Pokémon GO is a pop-cultural phenomenon. Since its launch two or three weeks ago, the brand has been returned to the public eye with the kind of attention that it has not felt since its western inception in 1999. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the success story unfold, especially because it concerns a brand that hitherto only seemed to be getting more far afield from its initial boom, instead relying on a small, loyal group of fans to stay afloat. It’s an interesting turn for the series, and one I have been very excited to explore in writing. Above all, I am interested in examining just what it is that sets Pokémon GO apart from the mainline series, as well as asking the question of whether or not it’s actually any good as a video game.
I’ll begin by examining some of the concepts that lie at the heart of Pokémon GO. First and foremost is that Pokémon GO does not only capture the idea of venturing out into the world in search of collectible creatures like the games before, but rather becomes it. There has always been a subtle meta undertone to the mainline Pokémon series: you begin each game as a boy or a girl in their room, with a TV and a games console, but you aren’t allowed to play it. You have to go outside, you have to go and do things. Pokémon has always been subtly trying to influence its player-base to get out more, to exercise and engage with their communities, and to not isolate themselves from the world at large for the sake of video games. With Pokémon GO, we finally see the series succeed in this, not by influencing the player to put the controller down and get outside but rather forcing them to in order to make progress.
This is achieved by the game’s use of GPS to track the player’s movement. They are presented onscreen as a customized avatar walking across an alternate reality map of their local area, made to look as if it belongs in Pokémon’s heavily stylized universe. As the player walks in the real world, the avatar on the screen will move too, and, after long enough, will encounter Pokémon that they can then catch using Pokéballs. There is a readout as well as particle effects on the screen that give some indication of how far away different Pokémon are located. As catching Pokémon is always the sole aim of Pokémon, and is the only route of progression here, the player must leave their home and go on a merry stroll if they are to effectively progress through the game.
With this mechanic we also see the real-world application of another of Pokemon’s major selling points: The explorer/trainer fantasy. I’m certain that nearly everyone who has played the Pokemon games has thought about how fun it would be to be able to venture out into the world in search of creatures to collect and foes to take on. Obviously this was never going to become a reality, but Pokémon GO gets about as close as it comes. The realization of this fantasy begins with the exploration mechanics described above, but is also supported by a number of mechanics that ensure that the experience is not one of isolation, but one that is rather socially and competitively engaging. The exploration of local points of interest also being gamified in Pokémon GO. Once again using the game’s GPS feature, in-game zones called Pokéstops are dotted at points of real-world interest. These exist to mark historical locations like churches and monuments, as well as commercial establishments like pubs, shopping centres and family attractions. But they also serve as a game mechanic. Pokestops offer items to the player such as Pokéballs, which allows them to catch more Pokémon. These stops also offer items called Lures, which can be placed on the stops to attract Pokémon there, essentially making these zones great areas to gather and engage with other players of the game by offering something of benefit to all of them, and, as a result, making the game a very social experience in any area where it is popular. This social function of the game is also enhanced by the fact that these Pokéstop items can only be grabbed once by a player before a cooldown period is engaged. As a result, the player is encouraged to go to a number of them, essentially giving them an in-game incentive the real world exploration of their area as well as engagement with the local community. So we once again see how Pokémon GO takes something from the mainline series and applies it to the real world; that being the sense of being at one with an accessible community that has a common goal.
In addition to Pokéstops, there are also Gyms. Gyms are spots that are placed similarly to Pokéstops, but have a different function. Anyone familiar with Pokémon will know that Gyms are the places where trainers take their Pokémon to fight those of other people. It works very similarly in GO. Past level five, players are made to choose from three teams: Valor, Mystic and Instinct. The difference between the three is purely cosmetic, only serving as much as to provide a way for the game to divide its players into competitive groups. When arriving at a Gym, the player can challenge the current owner so long as they are on a different team. Victory allows them to leave their Pokémon guarding the gym, thus allowing players of other teams to challenge them for the position. They also receive Pokécoins, an in-game currency that is used to buy progress-speeding items. Naturally, this taps into the competitive spirit that has always been a part of the Pokémon brand, and provides yet another avenue for social encounters with the game through its usage of real-world places of interest.
The answer is obvious then. Pokémon GO sets itself apart from the mainline series by applying much of what people love or loved about the brand to the (almost) real world. By using Alternate Reality as the basis for its mechanics, Pokémon has (at least conceptually) become the exploration fueled social experience that it always emulated, and as such it’s no real wonder that it has resonated with such a large number of people. Whilst all of that may be wonderful in itself and bode well for the future of alternate reality based gaming, it also begs the question of whether or not Pokémon GO manages to execute any of these ideas in a satisfactory way. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that it does not.
