The world has been turned into a Pokémon menagerie, but the game is not without problems. The real fun comes from going outside to explore
As those in the know will doubtless already be aware, there’s a Squirtle at Senate House Library, a Bulbasaur at Buckingham Palace, and maybe even an Evee at your local bus stop waiting, not for the 147, but for an intrepid player to snap it up. Pokémon Go has turned the world into a Pokémon menagerie, and now everyone with a smartphone has the potential to become a master of cute little monsters.
Pokémon Go is the first smartphone release from The Pokémon Company, which has been looking after this multimillion-selling video game franchise since 1998. Developed by augmented reality specialist Niantic Inc, the developer behind Google’s experimental AR game Ingress, it’s a massive-multiplayer, location-based spin-off from the role-playing fantasy series.
Using a player’s smartphone camera and GPS signal, the game makes it seem as if wild Pokémon are cropping up on the streets of the real world. When walking around and exploring, players – or trainers as they are called in the game – are greeted with rustling bits of grass, which signal a Pokémon’s presence. Walking closer will trigger them to appear, and tapping on them will initiate a Pokébattle. With the optional augmented-reality turned on, it may look as if a Caterpie is peeking out from the grass just outside the front door, putting players right in the shoes of a Pokémon trainer.
Where the much-loved Pokémon games of the 1990s and 2000s had players assuming the role of kids coming-of-age in a monster-inhabited alternative Japan, Pokémon Go encourages those now-grown Pokémon-crazed millennials to get outside and turn whole neighbourhoods into shared Pokémon safari parks. When Go was announced last September, it was already being heralded as a landmark experiment in augmented and virtual-reality gaming. This, coupled with the never-to-be-underestimated power of nostalgia for 90s-era-brands, has served to generate enormous Poké-hype.
Even before you really get into the experience, however, there are a handful of technical problems, which now seems standard for a connected game in the early stages of its release. Pokémon Go crashes with a frustrating frequency (sometimes depriving a player of hard-won Pokémon, should a crash be so misfortunately timed), it is slow to respond in areas with poor cell signal (read: 3G), and the strain on the phone’s battery makes a portable charger an essential piece of every trainer’s kit. Even beyond these minor technical difficulties, there are problems: an opaque user interface, poorly explained mechanics, and tiresome battle sequences with no discernable connection to the Pokémon games millions of fans have come to know and love.
True, there is a tutorial at the beginning, but it’s disatisfyingly short, and the fact is, every Pokémon game before this one has been largely intuitive for players to pick up and play. Pokémon Go isn’t – yet it expects players to know what is going on. For example, what is Stardust, and why is it in your inventory? It doesn’t explain the Pokémon-specific candies, which are seemingly requisite for Pokémon to evolve or “Power Up,” rather than using experience points gained when battling other Pokémon as in prior games. Instead of a comforting return to the genre, and without proper explanation, the experience can feel slightly alienating.
The game’s battles, a core mechanic of the Pokémon franchise, are separated in Go between battles with wild Pokémon, and those against area Gym Leaders. Battling wild Pokémon for capture involves quick mini-games where players must use their fingers to flick Pokéballs on-screen towards Pokémon, as coloured rings pulse and focus around them. A green ring might represent an easily caught Pokémon, yellow for moderately difficult, and so on. Lacking further explanation, it only became clear well into play that the smaller a ring became, the more focused a throw would be. Even this mini-game, however, as frustrating and unreliable as tossing softballs at carnival milk bottles stacks, still requires more strategy than Gym battles, which seem to only require a mess of frantic screen-tapping. Gone are the tense turn-based combat sequences of previous Pokémon games. While the time commitment of a full-on Pokébattle would be inconvenient mid-stroll down the high street, becoming a Leader at a Gym still felt unsatisfying and almost accidental.
One doesn’t necessarily need to venture out in the real world to capture or battle Pokémon, many can be found in one’s home and there is a kind of childish wonderment to discovering a Zubat or two between the television and the sofa. The real fun, though, comes from heading out on to the streets to see what different sorts of Pokémon having been lying low in the rustling grass of local neighbourhoods, or at various historic sites. Some reports have indicated that journeying beyond your own street is the key to finding rarer types of Pokémon, and it’s also the fastest way to access Pokéstops, a Pokémart-proxy for the game, which offer items such as Pokéballs and Health Potions to trainers. Pokéstops can be found at parks, museums, and even works of public art. Pokéstops have been at the centre of recent controversy, as some have already been the site of real-world crime, inspired by the game. With one or two instances of armed robbers staking out Pokéstops with “lures” to attract wild Pokémon and trainers looking to capture them, it is important to remember to practice common sense and take care of one’s surroundings while playing. As one US police officer told ABC news, “Normally you wouldn’t go to a deserted alley at 3am. That shouldn’t change just because an app said you should.”
To put it bluntly, Pokémon Go is not good as a game. Until it gets updates that iron out kinks and offer the content promised in early trailers, such as trading Pokémon, group battles, or even just more interesting combat, this isn’t likely to change. But then, to just hold Pokémon Go against other Pokémon titles, or even other mobile games, feels unfair. As we’ve seen, it has already inspired countless players to go outside and explore their neighbourhoods, travel to historic landmarks, kayak to the middle of lakes to battle Gym Leaders with friends, and meet new people. OK, yes, one person discovered a dead body – but the game has engendered a spirit of exploration, discovery and prosocial play, that we haven’t seen on this scale before – not even in the early 2000s when titles such as Botfighters introduced the concept of location-based play to a fascinated new audience of early adopters.
It’s not just another mobile game and it’s not another Pokémon game – it’s an entirely separate beast on the cusp of something vast; a glimpse into the future of widely accessible augmented reality. What does it matter now if the nuances of gameplay are clunky when there’s the possibility of catching a Gastly in a previously unfamiliar local park behind a sculpture you never knew the name of before? Or the glee of discovering an Oddish unbeknown to those around you, a little secret of the reality that exists only in the palm of your hands, beside the bell peppers at Tesco? When everyone street corner is a potential Pokéstop, when any passerby could ask, “Oh, wow, are you playing Pokémon Go?!” and become a new hunting pal, something much bigger is going on.
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