How Could You Make A Pokemon MMO?

As I imagine some of you are already aware, I’ve gotten back into the Pokemon franchise recently. Put it down to peer pressure if you want, but I just found myself really wanting to give the franchise another shot again in light of the upcoming Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon (I’ve even got a pre-order down on Pokemon Moon and will probably be playing the game for a review in early December, though I make no promises on that front) and so I decided to blitz through as much of the three generations before it (not counting remakes, because I pretty much know what those games are like already. At the time of writing, I’ve just got past the eighth gym in Platinum, which was my cut off point for the games (since that’s around the point the main story going through the games tends to end and I can tackle the Elite Four in my own free time) and have put a couple of hours into Pokemon White and I’m already really glad that I have been playing the games again. Put it down to me being stubbornly set in my ways if you wish, but doing this (even if it’s meant that I’ve spent so much of my free time staring at my 3DS screen that I’m surprised that my dreams haven’t started taking place inside a 3DS screen) has genuinely felt like a great return to my roots and made me realise how much I’ve missed out on (heck, I was blown away just going into a Pokemon Centre in Pokemon White and seeing that you could actually see up stairs, that’s how much of the franchise I missed while growing up)! I also checked out the demo for the upcoming games and I definitely am looking forward to the games now!

All of this got me thinking about something HVN mentioned a while back: why hasn’t there been a Pokemon game allowing you to visit every region in the franchise? At the time, I thought it was a cool idea, but that there was no way it could possibly work, but, thinking about it more and more recently, I came to realise that there was a way it could be done and it was such a cool idea that I’m genuinely surprised that it doesn’t seem like Game Freak have considered it.

So consider this article equal parts talking about my idea and a pitch for anyone who works in the game industry who wants to follow up on this idea. It’s not really a talky article, but I seriously think that this is a great idea and I definitely would love to see it become a reality, so…yeah, view it as an opportunity to see inside my head and judge whether I’m onto something here.

The idea that I had (as the title of this article MAY have given away) was of a Pokemon MMO.

…I know that sounds easy to just say on paper, but hear me out, because I think I’ve thought of just about everything that could be asked about such a concept.

First of all, the first question is how to present such a concept. Let’s be realistic for a few seconds, the Pokemon franchise has shaken up its graphics style quite a lot over the last few years, so you’d really have to ask whether to follow the lead of the current generation of the franchise or take a step back into nostalgia and go for an earlier generation. While I don’t have a definite answer on this one, I’ll admit, I do recognise that modelling seven regions in full 3D (with more to be added in future generations of the game) would probably be very taxing on computers, ESPECIALLY if you’re aiming to transpose the entirety of the regions into the game like the idea I’m suggesting is. However, if you go for an older graphics style, then it means that reworking the full game up from scratch as the technology improves to make 3D modelling less intensive on computers would eventually become a requirement to avoid the game feeling too dated as time goes by (not to mention that you’d have to basically redo the post-X and Y generation Pokemon into sprite forms, which is a lot of work if you want to do it right), so it basically boils down the question of whether you want to have something which is taxing on most computers at the minute, but won’t require a major graphical overhaul later down the line, or something which is far more easier on the computers, but will be basically waiting for a major graphical overhaul later as the technology of the games improves. It’s a lot of work to do in any case, but whichever option is picked could make or break the long term life of the game for most people, because the former means a big install base to start off with, but it could lose that as the graphics go through shifts to suit future generations while the latter means a small install base to start off with which isn’t guaranteed to get larger as time goes by, but the shift in graphics as time goes by will not be necessary for a good while and, as technology for PC gaming gets better, more and more people may jump into the game because of how easier to handle it gradually becomes as time goes by.

Since this is likely going to be asked anyway, I’ll stop here to answer the inevitable question crossing everyone’s minds after that first paragraph: why haven’t I suggested the Pokemon MMO as a console game? Well, to be honest, I tend to find that MMOs just don’t tend to work especially well on consoles. Sure, they are easier to tailor make an MMO to suit, but they also have limitations which you can work around with a PC (for starters, I think you’d need a cartridge the size of a wardrobe if you wanted to make a Pokemon MMO for the Nintendo 3DS) and their lifetime these days is only as long as the lifetime of the console they are being run on. Take World of Warcraft and Runescape: the former launched in Europe over a decade ago (in fact, if you want to count the first ever release of the game, which was the American and Australian release, it’s been nearly 12 years since the game launched) and the latter launched what is now coming up to 16 years ago. To put this in perspective, both of them launched during the PS2 era of gaming and yet they’re still going strong now, some two console generations later. Both games, you’ll notice, are PC exclusive. Now, can you name a multiplayer console only game which still has a strong multiplayer presence and is from that time? No, because there isn’t one (though, granted, online gaming on consoles didn’t really become a big thing until the PS3 generation, so you can fairly pin that one down to that factor if you wish). I will be fair and acknowledge that being a PC MMO does NOT mean success and being a console MMO does NOT mean failure, but PC gaming generally tends to be better overall for online gaming when it comes to games with a long shelf life. Hence why I think a Pokemon MMO would be better suited for a PC audience, because it would actually guarantee it a good shelf life if it gets a good install base.

