You’ve likely heard of the little phenomenon that is Pokemon GO by now. (I’m going with Pokenomenon.) Whether you’re out walking to catch just one more Clefairy before heading back home or just amazed by the amount of people walking about parks, it’s unlikely that you’ve missed this unprecedented moment in gaming and social media history.
I’ve been a gamer since the NES, and I’d played the Intellivision and Atari at various points, but I cut my teeth on Nintendo’s first home system and came into my own on its successor, the Super Nintendo. Since then, I’ve owned a system of every generation. I remember talking to my cousin about the amazing difference in the graphics between the original Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario Brothers 3. I remember falling down the insane rabbit hole of Super Mario RPG, something that looked and played like nothing I’d seen before. Energetic sessions of Goldeneye, exploring the vast fantasy world that was Hyrule in Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, and watching my brother play Xenogears gave way to late night Halo LAN parties in adjoining hotel rooms while I single-handedly defeated the Empire time and again at the stick of Rogue Squadron II and X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. I remember the agony of waiting for Halo 2’s launch date (and the god-awful tattoo reveal), being blown away by cult favorites Mirror’s Edge and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, where playstyles typically utilized by military shooters were turned on their heads into something majestic and new. I’ve been astounded by the choices available in games like Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect. I’ve been touched deeply by the gorgeous storytelling of Shadow of the Colossus and Ori and the Blind Forest. I’ve launched myself fully into the multiplayer arenas of Overwatch and Rocket League, and every one of these titles has at once left me mesmerized and in awe of the creative brilliance behind them.
I’ve never seen anything like Pokemon GO before.
Pokemon has been a hit since I was a kid, and I was originally one of the ones outside of it pointing and laughing. I thought that the game was too simplistic. Only four moves? How do you tailor brilliant attacks with that? It could in no way stand up to the brilliance and depth of Chrono Trigger or the juggernaut of JRPGs that would flood the ’90s and early millennium, but I jumped in on Pokemon Pearl, because a friend was playing and I was completely hooked. I’ve been rabid for the legendary creatures that Nintendo has been releasing this year for the anniversary (and getting them for both X and Alpha Sapphire – get at me if you want to trade) and have always known the addictive quality of the game. Now, Niantic and Nintendo have brought that simple formula, toned it down even further, and brought it to the masses in a way that has never been encountered before. There’s no easy answer to why this Pokenomenon (Told you that I was gonna use it.) has erupted with such passion and fury, but I’m going to detail the ways that it has surprised and delighted tens of thousands of fans and become one of the biggest gaming sensations in history when, so far, it has only launched in THREE countries.
What is Pokemon?
Twenty years ago, Nintendo released a game series that would spawn movies, TV series, collectable card games, and many generations of “pocket monsters” on various video game platforms. The goal of the game is simple: As a young boy or girl, go out into the world full of wild and exotic creatures that will randomly attack you from tall grass without any adult supervision, wallop them to near unconsciousness with your own critters, capture them, and make them fight for your pleasure while learning how important it is to live in harmony with nature. Okay, so the premise is a little shaky, but it’s the narrative that holds down a series of collection and mild strategy fun aimed at all ages with messages of peace and helping your friends and neighbors while being the best you can be scattered throughout. Pokemon GO has adapted this formula, and now you just find and capture the little beasties without pummeling the snot out of them first. It’s a simple mechanic, but what about it has made this such an incredible phenomenon so quickly?
The Speed of the Internet
When Al Gore created the internet (Thanks, buddy!), it was a dream to share information at near-instantaneous speed (or 56k, you know, lightning). The World Wide Web has evolved over time into a sacred universe dedicated to one-sided political rants, cat videos, and more porn than even elected officials can look at. News networks now talk about “what’s trending,” companies devise strategies to “go viral,” and everyone wants to be the next Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Well, Nintendo has just set impossible benchmarks that I don’t see how anyone will ever touch. Within a week of the “soft” launch, Pokemon GO had more active users than Tindr and was steadily climbing towards Twitter at that point. Nintendo announced its partnership with Niantic over a year ago, and the ‘net of things worried that Nintendo’s properties would be diluted or mishandled, though the company’s history would suggest that Nintendo had always placed its franchises above the feelings of partners. (Oh, Squaresoft, the games that could have been!) The real surprise happened when the trailer released for Pokemon GO promised a world where you’d track down everyone’s favorite monsters in real life, following a distance meter till you found your elusive quarry, or being assaulted on a bridge by a raging Gyrados, making the world that has long existed digitally for so long become parallel with ours.
