Let’s be honest, Pokémon GO has pretty much exploded culturally in its first week. By its fifth day of release, the app surpassed Tinder in terms of how many people had downloaded the thing. It isn’t even out worldwide yet and it’s safe to say that its popularity is sweeping across the world.
We’ve seen heart-warming tales of people forging new friendships and finding love in dark parks at 3am, a teenager finding a dead body while trying to locate a Pokémon, and even businesses getting into the craze by offering discounts to certain players or telling them they can only play inside their businesses if they are actually going to buy something. Within its short period of cultural consciousness, the app has truly revolutionised how we can now play Pokémon: by almost getting hit by cars while staring at our phones. In all seriousness though, this app is a lot of fun. All of the Ready Players staff have been getting really into it over the last week, so much in fact that this video sums up what most of our thought processes for the last week:
So when considering its popularity with us and the general cultural phenomenon it has become, we feel pretty obligated to talk about it.
Originally I was considering writing up a review for it, but I’m going be honest with you, I would be giving Pokémon GO an incredibly low score. Despite its popularity and how much genuine fun we’re having with it, I really don’t feel like it’s a complete experience yet. Like I mentioned before, the app isn’t even available worldwide yet and, at least in my mind, the app genuinely feels like it’s still in its beta stage. Its features are astoundingly minimal and from a technological perspective, it’s a little bit of an understatement to say that it’s kind of a hot mess right now.
And yet despite those issues, it’s pretty obvious just how much everybody is enjoying the app. So I figured that I won’t give a review that, if I had more than fifty readers per article, would probably provoke a tidal wave of hate mail. Instead, I’ll take the same approach as I did to Overwatch and give a not-quite review that sums up my general thoughts on what makes and breaks Pokémon GO.
What’s The Good Stuff?:
To start with, I think there are two reasons as to why Pokémon GO has become so popular so quickly, the first of which being fantasy fulfilment. A common comment I’ve heard amongst my friends is that the app finally allows them to do something they’ve wanted to do since the games first came out in the 90s: be the trainer. The handheld games showed us a world that was filled with these amazing creatures that could be caught and collected, leaving many a Pokémon fan to wonder what it would be like if the creatures were real outside of the game world. They wanted to wander the world and find Pokémon of their very own.
And now, thanks to Pokémon Go, we now have the technology that allows us to simulate a world in which we can go on our very own Pokémon adventures by using your device’s GPS and clock. Not only can younger Pokémon fans enjoy this experience, but so too can the adult fans who grew up with the series, even fans like myself who have only played one or two of the games. And given that a majority of Pokémon fans are now adults, this experience is assisted by hitting a sweet spot of nostalgia that has clearly boosted its popularity. In fact, I imagine that this nostalgia is why the app has started out by featuring only the original 151 Pokémon, rather than the soon-to-grow pool of 729.
This brings us to the second reason for the app’s popularity: its accessibility. It’s kind of easy to forget that a rather large gate that gets in the way of games intended to be played with others, like most Pokémon games, is price. In the case of current Pokémon games, newcomers would need to fork out a good $60 if they wanted to join in, not to mention up to $250 if they didn’t already have a 3DS to play them on. But by making the app free to download and available on mobile devices, something that a large majority of the population has access to, Pokémon GO is made easily accessible to both newcomers and long-time fans.
This accessibility is strangely assisted by the current bare-bones features of the app that offer players the ability to do three things: catch and train Pokémon via in-game items, access “Pokéstops” that give you extra items if you are close to them, and fight against another player’s Pokémon at designated “Gyms”. As a result of this there’s very little in the way of the complex mechanics that the series is known for, allowing players to get straight into the experience the moment that they create their fairly basic-looking avatar.
I also find it kind of interesting that, despite being a free-to-play mobile game, its microtransaction model is almost completely non-existent. While the game offers players the ability to exchange real money for in-game currency that can be used to purchase extra items or even extra bag space, Pokémon GO never annoys the player by telling them that they could get more Pokéballs if they spent $10. This is mostly due to the game practically handing out most of its items for free. For example, Pokéstops hand out most items at random and, since they only take a few minutes before they can be used again, a player could very easily farm for Pokéballs if they find themselves running low. When you consider just how many children are most likely using the app, this is an incredibly intelligent design decision on the part of Niantic.
