Surrounded by people at 1am on a Monday, it sinks in that Pokemon Go has so much going for it, and yet even more holding it back. Despite a perfect view of the San Francisco skyline from the top of a park, everyone’s on their phone. We’re huddled together, reciting Pokemon facts from our youth we never thought would prove useful in adulthood. Pokemon Go has taken over San Francisco, everybody’s social media, and the top of the app stores. It delivers an entire generation’s shared lucid dream.
Unfortunately, that same park echoes with groans of players fighting their way through a broken game. It’s far too easy to hear curse words from down the street after every capture causes a game freeze. We can’t tune out the inevitable sigh of re-entering login details every time it’s opened. My jaw drops when someone explains what the tutorial failed to teach. We’ve all heard “Why can’t we trade or battle? Isn’t that the core of Pokemon?” for the 50th time today. No matter our attempts to reclaim the gym, our enemy is glitched to keep one last hit point.
Flashback to 2012; internal Google startup Niantic releases Field Trip and Ingress. The first is an app attempts to show you unique things in your city. The latter being a science fiction alternate reality that involves massively multiplayer location based gameplay. After 35 million dollars in investment from Google, Nintendo and The Pokemon Company, Niantic secures their license to print money. They announce the first ever smartphone Pokemon game. Using waypoints and other information Ingress players crowd sourced from around the world, Pokemon Go launched earlier this month.
The launch has fed millions of deprived Pokemon fans that traded their old Game Boy’s for a smartphone. In just one week, Pokemon Go signed up 21 million trainers. Each play around 40 minutes a day. They take over parks and streets, find love, and even dethrone King’s Candy Crush to make it the largest mobile game in US history. Quantify this with whatever popular Google trend / searches you can think of:
What’s even more impressive about the launch are the unwavering fans. Players have endured what will go down as one of the most frustrating releases in recent memory. Servers locking players out. Constant crashes. Timed out connections. Having to press the button 10+ times for its function to work. A very lacking tutorial considering mechanics. Core loop bugs. Player’s purchases being lost. Colossal battery drain. Privacy concerns about access to Google accounts. Game patches offered cures worse than the disease. Upon release, eyebrows from the community raised when the helm of Niantic went on record saying “We thought the game would be popular, but it obviously struck a nerve.” When such a title was not only teased at the Super Bowl, it’s also one of the largest and IP’s of all time, it’s hard to shrug off preparation effort. But Pokemon fans want to be the very best, and they’ll even pay to get there.
As of writing, Pokemon Go has yet to launch worldwide and has already signed up 30 million trainers. It’s grossed over 35 million (without even including the recent Japan release of Pokemon’s home and raving fan base). In fact, there was a window where almost 50% of all mobile purchases were inside Pokemon Go. No doubt being labeled a success for the franchise, despite evidence that Nintendo might be getting the short end of the stick.
After the late night of trying to catch Pokemon in the park, the next day I mentioned the game’s potential to my favorite sandwich shop. Explaining if they drop a “lure” it attracts Pokemon for everyone to catch. Rarely do we get a video game that boosts your local economy. Store clerks all over the city are leaning into the trend, offering discounts if your team holds the gym out front. This isn’t just a push notification to remind me to play. Pokemon Go has managed to become engraved in my commute and way of life. The flip side to this coin is that Niantic knows this. They’ve already confirmed corporate partnerships in the pipeline. Player’s are just hoping that rare Pokemon can be found somewhere else than just participating McDonalds.
“Wait, go back, what’s a Pokemon lure?” is a common question from both clueless sandwich shop owners to long standing Pokemon fans. It’s jarring if you’ve been playing the series for 20 years and find yourself lost in unfamiliar jargon. Pokemon Go is unlike any other Pokemon adventure, for better and worse. The notorious turn based tactics, limited fighting resources, and one-on-one battles which made Game Freak famous in ’96 are gone. Pokemon Go is a more modern approach that focuses on mobile session times.
The day after talking to the sandwich shop, I realized Pokemon Go could also help form better personal habits. With the incentive of hatching Pokemon eggs by walking, I skipped the train commute and walked. On the way, I tossed out some Pokeballs at nearby Pokemon. I took the roads less traveled in order to battle at gyms. I earned some XP after taking some silly Pokemon AR photos to send to friends. After bumping into a fellow trainer, I smiled and asked about any good Pokemon nearby. Just like any other behavior on my phone, interactions with Pokemon Go are in short bursts.
I’ve heard a version of that story from all types of players, except from friends in the suburbs that are barely populated. Either way, this new Pokemon Go evolves past what fans fell in love with. Instead, it offers a great modern, but ultimately soulless collection app. Players need the equivalent of the notorious Hero’s Charge Soul Stones, a currency gained from deleting that character to upgrade another version of it. While this keeps Niantic off the development content grind, it neglects the attachment players grew for Pokemon. Instead of bonding and growing over the journey, when a better version of your Pikachu comes along, it’s best to delete and replace. One major gameplay addition Pokemon added to classic JRPG’s was the PP (Power Point) stat. While out on adventures, attack moves would deplete upon usage, providing an interesting decision in every battle. Pokemon Go’s combat archetypes, their relationships, and special moves mean little when it screen tapping speed is everything. In general, it’s a struggle to get through that process and core loop, most commonly used buttons are hidden and hard to reach. Quick Pokeball throws over a long turn based battle allows for easier mobile sessions. In Pokemon Go, there’s rarely any choices to make. Where the magic actually happens is in the patterns our brains think they detect and give the game credit for. I’ve definitely been guilty of being amazed there’s a grass pokemon in the park when it’s actually random. Many classic Pokemon gameplay staples were bursting at the seams with potential for a F2P version. Unfortunately, they’re tossed aside for a Gacha mechanic.
