Massively on the Go: Gen 9 means Pokemon needs to grow in age and numbers

    
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The Pokemon series is about to enter Generation 9 with Pokemon Scarlet and Violet versions near the end of 2022. And rejoice, gamers, as it’s going to be open world with a connection to Pokemon HOME, allowing players to move their ‘mon from other generations/Pokemon GO to the new game in some fashion. In fact, of the very few details released, we’re told specifically that this is “an open world where various towns with no borders blend seamlessly into the wilderness.” While Sword and Shield had a fun open area near the very start of the game that I and plenty of others got lost in, the other “players” populating it were essentially NPCs in a lobby looking to do instanced content.

And that’s not awful, especially now that we’ve seen how Game Freak may want the series to move forward, as per Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Sure, with eight current generations and various uses of pocket and alternative dimensions and time travel, a team could simply make a huge, open-world MMO and add new generations as DLC, but we know that won’t happen. However, with what we have seen, it’s obvious that the Pokemon series really could stand to use more multiplayer aspects baked into the core, especially given the fans’ ages.

Less Peter Pan, more Peter Parker

After nine generations released about three years apart each, an elementary school student who started with the original games is going to be in her 30s by now. While it’s a casual trope in JRPGs to be a child going out to explore the world for the first time, it’s not just boring but repetitive even for teens who’ve grown up with the series. I say this as someone who was a leader in my local POGO community: There’s very much a “back in my day” back and forth between the newer, younger players and the older ones (especially Gen 1 adults), but mostly in a good way.

Younger kids and teens are very surprised about how obtuse and inaccessible endgame Pokemon games once were. Heck, Gen 6 was praised for making breeding significantly easier, but the several weeks it took for me to breed a nearly perfect Greninja back then makes the Gen 8 kids genuinely shocked that anyone would stick with a game that long. That being said, we also have some good pokemon to use that they may not even have known about.

And this is exactly the option Game Freak needs to start adding mentor roles to the main series games. Yes, it can still have its generally family-friendly storylines about friendship and environmental stewardship aimed mostly at children, but there should be an option to start off as an adult mentoring a new trainer. The trainee could be a customizable character (or even characters) that follow the main trainer around on his pokemon quest, giving players a kind of “Ash Ketchum” group. While a child can be Ash, an adult could be more like Brock or Misty, dolling out advice within the game, rather than from the sidelines.

Older characters aren’t necessarily unheard of. The Pokemon Coliseum main character Wes is not only older but has partner pokemon he’s traveled and trained with for years, and it’s a character older players often bring up when complaining about being forced into pokemon newb-dom generations after becoming the pokemon champion across several titles. Simple mechanics like having the mentor’s pokemon add damage multipliers to entice the child player to use the correct typing would be enough.

While the child players could still have the more traditional “gotta be the best” adventure, an adult player could be around for the more “dangerous” side stories, such as tackling the evildoers who for whatever reason don’t simply kidnap the kids. Grouping itself is a better reflection of reality, but so is a kid interacting with multiple adults and potentially changing their minds. It’s one of the reasons I feel the recent generation-based Spider-Man movies work well, in that maybe my Peter Parker isn’t the main character, but he’s in position to not only guide the newer generations but learn from them too.

Becoming more massive

Obviously, being a writer on this site means I prefer larger-scale games. The Pokemon Company doesn’t quite feel the same way, but it does feel like we have enough building blocks from past games– main series and spinoffs– to open the games up more.

As in Pokemon Let’s Go, activating multiplayer could simply turn single-pokemon matches into doubles or more, allowing multiple players to coordinate. Catching, however, could make use of the Arceus approach. The stealth gameplay in it was tons of fun, but I can imagine it still working in small-scale multiplayer with friends or even randoms. One player can work on distracting/luring a pokemon into position while another prepares to catch or engage it. No, it’s not exactly MMO play, but we’re trying to focus on what Game Freak already has done in the series to slowly move the game forward, possibly so Pokemon 11 can be an MMO, kind of like that other traditionally single-player JRPG franchise.

That being said, for larger multiplayer aspects, we have a few options. Secret bases could be player-made housing and dungeons combined. Sword and Shield already added group dungeon crawls, so it’s not out of the question, and Game Freak could make them 3-D instead of simply path-branch options on a static image. The series also made gym battles more of a sport. While gimmicks aren’t unknown in previous entries, Sword and Shield did make gyms more of a spectator-friendly event. This could allow for minigames, like racing, quiz shows, mazes, obstacle courses, and more, possibly for multiplayer engagement.

Heck, this could also be where Pokemon Contests – which judge pokemon based not on their ability to pummel each other but on their expression in certain categories such as cuteness or coolness – could become more maintstream. In order to limit min-maxing and hordes of clones, the contest condition stats could be reworked to be affected by the pokemon’s stats as well. For example, Attack could be attached to Cool, while Speed to be attached to Clever. Having underlying multipliers for evolution stages and IVs could help further diversification, such as if a high attack IV slightly punishes speed at a certain point, while unevolved pokemon’s “cool” factor may have a lower multiplier.

The other factor is visual appearance, not just for the pokemon but for the trainer. Pokemon is a cute bloodsport the series tries to shake by constantly telling us how we bond with pokemon who fight for us, but contests avoid that meta-critique almost altogether. Having accessories for both pokemon and players increase customization, and the series’ narratives tend to be light on plot, so the single-player aspect could just allow players to choose between battles or contests. For large-scale multiplayer, if each contest works off of two or three of the six basic stats, the “battles” could scale up in a natural way without the sting-of-defeat forcing players out of the action.

Using fashion and customization to “battle” could also be incentivized. If optional paid content were to simply be an alternative appearance to accessible game-earned items, it would be more acceptable to the playerbase. Alternative or even in addition to the game-led contests, having player judges could spice things up too. It could be similar to ArcheAge’s justice system, particularly the jury portion. Heck, further down the line, players could even be allowed to host their own contests.

And this, I think, is where we could potentially get to the main poke-dream: player-made gyms and tournaments. The Pokemon Company can keep the basic formula of collecting badges and then an “elite four” type situation, but what if that were the start to traveling around player-run content? Maybe players could not only limit their own “gym” but the challengers’ as well? Maybe only bear-like pokemon allowed, or only pokemon carrying berries? While some games have allowed this on a small scale, having persistent groups with built-in multiplayer would foster not only the greater community but individual bonds between players much better as well.

Again, I am under no illusion that Pokemon will see a full-fledged MMO any time soon. It’d be nice if it could grow enough for a main-series MMO like Final Fantasy has done (twice), but the building blocks for a more multiplayer supported main game are there. Given the number of generations, settings, and age of the initial fans, I think it’s time that The Pokemon Company caters to adults and multigenerational, multiplayer experiences, especially with the option to interact with pokemon in non-combat settings. While we’ll mostly likely get a more open-world game than Arceus, which would still be good, my initial feeling is that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet will simply be adding a main-line story on top of a more fluid feeling world, with little to no extra multiplayer beyond what we saw in Gen 8. Hopefully, though, we’ll all get a surprise or two as more info is shared in the coming months.

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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