When it comes to handhelds, Nintendo’s always got an ace in the hole: Pokémon. Each of the series’ five generations has managed to find an audience of over 15 million players – that’s the most consistent performance for any of Nintendo’s franchises ever.
How does Pokémon manage to find such a large audience over and over again? It’s because it combines a deep single-player adventure with fun, socially-driven multiplayer that takes full advantage of today’s wireless and Internet capabilities. It’s because the world of Pokémon is constantly expanding with new monsters, new regions, and new battle techniques that keep players training.
Even if Nintendo’s having trouble coming up with a revolutionary game for the Wii U GamePad, I think they’ve always got another untapped option to consider: a deep online experience that does for the home console space what Pokémon does for handhelds.
A Vast Adventure Both On and Offline
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the recent “always-online” debacle, it’s that players like the option to play their games without an Internet restriction. So far, Nintendo hasn’t created a single game that requires players to connect to the Internet, and I don’t think they should. Like Pokémon, a big online game for Wii U should enable players to enjoy a fulfilling single-player adventure while offering plenty of ways to enjoy online play with others.
A good example of this approach in action is the original Phantasy Star Online. The game offers four game zones, each with multiple maps, a full story mode (with four difficulty modes!), as well as a series of “quests” to complete that reward players with hundreds of collectible and upgradable weapons, armor, items, and so on – and the game length effectively doubles if you add Episode II on top of that. But when you link up with other players via either local or online play, the game takes on new life.
When you go online, you’ll gain access to dozens of exclusive quests, events, and online lobbies where you can meet others, trade goods, and team up to take on tough challenges or simply to hunt down rare gear. Anything you earn online can be brought back to your offline game. If you decide to have some buddies over for local play, they can bring over their characters and gear, just like they can online. You won’t gain access to online-only features, but the game difficulty and balance adjusts accordingly, so it’s still just as fun to play with friends offline.
I had logged hundreds of hours between solo and multiplayer offline before I ever jumped to online play, so it’s definitely a working idea. The real challenge will be finding – or creating – the right IP to take advantage of the scale and scope and potential offered by a game that’s both fully online and fully offline.
Adapting an IP for the World of Online
Fortunately, it sounds like Nintendo already has at least one idea in the works: Monolith Soft’s X. We spotted an online chatbox in a portion the game’s debut trailer, but the game also seems to support a fully offline single-player experience judging by other footage. This is a great step, and indicates that Nintendo’s studios are definitely up to the challenge of investing the time, talent, and dollars that it takes to produce an experience of such magnitude in both the connected and disconnected spaces… but X is poised to be a niche RPG, not a mainstream mass market title.
If Nintendo wants to use any of its existing IP for an online experience to take on Pokémon‘s dominance of the handheld space, I think it actually should be… Pokémon.
I mean, think about it – one region could be reserved for offline play, where it serves as the setting of the main story and the place where new trainers can raise their Pokémon before taking them online. When players feel ready, they can connect to the Internet and discover an entire universe beyond that starting region that containing all kinds of monsters and trainers from all over the world. There they can join Gyms, run Poké Centers or Marts, participate in League matches, and enjoy a vibrant online community.
The benefits of an online Pokémon world extend to some of the longer-standing series elements as well. Gen II introduced a day/night system, Gen III introduced weather conditions in the field, and Gen V introduced seasons, but a fully online world enables a much finer attention to these kinds of gameplay systems. If they’re server-based instead of set in stone in advance as an offline feature, time of day and time of year events could be introduced and adjusted based on player feedback. Weather systems could occur server-wide, rather than being fixed for certain areas or completely random. And at any time, wild Legendaries, rare Shinies, or other unique monsters could be introduced, sending players on a mad scramble to catch them while they’re still available!
All of these timed online events would mesh fantastically with Miiverse. As soon as it’s discovered that Ho-oh is loose, I’m sure word would be all over the Pokémon Online community. Announcements for more formal events like League tournaments could be delivered via official Miiverse announcement channels. And giving players the ability to communicate privately with their more close-knit groups like Gyms would make it easy for them to organize and announce events of their own. This kind of sharing represents Miiverse at its full potential.
Of course, Nintendo’s big online game doesn’t have to be Pokémon – these are just some examples of hopefully good ideas that use Pokémon gameplay elements as a reference. We could just as well see an online title set in the Zelda or Metroid universes… or a whole new IP built specifically for the combination of offline, local, and online play and Miiverse social connectivity.
Whatever the case, because Nintendo consoles haven’t really seen a major online-driven experience outside of a handful of multiplayer modes in games like Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, Wii U represents the company’s first chance to really catch the world’s attention with an online game that can’t be found or approximated on any other platform. This first major online game can’t just be a half-hearted effort – it really has to knock it out of the park and prove that both Nintendo and Wii U are up to the challenge of entering the realm of online play. That’s why I insist on making a strong comparison to Pokémon – the series stands in a class of its own.
What kind of online-driven game would you like to see for Wii U? Share your thoughts in the comments!