Posted Saturday April 1st 2017
My relationship with Pokémon starts back in 1999 when I first played Pokémon Red and Blue and was amazed by the Pokémon World. I would watch the TV show every morning before school and draw Pokémon comics after. That year was also the year I got my first computer and began my game development journey.
In 2002, I came across a fan-made Pokémon MMORPG called ‘Pokémon Online’ (aka ‘POL’) made by MeowthBG. I was excited. The idea of playing Pokémon online with other people amazed me. My brain hadn’t even thought of the possibility of online gaming, nevermind Pokémon online gaming! Unfortunately the project didn’t make much progress and disappeared.
Beginning of the Golden Age
In 2005, a programmer by the name of Harris relaunched the project. He built out a proper website with a community forums and this led to the beginning of the Golden Age of Pokémon MMOs. Soon after, a game designer by name of Platinum joined the POL team and built out a huge design document and an interactive world map describing how Pokémon Online would work. People’s minds were collectively blown when they read this document. Shortly afterwards a basic movement and battle demo built in Multimedia Fusion was released and the POL community exploded to over 100,000 members.
But it wasn’t long before corruption and greed came into the mix. Harris began accepting donations to pay for the server hosting. It was rumored to cost around ~$200/month to host and Harris was a university student so this made sense. However, he was eventually earning ~$1000/month in donations and ads but updates stopped coming. The POL team began preaching “we need more donations to speed up progress” and people kept giving. A small group of us in the community became suspicious that nothing was being made and the POL team were splitting the profits between them.
A Pokémon Revolution
A programmer by the name Pivot engineered his way into their internal admin boards and leaked posts that showed that development had halted and they were just taking the money. Despite sharing this with the community, POL managed to cover it up and continue onwards.
Around this time I was becoming more proficient in programming. I remember feeling angry at how dishonest this group of people were and decided to try build my own Pokémon MMO called Pokémon Online Revolution (get it?). I decided to be fully open with development so the source code and assets were completely open source. Soon I had a small movement demo built but hit the limits of my technical ability as a naive teenager.
I began to speak with Pivot, who was also prototyping a Pokémon MMO, about combining our efforts with some other programmers. Soon we merged into Pokémon Global and launched a new website. Not only did we launch with a demo but the demo had full movement, battles (thanks to ShoddyBattle) and chat; the base ground for a true Pokémon MMO. People flocked in hundreds to our game. However, after a post on /v/, we soon learned how inefficient our code was – XML files stored player data, a single thread ran the entire server, sending a login packet bottlenecked the entire server and became a DDOS tool.
The Next Generation
After the DDOS, some internal drama and taking the game temporarily offline, we began refactoring and building the next generation of the MMO which became known as PokéNet. Eventually, thanks to our openness and ease of contribution via our Google Code SVN repository, we grew to a team of 30 people consisting of programmers, mappers, artists and music composers (yes, we had an original soundtrack). We launched the first version of PokéNet in early 2009, nicknamed ‘Majestic Magikarp’ (parodying Ubuntu’s release names), and the community grew to around 20,000 players. All the servers were donated from the community and we never accepted a penny for the game.
In late 2009, we launched the first update to PokéNet, nicknamed ‘Fearless Feebas’, which added localisation, all of Johto, PvP battles, trading and an updated battle system based on the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum mechanics. The game became immensely popular in Brazil, leading us to host an official Portuguese language forum. (I remember waking up discovering our forums flooded with Portuguese posts and thinking a load of spam bots got in). The community continued to grow, eventually reaching ~50,000 players with ~7500 online at any moment. By this time POL had lost its entire community and faded into distant memory.
Learning IP Law
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. In early 2010 I was busy with university and building Bandit so I had ignored my email account for several weeks. On March 31st, I logged in to check my email and discovered a “final notice” from one of our hosting providers. Nintendo had contacted the provider with a Cease & Desist letter. I immediately panicked and emailed the entire team. Of course, having just turned to April 1st, they thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Only after calling Nintendo’s lawyers everyone realised it was real. Everyone on the team had been operating under aliases but we all revealed our identities to each other at that moment. Some ran and hid, disappearing into the Internet, while the rest of us resolved the situation with Nintendo. Several of us still maintain contact with each other to this day.
We were just about to launch our next update ‘Valiant Venonat’ which would add Kanto, TMs and a skills system. We were so heartbroken. The shutdown was covered by several gaming websites. I remember reading comments on Destructoid, Joystiq, etc. where people asked “Why would the developers spend their time building a Pokémon MMO when they could make their own game?”. I think the common reason for everyone on the team was that we were all huge fans of Pokémon and wanted to play a game like this. A second reason, for me personally, was seeing how much people enjoyed the game.
As with all things on the Internet, there were trolls and trouble makers who at times made me want to give up working on the game. But some days I would log in and sit in Violet City (a popular hub for new players) and watch the fun and chats people were having. There were community-run tournaments, people running their own Teams (ala Team Rocket), an online fan magazine, YouTube tutorials and more. I also remember receiving a private message on the PokéNet forums from a kid in Brazil. It said something like “Hi, I wanted to say thank you for making PokéNet. I don’t have video games at home but after school I go to the internet cafe and play online with my friends.” It was moments like that which made all the effort worth it.
On April 1st 2010 we shut down PokéNet and went our separate ways. To this day, while I look back at the code quality and cringe, I still have fond memories of the team, the late night programming, update launches/server crashes, and the PokéNet community. I want to try put together a blog post on people’s memories of PokéNet. So if you were on the team or a member of the community, send me a PM or tweet on Twitter.