For decades, a Pokémon game where players can catch and train monsters, together and online, has been a distant fantasy for fans around the world. The camaraderie and competition so integral to the Pokémon story—the tale of a young hopeful going out into the world to make friends and self-actualize—has always felt a little lacking in Pokémon blockbuster single-player games. So, imagine: A free Pokémon game, accessible on PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Xbox, where you can do everything you do in an official Nintendo game, but with your friends.
What if I told you that this game exists? And that, as I write this, 22,000 people are playing it?
Pokémon Brick Bronze, released in 2015, is a Pokémon fan’s paradise. In addition to the normal activities you’d expect from a Pokémon game, Brick Bronze offers a social platform for hanging out with and battling friends. It’s a delightful, if grindy adventure that incorporates a lot of Pokémon’s beloved classic monsters and gameplay with some of the franchise’s newer elements, plus a few things you’d expect from an online role-playing game. Encountering other Pokémon trainers in the game’s grasslands and cities adds a level of excitement beyond the norm—as does playing in highly customizable clothing.
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It’s made possible because of a technology called Roblox. A platform for constructing virtual worlds and games, much like Minecraft, Roblox is massively popular among children who want to game and socialize online. It boasts 56 million active players. In part, that’s because of its accessibility. Taking part in a Roblox game is as easy as downloading the client, customizing an avatar and hitting “Play.” Most games are free to play, but many offer upgrades and things in exchange for Robux, Roblox’s currency, which players can buy with real money.
Some of Roblox’s more popular original games include titles like Jailbreak (which has 33,500 concurrent players last I checked), Work at a Pizza Place (12,000 concurrent players) and Adopt and Raise a Cute Kid (12,000 concurrent players). Mixed in with those thousands of original titles searchable on Roblox are some less original ones. There’s Undertale Tycoon, Golden Sans! Undertale Roleplay and Undertale Survive the Monsters; Mario Tycoon, Paper Mario Roleplay and Who Killed Mario; and Fallout 4 Tycoon, Fallout 4 Roleplay and Fallout 4 - Story Mode. A simple query for “Pokémon” also reveals several dozen Pokémon fan games, many of which use official Pokémon models, fonts and music. Pokémon Brick Bronze is, by far, the most popular and appears on the Roblox “Games” landing page.
The creator of Pokémon Brick Bronze, who is a cult hero among the game’s sizable community, goes by the handle Lando64000. Even YouTube clips of random fans battling against him in Pokémon Brick Bronze consistently garner tens of thousands of views. For eight years, he’s been putting together games on Roblox, which he says enabled him to launch his career as a Roblox game developer at age 16. “I was drawn to its Lego-like aesthetic,” Lando64000 told me via Twitter direct messages, “and easily grasped its building concept and from there worked my way up to different development techniques.” From there, he developed a game about being a pirate and another about exploring a staircase in the desert that happens to be a big snake. Then, in 2015, he released a demo for Pokémon Brick Bronze.
Lando64000 had always dreamed of putting his own twist on Pokémon games, and particularly one that he could explore with friends. Roblox made it possible. Lando64000 enlisted his brother as its head developer. They brought on about a dozen other developers throughout the course of the game. Lando64000 would compose the game’s story, the first few moments of which are quite similar to the original Pokémon games’: On the day you’re set to begin your Pokémon adventure, you wake up in your parents’ house with the alarm going off. You head to the Professor’s place to pick a Pokémon. Here, there are 18 starter Pokémon from virtually every iteration of the game. Then, you wander through the grasses and fight trainers, shady criminals and gym leaders. The difference is that, in this version, your parents are archaeologists who have discovered a dark secret about the Pokémon world and, because of that, are targeted by enemies.
Fan games are warm ways for franchise devotees to express their love for their favorite games and build on what makes those games great, but of course, copyright may be an issue here. Much of Pokémon Brick Bronze’s story is unique, or at least not entirely derivative. A lot of its assets aren’t. Its logo is the official Pokémon logo. Its monsters are official Pokémon monsters. Its gameplay is the same. Its music bears some similarities, too, but there are also plenty of original tunes.
When money comes into the picture, things get complicated. Through the platform’s DevEx program, developers can make money—and lots of it—off Roblox games. A musician who worked on the game, who asked that we not use his name, says he made four figures over a year for 51 songs.
Many outside observers would agree that it’s okay for fans to make art that lets them engage with their fandom in their preferred ways. (And Pokémon fan games are basically as old as Pokémon.) Nintendo and The Pokémon Company might argue that’s not the case—the behemoth publisher has a well-documented history of taking down fan games by filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices. Pokémon Uranium, in development for nine years, and Pokémon Prism, a ROM hack, both received those notices. Pokémon Brick Bronze is in different legal territory because it lives and breathes by Roblox’s platform.
Companies need to actively protect their trademark so they can continually assert that they own it. So, for example, if everybody went around selling Mario-themed products, Nintendo would have a less persuasive argument that Mario is theirs alone if, say, a big company like Sega wanted to sell Mario products. It’s a sort of “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario wherein publishers want to make sure that the camel’s back is consistently free of any straws. This raises the question: Is it Roblox’s responsibility to weed out potentially problematic games from their database so Nintendo doesn’t go after them?
Over e-mail, a Roblox spokesperson compared the company’s platform to YouTube’s: Developers can carve out their games with Roblox tools and user-generated content and fans can find them on the Roblox platform. Also like YouTube, Roblox says it “strongly believe[s] in the protection of the intellectual property rights of others,” and adds that it’ll remove content if an IP holder contacts the company. (Lando64000 declined to comment on the nature of the game’s use of official assets.)
The Pokémon Company declined to comment and Nintendo did not return a request for comment. Pokémon Brick Bronze’s creator declined to comment on the game’s assets for this article.
Copyright lawyer Stephen McArthur says that Roblox is in the clear here because the Digital Millenium Copyright Act gives hosts of user-generated content a “safe harbor to protect themselves. . . as long as Roblox sets up an agent [e-mail address] to receive and process DMCA takedown notices.” McArthur adds that “Roblox should also ban repeat offenders, or it may be possible to prove liability by showing that Roblox has constructive knowledge of the infringement.”
A firm line some Pokémon fans draw with fan games is monetization. James, who has played several Pokémon games including Pokémon Brick Bronze and tipped us off to the game, said he stopped playing after the game’s asset appropriation began to bother him more. “I just feel like Nintendo is losing a lot of money. and I personally find that to be wrong,” he told me.
He doesn’t want the game to be taken down, but added, “I mean hey, a fan game is always fun and cool, but when you start profiting heavily off of other people’s assets, that’s kinda scummy.”
Update—2:00 p.m.: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that companies need to actively protect their copyright to assert it’s theirs. In fact, companies argue they must protect their trademark for that reason. We regret the error.