First impressions: Why Pokemon Go is uniquely compelling

    
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I, like many others who were children throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, went through a period in my young life where the only thing I wanted in life was to be a Pokemon master. I wanted to be the very best like no one ever was, the whole nine yards. My mom swears that when I was a wee lad of five or so, the top item on my Christmas list (which was of course intricately arranged in order of priority, because even five-year-old me was neurotic) was the rather large order of asking Santa to send me real, live Pokemon, which I was sure had to exist somewhere in the world. If we, the human race, possessed the technology to clone sheep, then surely Santa could just inject some lightning into a mouse and create a Pikachu. Five-year-old me’s logic was airtight.

Well, a couple of decades later, we still don’t have the technology to genetically engineer honest-to-god Pokemon so that eleven-year-old children everywhere can flee their homes and wander the world with their trusty pets/instruments of borderline godlike power at their sides. I know, I’m disappointed, too. But what we do have is Pokemon Go, the augmented-reality mobile title from Niantic that is letting everyone who ever hoped to travel across the land (searching far and wide) in hopes of becoming the world’s greatest Pokemon master do exactly that through the magic of their mobile phones.

Digging in

Last week, when news began to spread that Pokemon Go was hitting digital shelves, I eagerly downloaded it and spent a full evening with my nephew, wandering the neighborhood and flinging Pokeballs at anything that moved – mostly Pidgeys. Now, a week later, I’ve had a little bit of time to get over the sheer childish excitement of actually being able to catch Pokemon in real life ohmigod eat your heart out, five-year-old me – and I’m eager to share my thoughts on the game Niantic has delivered to us.

Let’s start with the obvious. First, a positive: Walking around in the real world and tracking, finding, and ultimately capturing the Pokemon that I grew throughout my childhood (and beyond) to know and love is an experience that reawakens that childlike enchantment I felt when I first slotted my Pokemon Blue cartridge into my Game Boy two full decades ago. More on that in a bit, though.

Before we get to all the reasons that I ultimately think Pokemon Go is a wonderful game – or at least a good game that has the potential to become wonderful with adequate love and care from its developers – I’m afraid there are some blatantly obvious negatives that have to be addressed. There is, of course, the matter of the server issues at launch, but I haven’t seen that we’re-having-server-issues splash screen in at least a few days (a screen I’ve come to perceive as the very manifestation of dashed hopes and disappointment), so even if the issues haven’t been completely fixed, it’s evident that Niantic is at least making progress in that direction. Besides, server issues are, for better or for worse, par for the course for any large-scale online game at launch. I’m not excusing them; I just feel that there are better things for me to harp on.

Problems in the game

To put it bluntly, the game is riddled with bugs. None of the bugs that I’ve encountered have been gamebreaking in the sense that they prohibited or significantly impeded my ability to play the game and progress within it, almost all of them have been gamebreaking in the sense that they are so unpredictable and frustrating that they make me want to actually break the game, or at least chuck my phone into the nearest gutter.

There’s the bug where, when you successfully throw a Pokeball, it’ll just fall to the ground motionless, and the only solution is to force-close the game and hope that the Pokemon you were trying to capture is there when you boot it back up (don’t hold your breath). There’s the bug where, after a Pokemon breaks free from a Pokeball, your camera will shift so that the Pokemon is no longer visible; you can just run away from the fight and hope the Pokemon is still there to re-engage, if the game lets you, but if it doesn’t, your only option is – again – to force-close the app and reopen it. There’s the bug where the game will appear to be running properly, but won’t let you interact with it in any way. The solution? Force-close and reopen, of course. There’s the bug where Pokemon that are no longer within range will still appear on your tracker, fooling you into thinking that you’ll eventually be able to find that Gengar if you just look hard enough when, in reality, it long since vanished into the nether. The list, I’m afraid, goes on, and I’ve lost out on a number of rare Pokemon – as well as a not-insignificant portion of Pokeballs, Great Balls, and even items I purchased from the cash shop, like incense and lucky eggs – at the hands of these egregious bugs. Oh, and Zubat’s hitbox is bullshit.

I absolutely understand that an undertaking as grand in scale and scope as Pokemon Go is a monumental one, and that there are bound to be bugs and glitches in the system, but these are the kinds of bugs that should have never made it into the launch version of the game. The fact that they not only happen but happen so damned often is just salt in the wound. I’m sure that Niantic will fix these issues in time, but I hope they go a step beyond that and acknowledge that many players, such as myself, have lost a staggering number of items – some of which we actually bought with actual money – as a result of these bugs, and that they’ll compensate players accordingly.

You might think that such damning and frankly inexcusable issues would turn me off of the game – and to an extent, they do. Yes, it does leave a bad taste in my mouth every time I have an ill-timed encounter with one of these bugs, but somehow, the bad taste always fades and leaves me craving the sweet, sweet taste of accomplishment that accompanies tracking down that one rare Pokemon that I’ve been dying to get my hands on, landing a perfectly thrown Pokeball, and holding my breath in anticipation as it shakes once, twice – stay in the ball, damn you – and after a third, lies still.

