20 Years of Serebii.net: An Interview with Creator Joe Merrick
A lot can happen in 20 years. Fads come and go, interests change, and passion projects lose their luster as we move on to something new and exciting.
But that wasn't the case for Joe Merrick, founder and webmaster of the long-running Serebii.net, which celebrated its 20th anniversary a month before Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield released.
We caught up with Merrick and chatted with him about how the Pokemon news scene has changed over time, how he's altered his approach to keep up with information floods, and what still stays the same.
Merrick started Serebii.net back in 1999, a year after Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue debuted outside Japan, and two years before Pokemon Gold and Silver were set to release in the UK. Multiple Pokemon fansites were popping up left and right then, all for basically the same reason: Poke-fever had gripped the world.
Merrick was no exception. When asked why he wanted to start a Pokemon website with a friend, he said:
It's mostly because Pokemon was the "in" thing when I started. It was the thing everyone was talking about and that we were all into, so it really felt like it was the choice.
It isn't as if he had no experience with the series before that point, though. In an earlier interview with the PUCL Podcast, Merrick said he begged his mother to import Pokemon Red after he, like so many others, got a taste of the franchise by playing a friend's copy at school.
It's hard to say what really grabbed me. I think because it was so different to everything that I had played up to that point."
Unlike other PokeFan websites, though, Merrick's stayed hyperfocused on its original goal. Where other sites in the Articuno Islands network of the late '90s gradually drifted into fanfiction or faded away completely, Serebii continued delivering news about the mainline games, then the anime and films, and eventually the various spinoffs that appeared as the series was catapulted to global popularity.
Initially, keeping this up wasn't quite so difficult. "... you never really had to be on it the instant things came [out]" he mentions. But with the series' increased popularity came more demand for news, as much of it as possible. Merrick reflected on that:
It's become more cut-throat... now if you're just half an hour late you'll get responses from people chastising [you] for being late. So this means I have to be more prepared for news to drop at any given moment.
Keeping up with increasing volumes of news and audience expectations isn't the only challenge, though. With increased popularity and access to image editing technology, you naturally get faked images, false leaks, and a range of other bamboozles.
Merrick has developed a knack for separating lies from truth, though.
It's really the little things. Typically people try to go for a Japanese magazine image when making fakes and those are so easy to detect with a trained eye.
Things like sentence structure, language, and even page formatting makes it so obvious. It's definitely something a trained eye can see.
However, it's not as straightforward as false information being passed off as false. Some "leakers" have occasional bits of truth in their content, leading people to believe their information is correct or at least to not pass it off as false.
Others are well-meaning, though work with incorrectly translated material. Merrick suggests it's especially difficult when people want to believe something is true, even when it isn't.
It's really hard because people struggle to accept that their viewset is wrong. Many people take a view and if it's based on something that turns out to be a mistranslation, then people often refuse to accept it and just go on the attack.
I've provided correct translations and been attacked for it, with youtubers [sic] trying to discredit me using Google Translate.
Google Translate is never a good choice for accurate, or even sensible, translations, as we've covered before. Merrick himself enlists the aid of some "English Japanese" translator friends who've helped him out a number of times over the years, though, and says their work is "top-notch."
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge staying on top of news isn't the number of spinoffs or keeping up with every new anime episode and TCG pack release. It's the games-as-a-service approach Pokemon mobile titles have adopted.
Pokemon GO and Pokemon Masters regularly host new updates and events, but at irregular intervals and with no set schedule.
There are some other changes adding to Merrick's workload as well:
With games before 2013 [before Pokemon was released simultaneously worldwide], there was always a delay between when it was released in Japan and when it was released in the West, which allowed me to get everything up in time for when the English speaking audience is ready, but now I have to rush through and get everything up as soon as possible.
Some of Game Freak and The Pokemon Company International's more recent teases haven't made things any easier.
A few months ago, TPCi broadcasted a "livestream" of the Glimwood Tangle, the forested area in Sword and Shield's Galar region. It was a 24-hour event leading up to the reveal of Galarian Ponyta, but until that happened, there was a lot of nothing — and it was its own unique challenge for Merrick.