Anyway, another question that needs to be asked is how to approach the starting points for the game: do you pick just one starting location for the whole game or do you allow players to start in whatever region they want? Both have their own challenges to face: if you do the former, how do you scale the levels on the non-starting regions? If you do the latter, how do you scale the levels overall so that players starting in different regions aren’t starting out at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to other regions? This one is hard to answer, but I would say that doing the latter would probably be the best option, since it means that everyone can start wherever they want to (so, if you love one generation over the others, you can actually start in the region that you love rather than potentially having to spend a good amount of time slogging through regions you don’t like to get to the one you really want to get to). The level scaling could easily be handled from there by taking cues from the games themselves and determining appropriate levels from there. Alternatively, perhaps one could have a starting region that is exclusive to the MMO and let the rest of the game open up from there? This option is risky, since it means the potential problem I mentioned earlier might occur, but it might be a good way to balance the rest of the game far easier, as you can scale everything up properly.

Another question is how to handle the story aspects of the games. After all, it would seem rather weird to include the story of generation 2 and White 2 and Black 2 in an MMO about Pokemon, considering they are sequels to the games that came before them, so how would one go about it? Well, I might be about to suggest something controversial here, but maybe the best approach is to have the story parts mainly be restricted to events that impact all of the regions (though with one core region where the main event is happening while the others have it influence them enough that not going to the core region does not result in you feeling like you’re being left out of the event) and have the non-event bits of story be something like this: your region’s professor starts out by giving you a common Pokemon from the region (with the usual starters also being available) and sending you off on an errand to a nearby town, during which time, you and your Pokemon get closer and, once you return, they suggest taking on the gym leader challenge (with all of them having teams that automatically scale their levels to match yours) in the region because they can see your potential for raising Pokemon. Once you get past the eighth gym, the professor asks you to come see them, notices how far you’ve come since the start of your training and gives you a ticket to attend a huge event which opens up a Pokemon World Frontier (thus opening up the multiplayer to players from across Pokemon regions) and the rest of the regions. While you’re tackling the other gyms, you get informed about the Elite Four and it is suggested, upon clearing enough of the other gyms (I’ll say 24 gyms to keep things easy, since that’s just enough to offer some challenge while also leaving room to pick and choose gyms if you really don’t want to fight certain gym leaders), that you go to take them on. This is all just an idea, but I think something like that could work.

I’ve already briefly covered the events, but I’ll go into more detail. Most MMO games tend to have events to them, whether serving to provide something that is appropriate for a festive season (like an item) or simply to provide a huge bit of world building to enhance where the game is going. How would one go about doing this in this game? Well, a story style event could be something like Team Rocket returning from a long period of absence and trying to pull off a plan for world domination which requires players from all regions to work together to stop them (maybe having a region leader who is pushing forward plans in the region?) while a festive event could be something like a fun little thing where you’ve helping deliver presents to people across the region and completing it gets you a special item for your character’s characterisation options and/or a Pokemon with a unique design (like a Santa hat) to celebrate the event. This could also be the way to allow players to catch legendary creatures, but having a way to catch them be in the game after the event (just maybe making it a lot easier during the event to encourage players to go for it while the event is on).

Related to this, how would one go about adding new regions into the game as new games are made? I would say having them be added as free updates would be a sensible approach, but maybe don’t have their launch be when the spawns for them start up (maybe wait a month or so for that) and have a special event around the time they are added into the game which encourages players to visit the new region, take on gym battles and look around it (maybe even have Elite Four members in the region who you can talk to and have battles with). After this time, add in the spawns and update the Elite Four’s team roster to have Pokemon from that region added. Maybe a suggestion is having the villain team of the new region have a big announcement about a plan around the region which reaches the professors and, if you’re high enough level to enter the Pokemon World Frontier, they ask you to look into it if you can, as that gives the feeling that you’re helping to liberate the region from the machinations of the villain team while still allowing you to feel like you’re given space to do your own thing over the course of the event if you don’t particularly want to go to it.

