OK. We’re going to play along and assume, for just a moment, that someone out there in North America hasn’t yet heard of the free-to-play Pokemon Go app. We’d like to begin by saying, welcome to the Internet. The porn is free. Cats are gods. There is no Nigerian prince. Stay the hell away from 4chan. That should cover the basics. You’re welcome.
Let’s shift into rationality. More likely than the above scenario, there are more than a few people who are at least familiar with the indescribably beloved game by name and reputation, but have no earthly idea what has everybody so enthralled with it. In the interest of geeking responsibly and fostering understanding, we’d like to try something just a bit outside our status quo. Instead of a review or a sales pitch, Pokemon Go’s unprecedented immediate popularity and shocking societal impact calls for an FAQ that, while it might not sell everyone on downloading the app and vowing to catch ’em all, aims to at least help Pokemon virgins “get” the fervor and relate to fandom veterans just a bit more smoothly.
“WHAT THE BLUEBERRY-STUFFED HELL ARE ‘POKEMON’?”
Hey, everything was new to someone at some point.
Satoshi Tajiri created Pokemon in 1995 as 150 species of…well, per the literal Japanese translation, “pocket monsters”. Some are modeled closely on real-world animals, but in the Pokemon universe, they basically take the place of authentic wildlife that people can trap inside little spheres that shrink down to a fraction of their original size.
The rallying cry “Gotta catch ’em all!” is an entire generation’s equal to “What’s up, Doc?” or “Here I come to save the day!”, but it’s also a very literal summation of the intellectual property owned by the consortium of Creatures, The Game Company, and Nintendo known collectively as The Pokemon Company. From the 30 years and counting of video games spanning nearly every Nintendo platform after the NES to tie-in manga, a bona fide television animation phenomenon, a parade of movies, a competitive card game that remains wildly popular to this day, and oceans of toys, everything centers on a quest to collect every single known Pokemon.
Most of the time, so Pokemon Trainers can take turns making them fight each other. Pokemon can make assholes of people. More on that in a bit.
“SO POKEMON GO IS A NINTENDO GAME?”
You see, Pokemon Go is not what’s known in gaming as a “first-party” project, meaning that Nintendo didn’t directly produce Pokemon Go. Instead, they entrusted their licensed property to Niantic, a developer well-versed in the ambitious kind of game The Pokemon Company found it easy to get behind.
So, why did Nintendo opt to focus on Android and iOS instead of, say, the 3DS handheld? Well…
“HOW DOES THE APP WORK?”
This is where it becomes important that we keep things simple, for the sake of brevity and clarity. Pokemon Go is what’s known as an Augmented Reality (“AR”) game. It employs GPS tracking, sound, video, and graphical elements to create an illusion of digital elements interacting with the physical world…and with users.
In the context of Pokemon Go, the app and its servers track users’ locations and movements through their Android and iOS phones’ GPS feedback. The real world is then randomly populated with Pokemon for “Trainers” to catch. When encountering a Pokemon, the phone’s camera feed of the immediate surroundings will include an animated avatar of the creature that has the illusion of actually interacting with the physical environment – at least in a sense as simple as Pikachu sitting on a kitchen counter or a Magikarp popping out of your toilet bowl.
If you see either regularly and have not yet downloaded the app, please send us roughly three cubic f***-tons of whatever you’re taking.
Trainers then engage in a minigame to hurl Pokeballs at the Pokemon via swiping the phone’s screen in order to capture it. That’s the very general brunt of the game.
Now, in more jargon-soaked terms, Pokemon Go is what’s known as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). That means it’s a world seemingly unto itself populated by an entire community of gamers participating in an open world over some form or another of internet connection – for the vast majority of Pokemon Go players most of the time, that means risking devouring cellular data the way Galactus eats planets. Pokemon Go sets itself apart from franchise predecessors by skipping the battle element entirely. This time around, there is only pride in collecting and evolving Pokemon, with a small side of uniting with other Trainers to seize control of real locations designated as “Gyms”. Think of it as being kind of like Foursquare declaring somebody “Mayor” of a check-in spot.
If we’re to be really honest? It’s an immersive collect-a-thon, a completely open-ended experience with progression that’s as deep as your desire to fully evolve your Pokemon and seek out increasingly powerful varieties as you level up in the name of…bragging rights.
“GADGETS, SOFTWARE, GAMES, APPS…NONE OF IT EVER LAUNCHES WITHOUT A CATCH. WHAT GIVES?”
Right, you are. There’s always a wrinkle or two calling for some ironing, and Pokemon Go is no exception.
Let’s start with the least objectionable aspect, something that isn’t so much a glitch as an understandable business model that some users are bound to groan about: microtransactions. If your daily allotment of 100% gratis Pokeballs isn’t cutting it for the amount of hunting you’re doing or you’re looking to speed up your leveling and evolution with more stardust and candies than you’re already earning by hunting, catching, transferring Pokemon to the Pokemon professor, you can always just procure supplies instantly through in-app purchases. The essential gameplay elements are all absolutely free. There’s nothing locked behind pay walls to stonewall advancement until Trainers fork over their money. However, some gamers can’t resist the urge to get downright salty about being charged for in-game content for any reason, no matter how robust the completely free core game may be. In this instance, microtransactions aren’t an inevitability. They’re simply an option.
Pokemon Go is an MMO – go on, say it out loud and smile – and it launched with common MMO issues. To Niantic’s credit, they didn’t exactly last long, though. A patch has already addressed iOS users’ issues logging in with Google accounts. Server problems that made the app widely inaccessible to many users at launch are springing up less and less as support catches up to unthinkable demand that even developers may not have anticipated. As the back-end bugs are resolved, Pokemon Go isn’t living up to its hype. It has already exponentially exceeded it.
