Did Pokémon GO Just Reinvent The MMO?

The Pokémon Company's new mobile hit has fulfilled an ages-old fan request... but not in the way anyone expected.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

For as long as Pokémon games have existed, so too has hovered the eternal question: "When are they going to make a real Pokémon game?" ("Real" of course meaning "not for a handheld," because handhelds remain the eternal Rodney Dangerfields of video gaming.)

In the early days, fans usually pointed to traditional console role-playing games as their Pokémon dream. After all, the series made its name in the U.S. in the wake of Final Fantasy VII's success, and the notion of a Pokémon adaptation boasting that game's level of visual detail and cinematic excess seemed downright intoxicating to a newly formed generation of RPG nuts. Eventually we did see Pokémon spun into console-based JRPG form, with the likes of Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, and the results proved to be tremendously mediocre.

"Not very effective" describes Pokémon XD in a nutshell.

Disappointed but undeterred, fans instead set their sights to the idea of a Pokémon-based massively multiplayer online game: Think World of Warcraft with pokéballs. Yet Nintendo, Game Freak, and the Pokémon Company appeared unmoved by these demands. The closest the series has ever come to anything even vaguely resembling an MMO has been with the online battling and trading present in the core games since the Diamond and Pearl versions, or with the calls for help from other players in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spinoffs. But like a full console RPG adaptation, a true and proper PC-based MMO has never been in the cards and never will be.

From the beginning, portability has been intrinsic to the very idea of Pokémon; back in 1996, when the franchise debuted in Japan, handhelds were the only mainstream game systems that could easily connect to one another. PC gamers were still fumbling around with tools like DWANGO and GameSpy for their FPS deathmatches, relegating connectivity to the hardcore, and Dreamcast with its built-in modem was still a couple of years away. Pokémon itself began life as an exercise in making use of the Game Boy Link Cable, a virtual bug-trading simulation inspired by Satoshi Tajiri's vision of two rivals literally, physically shuffling insects between handhelds to do battle.

Over time, Game Boy's once-unique connectivity feature has expanded beyond portable games and into PCs and console games, making a fundamental requirement of the Pokémon concept technically possible on desktop and TV-based systems. Technically — but not spiritually. While Pokémon initially appeared on Game Boy due to its built-in link feature, another unique facet of handheld systems sits at the heart of the series as well: Socialization.

Of course, console- and computer-based MMOs hinge on socialization, too, but in a different way. They're anonymous in nature, with conversations consisting of streams of fragmented jargon delivered by cryptic handles or muffled, indistinct voice chat substituting for interaction. That faceless, remote form of communication has never appealed to Nintendo, and the company has only grudgingly added voice chat to a handful of their games with the sulky resentment of an 8-year-old being made to finish their broccoli and their brussels sprouts before they can watch more TV. Nintendo — which doesn't wholly own Pokémon but nevertheless has some say in its overall direction — prefers cooperative play in-person, face-to-face, and Pokémon has embodied that idea for 20 years. Players take their Game Boy (or GBA, or DS, or 3DS) along with them, trading or battling with fellow-fans in person.

With Pokémon GO, however, it's become clear that the idea of an MMO isn't entirely anathema to the series' spirit. They just had to reinvent what "MMO" means.

Over the past few days, social media, gaming forums, and sites like Reddit have overflowed with people (the ones who can log in, anyway) enthusing about Pokémon GO. The initial flurry of posts consisted of largely identical screenshots as a million players experienced the same server delays and the same thrill at the novelty of seeing an altered reality view of Pokémon superimposed atop the real world. Within 24 hours, however, play patterns began to emerge and take form, and it slowly became clear that Pokémon GO represents a new take on the MMO.

The idea of networked, mobile, AR-based, multiplayer games didn't begin with Pokémon GO, of course. It's been around for years; GO basically amounts to a new skin for developer Niantic's own Ingress app. But never before has this concept seen such widespread success or popularity; and of course, a networked multiplayer concept lives or dies by its numbers. Along with the usual tales of thoughtless self-endangerment that go hand-in-hand with new frontiers of technology (moral: don't play and drive at the same time, geniuses), however, have come fascinating tales of people essentially living out the Pokémon adventure in real life — and not just on their own, but in groups.

Because Pokémon GO dispenses collectible creatures based on shared GPS data, it directs players to the same locations in search of desirable monsters. It also places gyms — which you can conquer and become the "leader" of until you're knocked off the boards, like FourSquare with monster-battling — in set locations as well. This in turn has led strangers united by the pursuit of a common goal to strike up conversations, share tips, and join teams. Pokémon GO players are, in effect, following the same procedures that players of standard MMOs do. The difference being that, aside from some limited team hooks, none of these social functions exist within the game; rather, they've come about as a side effect of the portable, positional nature of Pokémon GO. It is, essentially, an emergent MMO.