I think what I love the most about Pokémon GO, however, is that not only does it promote social interactivity, it’s actually improved greatly by it. This is because, while I think the app is still fun to use during work commutes, it is much better to be used with a group of friends. From personal experience, friends with varying incomes are more than happy to hang out in the city without worrying about having to buy food when driven by the incentive to walk around, chat and catch Pokémon for a couple of hours. And thanks to the very similar experiences every player has due to the app tracking location and time, new Pokémon appearing on your screens can turn a causal chat into a big event as you all try to catch it.
The app is even designed with the purpose of encouraging social interaction in mind thanks to how the “Lure” item is designed. Essentially, this item can be placed on a Pokéstop by a player, which will then attract nearby Pokémon to the area for a limited time for any player in the vicinity to catch. Ironically enough, it’s because of this design that the Lure attracts not only nearby Pokémon, but nearby players as well. As a result, the placing of a lure can turn a park statue into a thirty-minute long Pokémon meetup in which the app itself makes for the perfect icebreaker to talk to complete strangers.
I can tell you from my own experiences, that while our conversations were only brief, it was awesome to see less socially accustomed people joking around and showing off their personal Pokédexs as we all waited for the next Pokémon to show up. And when the lure disappeared and we all dispersed, we all shared a strange comradery as we informed each other of where we could find certain Pokémon before we wished each other the best of luck. It’s not often that you see a phone app create that sort of feeling amongst complete strangers, and I kind of wish more did now.
But that being said, while the app is still incredible fun, it has some rather glaring issues that run the possibility of ruining the experience for quite a lot of people.
So What’s The Bad Stuff?:
For starters, Pokémon GO is primarily made to be played in heavily populated areas, in which Pokémon and Pokéstops are bountiful. This is alright for people like myself who live within fifteen to twenty minutes of cities and popular shopping centres, but for those living in small towns and rural areas, Pokémon and Pokéstops are rather few and far-between. So if you live in these areas and have limited transportation, you won’t get the most out of the app.
The app is also very quiet in telling you how to actually get the most of out of it. While I’ve mentioned in my previous article I’m all for games giving just enough information to learn about mechanics instead of outright telling you everything in one go, Pokémon GO gives little to no information at all beyond catching Pokémon and how to use Pokestops. While these are two of the games core mechanics as I mentioned previously, there are smaller, deeper mechanics which get no explanation. One primary example that has only recently come to light for many players is how to actually FIND Pokémon through the use of the app’s Pokemon radar and on-screen rustling grass. Honestly, if you haven’t already, check out a video that explains how Pokémon GO’s mechanics work, such as the one below.
The final and biggest flaw I feel that Pokémon GO has are its glaring technical issues. The fact of the matter is, being a new and network-intensive app, Pokémon GO is prone to an abundance of hiccups that will require the app to be restarted. During my first week with the app, I found the touch controls suddenly not working, issues with the GPS jumping my location suddenly 400 meters in a completely different direction, and crashes during important moments like gym battles and while trying to catch Pokémon. It’s also worth mentioning that as of writing, I’ve personally experienced at least four server crashes that have lasted varying lengths of time. That being said, I will completely chalk this issue up to the app still being in its early days as Niantic rolls the app out to more territories.
It definitely says something about Pokémon GO’s core concept when, even with its glaringly obvious flaws, people are still enjoying the hell out of it. Nostalgia and smart design have meshed together in such a way that players are able to excuse both its mechanical and technical short-comings.
Thankfully, Niantic have stated that Pokémon GO is by no means a finished game as of yet, hoping to treat it as an ever-evolving game. The app will be seeing a lot of updates in the near future that Niantic has stated will fix most of the issues I’ve mentioned, such as stabilizing servers and addressing the lack of information given in the app’s tutorial. There will also apparently be improvements to gyms and Pokéstops, as well as the additional feature of trading with other players. But even with these updates, the real test of Pokémon GO’s success, much like all popular apps, is whether there will be as large an audience to enjoy these updates within the next month. I personally hope so since despite its flaws, Pokémon GO is honestly the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game in quite a long time and I hope that it has an enduring life-span ahead of it. But time will tell if we see the app rise further in popularity or slowly fade out of public consciousness.
Are you ready, players?