Games that could be MMOs: Pokmon

Akela Talamasca
A. Talamasca|04.29.08

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Games that could be MMOs: Pokmon
The Pokémon brand is one of the largest and most successful franchises the gaming world has ever spawned. There are no less than 10 videogames, 1 trading card game, 12 movies, an animated series, 10 soundtrack CDs, a bunch of manga -- but no official MMO.

Why this hasn't already happened is beyond the imagination of this blogger. C'mon, a world in which thousands, if not millions of wanna-be Pokémon trainers are working hard to be number one, constantly pitting their captive critters against each other, and every iteration of the game franchise is only one-on-one? This isn't rocket science; it's not even science fair volcano science. But if we were to imagine a Pokémon MMO, it would look something like this:

There are immediately two intriguing gameplay features for the budding Pokémon Trainer: starting with your chosen creature and leveling it up in various ways; and actually becoming the Pokémon itself to micromanage its battles. Let's say your initial Trainer character choices are limited to gender and basic appearance -- after all, it's your choice of Pokémon that matters, at least at first. You might then choose your starting geographical location, with the drop-in area being the local Training Gym.

Now, please forgive if this examination treads on canon; as interested in this world as we are, we don't claim to be experts in every nuance of existing gameplay. Let's assume the choice of starter Pokémon to be Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. The basics of gameplay are to level up your critter by battling it against wild Pokémon, which can be found outside city areas; and other Trainers, either ad hoc by running into them and issuing/accepting a challenge, or by entering official Tournaments, both of which take place in the city.

Now, there is another interesting feature to the stand-alone games that might translate to an MMO: the concept of the Rival. After your initial choice of starter Pokémon, a computer-controlled Rival chooses one with attributes that play against the weakness of your Pokémon's elemental attributes. The Rival pops up randomly to challenge you with Pokémon that progress in level along with yours. In the standard game, progress cannot continue until the Rival is defeated, but obviously, an MMO shouldn't be hampered with such a restriction. Modifying the behavior of the Rival could make for an interesting gameplay mechanic to help with storyline progression, or to introduce new combat mechanics. But there is a bigger issue here.

At least in the outdoor areas, the standard game has a player wandering around in grass, or snow, or flowers, until she is randomly attacked by a wild Pokémon. Not only does she not get to choose her target, but it's possible to be attacked by the same type of creature many multiples of times in a row. While this isn't too far removed from the area-specific creatures you'll find in most MMOs, not being able to choose one's target would be seen as a liability, especially when trying to level up Pokémon of specific elements. And, of course, when traveling to a specific location, it can be extremely irritating to be constantly attacked without warning.

To combat this, it would be necessary to have visible Pokémon running around. But when you consider that there are literally hundreds of Pokémon, and each one can evolve into a stronger version of itself, if we decide to go the area-specific route, then we're looking at an incredibly vast world indeed, with multiple terrain types. If we eschew the concept of leveling up your player in favor of leveling up your Pokémon, how, then, to limit player access to areas in which Pokémon are of too high a level to stand against? The answer comes from the standard game again: badges.

Badges are simple button-type insignia that are worn by the Trainer. Badges are won by defeating a Gym Leader. In the standard game, progressing beyond a given level is only possible after defeating a particular Gym Leader. So, this would be a simple solution to the problem -- not only of managing higher-level access, but of avoiding the problem of higher-level Pokémon having to fight through battles that are too easy because they're of much lower level than they are. This is a problem that many MMOs still wrestle with: drawing aggro from easily-defeated enemies is bothersome, both time-wise, and in the sense that the experience gain is negligible. This way, players are confined to a finite realm (which can be as physically large as the developers desire), yet their goals are clearly defined, and the realm's Pokémon population can easily be traded for creatures of the appropriate levels.

Badges also allow you to teach your Pokémon specific abilities that come in handy, like the power to smash through an obstacle that prevents access to a particular zone in the landscape. HMs, or Hidden Machines, also provide these sorts of abilities, and can be used with any Pokémon. So it might be desirable to block off higher-level areas of the game world with barriers that can only be overcome by the right ability, which would be gained via the proper badge, which would be won by defeating the proper Leader.

Now comes the fun part: battle animations. As you can see, the translation from 2D to 3D has helped the excitement of watching a battle, but the traditional games still don't match up to the dynamism the anime provides. Frankly, the sort of back-and-forth, not-actually-hitting-anything type of combat animation is common in many MMOs. While it may be forgivable to a certain extent, there's no reason why a Pokémon MMO couldn't raise the ante a bit, even granted that the battles are still turn-based. Some sweeping camera direction, combined with specific and unique attack animations for each Pokémon's signature moves could be something to look forward to.

Another nice thing about the franchise is that single-player content and PvP are virtually the same thing. But what about grouping, or forming a guild? Is it possible to have a mass battle? Let's posit a small group of friends, say, four Trainers, each with their own set of Pokémon. Team battles could consist of a free-for-all, with a pre-set Pokémon cap of three per Trainer. Rather than focusing on one-on-one-battles, two or more players could gang up on one Trainer, one Pokémon, with the experience to be distributed equally between them. Or, a Trainer could skip from one opponent to the next, opting for general damage, rather than specific.

But perhaps an even more important question: would the larger MMO audience respond well to a game with little customization? After all, one player's Gengar looks exactly like another's. We could choose to invest customization in Trainer creation, but then it simply devolves to a Gaia Online-like experience, where cachet comes merely from clothing and props acquired, which dilutes the true experience of the Pokémon gameplay. Or, as in the Diamond and Pearl games, trinkets can be obtained that allow decoration of your play space once the Pokémon is out of its ball.

Additionally, how well would the relatively-static turn-based gameplay fare? Admittedly, combat in games like World of Warcraft is similar: a series of decisions that hopefully culminate in victory. If it seems faster-paced than Pokémon battle, perhaps the satisfaction of seeing a move played out in its entirety, unique animation and all, would compensate for its seeming somewhat overly-mannered. We could also take a page from Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle, where your window to enter a command is limited, and if you miss it, your opponent gets the jump on you.

Finally, is there a chance that a Nintendo-created game would ever come to the PC? It needn't be the case, of course; nothing's stopping a Wii-centered MMO from being created, especially given its online capability. But it would open up a potential new audience for the game giant, and with its proven track record with these games, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility that fans and detractors alike might see a new evolution of the franchise. If that's in the offering, they'd better hurry before the Digimon MMOs steal their Thundershock (see what we did there?). Pokémon Online, I choose you!
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