Sure, I’ll openly admit that my enjoyment of the game does stem in large part from a sense of nostalgia, the joy of finally being able to experience something that my five-year-old self, with his then-state-of-the-art Game Boy Color, could only dream of. But there are, I think, other aspects of the game that appeal to anyone, whether they were weaned on Pokemon from a tender age or are only familiar with the series thanks to the pop-culture ubiquity of that adorable lightning-mouse-thing.

How it all works

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the mechanics of the game itself, which are – at least at the moment – rather barebones. The bulk of the game, of course, is centered around the core element of searching for Pokemon, which spawn throughout the real-world, using the GPS tracking of your mobile phone, then catching them by tossing Pokeballs at them – a process which requires you to swipe your screen to physically fling the ball at your quarry, with bonus experience (and a higher chance of successful capture) granted as a reward for good aim.

Each Pokemon has two attacks – one basic attack and one special attack – and a combat power (CP) rating, which is basically just a numerical rating of that Pokemon’s overall power. Higher CP Pokemon are more likely to be able to beat those with lower CP, but of course the series’ signature type-effectiveness system also plays a part; water beats fire, fire beats grass, etc. Right now, however, the only type of battling you’ll be doing is asynchronous, when you pit your Pokemon against those other trainers have left to defend a gym for their team – more on teams, gyms, and battles in a second.

Capturing a Pokemon grants you three pieces of candy of that Pokemon’s evolutionary line, i.e. catching a Rattata or a Raticate grants you three pieces of Rattata candy, catching a Magikarp or a Gyarados grants three pieces of Magikarp candy, and so on. This candy can be used to evolve a Pokemon of its corresponding evolutionary line – the amount of candy required varying wildly from the 12 required to evolve a Pidgey into a Pidgeotto to the staggering 400 required to evolve a Magikarp into a Gyarados – or it can be used in conjunction with stardust (another resource, acquired primarily by capturing Pokemon and hatching eggs) to power up a Pokemon, increasing its CP and HP.

A significant portion of the game as it stands revolves around farming Pokemon to acquire enough candy to evolve your Pokemon and power them up into a fighting team to be reckoned with. It might sound like the sort of thing that would get dull quickly, but so far, the dreams of finally being the proud owner of a Dragonair, or whatever Pokemon I’ve set my sights upon, has proved suitable motivation to keep an eye on my phone every time I’ve got a spare moment, whether I’m walking between classes on campus or just taking a stroll downtown.

The other route of progression the game currently provides is that of raising your character level. Every Pokemon you catch, every egg you hatch, and just about everything else you do in the game grants you experience points. As you level up, new items (such as more powerful Pokeballs like Great Balls and Ultra Balls) become available for use, and your chances of running into rarer, more powerful Pokemon in the wild increases – among other things.

Pokeballs, Pokestops, gyms, and other weird terminology

If you’re going to keep on the top of your Pokemon-catching game, you’re going to need a lot of supplies – mostly Pokeballs, really – and in order to top up your inventory, you’ll have to hit up some Pokestops. Pokestops are real-world locations, usually local landmarks or religious establishments (pretty much every church in my town is one), with which you can interact in order to gain a handful of items. Some items, like non-basic Pokeballs (Great Balls, etc.) and eggs, which hatch into Pokemon after being incubated and walked for a predetermined distance (2, 5, or 10 kilometers), can be found only at Pokestops, while others like basic Pokeballs, incense – which attracts Pokemon to the user’s location – and lure modules can be purchased with real money via IAPs.

At level five, you’re asked to affiliate yourself with one of the game’s three teams, each associated with one of the original three legendary birds – Team Mystic, represented by Articuno; Team Instinct, represented by Zapdos; and Team Valor, represented by Moltres. This determines who your teammates and opponents are in the “territory control” portion of the game, which currently comes in the form of gym battles.

Gyms, like Pokestops, are real-world locations that you must visit in order to interact with. Players can claim gyms for their teams by leaving one of their Pokemon at the gym (temporarily) to defend it, while players of opposing teams will do their best to topple the defenders and leave their own Pokemon in their places. Gyms themselves involve a few slightly more complex mechanics that I, for the time being, won’t delve into for the sake of conserving space, but that’s the basic gist of it.

If you come across a gym that belongs to an opposing team and you want to claim it for your own, then you’re going to have to have a gym battle. It works like this: You assemble a team of up to six Pokemon with which you will go toe-to-toe with the defender Pokemon that trainers of the controlling team have left at the gym. If you beat all of them, then congratulations, the gym is now under your team’s control – for now, anyway.

