Massive — Pokémon Go: An Experience In Need Of Evolution

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Pokémon Go is everywhere. From giant park gatherings to businesses springing for Pokémon-attracting lures to boost business, everyone from curious kids to white-collar lawyers taking lunch breaks are whipping out their phones for a chance to catch one. Building on the framework of its previous augmented-reality game Ingress, Niantic has created a genuine global phenomenon fueled by the beloved IP that has been around for ages.

Pokémon Go is a free-to-play exploration title for smartphones that syncs up and integrates into players’ real lives, motivating them to seek out landmarks, points of interest, and other neat spots in cities that may be off the beaten path, with the goal of catching the classic creatures that have made Pokémon a hit brand for more than two decades. 

Playing the game is easy. Simply download the game on your phone, and you’re ready to start finding creatures in the real world. Your phone buzzes when a Pokémon is nearby, and then with a quick touch you lob Pokéballs at the creature until you capture it or it escapes. Players have the option to do these catches in augmented reality, i.e. the little creature will show up on your phone screen in the real world, either on your friend’s shoulder or maybe hanging out in a tree. Finding Pokémon in places both common and unusual makes for great social media fare, as nothing is quite as humorous as finding a Dratini in the bathtub or a Grimer in your toilet.

Players get a good overview of the area you’re in on the map on their phone to find points of interest, either Pokéstops to replenish your supplies or gyms to battle with your Pokémon roster. The area continually updates and changes as you move in various directions. Walking is critical to hatching Pokémon eggs that you find at Pokéstops, so even if you try to game the system by driving around town (DO NOT drive and play this game, it’s very dangerous!) there’s motivation to actually get out, walk, and interact with other players and places.

Other people are essential to the Pokémon Go experience. Whether you’re simply meeting another player during an epic catch, hanging out in a crowd during a lure party, or forging a friendly rivalry with several opposing teams outside of a local gym, interaction with the community is a driving force behind the shared experience. The sheer diversity in crowds is a testimony to the game’s accessibility, and is a major boon. Not everyone wants to engage with gym battles, but running around town or the local mall to find rare Pokémon touches some primal nerve, which is fun for everyone while scratching that collector/completionist itch. I’ve seen everything from families and children to actual gangs of teens on bikes and random 20- and 40-year-olds camping at the same lured location.

Pokémon Go is a massive hit for those looking for a social MMO experience that bleeds into reality. While players can skip the social aspects of the game (I’ve seen plenty of folks that just want to play their own game privately out on the sidewalk), it adds a neat element to the experience that you can’t find in your living room. Meeting and interacting with real people is essentially a game mechanic. Rivalries that form over local gyms can lead to interesting banter and friendly conflicts that last weeks. Alternatively, just using it as a gamification gimmick to go outside and move around to play games is an effective and fun way to incorporate physical activity into a day.

Power lies in the simplicity of the game. Right now, the focus is on finding Pokémon, throwing balls at them until you catch them, and maybe laying siege to a few gyms. This allows anyone, even people aren’t intimately familiar with Pokémon, to dive into the game immediately and begin catching them and interacting with others doing the same. 

The combat system is barebones and uninteresting. Lackluster tap mechanics streamline combat to the point that some sort of autobattle system would be preferable, as there is no depth to it. That’s not an utter condemnation of the game, however, as the real fun is tied to the social component of bringing teams together to capture gyms or develop a rivalry with another team. Pokémon Go is, in some ways, what you make of it. However, factors like where you live and how social you want to be with other players contribute to the experience.

While a wonderfully immersive experience for players in metropolis, it’s also a massive miss for players stuck out in the country where there’s no Pokémon to find or Pokéstops to visit, or those lacking a data plan on their phones (you require an internet connection to play), but the overall choice to stick Pokémon on mobile-GPS ready cell phones is a big hit. While it will drain your battery down to nothing in just a few hours, it’s surprisingly light on data usage, so you should be able to incorporate gameplay into your life without incurring extra fees.

Server stability can often be an issue for big MMOs and Pokémon Go is no exception. Server issues have been a continual, serious problem. While it’s easy to attribute these problems to the overwhelming popularity and success of the game out the gates, it’s still disappointing — especially when you plan a day trip to meet with hundreds or thousands of players and then the servers stop working.

Irritating bugs also continue to plague Pokémon Go. Due to freezes and other bizarre quirks that require hard resets, I’ve had to force close the app more than any other game and software I’ve ever used. Being unable to group transfer Pokémon leads to marathon sessions of annoyance where each garbage Pidgey needs to be broken down individually, which could have been fixed easily with a group selector. However, it’s an incredible testimony to the pervasiveness of Pokémon Go that people are willing to put up with issues that would bury other games in a heartbeat.

Some of the issues are exacerbated by the paid item shop, which is optional. Many items available for purchase provide boons like lures to attract Pokémon for everyone outside of a Pokéstop, personal use incense that bring more Pokémon right to you, or experience-boosting eggs. Purchasing and using these at an unfortunate time can lead to horrible instances where time-based items are essentially wasted when the servers go down, or the game freezes up. You’re out of luck and out of your investment. 

A few weeks after launch, Pokémon Go is like a Magikarp. It’s floundering around and making a splash, but has the potential to evolve into something epic (like a Gyarados, for the initiated). Niantic has a roadmap for continued support, with trading, battles, raids, new Pokémon, and more on the horizon. 

Pokémon Go has the potential to redefine the concept of the modern MMORPG and has the opportunity to take us to amazing new places, but whether we go there or not will depend on Niantic’s post-launch support and major updates.