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.
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.
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.