When the game launched in New Zealand and Australia, all I could do was check the iTunes store constantly to see if I had magically been gifted with all that I had been waiting for: that Pokemon GO had been launched in the US. There had been no announcement, no fanfare, just the typical nerdy news sites suddenly exclaiming that it had happened. I’ve never seen news travel so fast in such a short amount of time, at least not any that didn’t involve tragedy. Since there was no comment from Nintendo, there could be no timeline for GO to reach our shores, so it was an interminable waiting game. There were folks who, of course, found workarounds. Android and iPhone users found ways to download the game illicitly, but there were warnings all over the sites that linked to these magic places that Nintendo could eventually freeze early adopters out. For some, it just didn’t matter, but I held out simply because I was nervous about making progress and having it wiped out.
Then, it happened. I saw an alert from a site that said it was up. I had been refreshing the App store on my phone all day, instantly picked it up, and saw it there in all its glory. While my wife slept, I caught a Squirtle in my bedroom, searched the map for close gyms and pokestops, and with great effort put my phone down instead of heading out into the night to begin my adventure. (It was around 11 p.m., and the urge was strong). The next morning, I woke early so that I could use my long commute into the city (Walking and public transit – no driving and Pokemon for me.) to begin capturing the little guys. Much to my delight, it seemed that every train station was a pokestop, and I loaded up on pokeballs and caught anybody I could while riding in. My first Pokemon in Manhattan was fittingly a Pidgey, and by the time I got to work, I had 25 Pokemon and 150 pokeballs ready for my trip home.
There were definitely issues that first day: The servers were not up to the demand that was suddenly thrust upon them, so there were freezes and crashes quite frequently. All you could do was mourn the loss of that powerful Gastly you had managed to corner just as it happened, but I’d diligently logged in again and just keep catching. Within a day’s time, I had managed to climb five levels and begin to challenge gyms. Over the weekend, I took several hour-long bike rides chasing down these pocket monsters, and not only had I met more people in my neighborhood than I had in the last two years living here, but I was aware of so many more interesting locations and markers in my town than I had known about before. I’d swing down to the park and see several different groups huddled together on their phones catching, battling, and laughing, engaging with me as I was with all of them regardless of age, gender, or race. Considering the events of late in the news, it was a refreshing and, for me, soul-lightening experience.
Free to Start
There’s been a lot of talk over the pros and cons of the Free-to-Play structure that has swept the mobile space and somehow bridged the gap over into consoles with micro-transactions as a way to advance gameplay or enhance competence instead of putting in the time. (Assassin’s Creed Unity, you are full of errors and evils.) I’ll say for the record that I think it’s one of the worst models for the gamers, as the “rules” of the game – getting stronger weapons, more powerful attacks, and other perks just because they have the financial means to buy the game’s rewards – leave those who wish to play for the sake of the game in the dust when coming up against these “libertarians.” We don’t play the game to win, we play the game because it’s fun to play. Yes, a lot of times that involves winning, but the experience itself is always what I treasure.
Now Nintendo has adopted this model, but they have one minor, but telling, variation for me. Instead of calling it Free to Play, they’ve termed their micro-transaction-laden offering “Free to Start.” They’ve done this with all the games they release on this model and while I admit it’s a tiny thing, the honesty of the presentation really makes a world of difference for me. The company is acknowledging that giving them money will help you out and are completely open about it. That said, though there are boosts that you can buy, the main thrust of the game (catching Pokemon) has not changed a bit. You can buy tools to help you catch more or get more incubators to help you hatch all the eggs you get, but you can’t straight up buy any Pokemon. You can’t buy battle enhancers, and you can’t buy gyms. The whole of the game can be played without paying a dime. (As of this writing, neither my wife nor I have spent any real money on the game, though I’ll likely buy coins at some point, because I feel that this much enjoyment is worth something, and the developers should be rewarded for their efforts.) This is a game that’s accessible to anyone with a smartphone or tablet, but doesn’t assume that just because you have one that you’ll be able to drop $30 a week on a game.