The biggest problem that Pokémon GO suffers from is its lack of a skill based element. Catching Pokémon, the central activity of the game, is a tiresome affair. As the player walks, the phone will vibrate and Pokémon will appear nearby. To catch them, the player touches the Pokémon on the screen, and the perspective shifts. If the player has AR (Alternate Reality) Mode on, then the phone’s camera is used to create a backdrop behind the Pokemon that is being caught, giving the ‘illusion’ that the Pokemon is there in front of them. The catching itself can best be described as being functionally identical as one of those ‘toss the paper ball in the bin’ games that infest sites like Miniclip. The only difference is cosmetic, and that you can, if you’re really that bothered about maxing experience points, put spin on the throw. Once caught, the Pokemon is added to your collection. There are 250 of them to catch. It’s very simple, in fact it seems as though every element of this game is designed with the intention of accessibility. There is no real difficulty curve. This problem extends to the combat encounters when fighting other people’s Pokémon for the control of Gyms. The perspective once again shifts to view that is a poor farce of the battle screens in the mainline series. I say this because all depth of these screens is lost. One simply taps the enemy Pokémon to attack it, and swipes to dodge incoming attacks. This would be acceptable, but it is rarely the controlling factor. Every Pokemon has combat points, or ‘CP’, and it is due to this that combat really becomes a simplistic affair in which whoever has the highest overall CP wins.
This lack of a skill element also exposes the deeper problem at play here. Pokémon GO is disappointingly shallow, and will lose its charm for many after getting over the initial wow-factor of its alternate reality gimmicks. Seriously. There is nothing interesting about how the game presents its mechanics outside of the social opportunities and fantasy fulfillment that it creates. The only way that a Pokemon’s CP, and therefore combat effectiveness, can be increased, is through the use of two items: stardust and candies. Stardust is accrued by the act of catching Pokémon. Candies are, err, accrued by the act of catching Pokemon. There is only one difference: While stardust is obtained from every catch, candies are not. Instead, you get them by trading in your duplicate Pokémon. While I can respect how it allows the game to sidestep the issue of finding a lot of duplicates in any given area, I feel it does not manage to avoid that problem in an engaging way. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the frustration of getting that sweet phone vibration only to find yet another Pidgey. There just isn’t any excitement to progression in Pokémon GO. Sure, your Pokémon get stronger, and maybe even evolve, and it’s a great moment when you stumble upon a rare Pokémon that you’ve been after. But there is no long-term strategy at play, no room for tactics or anything of real substance, just constant repetition with irregular levels of fulfillment. It might be a laugh at first, especially with friends, but the Pokémon GO gets old fast.
Pokémon GO is also riddled with technical issues. I cannot tell you how many times I have tapped a Pokémon on the screen and nothing has happened. It sends you into a frenzy, you hammer at the screen again and again. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the little bugger just vanishes and you have to walk some more to find another. Either way, it casts some doubt in your mind every single time, and even goes as far as panic when it’s something rare that you’re trying to grab. And that’s it really: you know it’s sloppy design when one of your central features doesn’t even work correctly. There are also issues with catching Pokémon. You’ll put the perfect spin on your throw and get a little ‘great!’ read-out flash up, only for the game to then freeze and crash, leaving no option but to restart it. Most of the time the catch is registered when this happens, but even then it replaces the buzz of the catch with downright frustration at having to restart the app. That’s the other problem: restarting the app takes a very, very long time. You get a stylized safety warning screen and a loading bar, and some chirpy music that smells of adventure but tastes of mockery as the game just. keeps. on. loading. There are massive problems with the game servers as well. I can think of several occasions that I have opened up the app with full signal only to find that it won’t let me connect. It even went down for more than a day last week; happy hunting indeed. I know this is likely down to the fact that it was never anticipated by the developer that this game would be so huge, but it’s not like they didn’t have time to find a solution to this before the game released in territories outside of the US. Pokémon GO simply isn’t a well polished product, and solving these issues is a priority if Niantic wants this success to be long-term. It currently has the air of cheap production values and shoddy craftmanship, which is actually rather ironic given how successful the game has been. That being said though, I have been playing the game on an old and beaten Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, so you might fare better if you’ve got something a bit more cutting edge.
If there is one thing I will hand to the game’s design as being a positive, however, it’s in how it monetizes itself. The game is free to play, and so it has micro-transactions. But it isn’t pay to win. In return for your money you receive Pokécoins, and these can be used to buy items in the store. Thankfully, you can only buy items that can already be obtained at Pokéstops, such as eggs that hatch Pokemon when you walk enough, incubators that house these eggs during hatching, and lures that attract Pokemon to these stops. You cannot buy stardust or candies, and so outright progress is still made impossible without the player actually going out and making catches on the regular. So while microtransactions will help you on your travels, they will not cut out the need for that travelling altogether. It is a decent way to monetize a free little app like this, and it seems in tune with the game’s vision. I honestly feel that other mobile developers could learn a thing or two from Pokémon GO‘s way of doing things. Then again, it probably isn’t a good sign if the best thing I can say about your free mobile game is that it doesn’t take the piss where the player’s cash is concerned.
Ultimately, Pokémon GO is nothing more than a collection of interesting ideas that are used poorly to mask a terrible video game, which capitalizes on nothing other than brand nostalgia and cheap gimmicks. It’s worth a GO (hah hah), simply for the fact that everyone is playing it, but beyond that it is an utter waste of your time.
By Matthias Brunwin