Blog Post by Involuntary Twitch
This is a long story, so let’s start with the obvious.
On August 6, 2016, after months of work on testing, refining, and fixing the game, the Uranium Team published the full version of Pokémon Uranium, a fan-made Pokémon game, for free to the internet. What followed was an unprecedented series of events, which we could have never truly prepared for, that would change all our lives, affect thousands of people – and perhaps even reach the creators of Pokémon itself.
First, some context: Pokémon Uranium Version is not like other Fan Games. Besides the 9-year-long development cycle, it includes a massive amount of content, including 150 all-new Pokemon (most of which were designed & sprited by me), a sprawling region to explore, a pixelated graphical style reminiscent of the 4th Generation DS games, and more than 30 hours of playable content. Fan Games, in general, rarely see completion; but Uranium 1.0 is a finished experience, playable from start to credits. It even includes online trading and battling with other players.
At the time of Uranium’s release, Pokémon GO had recently come out the previous month, so the excitement over Pokémon was higher than even the peak of Poké-Mania in the 1990s. The upcoming official games, Pokémon Sun and Moon, were still months away. Hundreds of thousands of people were being introduced to the series for the first time, and many of them were looking for a way to experience the “classic” Pokémon feel.
All of these factors contributed to a perfect storm of viral fame. People speculated that we did it on purpose; in truth, we had no idea that Pokémon GO was going to come out that July when we set our goals for a late summer release. On the first day we dropped the game, it skyrocketed to the top of r/Pokemon, and even reached the front page of r/All. A couple of days later, the gaming news media picked it up, and soon articles got written about it in just about ever major gaming news source on the Internet – from Kotaku to Polygon to IGN to Verge to Wired and everything in between. It was ready-made clickbait, with headlines containing the words “Pokémon”, “Free to Play” & “9 Years in Development”.
Over the course of less than a week, Pokémon Uranium went from a relatively unknown indie project to one whose sudden explosive popularity eclipsed even the upcoming official games:
If you, like me, enjoy graphs and stats, then check out the Google Trends.
This all might seem like bragging. And in truth, I’m very proud of what JV, myself, and the Uranium Team have achieved. We created the single most popular Pokémon Fangame – ever. Period. (Unless you count Pokémon Showdown, I guess.)
But of course, everyone wants fame until they actually get it. As the person closest to the center of it all – I managed the Uranium Social Media accounts, did all the PR and media interviews, not to mention coordinated the team behind the actual game – my personal experience could definitely be described as “polarized”.
Joy and Chaos in the Pokémon World
The Internet is a powerful tool, and having grown up using it from a young age, I’m comfortable with having a virtual life that’s mostly separate from my real life identity. But when you’re bombarded with thousands of messages a day, and you’re taking a crash course in website management and Public Relations at the same time, the Internet feels less like a tool and more like a menace. Uranium had been a small project for so long, shared among the team and a small but dedicated circle of fans, so seeing it blown wide open to an audience of hundreds of thousands was a radical shift.
In my real life, I’d just started at a new job. I was drinking so much coffee every day that my pseudonym “Involuntary Twitch” became an accurate description. At times, the stress of it took a physical toll on my body. My appetite was shot; I slept restlessly. Anyone who spoke to me in real life during those first couple weeks would at first be intrigued, and then mildly concerned for my health and well-being. I was pushed close to the breaking point several times, and I don’t think I could have gotten through it without the support of my friends, my family, and the Uranium Team.
People were offering all kinds of advice, over topics such as copyright, how to monetize the game, and what it meant for my career. I sifted through the good and bad advice, and tried to explain why taking out all the Pokémon assets and re-branding it as an original work for sale was not an option. I reminded myself regularly that these people were well-meaning, albeit misinformed.
Dozens of journalists requested interviews; at first I was eager, then weary, and finally I turned away almost everyone that requested it. I did do several interviews, like one with Nintendo News, one with Kotaku, and a live video interview on Verge. (I highly recommend that last one). In retrospect, some of the stuff I said in those interviews came back to bite me later on. But of course, I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly.
Most game studios have a post-release media plan. They usually have a PR team and a dedicated Social Media schedule. We didn’t have any of that, and we barely did any self-promotion. All that we had was our game, and the entire weight of the Pokémon brand on our side. It turns out, when your game is a Pokémon game, you don’t really need anything else. But it helps if the game is good, too.
Fan Art Gallery
In the midst of everything, thousands of people were playing and responding to the game. People drew fan art, wrote fan fiction, recorded themselves in Let’s Plays, and were trading, battling, and forming communities around the game. I saw firsthand the power of video games to influence and bring people together, and it nearly blew me away.
Everybody Loves A Scandal
A week after the game was released, and was exploding in popularity across the web (repeatedly downing our website & forums), an ominous e-mail appeared in my inbox. It said that one of our uploads had been removed from the external host on behalf of the copyright holders, Nintendo of America. That had a chilling effect. In retrospect, considering how the creator of Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R) received the same notice within 24 hours of publishing his game, and how Uranium was several degrees of magnitude more popular, it’s a mystery to me that they allowed fans to use our download links for almost a week.
The last thing we wanted was to challenge the authority of the people who were actually responsible for managing the Pokémon brand. So we released a public statement, and pulled the download links off of our website. We thought, by doing that, we could obey the original creators’ wishes while still releasing updates and maintaining online services for people who downloaded the game.