In Legend of Zelda, you walked into a cave and were told, “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” That was the entirety of the tutorial: Here’s a sword; you’ll need to hit things with it. You walked out of that cave and swung it and found that it shot a freaking laser beam! But the first time you got hit by a Moblin or Peahat, it became just a sword again. In your mind, you just learned that when your health bar is full, you can shoot lasers. There were no instructions, no detailed in-game map (though the earliest gold carts came with a lovely fold out one), no tutorial when some lame-ass character yells at you, telling you how to look around (which in the world for Halo means that a fully trained killing machine needs to be taught how to walk every time he wakes up). Games today spend a lot of time holding your hand, guiding you along so that you learn how to play the game.
Pokemon GO ain’t having none of that.
In the Tips menu, you basically learn the following: This is what a pokestop looks like; this is what a gym looks like; go get ’em, champ. That’s it. There are so many tips, tricks, or strategies available for this game, and there’s been silence from the company on what they are. People playing the game are learning these things and sharing it with each other unprompted. While it is true that some of the more subtle mechanics will be more familiar to folks already acquainted with the Pokemon universe, those players have been patiently and clearly explaining to the newcomers how to succeed and, more importantly, how to experiment themselves in order to uncover more on their own. I just wrote a whole article on how nerds can sometimes be elitist and wall off their beloved IPs, and this game has completely blown through that. Pokefans are welcoming new players with open arms, and it’s making the experience all the better for it! On one of my rides, I saw a mother and daughter walking their dog and playing, and I called out, “Catch ’em all!” The mother immediately pointed at her daughter and said, “She got me started,” seemingly embarrassed to be “found out.” I replied, “Yeah, but it’s super fun, right?” She lit up, redeemed, and said, “Yeah, it really is!”
This has been my experience from the game. I’ve been at a stop sign with ten other people while trying to lock down a Seel that kept fluttering in and out while restarting the app several times because of the server load. I never once complained about the game, because we were all experiencing something together, something that went beyond the game, something that allowed our shared frustrations to be vented in a positive and jovial way: the shared experience making us laugh about problems that have led to “rage quitting” and broken controllers for decades. This is a point I’ll be returning to later on, but for now we should examine the darker side.
People will still be people
The news hasn’t been all good during the last fortnight. People have been in accidents, dead bodies have been discovered, and some geniuses used the pokestops to rob players at gunpoint. Additionally, there are lots of questions about privacy and just how much data has been collected by Niantic, especially from iPhone users who used their real Google accounts to log in (including myself) when the game was requiring COMPLETE access to the users’ accounts. This was addressed surprisingly quickly (for any tech company), and a new version was released within a few days. There are also reports that members of the three teams within the game (You choose from Mystic, Instinct, and Valor when you reach level 5 and first visit a Gym.) are causing gang-like behavior, with taunting and harassment between the rivals erupting.
Less dangerous, there are still issues with the servers, and every time they add a new country, there are slowdowns while the additional load is added to the servers. The privacy issues are still at a forefront, because Niantic hasn’t yet disclosed what all the player data will be used for, and I’m sure there will be more incidents of unpleasant things being discovered, whether they be intentional or not.
A lot of these issues are getting a great deal of publicity from the news cycle, and while I agree that some basic common sense would help in these situations (Seriously, there’s no app on your phone that should be used while you drive. Please make safe choices for yourself and others out there!), there are things that go beyond, like the predatory use by criminals and possibly companies on those playing the game. I don’t really think that these are problems with this game specifically, and some of these incidents may be getting blown out of proportion a touch, but trepidation in situations we’ve not encountered before makes sense, and this has gone beyond the scope of any expectations. Anything getting people to go out in large groups and explore will invite people who will take advantage of that, it has just happened so quickly that it seems like all of these things are only going to increase in frequency and perhaps depravity. I really don’t think this to be the case, I think that we’re simply seeing the world adjusting to something well outside our unified experience, and that the numbers of negative incidents seem so high because the numbers of active users is incredibly high. The truth may be in the percentages.
The other note worth pointing out is that this will cause people to bury their heads in their phones even more than they do already and will further feed our addiction to tech. I’ll admit that I’m on my device a lot more now than I have been (Full disclosure: Parts of this may have been a mess, because I may or may not have been keeping an eye on my phone while writing this on the train. My editor’s a rock star for dealing with that!), but I think that, once again, it’s the newness of the experience that’s driving more time on our devices and that it will normalize once we’ve caught a lot of our Pokedexes. I’ll still be on the lookout for an elusive and rare catch, and I’ll likely continue my evening catch rides, but since it’s getting me outdoors when I’m usually sitting on the couch, I can’t really think of that as too bad a side effect.