So cute! Except for the fact that this image accompanies those ugly "server problem" error messages.

I doubt Pokémon GO will be nearly as long-lasting as a proper MMO. The underlying gameplay seems far too slight to support sustained play; Pokémon's creators, after all, want to ensure the upcoming Sun and Moon versions for 3DS remain their flagship product. GO gives players a chance to be Pokémon trailers in a real-world setting, but doesn't delve further into its concept than that.

But maybe that's OK. Pokémon GO's greatest accomplishment, really, lies in its mere existence. The fact that it cleverly marries altered reality and MMO gaming in a form that has elicited such interest (even temporarily) means it's likely to pave the way for even better, more fully realized, more successful works. Just as the original Pokémon didn't invent the concept of monster-collecting RPGs, Pokémon GO takes a lot of existing ideas and works them into an appealing, smartly designed package whose instant success on the iTunes charts will beget countless imitators... some of which will eventually yield new improvements and innovations. Even if Nintendo didn't directly create Pokémon GO, the game embodies the company's priorities in the best way possible.

And, finally, we have a sense of what a Nintendo MMO would actually look like. Given the rumors that the NX console will have a portable component and mobile hooks, Pokémon GO feels almost like a dry run for the next generation of core Pokémon games. The depth of a proper Pokémon game combined with the social, real-world appeal of Pokémon GO? Now there's an idea worth looking forward to.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 16

  • Avatar for tsamba #1 tsamba 2 years ago
    Deleted July 2016 by tsamba
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for manny_c44 #2 manny_c44 2 years ago
    Not sure if it's entirely on-topic but:

    "Teen finds dead body while looking for Pokemon"... July 2016 by manny_c44
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for camchow #3 camchow 2 years ago
    Is this game any fun for people in suburbia or rural areas? A few years back I moved out Floridian suburban city and into a city in New England, I really could not imagine how boring it would have been back in my old town where it took like 15 minutes to walk to even the nearest convenience store. Meanwhile the city I live in now has pokestops and gyms everywhere (also sidewalks, which helps too). Wish I could find an online map just to see what my old town would have to offer.

    Kind of makes me think back to the old street pass games on the 3DS, I actually really enjoyed the shoot em up one and ghost house RPG but I would never have really been able to enjoy them enough back in FL to justify purchasing them.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for NeoRasa #4 NeoRasa 2 years ago
    I think it's really impressive that Nintendo has yet again redefined how video games can work and how they effect us with old technology and ideas used in an ingenious way. Like this isn't a $400 add on or new system it's just a simple app that now has everyone even remotely into games talking about Nintendo again. It's also a great evolution of the "you have to interact with people and be outside to get the most out of the game" that has made Pokémon so popular in the first place.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #5 UnskippableCutscene 2 years ago
    Hate to be a downer, but I've dove in and out of Niantic's Ingress repeatedly, so the whole concept of going out of your way to physical places to score points in a mobile game wasn't a new thing for me. I tried the game and saw a prettier version of the same maps with all the same landmarks. Except this time it was married to a cash shop, and that was the point I quit playing.

    I maybe will go back in the future, the only thing I dislike about Ingress is that it follows MMOs in the whole idea that a whole new game opens up at it's level cap, but the grind to reach the top level is far too intimidating for most people who don't want to religiously obsess over it or live a very mobile lifestyle.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Namevah #6 Namevah 2 years ago
    Unfortunately, the lack of a real battle system limits my interest. Going on a walk (something I already do regularly) and finding a Pokemon imposed over the world around me is a neat novelty, but just as Jeremy's article says, there's not enough here to justify keeping my phone out and on, draining my phone's battery and finite data, for long.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for teridanie32 #7 teridanie32 2 years ago
    Deleted July 2016 by teridanie32
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for vellytaylor44 #8 vellytaylor44 2 years ago
    Deleted October 4000 by Unknown
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #9 ShadowTheSecond 2 years ago

    A good friend of mine really enjoys the game in rural Minnesota. He leaves it in power saver mode as he does some light hiking or outdoor work.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I'm enjoying it in a metro area--I saw at least 50 people with the app running on their phones as I went shopping in a large mall today.

