As I worked my way through Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire last month, my mind kept turning toward one overriding question, "What's next for the series? Is there anything left outside of incremental technological upgrades and remakes?
The remakes—dubbed ORAS by the fans—are in many ways the definitive version of the vision laid out by Pokémon Red/Blue years ago. From the static sprites and wired connectivity of yesteryear, the series has fleshed out its pioneering social gameplay with a host of online features, an attractive 3D engine, and a fully-realized competitive community. Progress has been slow at times, but one need only look at where the series was ten years ago to see how far it has come.
But with that said, it's hard to see what the future holds. Are there technological advances that have not yet been leveraged effectively by the series? Will the much hoped for Pokémon MMO ever come to pass? It's hard to say. With that in mind, it may be in instructive to break down some of the individual questions in order to build a somewhat coherent picture of the series' future.
Where is Pokémon trending right now?
Pokémon is currently in the midst of its sixth generation, its biggest upgrades from Generation 5 being the graphics and the introduction of Mega Evolutions—new monster forms that are meant to vary up the balance and the gameplay. Pokémon X/Y is also notable for putting more emphasis than ever on competitive play by dramatically streamlining training and opening up mechanics that had previously been hidden.
Right now, Pokémon is trending toward featuring competitive battling as much as possible in order to promote the Video Game Championship Series—a tournament that mostly pays out in scholarships. Competitive battling has typically been promoted in each generation's variant of Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum, but as of Generation 5's Black 2/White 2, there are signs that Game Freak is moving away from the old model in favor of sequels and possibly DLC.
Mechanically speaking, Game Freak haven't made any major changes to the underlying mechanics since Diamond and Pearl, when special damage and physical damage was split between individual moves rather than whole types. Mega Evolutions add a new element to the battles, but even they aren't as radical as the addition of traits or personalities since they don't change the underlying combat so much as expand it. With the competitive game continuing to grow in popularity, Game Freak will likely continue to be conservative with their mechanical changes in order to avoid significantly breaking the competitive balance or the continuity from generation to generation—two of the series' biggest strengths.
Will there ever be a console version or an MMO?
No, there will never be a console version or an MMO. And frankly, there doesn't need to be.
The pining among fans for an MMO is a relic of an age when Pokémon still had extremely simple graphics and no online play to speak of. Nintendo's handheld platforms have matured dramatically since. What's more, Pokémon's continuity—monsters can be transferred from generation to generation going back to the GBA games—and connectivity make it a kind of de facto MMO anyway. A whole metagame has sprung up around Pokémon's social features over the years that has served to erase the boundaries between versions and make the world feel like a coherent whole.
At this point, a console version for the series wouldn't add a whole lot to the series, nor would a full-blooded MMORPG (unless you count the inevitable server issues as an addition). Pokémon has owned its particular niche for a long time, and is best served by remaining on handhelds. Now if you want to talk about a new Stadium game...
Will Game Freak ever change up the formula?
It sure doesn't seem like it, does it? I've asked the developers more than once whether they ever plan to move away from the 8 badges/Elite 4 format, and the answer is always that they consider the story an important way to introduce new players to the universe. In effect, the format is an extended tutorial, and Game Freak has no wish to break from a script that has served it well for a long time now.
Which is not to say that I necessarily thinks that's a good idea. I've been banging the drum for a kind of Animal Cross/Pokémon crossover for a long time now in which the protagonist moves into a dilapidated town and revitalizes it by opening up a gym. I'd still like for that to happen, if only as a piece of postgame content. As for whether that will actually happen though, I kind of doubt it.
So what is the one truly meaningful advance the series could make right now?
Honestly? Game Freak really needs to find some way to incorporate streaming and other content sharing. Pokémon is kind of built for that sort of thing; but as of right now, streaming matches from the Nintendo 3DS requires a very expensive piece of third-party hardware that is out of the price range of all but the most hardcore fans. I don't know if a technological workaround is possible on the Nintendo 3DS, but streaming has to be on Game Freak's mind at this point.
Short of that, it would be nice to be able to share screencaps and videos to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube in the vein of what is possible on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. So many times I've wanted to share my latest capture or a big moment on social media, only to be been reduced to taking an offscreen picture with my phone. If Game Freak want to build on the communal excitement that Pokémon is founded upon, they can't ignore social media forever.
What are the dangers facing Pokémon?
The same dangers that have been facing the series for a while now: Repetition, apathy, and way too many Pokémon. With the Pokedex now boasting well over 700 monsters, one has to wonder how many more Game Freak plans to make. One thousand? Two thousand? How many can they introduce before the sheer number of monsters makes it next to impossible to "catch 'em all?" In all honestly, I feel like we're sort of already there.
Looking ahead long-term, Nintendo's handhelds remain healthy for now; but with mobile phones owning the lion's share of casual handheld gaming, it's hard to say how long that will last. Being an independent studio puts Game Freak in a good position to transition to mobile or some other platform if Nintendo were to unexpectedly falter, but the increased uncertainty surrounded dedicated handhelds is nevertheless worrisome for the series' long-term prospects. Regardless, the series will survive, but in what form is hard to say.
So what's next?
There's been a lot of speculation as to whether Game Freak will be putting out a new game next year, even if there's no real evidence of series fatigue setting in as of yet (ORAS sales are already outpacing X/Y in Japan). My first inclination is to say, "Of course there will," but rumors of Battle Frontier DLC for ORAS have given me pause. If Game Freak is indeed prepping some sort of add-on for next year, then we may be in for a longer wait than I first thought. Honestly, it wouldn't bother me too much to wait another year for Pokémon X2/Y2, or whatever form the next game takes. I do expect Generation VI to pick up another game within the next couple years.
Longer term, I expect to see Generation 7 on the Nintendo 3DS, much as Generation 5 closed out the Nintendo DS, my reasoning being that Game Freak and The Pokémon Company will want to continue to sustain and nourish competitive events like the VGCs. After that, the successor to the Nintendo 3DS will have almost certainly arrived—possibly in the form of the much-discussed console-handheld hybrid—and Generation 8 will leverage it with a better graphics engine, improved social features, and a Mega Evolution-like gimmick. Thus the cycle will begin anew.
Still, I wonder how long Pokémon can continue on as a multimedia juggernaut absent some really appreciable evolution. Can Game Freak really keep rolling out the same game year after year oblivious to everything around them? Or is it enough that they have an amazing community, a finely-tuned marketing machine, memorable monsters, and a deep world with a strong degree of continuity?
Common sense says that it all has to come to an end sometime. But if the last 15 years have taught me anything, it's to never underestimate Game Freak's ability to keep people hooked on trying to catch 'em all.