The author of this article is not a lawyer. Any assertions or speculations made herein are the result of the author's (admittedly half-assed) research and may contain errors. Please feel free to correct any errors in the comments below, citing sources where possible, and the article will be updated article accordingly.
Ah, yet another Pokémon MMO has been thrust into the spotlight, marking the beginning of the end for another game painstakingly made by fans to provide that which Nintendo seemingly refuses to: A persistent Pokémon world.
There have been a number of these fan-made games shutdown by Nintendo over the years, and a few that are still successfully flying under the radar. As soon as any of these gain steam, a Cease and Desist order can be effortlessly thrown their way and the project collapses. So what makes PokéMMO any different? Can't Nintendo just shut this down like the others?
Sure, they could likely shut it down, but this one will require slightly more effort on Nintendo's part.
See, other Pokémon MMO's were closed due to "Unauthorised use" of Nintendo property, in this case the Pokémon franchise. Even when the developers of said games made not a single red cent from their labour of love, it's still illegal to use any of their property if Nintendo doesn't want you to. Given that it's their second most profitable franchise (behind Mario), it's unlikely that they're going to let anyone take a slice of their pie, cash or no cash. The pie is the precious, and they'll guard it with their liveses.
Where was I? Oh right; Other Pokémon MMO's were shut down that way but it's unlikely that PokéMMO will make the same mistake. It's not the PokéMMO client that uses Nintendo's property, it's the users themselves that need to provide that content and it's up to those users to do so legally, not the PokéMMO devs.
In order to play the game, users must provide their own image or ROM of Pokémon Fire Red, which are commonly believed to be legal to own and/or possess if you own a physical copy of the game itself. Any user who obtains the ROM illegally or distributes it in any way - hell, even just encouraging others to obtain it - can land them in some very hot water, but leave the PokéMMO devs untouched.
I know it sounds like I'm making the devs seem like the bad guys in all of this, using innocent Pokéfans as metaphorical meatshields, but they're not. They're passionate about what they do and are simply taking advantage of a loophole in the system to create the game that every Pokémon Trainer (myself included) and his Bidoof have been clamouring for for years.
So if there's so much demand, why has Nintendo not supplied? The obvious choice is that Pokémon is specifically a handheld game. Sure, it'd work just fine on any other platform and especially so as an MMO, but my guess is that it’s due to Pokémon single-handedly accounting for more sales of handheld Nintendo systems than any other franchise. They'd definitely make money from an MMO, but they'd likely encounter a net loss if they can't pull off the MMO as a handheld exclusive title from the lost sales of whatever portable platform they put out afterwards.
I suspect that quite a lot of people buy Nintendo’s handhelds solely for the Pokémon games. I personally bought two DS systems when Diamond and Pearl were released, and similarly bought a system from each generation Pokémon all the way back to the original Game Boy, which I bought after a friend let me borrow a copy of Blue, sealing my fate as a Pokénerd forever. The point is that I would never have bought any of those systems were it not for the Pokémon games (except perhaps the DS for Phoenix Wright, another amazing series) and I’m certain that I’m not the only one. So it follows that if I’m able to get my fix from another source, say my PC via a Pokémon MMO, official or otherwise, that I wouldn’t need to buy the next generation handheld system and sit at home all day and night, in the dark, shunning friends and family while hunting for a shiny Ditto.
It’s an interesting choice for Nintendo. If they were to make a Pokémon MMO, even for a handheld, what would they do about the next iteration? Even if they made a sequel on their newest generation of handhelds, players would still be disinclined to play it as either their persistent world would effectively be reset, or they’d need to buy all new hardware to keep playing the game they’ve invested so much time into, or both. If they released these iterations as expansion packs like other popular MMO’s, what would sell their new systems?
The simplest answer is to just ignore the players in this situation. The method they’ve been using for over a decade now has been working flawlessly, so why would they fix what ain’t broke? They wouldn’t, and in their shoes neither would you. It’s all too easy to think of Nintendo as a heartless, money-grubbing megacorporation intent on milking us dry, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. I suspect there are more than a few people at Nintendo and Game Freak who are tied up in knots wanting to give us what we want. Disagree with me if you like, but I’ll always look to the existence of the Smash Bros. franchise as evidence of Nintendo’s collective soul – if you hadn’t spent an entire childhood dreaming of various game mascots beating the snot out of each other then you just aren’t a proper gamer in my eyes.
In any case, an official Pokémon MMO is inevitable, but the standalone games would need to drop off in popularity before Nintendo even considers it. An MMO is their ace in the hole and I think they’re saving it to revitalise the series when the chips are down.
So what lies in store for our beloved fan-made PokéMMO? It'll be shut down like the rest (if it lasts another 12 months from now I'll dye my hair bright red and sing the PokéRap on YouTube). The game client may not be directly infringing any property rights, but Nintendo's been on a warpath against ROMs, specifically ones for their handheld systems like the DS, and the actual legality regarding ROM possession is questionable at best - given the circumstances, I can't see Nintendo struggling with this for very long. Besides, who has the kind of cash lying around to fight Nintendo in court?
Sadly, the only viable solution for us Pokéfans is to wait for Nintendo to give us our fix.