In a recent interview with Gamasutra, Pokémon director Junichi Masuda effectively dispelled any hope of the series fully embracing Internet connectivity and becoming an MMO. When questioned on the topic, Masuda was quick to point out the convenience of online play, as it gives gamers all over the world a chance to interact with one another despite their distance, but he displayed some hesitance about its impersonality:
“I really like online connectivity, but for example, we’re having this phone call right now, and it’s really cool that we can communicate with each other from two really faraway places. But at the same time, it would also be really great if we could talk in person.
“That’s another thing we could do; it’s much more enjoyable when you’re talking in person. So I think the best way is to have kind of both at the same time, being able to enjoy this kind of faraway communication, as well as having aspects that allow you to enjoy communication face-to-face and in-person communication.”
While this may come as a disappointment to some gamers, particularly those hoping the series would evolve beyond its traditional formula, it shouldn’t be entirely surprising; even with Masuda’s reservations, you also have to consider the fact that a large portion of the Pokémon fan base are children. Forcing them to pay a monthly fee in order to play the game, on top of the cost of the game itself, would not sit well with most parents, who are likely unaware of how MMOs operate.
Of course, Nintendo could always skirt the latter issue by adopting a free-to-play model (which most MMOs not named World of Warcraft have resorted to in order to maintain their viability), but even this would not be an adequate solution to the problem; we’ve seen far too many instances of children purchasing game-related content without their parents’ consent, which inevitably results in said parents placing the blame on the hardware manufacturers. Sure, there’s an argument to be made about keeping better track of your child’s gaming habits, but in any case, I’m sure Nintendo would want to avoid this kind of negative publicity.
Still, while we can rule out the possibility of a Pokémon MMO in the near future, that doesn’t mean the series won’t be placing a stronger emphasis on its online components. Since making the jump to DS, we’ve seen it gradually embrace the world of online gaming, adding features like the Global Trade Station, which allows you to trade Pokémon with other players around the world, on top of the expected Wi-Fi battles. Likewise, the games have begun to incorporate more multiplayer elements into their design; in Black and White 2, for instance, players can team up with one another (albeit locally) to take on specific Entralink missions, and Diamond and Pearl allowed you to convene with your friends in the Sinnoh Underground, where you could set up a secret base and play capture the flag. It’s reasonable to assume these trends will only continue in future installments of the series.
So, if Pokémon will never go full-on MMO, what kind of online features can we expect from the next games in the series? If I had to wager a guess, I’d say they will adopt a more Animal Crossing-like approach to their multiplayer. After all, the series has already begun flirting with the idea by introducing the Entralink, which allows players to join a friend’s game and take part in co-operative missions. This feature could be expanded to include Wi-Fi play as well, giving all gamers a chance to experience this content– especially those who may not have someone nearby to team up with.
There’s also the Pokémon Global Link, a website that Nintendo launched to complement the original Black and White versions. I’ve likened it to Neopets in the past, and while it may not be a direct parallel to the pet-raising game, there is some merit to this comparison; both allow you to purchase items to furnish your own virtual homes (which can then be visited by other players), and both feature unique areas to explore and mini-games to play (which reward you with rare items and special Pokémon). This, too, could be expanded into a more social service, giving users greater options to personalize their homes and communicate with other players. (If you’ve been following the website since it first launched, you’ll remember that you can only stumble upon Dream Pals– players whose houses you could visit while in the Dream World– randomly. It seems the recent update to the website, which coincides with the release of Black and White 2, makes it so that everyone registered in your Pal Pad is automatically added as your Dream Pal, which is already a step in this direction.)
It’s safe to say that StreetPass will also play a much more prominent role in the series. I know this may not exactly constitute an online feature, but it nevertheless helps make the experience a more social one, which is effectively the purpose of online gaming. Both Black and White and their sequels include their own form of StreetPass in the C-Gear, a device that allows you to exchange information with other players you come across in the real world. It would be neat to see a future version of this automatically exchange items, like Mystery Gifts, as well with the players you encounter. It could even keep a record of their party and allow you to battle an AI facsimile them, much like you could at the Trainer House in Pokémon Gold and Silver.
Even outside of the examples I’ve listed, there are plenty of other ways the series could incorporate Internet connectivity into future titles, but we shouldn’t expect any radical departures from the next games; Pokémon evolves at a notoriously slow pace– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the foundation is as solid as it is here– and any new elements they introduce will likely be expansions of existing concepts. That said, Game Freak has been laying the ground work for some exciting things, adding new multiplayer features with each subsequent release, and I’m sure that’ll only continue with the next games. The series may never go MMO, that doesn’t mean it won’t give us more ways to play with our friends.