The Glimwood Tangle stream was definitely the hardest thing I've done. With most games, I end up doing an all nighter and just cover through the night, but this had me have to sit and do nothing but watch a stream where things barely happened
All this, plus working coding jobs, and maintaining the other aspects of the Serebii website is a lot to handle, and we asked how Merrick copes with it all.
"It's definitely a difficult balance," he admits.
There's always the chance some new nugget of information will drop. However, he's managed to create a healthy separation that keeps him from getting overwhelmed, saying "I always try to keep a good balance, see friends as much as I can and so forth."
Still, staying on top of everything and having access to insider information doesn't mean you'll always find leaks on Serebii until its officially confirmed. In light of the Sword and Shield leak fiasco, where a number of content creators and media outlets ran illegally obtained Pokemon information well before the games' launch, we asked Merrick about his philosophy concerning leaked data.
It's really a grey area. I often do share leaks, however there's times when leaks go too far when it's blatant violation of NDAs or even the law, and those I won't touch because, as you may have seen lately, Nintendo will take down any Youtube channel, Twitter account, Discord or even website that posts them. I wouldn't risk my site for a bit of clout and hits.
Merrick was a bit more coy when asked about his sources, though, saying "That's really a hard question to answer, so I'm going to skip it haha."
However, all this insider information does come with a price, as does scouring every new game as quickly as possible to uncover all its secrets.
It has definitely meant that I typically lack the surprise element, going into a game, taking my time and seeing new stuff. As I have to rush through, it's just how I've become with games. I play most games like it now, just marathoning them until I'm done.
When asked if he wants to go back to older titles to experience them again or to see if they still have the same magic that first drew him to the series, though, Merrick said the answer is no. He wants to "look forwards, not backwards. [Older games] may still hold up but there have been so many QoL improvements since it's hard to say."
One area that hasn't improved with time, however, is a certain portion of the fan community. Anyone using social media is probably already aware, but Pokemon Sword and Shield were the most controversial titles released to date, all because Game Freak whittled down the game's Pokedex to over 400, instead of including every single creature.
What sounds like a simple change created a huge wave of backlash that only grew as time went on, though a group of fans creating the #ThankYouGameFreak hashtag expressing support regardless of the change.
Merrick supported the latter movement, taking to Twitter to remind the Pokemon fan community that "Criticism is 100% fine and should be levied every time it's valid. However, harassment is wrong..." Yet this earned Merrick a helping of backlash as well, with a bevy of comments ranging from defending the right to protest "lazy" developers to the more severe death threats.
We asked Merrick what he thought about all this, and he said:
It's really just how things are nowadays with social media. Compared to past times, you'd complain on a forum or a newsgroup, or send an angry letter and often it'd make you question if it's worth it.
However, now anyone can just spread their anger and get the same attention as anyone else for it. It's just how the culture is now, and it sucks.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true about the internet and social media. Merrick's supporters ended up creating their own hashtag, #IStandWithSerebii, and the same comment threads filled with arguments and insults were also filled with hundreds of messages expressing support and appreciation.
Even one negative voice can stand out in a chorus of positive, though. We asked Merrick why he keeps Serebii going, when the workload only increases and the fans get tough to deal with.
He said the reason is "...sheer stubbornness, though I really love doing what I do, I'd never let it go."
That stubbornness has paid off in a big way. One of Serebii's features Merrick is most proud of, Pokéarth, was the first of its kind, letting users look up extensive amounts of data based on location and covering every game. "Now," Merrick says, "it's commonplace everywhere. I'm really proud of it."
Moreover, Merrick's dedication in covering Pokemon Sword and Shield — coverage which only finally started winding down December 3 — meant Serebii.net had more than 2 million visitors every day for the first two weeks after the games' launched, which shattered Merrick's previous records from Sun and Moon.
With Sword and Shield breaking sales records worldwide, bringing ever more people into the Pokemon world, that's hardly a surprise, and it seems certain Joe Merrick and Serebii.net will continue being Pokemon staples for years to come.