A second wave of press coverage ensued. “Pokémon Uranium Shut Down After Nintendo Threatens To Sue Creators,” read the headlines. Never mind that none of that was true at the time; we hadn’t shut the game down, and Nintendo hadn’t threatened us with anything. We’d just stopped distributing the game ourselves. But that doesn’t all fit on a clickbait headline.
This was around August 11 or 12, and the game was still trending massively. At this point it began appearing on the Facebook news tracker (!), meaning I was getting messages of sympathy and rebellion from friends and extended family. “Screw Nintendo, I’m going to play this game anyway!” said my uncle in a Facebook post. I didn’t feel like correcting him.
Out of the dark corners of the internet (by which I mean mainly 4chan and YouTube comment sections), murmurs of a conspiracy were starting. Was this all a publicity stunt? Were we trying to play off an underdog narrative, portraying ourselves as the downtrodden little guy in the face of an unfeeling, heavy-handed megacorporation? Clearly, the initial fame we received wasn’t enough for us; we had to jack it up several degrees by fabricating a false DMCA claim. Never mind that we had nothing to gain from generating more hype. We were popular, and people will go to great lengths to justify dislike for popular things.
Whether or not we were crafting the narrative (we weren’t), the news media & other content creators bought into it full-force, like The Game Theorists, whose livestream of the game was entitled: “The BANNED Pokémon Game that Nintendo Doesn’t Want You To Play!”
I watched that livestream, by the way. Along with an audience of 30,000 people, I watched MattPat & co. play the game that I’d spent years of my life working on. He even namedropped me, although he thought I was called “Uncontrollable Twitch”. Admittedly, I felt pretty uncontrollable at that point.
That night, I got a text from my friend: “My cousins are watching a live stream of your game!” she told me. My virtual life had come crashing full-force into my real one.
The End, For Real This Time
In retrospect, there was absolutely no way this could continue indefinitely. The final nail in the coffin was on September 1, when I received a letter at my front doorstep from the legal firm that represents Nintendo of America. It was printed on nice quality paper, and had been sent via express overnight shipping, so that’s how I knew it was serious. It told me that I needed to immediately stop our entire web operation – take down the server, stop providing updates and stop generating ad revenue – or they’d sue me, and the Uranium Team, for infringing on their copyright.
My heart pounding in my chest, I went on our team’s Slack channel.
“This is the end,” I told everybody. “Uranium is finished.”
We said our goodbyes, and I mourned the ending of my life’s greatest work.
I found out later that at the same time I received the letter, Nintendo’s legal team had engaged in a coordinated takedown of over 500 Fan Games on GameJolt, and that the creator of AM2R had received a letter that was presumably almost identical to mine.
The following day, I pulled the plug. We took down the website, forum, and online services. We went dark across all social media. I took a vacation, but the anxiety and grief I felt was a constant presence in my mind. Fortunately, my friends and family helped. It was my lowest point, and I don’t think I could have bounced back without them.
In the void of news, fans speculated about what happened to Uranium. I was dreading having to break the news to them, but we had absolutely no choice.
Finally, we made the announcement. As quickly as it had begun, my tenure as one of the creators of the most popular Pokémon Fan Game had come to an end.
What Comes Next?
What do you do when you dedicate years of your life to a project, finally release it to widespread acclaim, and then are forced to abandon it? There’s really only one option: pick up the pieces and move on.
“This is sure to be a great bullet point on the creators’ resumes,” quipped a news article reporting on our termination of all services and updates. Without a doubt, it is. Shortly after we released Uranium, JV got a new job, for which he says the game was 100% responsible.
I used to have trouble explaining Pokémon Fan Games during job interviews. Now, though, thanks to Pokémon GO, I never have to ask my employers if they know what Pokémon is.
Plus, it’s a great ice breaker at parties: “Did I ever tell you how I was almost sued by Nintendo?”
For me, I suppose, the consensus is that I should go into game design. My path was unconventional: I went from editing Pokémon sprites on internet forums, to joining IRC channels and Skype groups, to playing a LOT of RPGMaker games. Despite the years spent working on Uranium, I still feel as though part of me is woefully ill-equipped for the actual indie game dev scene: I have zero formal training, and my programming skills are almost nonexistent. But I’ve been working on learning Game Maker and Unity, quietly cultivating ideas that are in no way ready for the public yet. I have a lot left to learn, and a lot of work to do. But in a way, that’s the best thing that could have happened to me.
Recently, Kotaku published an article that featured an excerpt from an interview with Junichi Masuda, the lead director of Pokémon Sun and Moon. They asked him if he was aware of Fan Games. Without naming specifics, Masuda said that yes, he was aware of them. The staff at Game Freak, unlike Nintendo’s legal team, seemed surprisingly chill regarding the popularity of fan-projects. They were glad that people were inspired to create on the basis of Pokémon. And then he encouraged creators to join their team.
I sent in my application to Game Freak yesterday. For so long, I’d been focused on completing my dream, and releasing a finished game to the world. Now that it’s over, I realize that it was really just another beginning.
Who knows what the future has in store?
Up next: I’ll go more in-depth about the process behind creating Pokémon Uranium.