– But don’t underestimate that Gacha mechanic. Making money is one of the stronger legs the title has to stand on. Even so, the title has both moments of genius and an astonishing lack of effort. There’s classic pinch points of storage expansion and time optimization via multiple egg hatcheries to save you from walking each one (although there’s an odd max to how much you can buy). Any decent trainer has discovered that despite the dopamine from evolving Pokemon, it’s best to save them up for a mass-evolve. Only once you have a large number of evolutions, you pay to crack open a lucky egg (oddly similar skeuomorphism) which doubles your incoming XP as you mass-evolve all at once. The game never calls anything out, but it perfectly lets players discover the optimal leveling loop that involves spend. While Gym battles used to be epic emotional checkpoints, now they’re a never ending (read: infinite hard sink) match of tug-of-war. Gyms allow players to go at it solo or team up. If players defeat an opposing level 3 Gym with 3 Pokemon in it, they bring it down to rank 2 with 2 Pokemon in it, and so on. If you control the gym, you can leave a pokemon inside it, and train against it to boost the Gym’s rank. For all the Gym’s you have Pokemon inside, you get a multiplier with a button you can press once a day for hard currency. Do you press it when you own just one Gym or keep capturing more and risk nobody reclaiming other gyms you have? It’s a rare and engaging moment in Pokemon Go. With a page ripped out of Extra Credits, dropping a lure is an intriguing socially pressured spend that benefits all around you. Niantic seem to be twisting some backend knobs to tighten their economy by manipulating the “run-away” and “break out” rates of Pokemon to pinch Pokeball purchases.
Despite iterations in hopes for a tighter economy, when low level Pokemon take 30 Pokeballs and high level Pokemon take 10, there doesn’t seem to be any method to the madness. There’s non-transparent and true random systems at play that are proven to churn players. In the beginning of the game, the player goes through a whole cosmetic process, but can’t purchase customizations for their avatar. It’s surprising there’s no passive way to purchase Pokeballs that would also increase engagement. For instance, games with better metrics offer both 5 dollars for a 100 Pokeballs, and 3 dollars for 10 Pokeballs a day for 10 days. Avoiding another long list of issues, Pokemon Go boils down to a CCG. A genre where there are countless excellent non-evasive improvements to borrow. Given the state of the game, it’s hard to tell if Niantic consciously or by accident, left non-trivial percentages of revenue on the table. Their late game leveling curves and loops seem to be pinching players a bit aggressively from other curves in similar top grossing titles. The reality is that ‘Pokeball & Heal’ bundles would encourage first conversations. From Pokeball purchases mid-battle to a cost / ability that changes your team would have been huge and non-destructive gains for Niantic. But perhaps the only launch KPI was viral takeover. Despite the initial bump and press, the game’s positive word of mouth is starting to wither. Soon the realities of F2P will sink in along with the player churn from lack of depth.
Although, casting aside best practices is what’s so eye-opening about Pokemon Go. At first, the obtuse tutorials leave players hopeless. You can’t tell if this was just another rushed feature, or if Niantic was trying to deliver an authentic / nostalgic experience. When Pokemon first came out, there was no internet or answers to all the questions. Back in the day you asked your friends and exchanged rumors with kids down the block. Pokemon Go delivers exactly that. Everyone is still speculating how XL and XS Pokemon actually differentiate, but I’ve certainly exchanged rumors about it. It’s a word of mouth ‘tribal knowledge’ that forms with your friends and cements the game in social circles. If you explain something to a friend, you get that social reinforcement that you really are a Pokemon master. It’s hard to tell if Pokemon Go rushed the tutorial or if they knew their IP gave them a no-fail opportunity to break the rules.
No other developer has been or will be in such a position to break as many rules. Particularly in the mobile space, we see imitators pop up as soon as success seems to trend in a direction. People are shouting this is the start of AR, the HoloLens, Google Glass, you name it. No. Pokemon Go is a perfect storm of opportunity. The founder of Niantic helped make Google Maps and already developed an identical product with properly themed crowd sourced data. Nintendo has spent years and billions of dollars nurturing an IP that appealed to the masses. Excuse the cynicism, but I worry for developers who choose to enter the space now that “AR is proven”. We’ve had the tech for years, it’s just that it’s Pokemon. If this game had a more general cast of cute creatures, few would care about what’s in AR or the title itself.
Who’s starting to think Pokemon Go was released in the US by accident? The options infer they have yet to go 1.0: pic.twitter.com/xHXDK2rfvJ
— Dylan Jones (@tDJ) July 27, 2016
Pokemon Go has highlighted the uncomfortable fact that a game’s success is not correlated to how well it’s made. Niantic didn’t even buy Unity Pro or bother turning off a splash screen watermark. But maybe these conceived lack of efforts above come from narrow traditional game expectations. For everything Pokemon Go gets wrong, what it does right is far more important. A goal was to get players to walk around. Sure, it’s optimal to just sit at some PokeStops -but getting people outside still counts as progress. Everyone is walking around glued to their phone like a zombie, but at least they’re outside talking to others? Pokemon fans were promised the world via trailers, when what they got was much more mundane, but it’s still like nothing the mainstream has ever played. It’s the brightest future the gaming community has ever seen. It’s an experience that is bringing strangers together. Though the process is frustrating and disappointing, millions are now more engaged with the outside world and others. I can’t say that about many other titles. That’s why Pokemon Go is the best and the worst game I’ve ever played.
Want to continue the conversation or call something out? I’m @TDJ on twitter.