What can change about the Pokemon RPGs? This question has been answered by many gamers since 1998 when Pokemon Red/Blue was released. Many have dreamed about a Pokemon MMO. Just type the words "Pokemon MMO" into google or youtube and you'll find much supporting evidence. I've given the idea a lot of thought and have concluded that a Pokemon MMO in the style of World of Warcraft is a bad idea. People have gotten upset by my stance espeically when I follow it up with the argument that Pokemon is already an MMO. It's massive. It's multiplayer. And it has plenty of online features. The following are my arguments in greater detail.
Pokemon is so immensely popular because it is very simple to play. With battle as the most interesting part of the game, the single player content is designed to provide the player with a world to contextualize Pokemon that's always there when the player is ready. Like with many games the world is much smaller compared to our own. This design also makes it functional. Video games feature all kinds of abstractions like this. Furthermore, Pokemon battles are an abstraction. When a wild Pokemon appears in the grass, you're warped to a boundless battle arena somewhere somewhat removed from the grassy field.
People who wish for a Pokemon MMO don't understand how the world of Pokemon is designed around battling and guiding the player through an adventure. The Pokemon adventure is a private, personal, and portable narrative populated by hundreds of NPCs. The problem is, an MMO format inherently conflicts with the established design formula. While many welcome any change to the Pokemon formula, we have to understand what we would gain and lose in the transition. Let's take it feature by feature.
A full 3D World. Sounds like a great change. But cost aside, 3D worlds are inherently harder to program, design, code, polish (due to collision and camera control), and navigate. I admit the visual scope and scale of the Pokemon world isn't communicated well in the current Pokemon RPGs. But it seems that this singular design change would make the game harder to play without adding any new function to battling or the world necessarily.
A Huge World. The way Pokemon is currently design, there isn't a lot to do in the world. It's pretty compact and focused. So making the world bigger will probably dilute the content. The idea is a Pokemon MMO would need more space for all the millions of players. If the designers tried to fill the extra space with more content it probably won't be with more battles (the core of Pokemon). I imagine that when people think of a full 3D Pokemon world, they imagine more things to do in this world besides battling. Maybe players will collect items or track Pokemon. But these features are already in the Pokemon games. Perhaps traveling would be more interesting. Yet this idea seems moot considering that many games with large worlds since Zelda for the NES have provided players with ways to quick travel. Functions like warp whistles, teleports, or flying are there to reduce back tracking and cluttered, static space gameplay. Clearly how big the world is, what you do in it, and how you get around are important considerations.
Walk Up And Battle Anyone. Seems like another great idea. Unfortunately, this idea is impractical for many reasons. Most players would have Pokemon at different levels in their party. Even with auto leveling, full 6v6 Pokemon battles can last anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. If you expect most players to devote this much time at the drop of a hat to battle a stranger, you'll be disappointed in the results. The Pokemon single player campaign is designed so that players can progress through increasingly difficult challenges while adjusting the difficulty to their liking. Remember how key variable difficulty is to reaching one's flow zone? Ultimately, letting anyone battle anyone in a Pokemon MMO even upon request will interfere with the way the vast majority play and enjoy Pokemon. My prediction is, this feature will go unused.
Many gamers think they're great battlers after beating the Elite Four. The truth of the matter is, they're not. Competitive battling is on a higher level of difficulty. As I explained in my article series Competitive Multiplayer: Collective Missunderstanding, the biggest difference between the type of challenges with single player and competitive multiplayer games is that single player game challenges can be tightly tuned, and consistent. In a competitive match, your opponent can force you to use play in a certain way or lose. These techniques are called interplay barriers, which I explained in part 2 of my Appraising the Art of Combat article series. Most people get much more upset when they feel that another human player is playing "unfairly." When most players realize they don't stand a chance in competitive Pokemon battling, they'll stop battling strangers and stick to the single player content within the MMO.
Everyone Can Have Their Own Gym. Gyms are narrative and skill mile markers within the Pokemon RPGs. They get progressively harder and give the player abilities after he/she defeats the gym leader. The gyms are also filled with very weak NPCs that ease the player into the gym's battle style. In other words, gyms function more as schools than battle tournaments. This is the function of a gym. This is also why I can't see a feature like everyone-gets-a-gym working. Even if you manage to find a place in the virtual world for the gym building, a way to make players establish and commit to a theme, and some NPCs to put inside so that the player must navigate through it, you'll have done a lot of work designing what is essentially the wifi battle feature currently in Pokemon. And if challengers win what are they going to get in return? Generic gym points? A custom badge? A TM they'll probably already have? Any user generated reward would be funtionally inferior to the tight functional, narrative significance of the current Pokemon RPG gym design. Or maybe the better question to ask is are you willing to wait around inside your gym all day for people to bother to work through the NPCs and challenge you?
I don't think Nintendo has shied away from internet functionality in Pokemon B/W. I seems much more plausible that Nintendo understands how most gamers actually play and enjoy Pokemon. Because most of the players get the most use out of the single player content, Nintendo has maintain a strong focus on the core world and narrative where the player is the hero. For this reason, it worked best to design the primary way for players to interact with other players as asynchronous or automatic. This way, players can practically have an unbroken single player type experience, yet interact with countless of other players in the world. Everything from the surveys, the Global Trade Station, sharing videos, uploading/downloading Subway challenges, to the Pokemon Dream world are designed this way.
Pokemon B/W is already an MMO in function and cohesive design. You don't need a subscription to play. There are no bugs (that I know of). And server instability doesn't interrupt the majority of the game's functionality. If you're ready to battle the world, the features are there for you. Just hop into wifi and see how you stack up. All this talk of a Pokemon MMO is probably more accurately understood as the desire for a style, tonal, and cosmetic change.
With that said, a Pokemon MMO can certainly be the greatest Pokemon game ever. The point is, it won't be like WOW or any other game out there (except maybe Pokemon B/W). The fiction or function of Pokemon doesn't lend itself to raids on huge monsters where 20+ trainers are all battling simultaneously to take it down. Though players save the region from various gangs (e.g. Team Plasma) with the help of legendary Pokemon, the scope of the RPG adventures isn't long or epic enough for years of MMO like gameplay. The world of Pokemon has always been larger than the worlds in the games. As a transmedia franchise, all the Pokemon products feed into the fiction.
Since Nintendo only makes games for Nintendo products, the official Pokemon MMO would probably be a console-handheld hybrid with connectivity at the core of its design. In the same way that Wii Sports Resort is one location with many different gameplay parts, the Pokemon MMO would probably connect games like Pokemon Ranger, Snap, the RPGs, even Mystery Dungeon, Trozei, Pinball, Puzzle League, and the trading card game so that the content can pass between each. In other words, it would more of a large hub world for various games. After all, Nintendo is the kind of company that makes products, not gaming services. They like creating games with a clear design goal and then moving on.
In part 7 we'll look at less drastic changes that can be made to improve Pokemon within the existing style and forumla.