    The game certainly has its limits, but the light socialization aspects and just the sheer joy of finding Pokemon showing up anywhere from the ocean, to city streets, to a hiking trail is enough to make Pokemon Go pretty memorable so far. For me, these aspects are worth a lot more than the complex meta-game aspects of the main series--my fondest memories of Pokemon are in trading via link cable and filling out the original Pokedex of 151 (then importing Silver from Japan while a friend got Gold to fill out the next 100).
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Is this one just OG 151? I'm guessing so.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for pdubb #11 pdubb 2 years ago
    I am jealous that my kid isnt old enough to go Pokémon hunting with. Apparently my buddy and his daughter are having a blast hunting Pokémon, and I gotta admit I'm jealous.

    Good game Nintendo. Good game.Edited July 2016 by pdubb
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Ralek #12 Ralek 2 years ago
    "muffled, indistinct voice chat"

    Well, luckily, we came a long way from there - at least if people don't use utterly shi**y headsets/mics.

    Anyways, this approach to a "MMO" has also a significant downside: Most of us - who don't or can't travel regularly - are bound to be limited to meet people, we could as weel have met in a thousand different ways - at school, at work, in line at the grocery store, at sports club, walking in the park or whatever really. But yeah, at least this way, we might have an "icebreaker" available now, to even start a conversation...

    Still, I remember playing e.g. L2 back when there were only US servers (besides the Asian ones), and so you met people from all over the "western" world there: Germans, Brits, Norwegians, Americans obviously, Canadians, Venezuelans, French ... really you name it.

    While I appreciate the potential for face-to-face socialization, I think, at least outside of major urban areas, it will be a very narrow experience, as far as meeting folks from all walks of life, a they say, and from all over that town called Earth.Edited 2 times. Last edited July 2016 by Ralek
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for camchow #13 camchow 2 years ago
    @ShadowTheSecond yeah, i guess you're right. I'm honestly enjoying the collecting of pokemon casually a lot more than worrying about the gyms and pokecenters. Pokecenters are nice to keep the pokeball inventory high but I guess other than that you really wouldn't be missing out on too much. Gyms have been kind of glitchy for me lately anyway.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #14 ShadowTheSecond 2 years ago

    The game still has plenty of issues deciding that you're overlapping with a gym or pokecenter, hopefully that gets fixed soon.

    The gyms can be fairly entertaining, though most of them are pretty heavy on bug or flying types it seems, with some Eevee evolutions--it's not terribly exciting to see a gym that alternates Pinsir and Pidgeot for seven matches.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for TheeAP #15 TheeAP 2 years ago
    I haven't delved too deeply into gyms thus far, but I have enjoyed using the app during my 2-3 mile runs. It's made me work on sprinting intervals ... I try to run fast to make up time I've wasted stopping to catch Pokemon.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for swamped #16 swamped 2 years ago
    @camchow In my experience thus far, no. I'm in the suburbs right outside a major urban area and there's 2 Pokestops and a gym in walking distance. I've barely caught any Pokemon so far and have yet to hit level 5 so my friends are leaving me in the dust.

    I'm just not sure when anyone is supposed to play this? I tend to play mobile games when I'm bored or waiting, but this game requires some physical movement. I can see playing on vacation but the battery drain makes that prohibitive. Plus, do I really want to have my head in a mobile game and miss what's going on around me? Seems like most people I know are driving out places specifically to play the game and I can't imagine that's going to be a sustainable gameplay style for very long.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for camchow #17 camchow 2 years ago
    @swamped Yeah it just really depends on your goals and lifestyle I guess. I've definitely seen a lot of people walking around playing the game where I live but people already walk around here anyway because of our density. Just wouldn't have worked back in my old suburban town. I've also just gotten to the point where I started ignoring the gyms, they've been really buggy for me and even when they work most seem to have been captured by people with a lot more free time than I have cause holy hell do they have some crazy high level pokemon.

    I took the bus to run some errands on Saturday and that was a pretty great time to run the app, lot of pokestop sniping and much higher encounter rate while traveling at 20-25 mph rather than walking.

    So yeah I guess at this point my wife and I basically treat this as an app to run while walking or running errands and every once in awhile we'll spot a wild Pokemon to try and catch. It's kind of fun in that obvious Pokemon collecting kind of way.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for swamped #18 swamped 2 years ago
    @camchow That's so interesting that you're having good luck being a passenger while driving because I've had the opposite experience! Hardly picked up anything riding through a downtown area. I like hearing how other people are experiencing the game because it gives me some hope that maybe I'm just experiencing some bugs that need to be fixed i.e. the app not preventing my phone from locking and having to keep it manually active. Guess I'll try again after the next update.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for docexe #19 docexe 2 years ago
    Yeah, I doubt that in its current shape it will have much staying power, but Niantic is apparently planning to add more features in future updates, so that might help with its longevity. In any case, I’m honestly surprised by how much furor its launch got. I imagined it would be big but not this big.
    Sign in to Reply