Ed. Note: This is part two of two parts on the Pokémon GO game that has people wandering around town with their phones in front of their faces — well, more than usual. Yesterday, we covered some background on the twenty-year-old Pokémon universe. Today we’ll cover this newest incarnation of Pokémon GO. After you’ve read both parts, you’ll be ready to converse about it — or download it yourself.
Welcome back to Part 2! If you missed Part 1 yesterday, we talked a little about what Pokémon are, and touched briefly on the history of the franchise — which hopefully can help explain today’s Pokémania. If you’re not sure what Pokémon is all about, go ahead and check out yesterday’s entry.
With that knowledge under our belts, we can really take a look at what makes Pokemon GO so appealing to fans and newcomers alike; but first, let’s talk about how the game itself works.
What is Pokémon GO?
As I mentioned in the previous article, Pokémon GO uses location-based software to pepper the “real world” with virtual Pokémon. Players of the game see their avatar walking on a map of their neighborhood, and can see points of interest (“Pokestops” or “Gyms”) as well as any wild Pokémon nearby. When engaging a wild Pokémon, the app uses the phone’s cameras to put the Pokémon over an image of the ground in front of the player, just as if they were encountering the Pokémon for real. (There’s even a ‘snapshot’ function so that players can take pictures of the Pokémon they see in their everyday life-though not all phones are capable of using the Augmented Reality feature, so not everybody will have fun photos).
Pokestops can be just about anything you can imagine; many are local landmarks such as memorials, sculptures, murals, or bus stations. Visiting a Pokestop gives the player items they can use to catch Pokémon. Additionally, Pokestops include a picture of the landmark so you know when you’ve found the right one. There’s a Pokestop at the synagogue where I work, as well as at the fountain in my apartment complex. Several times, Pokestops have pointed out cool stuff I didn’t even know was there!
Players can also activate “lures” on Pokestops, which draw wild Pokémon to that area. As a side effect, trainers are also drawn to the area; players can see which Pokestops have a lure activated, and many people head to that area to catch Pokémon more easily.
Residents of Boulder may have seen swarms of people on Pearl Street and the CU Campus in particular; those have the highest density of Pokestops in the area (and, reportedly, a lot of Nidorans).
Pokestops and lures are the most likely cause of swarms of young people around local landmarks, but one might also see them gathering at Gyms, places where Trainers can pit Pokémon against each other (friendly matches, remember). Unlike Gyms in previous Pokémon games, which are led by Gym Leaders (following on our karate metaphor from the previous article, these would be the senseis of Pokémon dojos), Gyms in Pokémon GO are manned by members of one of three “Teams.” Players contest control over Gyms between the three teams; the game makes you pick a team once you hit a certain level. (For the record, I picked blue team, because that’s where the cool kids are). Once you take a Gym, you can leave one of your Pokémon there to help fight off others who might take the Gym from you.
It has battles, it has catching Pokémon–sounds like a regular Pokémon game, right?
Well, not really.
From a gaming standpoint, it’s not even that great of a game. It feels nothing like a Pokémon game, aside from containing Pokémon–the gameplay is completely different from main series Pokémon games in every conceivable way. Instead of being a traditional Pokémon game ported to a smartphone, it seems more like Niantic took their previous Augmented Reality game, Ingress, and slapped Pokémon on it. It has none of the features that make Pokémon games so fun and engaging (not even player-to-player battles and trading, which have been part of the core of Pokémon since square one), and it only includes the original 150 monsters for the time being. The only mechanic that Pokémon GO shares with previous titles is the process of walking a certain number of steps to hatch Pokémon eggs — which was tedious and boring in the original games, but makes slightly more sense in a game so focused on walking.
Instead of being turn-based with complex strategies, as they have been for twenty years, battles take place in real time, with poorly-explained mechanics. Instead of leveling up your Pokémon by battling other Pokémon, you have to feed your Pokémon species-specific candy to power it up, and you get this candy by catching the same Pokémon over and over. For someone who’s used to playing a game that has remained fundamentally the same over the years, these changes feel outright abrasive.
Even besides the different mechanics, the game doesn’t even work half the time. At launch the servers were not nearly equipped to handle the flood of people signing up and crashed constantly. The game is still pretty janky a few days after launch, and I practically have to play russian roulette every time I throw a Pokeball: either I catch the Pokémon, or the game crashes and I have to restart the app.
So why are people–me included–still rushing out the door in pursuit of a Pokémon?
The answer is simple: the game perfectly captures the excitement of leaving home to look for Pokémon that all of us felt as kids, and provides us an inroad to meet other like-minded fans.
The fan reaction to this game has been nothing short of a phenomenon. The far-reaching appeal of the game took me completely by surprise–it’s not just us hardcore veterans out there hunting for Pokémon. People who haven’t given Pokémon a second thought since they were six are suddenly crawling out of the woodwork, smartphones out, ready to leave home and fulfill their childhood dreams. Even people who’ve never played a Pokémon game are downloading the app to see what the fuss is about. For the first time in twenty years, everyone is talking about Pokémon.
It seems, suitably, as though it’s all one big callback to the late nineties, when you couldn’t go a day without hearing the word Pokémon. But this time, the social aspect is far more central to the experience. Not only are people getting out and getting active–walking as far as 10 kilometers to hatch a Pokémon egg, or circling their neighborhood for hours in pursuit of a rare Pokémon–they’re working together. The stories coming out of this game after just a few days are astounding. People are coming together at Pokestops and introducing themselves, talking about what Pokémon they’ve found and where they’ve found them. We’ve seen older players telling younger ones where to find cool Pokémon, and sometimes vice versa! People are meeting each other and learning about their community, all thanks to a little Pokémon game.
Of course, a game like this is not without its risks. The game warns players to be aware of their surroundings while they play, many states are rolling out “Don’t Pokémon and Drive” ads, and some less-than-upright people have been using the game to take advantage of others. There have been complaints of private homes getting mistagged as Pokestops or Gyms, or people behaving disrespectfully in places like cemeteries. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC has asked visitors to stop catching Pokémon there and is trying to get their Pokestop removed to prevent players from congregating there and disrupting museum visitors.
Even despite these downsides, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. If nothing else, Pokémon GO looks to be a game changer in the field of getting people to go outside. It’s already on track to surpass Twitter in daily active users on Android, and it’s not even available in every country yet. Not only that, it’s bringing people from all walks of life together over common ground. That’s kind of incredible.
For me, who grew up sleeping with the same Pikachu doll for twenty years, it feels like one step closer to the Pokémon world I’ve spent my whole life dreaming about. (If only I had the Augmented Reality function on my phone…)