2006, the US and UK branches merged into the new Pokémon Company International, who handles similar duties in the Western markets. The biggest recent addition from TPCI is the addition of the online Pokémon Center store, which provides a one-stop shop for merchandise following the transition of New York's Pokémon Center store into the Nintendo World Store.
The roles are very clear in the ownership of Pokémon – Nintendo does distribution and publishing, Creatures takes the cards, GameFreak the games and Pokémon Company everything else. The arrangement works for the companies and the fans, so it's going to be a relationship that stays together for years to come.