Another question that might be worth considering is whether to bring in elements of the anime into the game. This one is a bit of a weird one on paper, because it asks whether you are bringing in characters like Ash and the like (or even the Orange League arc as a whole), but it’s not really a major thing to most people because, well, the anime tends to be based on the games to start with, so it’s more asking whether to bring in the anime-exclusive stuff into the game. I would personally say that doing so is a nice idea, because you could use that to overlap with the new region events (having the opportunity to travel alongside Ash in the new region might be really cool for fans of the anime), but having them be optional and keeping the anime elements to their appropriate region as stuff like bonus bosses or bonus dungeons would mean that you’re not going to upset the apple cart too much from those not so keen on the anime. The Orange League could be its own unique region that you can visit after defeating the eighth gym of your starting region, but not be a place you can start in so as to make it a fun little addition for fans of the anime while also being skippable if you’re not interested in that.

Another thing I really think would have to be considered is whether to allow an ability for the games to crossover with the handheld games at all, even if just through allowing trading between the console games and the MMO. I’ll admit, on this one, I think the safe answer is “no”, not because I don’t like the idea of doing so, but because the technology behind it just isn’t really there to make that possible just yet. In the far future? Maybe, but I think it is sensible to allow fans of the handheld games to keep the games as a handheld and have the MMO serve more for people who want to have a game which covers absolutely everything (or even have there be a decent amount of time between the introduction of the new region in the MMO, like half a year or so, so as to encourage people to play the handheld game first and give the development team time to iron out bugs in the new region before it is added to the game), with the two only overlapping (and having simultaneous releases as a result) when the technology gets to the point that having both easily overlap isn’t a problem.

Obviously, there are going to be problems with an MMO, like griefing and the like. I think a sensible way to counter griefing in gyms is to have them be places where the only player you can see on screen is yourself while also allowing you to have the option to turn off requests from other players for stuff like trades and battles if you’re wanting to avoid that. You could also keep the usual buttons for stuff like ignoring users and reporting them as well as having a friends list, which would allow you to set whether to accept requests to take part in battles or trades only from friends or not. You’d also have to consider where to allow battles to take place. I’d say having them take place only on routes, while arguably a bit restrictive, makes some degree of sense, because it allows players to avoid being jumped for battles by other trainers while trying to complete villain team hideouts and the like, but it helps to keep the feeling that you could be challenged anywhere very well. You’d also have to work out how to balance blatantly unfair matches, but I’m guessing a restriction which means you can only challenge people with Pokemon that are similar levels to your own would be a good way to cut down on the griefing (not so much on lower levels, where the differences can add up quickly, but that’s why the suggestion of allowing you to automatically refuse requests to battle or trade is there), but putting in an exception for people on your friends list would be a good way to allow friends to do stuff happily together even if your levels don’t necessarily match up well.

The last question is how to travel between regions. Let’s be honest, the games have introduced a lot of ways to travel between regions, ranging from train, boat, flying and even just surfing on Pokemon. So, how do you handle it all? Well, I think that the sad truth is that you couldn’t include surfing on the back of Pokemon between regions as an option, but I think including flying would be really cool and keeping the train and boat options could allow for unique trainer battle environments. Obviously, I think it should only become an option after you unlock the Pokemon World Frontier (even if the solution is just something like “I don’t have a ticket and there’s nobody who can give me one”), but having them be your travel options could be really cool and having them be different for each region would make a really neat way of doing things and you could even have it be possible to travel between individual regions via specific ways (for example, travelling from Kanto to Hoenn could be something you can do via a boat and travelling to Alola could be done via an aeroplane from Unova), all of which include trainer battles while on them and the ability to so between players so that the battles could be held while the game travels to the location during a set period of time (maybe an hour or two) and will automatically move your character to an appropriate nearby location if you log out while in the travel location and the trip finishes while you’re away. This could also add an even larger element of life to the setting, as, rather than just getting a plane at whatever time suits you, you have to get a plane at predetermined times and it always has a limited (though still reasonably large for a usual vehicle’s standards) amount of spaces, necessitating you to keep the times of them in mind if you’re travelling between regions. This might FEEL like an unnecessary hassle on paper (and, I’ll admit, I think it is as well), but hey, it would help for better immersion and help the whole place feel like it is a truly living world which you are a part of, so I’ll throw it out there.

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface on what would need to be done here (I’ve not even looked at the technical side of things, like game engines and whatnot). However, I think I’ve got the important stuff weighed up and it all makes some degree of sense to me. I’m not going to say that this is how things HAVE to be done, because these are just my thoughts and they can easily be taken as the thoughts of someone with far too much free time on his hands, but I could see a game like this doing REALLY well and it is something that I would really love to see happen. I doubt it will, but hey, I think it’s a cool idea and there’s a lot of potential to it, so…who knows?

So what do you guys think? Am I sounding absolutely insane with this idea or have I sold you on the idea of a Pokemon MMO? Or both?