No, the drawbacks haven’t arisen primarily from the app itself. Hand human beings any new piece of technology, and in particular order, their immediate knee-jerk priorities without fail will be:
- Can I make money with it?
- Can I hurt someone with it?
- Can I f*** it?
Child welfare watchdog groups already have their eyes closely fixed on the game, fearing that it could become an irresistible lure drawing children to predatory adults. Meanwhile, reports have filtered in from across North America that some users have employed the app to set up ambush muggings baited with Pokemon. If you spot a Richy that had the bad luck to spawn right outside a dark alley, assume that anyone else watching the app nearby has seen it too. Always be mindful of your surroundings.
Of course, whether it’s Snapchat and Facebook or Angry Birds, we knew Pokemon Go had arrived as an apex mobile app when theoretically sensible adults had to be reminded that an 85-mph cruise down an interstate is no time to flick Pokeballs at the Pidgey sitting on your travel mug. You shouldn’t even know there is a Pidgey sitting there. You shouldn’t have the app open. You are driving.
Tragically, New York became the first state to document a traffic death caused by a driver trying to catch Pokemon while behind the wheel. Even more unfortunately, our first thought was, “Well, it was only a matter of time.” Unfortunately, this is a slightly re-styled cover of the same song we’ve been hearing for years, to which we will add the same refrain we’ve always sung: the Internet will still be there once you’ve parked. No, that doesn’t include red lights and Stop signs.
Speaking of hunting responsibly, that brings us to one final word of advice: don’t chase Pokemon where you aren’t welcome. On the lesser end of this particular quibble, a number of public places including retailers, restaurants, and even government buildings have had to explicitly warn Pokemon Go users that their properties are not designated loitering zones. One such location even caught a little anonymous notoriety online for posting a sign stating, in no uncertain terms, “POKEMON ARE FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY.” In the most awkward moment in Pokemon history this side of Professor Oak asking, “Are you a girl or a boy?” and that one episode when James made fun of the size of Misty’s modest boobs, management of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Germany have had to publicly request that visitors cease catching Pokemon while visiting the memorial to victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
There’s a time and a place to catch ’em all. It isn’t in the shadow of modern history’s greatest massacre.
“THIS DEVELOPED INSIDE OF A WEEK? WELL, THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY. WHAT’S THE PAYOFF TO ALL THIS BUZZ?”
Not unlike the way life itself unfolds, there are some remarkable positives both far beyond and right around the corner from some of the downsides to Pokemon Go. In fact, they’re huge enough to overshadow most of them.
Take Niantic’s leveraging of GPS tracking, for example. People historically bristle at any greater power keeping tabs on their locations at any given time, no matter the reason. Might have something to do with this minor fiasco that blew the lid off the U.S. government looking to quietly coerce Apple, Microsoft, Google, and every major American cellular service provider to hand over their customers’ personal information and user histories in the interest of “national security”. Accordingly, users and skeptical analysts will have eyes closely trained on the developer as they prepare a legally binding data disclosure opt-out that hopefully assuages concerns about a service based on the ability to pinpoint an individual’s position anywhere in the world.
There’s another game-changing opportunity on the horizon, however. Niantic is also on the cusp of establishing “pay-per-visit” marketing opportunities that promote targeted real-world locations for fees based on actual foot traffic driven by the app. It’s a groundbreaking opportunity for The Pokemon Company and small businesses to mutually benefit from making gamers feel welcome wherever they roam. On a smaller level, Pokemon Go is even encouraging resourceful independent entrepreneurship. Several stories, both anecdotal and officially picked up by outlets such as The Huffing ton Post, have noted users offering to serve as proxy Trainers for about $20 an hour or even tote users’ smart phones along while running so that the GPS tracking can rack up the travel kilometers needed for captured Pokemon to evolve.
After all, since there’s no competitive element to the game (yet), it technically isn’t diminishing anyone else’s experience. If customers are willing to pay and there’s a demand for a shortcut to more expeditious evolution, why not?
That’s because Pokemon Go is now achieving something unprecedented: this MMO is getting people on their feet and exploring the world around them. Granted, console-based motion games such as “Wii Sports”, “Kinect Sports”, “UFC Trainer”, and any number of dance-based titles got gamers’ blood pumping first without feeling like they were compromising play time for a workout. However, they also kept players indoors. Niantic have coaxed gamers right out into the sun for a walkabout among their “IRL” communities. We’ve never seen people so enthusiastic about going for long walks in the fresh, warm air of summer. We have a video game to thank in part for that.
This effect has breached the walls of relatability and stimulation that parents have condemned for years as barriers erected by gaming culture between them and their children. Pokemon O.G.s are now parents themselves, and Pokemon Go is a warm nostalgic slice of their own childhood that they can freshly share with their kids and experience anew through their eyes. As industry champions of inclusive, family-friendly casual gaming, this just might be one of Nintendo’s finest hours.
Brace yourselves, because here’s the most promising takeaway from the incidental timing of Pokemon Go’s launch. America in particular is entrenched in arguably the most volatile and divisive era of race relations in its history since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Not only that, but our country is enduring the home stretch of a presidential race between two unprecedented polarizing candidates and hardline partisan voter bases. We’re all trying to survive all this at a time when Americans have never been more personally isolated from each other.
In the throes of all of this, a game has come along that gets people out and about together all at once, inspiring players to get to know their neighbors and even one-time strangers with whom they can bond over a lighthearted common ground. People can’t wait to get outside and play, becoming immersed not only in their games, but in quality time with their children spent exploring parks, businesses, and landmarks that have been waiting for them all along.
It’s a good time to be a geek.