The Brilliance of Pokemon Go
So chances are you’ve heard about the craze that is Pokemon Go. It’s a smartphone app where one of the hundreds of popular creatures from Nintendo’s franchise pop up in real life through your built-in camera and you can catch them. From an outsider’s perspective, that can seem like the ever-expanding user base are slaves to their nostalgia and modern trends.
Except that isn’t the case. What developer Niantic and The Pokemon Company have assembled together is the most successful mainstream augmented reality game ever, and it was all thanks to some elegantly made design and business decisions. We’ve already discussed the great power Pokemon Go’s community, but we can’t forget about what makes this app a game.
First of all, the idea of an augmented reality game isn’t something new. They are a genre of video game that utilizes elements of the real world and tries to give them various game-like elements. This can be as simple as playing a first-person shooter using your smartphone’s built-in camera to give the illusion that you’re defending your neighborhood from aliens, or using landmarks marked by GPS to create a real-world conspiracy thriller involving factions and quests that involve players going to notable locations in your neighborhood. That’s the premise of Niantic’s other augmented reality experience, Ingress.
But there are several crucial areas handled so well that they are clearly the key to Pokemon Go’s success.
Pokemon Go Is About Travel
One of the biggest criticisms thrown at Pokemon Go by fans of the more in-depth main installments is how shallow it is with its rules. All you really do is just catch Pokemon and the game’s hyped up Gym battles are watered down Infinity Blade style tapfests.
While many of the hardcore players have scoffed at this simplicity (I should know I was one of them), this is a point in the game’s favor. Part of the appeal of Pokemon Go is seeing when certain Pokemon will pop up in your neighborhood and you just wouldn’t get that if you were too focused on getting EV training. The crucial sticking point for having games of this type work is not having the trappings of the real world feel like a gimmick. Yes, you walked to a local coffee shop because a quest told you to, now how is that different from a normal game other than the real-world commute?
The answer is simple, make the journey part of the experience. For example, whenever you get an egg, the game informs you that it’ll only hatch once you have it in an incubator and walk a certain number of kilometers which vary in distance. In addition to having the possibility of encountering more wild Pokemon, you basically have a long-term investment for anything as simple as walking around the block or taking a long jog.
Nintendo is no stranger to trying to get Pokemon fans to walk around for in-game benefits. When Pokemon Gold and Silver got remade for the DS, certain copies came with a handheld Neopet-style pedometer where you could transfer one of your Pokemon and then walk around with it, which would give you benefits like extra items or experience points. More recently are the Play Coins featured in all Nintendo 3DS models, special currency generated by walking around which could then be spent in certain games.
The biggest problem I’ve always had with these features were they were too easy to cheat. Yeah, you could go out for a healthy jog, or you can lay in your bed eating Oreos and just shake the handheld and it wouldn’t know the difference. Pokemon Go cleverly uses a combo of both the smartphone’s built-in pedometer and its GPS tracking system to ensure you are actually getting up and seeing the world instead of just lying on your back in your air-conditioned room.
Pokemon Go has coaxed more than a dozen kilometers of travel out of me in this week alone, and judging by what my freshly hatched eggs and general good luck have yielded, it didn’t feel like a chore.
Pokemon Go’s Free-to-Play is Positive
Free-to-play elements can fundamentally ruin or at least weaken a game if it isn’t thought through. No matter how many times a spokesperson in an interview says it, paying real world money for an in-game item is not an option, it’s a mind game meticulously constructed to pit your time and patience against your need to save money. It’s a trap that has continuously messed up lives either through psychological warfare or financial duress and damaged the reputation of thousands of games circulating on smart devices.
But I have nothing but praise for Pokemon Go’s model. Too many games use is the premium currency system where if you want anything worthwhile in the game, you’ll have to slog nonstop through repetition for days or even weeks or finally cave and fork over the cash. It’s a classic technique meant to wear you down so when you finally make that purchase. As for Pokemon Go, I gladly paid several dollars already and it’s thanks to the game’s monetization reflecting it’s travel-focused gameplay. Based on where you live, the game highlights several Pokestops, which are usually tied to historical or social hotspots. Churches, graveyards, local parks, certain restaurants and the like. By traveling to those spots you are able to get a random boost of supplies, stuff like potions or the all too important pokeballs that you need to catch more little monsters in order to progress. These spots can be hit multiple times in as little as 10-minute intervals. There is a currency, Pokecoins, that you can use to buy pokeballs and other items in bulk, but with enough patience and the means to get to a more urban area littered with spots of interest, it is entirely possible not to pay a cent.
But here is Pokemon Go’s master stroke: the Lure Module. Basically, Lure Modules acts similarly to the game’s incense, in that it attracts more Pokemon to your location. But while the incense only affects you and your general location, Lure Modules are can generally only be bought from the in-game store for the equivalent of a dollar and will only work on Pokestops. In fact, buying incense is actually cheaper by about 20 cents, so why buy a Lure Module? Because any other player nearby benefits from the lure being dropped. In my entire week of playing Pokemon Go, I have run to stops that have had a lure dropped and I have always met new and interesting people taking advantage of the surge of encounters and socializing all the while. The prospect of meeting fellow Pokemon fans while also getting the possibility of catching something rare or interesting is a great experience that seems reasonable for a dollar.
Pokemon Go’s Community Helps This Model
Which brings me to Pokemon Go’s greatest triumph. Other games have tried to use the real world in one way or another to make players more invested. Certain games have even used in-game purchases to help push groups of people together, just look at the various price models for online games. But you don’t have to look hard to find the passionate and amazing things happening in our real world thanks to this app. Improvised parties have broken out at various Pokestops because people kept dropping Lure Modules, desperate to keep things going with newfound friends. The game’s faction system, where you choose between three teams: Mystic (the cool one), Valor (the dumb one), and Instinct (the one that’s happy to be there), keeps leading to an interesting ever-changing level of territory control as well as a persistent sense of competition, applying a level of well-meaning social peer pressure to keep buying little things here and there to get an edge. And it all feeds back to that desire to go out and about and the inherent human desire to be sociable.
That’s just what the game intended by design. Everywhere on the news from online to national to local, you will find positive stories of how this game brought people together. People with anxiety issues learning to come out of their shells thanks to meeting fellow Pokemon fans on the road. Businesses are learning to utilize the game’s geography-based design to bring in more customers. Animal shelters are using the craze to help dogs get walked and possibly adopted into loving homes.
This is more than just a fad with ’90s nostalgia. Niantic and Nintendo have put together a game that not only makes a profit without feeling like it’s holding its players at gunpoint, it has lead to a passionate and growing community giving back to the real world. Give it a few years and you can guarantee to find a married couple who ran into each other playing Pokemon Go, or a small mom and pop store that became it’s own chain thanks to dropping a few lures and getting a solid source of customers. All of this in spite of how easily the game could have just nickel-and-dimed its passionate user base for a bunch of quick bucks. This is how you make a game that isn’t just successful but revolutionary. Now if they can just get that trading feature in we’ll have world peace!