Massively on the Go: Mother Nintendo should make Niantic Earthbound

    
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So, Nintendo and Niantic will work together for more AR games based on Nintendo IPs. No great surprise from me, as I’d mentioned years ago that there were other IPs that would make a better AR game than Harry Potter, and two of the five of them were Nintendo. While I didn’t predict Pikmin, the series setting and mechanics are absolutely perfect for Niantic to adapt and Nintendo to advertise with.

But this is only the first IP Niantic will be adapting. I have previously argued that the Earthbound/Mother series could do quite well. At the time, I hadn’t specifically considered Niantic as the one and only AR game in town. Aside from marketing issues, some games by other companies have mechanics and compromises Niantic should look into for its current and future AR games. That being said, given what Niantic has done and what we’ve seen in possible specifically in MMOARGs, an Earthbound AR game could actually be pulled off, and now it seems even more suitable not just for Niantic but Nintendo as well.

The power of positivity

For the uninitiated, the Earthbound (international)/Mother (Japanese) series are JRPGs generally in a modern setting with a bit of a sci-fi mixed in. Weapons are things like baseball bats, frying pans, and bottle rockets, and enemies are hippies, robots, sentient puke, and honey-loving zombies, among other things. You get to name the cast of characters, your favorite food, and hobby, and the boss of the game is always defeated with the power of positivity. It’s weird but love-filled, and oddly enough, I’d argue many fans who found the series after 1999 came via the Smash Bros fighting game series.

The game is highly influential. It’s often on lists of the best RPGs of all time, it’s frequently cited as needing a comeback, it inspired one of the most well-received modern RPGs, and its name has been overmarketed by indies trying to cash in on the series’ fandom.

Former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime has always acknowledged the passion (and pressure) he’s seen from the Earthbound fanbase outside of Japan, for good reason. The series isn’t just quirky but very human. Your dad’s out so much that he’s basically a phone. You name family members who die during the start of the game. Your enemy is basically someone with trauma who needs healing. It makes perfect sense that the second game’s end credit theme is called Smiles and Tears.

So why isn’t the series bigger? Ignoring the terrible marketing stunt for its release, one of the big reasons the Earthbound series has struggled with international releases is copyright law. The series parodies brands, actors, and even music sampling, ranging from Coke trucks to using the Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ theme.

Japan treats foreign copyrights differently than domestic ones, and that’s always a huge problem for international localization teams working with Japanese creatives. I’m sure Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fans are familiar with this, but music fans can look over this list and get a small idea of how much can be lost in translation. Localizing text is one thing, but visuals and music are not only more time-consuming but costly.

However, what if a game company outside of Japan made the game? They would probably be more aware from the start of the parody limitations, helping to ensure that the game avoids the legal issues all three main-series games were threatened by. It’s not that Nintendo can’t do it alone, as we previously discussed in terms of Pikmin. But with the Jojo localization issue in mind, I think it would be easier to start with the more limited country’s rules and then work with a more lax country to see what you can get away with. Reversing the Jojo list could be easier, as some changes might be close enough for a Japanese audience to get, while others could be made more obvious where legal.

Going the West-to-East route, Niantic would also have Nintendo to not only guide it through potential legal issues but create strategies for flexible creature/item art that should be easier to localize into other languages. If we’ve learned one thing about Niantic from Pokemon Go, it’s that it’s got some people with a good sense of humor – they just need some space to show it.

Party Hat Wurmple was an official art asset for Pokemon Go turned meme and then turned actual game character. The company’s “consolation” pokemon in one instance was a literal and pre-existing garbage pokemon. While Niantic’s writing may not be the best, the Mr. Rime paid questline was pretty funny (though RIP Willow’s breakfast). The company can do humor.

Building on what’s there

As much fun as it might be for me to outline a dream game design for an Earthbound MMOARG, I think it’d be more productive if I readdressed features that still could function based on current MMOARG games, as we’ve had several titles spring up since my original proposition. Niantic makes location-based games that primarily have grinding. Ingress had some story points and rolled that out in some interesting ways, but clearly it’s the company’s least profitable released title. So, what could Niantic do with the IP?

The easiest thing would be to have players collect something; that’s Niantic’s big schtick. While I suggested random encounters, envisioning people jogging with a Go+ like device that would “hold” encounters for later, Niantic and other MMORARGs haven’t done that, so visible enemies/items would probably be easier.

Two collectibles could be companions and weapons, through the Jurassic World Alive route and making initial stats uniform. They could be treated like Wizards Unite‘s stickers, but actually become a companion/item, kind of like a pokemon. Similarly, gaining more fragments (maybe Items of Value, like beads for the hippy or partially digested noodles for the sentient puke) could be used to level them up. Items could be combined to make new things, like Plushy Fluff could make Teddy Bears or be combined with Hat Scraps to make a Plush Hat armor item.

I mentioned “roles” based on the family unit, and I think that still can apply. In fact, I think Wizard Unite’s classes, talent trees, potions, and spells could be reskinned, as those would make much more sense for a game IP, but especially this one. Players could have funky classes like “Office Worker” or “Boarding School Genius,” and divide them into “Kid” and “Adult” categories. You could have a Homemaker class that mixes fish and dairy products for Trout Yoghurt, and spell tracing could be filling out paperwork denying the enemy’s Paid Time Off, lowering enemy defense or something. The IP isn’t nearly as strict as Pokemon and could let Niantic devs really use their imagination.

But what would you do with the companions I mentioned, other than name and dress them? Yes, name and dress them, to help with bonding. Having fun outfits not only for you but for your companions could help Niantic more with fair monetization, with or without gatchas.