AR has beat VR
This is a little speculative on my part, but the rise of Virtual Reality technology has been a big story in gaming circles for a few years now, especially with Facebook acquiring Oculus and the big push from gaming companies in what they envision to be the next big frontier in gaming tech. VR has been promised several times before, but it’s never lived up to the promise (See Nintendo’s VR Boy peripheral…yeesh.) and has never been as well funded. Everyone knows that they need to get it right this time or it may bury the technology forever (or maybe a decade, which might as well be forever on a tech front). The biggest problem currently is how to get people into the headsets, and with retail commitments starting at around $600 (if you already own a PS4) and as high as $2000 for a high-end Oculus rig, not a lot of average consumers are going to drop that kind of cash on a system without seeing it. Unfortunately, there is no mass communication tool that can convey the experience accurately, which means that it will be slow moving at first and will likely require demo units in popular locations to really move it in to the consciousness of the average consumer.
Pokemon GO is an Augmented Reality game, where graphics and gameplay are layered over the real world. It doesn’t need the same dedicated hardware that VR naturally requires, as is evidenced by its incredible spread over the last two weeks, and it was able to change the way people saw gaming practically overnight (which is incredibly not hyperbolic). The hardware already had an installed base, and the free software allowed it to propagate at a logarithmic rate. This is an incredible feat using tech that we already have, and Nintendo is supposed to be delivering a system that will implement AR tech in March 2017. With this kind of initial showing, without dedicated hardware, it can only spell good things for a company whose stock has already risen 50% because of this one release. It’s a proof of concept that will raise expectations for their next system, so if the trajectory is solid, they’ll move themselves back into relevance. If they botch it, however, it could be a huge blow now that expectations have been raised so dramatically.
Do I play or do I GO now?
Where does all of this bring us? We’re in the baby steps of nascent technology crafting that has the nostalgic power of one of the world’s biggest franchises coupled with it. The basic premise of the game isn’t new, and the tech behind the real-world fusion is an adapted version of Niantic’s other large-scale game, Ingress. But together, it’s a chocolate/peanut butter moment that has surpassed anyone’s wildest imagination. Even the fail screen when the servers are down says that the team is humbled at the response.
There are problems with the connectivity, and there are safety and privacy issues at play here. There’s also a sense of community within this movement that I have never encountered in all the years I’ve spent playing. I’ve been approaching people and engaging with folks from all walks of life in my neighborhood, sharing stories and tips I’ve learned on my journey, and learning from others who are rocking it harder than I am. I’ve never felt so welcomed or respected in any gaming community as I have been playing Pokemon GO these last two weeks. It’s an incredible experience that has transcended the tech behind it to become a very human experience. It’s asking us to take a risk and walk out our front doors to see what lies around the next corner after years of having exotic worlds brought to us in our own homes. When the ability to trade is released, I’m sure there will be moments of vets giving Noobs some high-level critters to help them along. I know I’ll be spreading the Pokelove as much as I can. One of my favorite stories involves a young black man who was called over by a police officer who just wanted to show him where the Jigglypuff was hiding. This is not a messianic calling in a video game, it will not cure us of our social ills or create world peace, but it’s something that can open us to each other and our world just a little bit, break us out of our self-imposed isolation of devices and headphones, and make us listen to each other just a little bit, even if it’s just to pick up a hot tip on a Vapoeron (the one behind the ruckus in Central Park the other night).
My personal experience with the game has been nothing short of amazing. Yes, when the servers crashed while I was walking in the park with my wife and son I was a little annoyed, but the feeling was fleeting as I looked to my wife and said, “I guess we’ll just play later,” and we enjoyed our outing with phones in our pockets. Maybe this will get us to take more excursions with them silenced, but if we happen to both snag a high-level Snorlax at a picnic, I may not be the one complaining too loudly about it. Even when everything in the game goes wrong, what it still is able to do is more than any single piece of software I’ve ever encountered. So, go out and meet the people laughing with their noses buried in their phones, maybe download it yourself, get to know people who are willing to engage with strangers, and definitely come and find me. I’ll be claiming gyms for team Mystic and having a great time with anyone who wants to go hunting together.
Go catch ’em all.