I normally spend 3PM sitting in my office staring at a computer screen, but over the weekend I missed out on catching an Omanyte because I ran out of Pokéballs, and I was determined to never let that happen again.
I didn’t download Pokémon Go with an expectation to change my daily patterns or have new experiences. I was actually pretty resistant to making the commitment after hearing about the server issues the game was experiencing and how the app would so often crash right at crucial moments. Yet my Facebook feed filled with people discussing what Pokémon they were finding, and the internet was filled to the brim with new memes about the three colored teams you can align within the game. I gave in.
The very first day I played Pokémon Go, I noticed that I could see a few PokéStops, real world locations that reward in-game items for a physical visit, within a short distance of my house. I decided there was no better way to get a handle on the game than to go for a short walk and visit a few of these locations. I wasn’t aware of it yet, but already the game was changing the way I interacted with the real world. The first stop on my route was a nearby game store I was familiar with. Not surprisingly, the location was filled with people inside and outside staring at their phones and talking Pokémon. This was to be expected of course, as it was a game store and already a meeting ground for the type of people interested in the Pokémon Trading Card game and similar activities. I figured my next stop at a nearby library wouldn’t have this same concentration of players. Before I even reached this next PokéStop however, three teenagers passed me on bicycles, one eye on the road, one eye deep into their phones. As they passed I could hear discussion about which PokéStop they were heading to next.
Suddenly I started seeing it all around me. The guy who pulled over as I was collecting my items at that PokéStop was pulled over again at a nearby PokéStop located in a park, each time stopping just a few minutes and staring at his phone. The lone person walking their dog with their face buried deep in their phone – I could now recognize the audio coming out of their phone as the music from the game. Pokémon Go was everywhere.
Over the next few days, I noticed my daily habits changing. Normally, my 15 minute breaks are spent watching a short Youtube video or grabbing a snack from the kitchen, but now I was going for short walks to nearby PokéStops instead. The internet is resounding with similar stories from people who are finding themselves outside and interacting with people they normally wouldn’t. People are discussing parks and monuments they had no idea were just down the street but found on a walk to a PokéStop. I’ve encountered countless photos of huge mobs of strangers, all sitting down and playing together at major PokéStops. I even saw an advertisement for a New York City PokéStop pub crawl recently. These are very often people that would otherwise have no particular reason to go outside and travel to these destinations, let alone interact with the other people at them, and yet they suddenly have this entire new behavioral pattern that almost demands they do.
This is the true power of Pokémon Go.
There have been several attempts at making augmented reality games recently, that being games which provide a layer of game mechanics on top of the real world, but none of them have had a high profile franchise name attached like Pokémon Go does. Pokémon is a global franchise phenomena that has been popular since its introduction in 1996, and continues to be culturally influential in an amazing amount of ways. The desire to roleplay as a real world Pokémon trainer is not rare. In fact, in 2014 Google revealed an April Fools’ Day prank where they announced a Pokémon AR game and released a very simple collecting app to go along with it. This prank actually acted as the catalyst for the idea of Pokémon Go and the initial collaboration of the creators. This app very intentionally lacked the features and functionality that would have it live up to what Pokémon Go intends to be, but that didn’t stop people from loving the idea.
Pokémon Go is also not without its flaws. Taking a critical look at the game reveals a long list of technical and gameplay issues. Players around the world are experiencing serious problems with being able to connect to servers. The app often freezes right as a battle concludes or a Pokémon is captured. I have experienced countless interface issues where the game lags, screens won’t scroll properly, and buttons don’t work, even on a top of the line smartphone. Smaller bugs are even more numerous, with audio settings not saving, login attempts failing and requiring an app restart, etc. It’s almost impossible to imagine how a game with so many frustrating problems could be so wildly popular. This, however, shows something incredibly important; Pokémon Go is only the tip of a very large iceberg.
Everyone knows that video games are big money, but there is a major barrier of entry to what big name developers are willing to take a risk on. If you’re a major game publisher, such as EA or Ubisoft, it’s unbelievably safer to put out a sequel to an existing franchise than to spend millions on something new and unproven. This has been the case for some time as you see countless renditions of Call of Duty and FIFA games pushed out year after year. People always buy them and the risk to the publisher is minimal. Even new franchises recycle long established existing mechanics. The amount of relatively similar first person shooters on the market is a perfect example.
Pokémon Go is not like any major game on the market today. It is doing something that no other popular title is doing. It’s a totally new experience to players, but it’s making money. This does the very important job of putting augmented reality games in that “safe” established space for publishers.
We are looking at what could very likely be the advent of a brand new wave of video games. Augmented reality games are now safe for developers to spend the big bucks on. Nintendo’s stock has already soared 25% just 5 days after the release of Pokémon Go, and they were not even the actual developers of the game, that honor goes to Niantic. This opens up a world where companies like EA and Ubisoft, or perhaps even Sony, Microsoft, and the real tech giants are willing to invest huge amounts of money and time into developing these powerful new augmented reality games. These games would have franchises and brands just as big as Pokémon but with the quality assurance to remove many of the aforementioned technical issues. Imagine a Disney or Harry Potter augmented reality game with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. The limitations are endless.
Even if Pokémon Go never receives an update and the technical issues prove too much for players to ignore, even if it lacks the gameplay longevity for it to last more than a few months as a major title in people’s minds, Pokémon Go has still accomplished something extraordinary. Pokémon Go has shown that not only can these types of games be made, but they can excel. That games which put this layer of fun over where we go and how we interact with people in the real world are both powerful and compelling. Augmented reality games are truly in their infancy, and Pokémon Go is only the first in what is sure to be an outpouring of games that touch aspects of our day to day lives that we might have never thought games would.