One thing is that Niantic could make use of Adventure Sync and the Buddy System again. Your partner could grind XP or find items or resources. If Niantic wants to keep doing the “gacha” games, maybe restrict them to XP and leveling items, so they double as boosts (which Pokemon Go does in addition to pushing prizes). And then you go out and fight… or maybe not go out at all.

Safer at home

As I suggested before, Niantic could focus on housing. Though no Niantic title has it, The Walking Dead: Our World does. Not just housing, but housing with functions and expansions. And guilds. And even fast travel. Feature-wise, I’d still argue that Our World has a much stronger MMO feel than POGO even though its player base is significantly smaller and is still a location-based game. In many ways, Our World was more COVID ready at its release than Pokemon Go was, and the “Remote Raid Passes” are arguably less social than Our World’s flares, which allow for more social tasks to be executed long distance. It doesn’t hurt that developer Next Games understood that a good game has to take advantage of its IPs strengths, and Niantic could do that with the Earthbound series.

Rather than just calling them “houses,” the game could use Earthbound’s “Your Sanctuary,” which also sounds good from a marketing standpoint and would bring up the idea that home is where you’re strongest, similar to how the sanctuaries empowered the EB hero. I had suggested a kind of Tower Defense game in my previous article, which the current Wizards Unite dungeons could emulate with a few tweaks. Tower Defense could have rewards similar to POGO raids, like exclusive or rare items.

Yes, players could still potentially fight mobs roaming around their grocery store or office, but Your Sanctuary would be the primary battle location, both in terms of attracting more mobs as it becomes more important and by awarding more rewards. I had previously argued that playing in a safe location would be in Niantic’s best interest, and Niantic’s own best practices mention that good AR design is often limited by having virtual and reality occupying the same space.

The Code Name: Neon demo clearly would disrespect this rule if it asked players to use this in malls and on the street. As an adult, I don’t think I could pull this off in public, especially as an ethnic minority. However, limiting this to one’s own home really allows Niantic to ignore some of their other rules, like keeping AR activities limited to 30 second to 120 seconds.

In fact, Neon could simply be reskinned for other games that are home-centered. If there’s worry about spawns being limited to housing, Pokemon Go already has lures to attract more pokemon. That tech could be refitted for an Earthbound Tower Defense centered around housing. The story could be that your home’s defenses significantly drop at a certain time of day where you need to defend, but you could use the lure item to “power down” your defenses and battle enemies at will.

This ensures that players play the most actively when in a safe, social, real-world space. It would create a gameplay loop where people leave their homes to collect items and allies to battle with or use on home repairs, return to their homes, fight to save them, and then go out for more supplies/upgrades. Those companions? Extras could be assigned as passive defense guards. And if you want more xp or a bigger challenge, there would be the previously described “lure” to attract even more monsters. Again, the tech’s out in the wild, Niantic would just be putting it together and reskinning it.

There might be concerns of overcrowding in apartment buildings or busy cafes, but like any good MMO, Niantic could make good use of instancing. If homes were instanced only for friends, and Families (think guilds) own housing, we can create safe places for people to play and use some of Niantic’s newer AR features. Fast travel similar to Our World’s flares (which let a person teleport to a destination but not virtually move far within it) could help friends and family play together even when apart.

And that’s the big one I suggested before: family. We’ve already seen these in Our World, so it’s not beyond the genre. If “guilds” were simply families, and each class has something like POGO‘s gifts (social item trading the player cannot use), and if some classes were more passive and group-oriented than others, you could have a game that encourages real families to play together and act as a group. Imagine kids being able to give their dad an “allowance,” or mom coming back from the grocery store with food and virtual robot parts.

As the Mother series has always used humor and parody with a strong dose of weirdness and family drama, Niantic’s creative team would probably have a good amount of freedom with this IP. Their tech and style also would work well with the series as is. If Niantic wanted to add story arcs, a passive peripheral like the Go+, give players a “corrupted” mode so they can lead mobs around via the long-awaited Route Maker feature, or add fun AR/GPS effects as RPG status afflictions, those all could be done with current tech as well.

Assuming the Pikmin AR leak is real, Niantic’s already working more on integrating AR multiplayer in product non-employees are testing. It’s also got similar-sounding customization that I’ve discussed, like names and appearances, plus sending NPCs on missions, and persistent world-building for select players.

It’s further evidence that Niantic is really growing into a company that could take MMOARGs to the next level, so my five-year-old suggestions were not only fairly grounded but currently features Niantic is pursuing. The difference, however, is that back then, those suggestions were largely based on features from other game genres. Niantic clearly has the tech others have already used in the field, and it has access to IPs competitors don’t. While Nintendo has many dormant IPs, I’d argue Earthbound is one that has a very strong atmosphere, is flexible, but also had issues as an IP that would be easier to tackle as a spinoff with a US-based partner.

Admittedly, much of what I’ve discussed could be applied to Mii games, especially Miitopiawhich would also hit many of these checkmarks: modern setting, parody, useful in advertising, family/friends as game characters, and building relationships. In fact, I would more surprised if Nintendo didn’t ask Niantic to do a Mii game. If the Pikmin AR game leak can be trusted, it’s already making an appearance soon.

The Mii games more modern and flexible, though also more generic. While there are weird creatures (safe for work but…) there too, a lot of what I’ve discussed is specific to the Earthbound series, which has a deeply loyal and vocal fandom, even among press. The series has gained more exposure thanks to the Smash Bros series (and piracy), so giving modern audiences a new way to experience the franchise could be good for everyone. By no means would I trust Niantic with a full-blown Mother 4, as I feel the series reached a logical end. However, the worlds the series created were quite livable, and exploring the game universe is something I think people of all ages could enjoy.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!

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