Pokemon GO Generation 2 is out now, and it feels a lot like an MMO expansion in a lot of ways: We have new features, we have new grinding mechanics, and (of course) the combat system’s been overhauled (twice, with the original change making dodging useless, the second possibly fixing the situation).
On the one hand, I’m excited as a Pokemon fan, especially since it’s a free update. On the other hand, I’m starting to think that Raph Koster’s famous comments on AR games being MMOs might be a bit off, at least in terms of POGO.
Virtual worlds vs. MMOs vs. other genres
See, when Koster said AR games are MMOs, people challenged him, and he responded with a follow-up. Koster says that the issue is that people assume meatspace trumps virtual space when, essentially, it’s the opposite. Think of the ways Facebook and Amazon, virtual spaces, have access to your contacts, phone number, home address, and that a misstep or theft of either can have massive real world repercussions. As he puts it,
“What we are building [with Pokemon GO or other virtual spaces using real world information], in fits and starts, is a large scale spatial simulation that allows clients to connect to it, which has object types for every object in the world, will eventually track as many instances of objects (physical ones like buildings, keys, cars, shipping containers; and virtual ones like businesses, Pokemon gyms, and housing lots) as is feasible, maintains a persistent data store of all of those objects, and which includes an object type for “players” who are real people.
That is pretty much a textbook definition of what a virtual world is. And it is critical to understand that the client has never been the important part. Pretty much every virtual world ever made has supported multiple views of this simulated world: text, 2d, 3d, etc.”
Let me sum up those definitions of a virtual world so that we understand where POGO doesn’t match up:
- Avatar-based (text, 2-D, 3-D, etc.)
- Environment is persistent and interactive
- The environment then leads to player-to-player interaction
A key point to notice is that, originally, these games and their interactions were carried out only via text. We can do so much more that games are more graphically intensive and can use other control input methods, such as motion control or GPS tracking. And we expect a persistent environment that not only allows players to move through it but can be changed by player action in meaningful ways that is also persistent (i.e., an exploding barrel that respawns doesn’t count, but converting a red NPC to blue one does).
An MMO is a virtual world, but not all virtual worlds are MMOs. When we talk about the difference between virtual worlds like, say, Second Life vs. “true” MMOs, it seems to me there are two key differences between the two: An MMO must have AI to interact with, and there must be some sort of reward system.
To differentiate between lobby shooters and an MMO, we generally assert that the game can’t require or display a population size to start or cap out at. In addition, servers must be controlled by the company or publisher, not private players (unless it’s an emulator of a game that formerly did this) in order to assure fairness.
To cut out games like Farmville, which are “social” but in ways that don’t feel “massive” during your portion of gameplay, we’ll say an MMO must have direct, real-time player interaction in a virtual world using with the previous definition (mail systems doesn’t count, and turn-based systems must be player controlled actions limited by seconds/minutes, not hours or days).
POGO certainly has these features. It has some AI, it has rewards, and I suppose gyms are fairly persistent and something we interact with. There’s just one thing all of the above examples have that Niantic’s monster fighter lacks: an in-game communication system. While software may be good at swallowing meatspace, at this point it seems that doesn’t apply to communication systems, especially for a game with little real player-to-player interaction (with a few exceptions among the hardcore).
This is sadly where I feel everything breaks down for Mike Quigley’s comment on wanting the game to be more “WoW-like.” While players can communicate face to face and even form their own teams/gangs (as Koster predicted), that’s outside the game. The original Animal Crossing is a persistent world that allowed other players to help/hinder each other indirectly through gifts or even destroying another player’s town, but I’d never argue that working outside the game suddenly made it an MMO, even though players coordinated through the internet.
POGO players are essentially alone in their game world. Other players can influence the environment, but just barely. All direct assistance and communication has to be done outside the game still, and without monster nicknames appearing, that’s become more difficult. While I’m sure Nintendo has something to do with it, as Ingress has chat, even simple player interaction systems like trade seem in danger.
I still think AR games can be MMOs. I think Koster made some valuable points. However, after several months and essentially an expansion, I think it’s easier to say Pokemon Go is not an MMO but a fun exercise game with geocached scoreboards.