I have to admit that I’m mildly disappointed that battles don’t use the same turn-based combat system as the main series; instead, they use a tap-and-swipe style of active combat that I’ve found to be somewhat fidgety, to say the least. Basically it works like this: Tap to use your basic attack, swipe left or right to dodge incoming attacks, and tap-and-hold to activate your Pokemon’s special attack (which first requires you to fill a special attack meter by landing basic attacks).

On paper, it’s actually a pretty decent idea. I’m not such a purist that I can’t appreciate the simplicity of a dodge-and-counter style of action combat, but the implementation leaves a bit to be desired. The game isn’t terribly well optimized and runs a little jaggedly – at least on my Galaxy S6 – so relying on your Pokemon’s ability to dodge to avoid damage is kind of a crapshoot, and more often than not my gym battles have ultimately devolved into battles of sheer attrition.

As it is, however, I’ve found that the time and effort involved in attempting to capture and hold gyms is just not really worth it from a reward standpoint. Although you are rewarded with a handful of XP (and maybe stardust? I can’t recall offhand, I’m afraid) for successfully wresting control of a gym from the other team, as far as I can tell, the main draw to attempting to maintain control of gyms (aside from bragging rights, of course) is the gym defender bonus, which can be claimed from the shop screen once every 21 hours. Doing so grants you 10 cash-shop coins and 500 stardust for each of your Pokemon that is currently defending a gym.

This can be a pretty lucrative bonus if you somehow manage to install Pokemon in many different gyms at once, but in my area, control of all the nearby gyms shifts seemingly from minute to minute, so the prospect of actually doing so and managing to get a substantial sum from the defender reward seems remote. While that is, to my knowledge, the only in-game method of acquiring coins that can be spent in the cash shop (without paying real cash, of course), stardust – which is arguably even more valuable thanks to the sheer amount needed to power up Pokemon to their full potentials – is easier to acquire through capturing Pokemon and hatching eggs.

In the game’s current state, that just about sums up the basic flow of gameplay – if a game that you can play literally anytime as you walk around in the real world can be said to have much of a “flow” at all. You walk around, you find Pokemon, you catch them, you evolve them and power them up, you visit Pokestops, you fight with the other teams for control of gyms, and that’s about it. And it’s enough for now – enough to whet our appetites for more, at least – but a Pokemon game without trading and one-on-one battling is hardly a Pokemon game at all.

What Niantic needs to address first

I’m sure that those features and more will be coming soon, but I’ll admit that I’m kind of frustrated by the fact that Pokemon Go, which is developed by the creators of Ingress and is based very heavily on the same, launched without any kind of social features like chat, friends lists, etc. despite the fact that these things are all present in Ingress.

I also feel like, once all the helter-skelter madness of launch dies down, Niantic really needs to sit down and take a second look at some of the systems they’ve implemented. In particular, I think the candy system – and by extension the power-up and evolution systems – needs a bit of retooling. As it stands, you get three candies of a Pokemon’s evolution line for capturing any Pokemon in that line, and you can also trade unwanted Pokemon in exchange for candy. But right now, trading any Pokemon in a given evolutionary line will grant you a single piece of candy for that line, whether it’s a 10 CP Pidgey or a 500-something CP Pidgeot. Granting more candies for more powerful/more evolved Pokemon would, I think, do a whole lot to alleviate the sense of grind that I can see setting in as time goes by.

mapBut before Niantic takes time on any of that, I think the one thing that needs to be addressed post-haste is the app’s performance. Just having my phone’s GPS turned on saps my battery at an alarming rate, and the additional resources required by the game itself make it an outrageous battery hog. This wouldn’t be quite as big of a deal if it weren’t for the fact that the app must be up and running at all times in order for you to encounter Pokemon, gain mileage towards your eggs hatching, and so on. If Niantic could figure out a way for the game to run in the background even when my phone’s screen was off, I’d be a happy camper. Sure, when I’m hunting for Pokemon I tend to have my eyes on the screen anyway so I can keep an eye on what’s in the vicinity, but I hate having to ensure that the app is running and keeping my phone’s screen on just to make sure that it registers that I’m walking so my eggs will hatch.

Without going off on any further tangents, suffice it to say that Pokemon Go is by no means a perfect game – or even, in my estimation, a sufficiently complete and robust one – from a mechanical standpoint, and I do hope that Niantic will revisit the systems they’ve implemented in the future and make tweaks as needed. But before I draw this to a close, I wanted to make sure I took a moment to talk about the game’s allures that have little to do with the actual mechanical systems behind it.

Real-world benefits in a video game

I can definitively say – and not without some modicum of shame, mind you – that I’ve gotten more physical exercise in the past week since Pokemon Go went live than I’ve probably gotten in the past six months combined. Say what you will about the necessity of exercise and physical fitness, but I think it’s hard to argue that, whatever its myriad benefits, working out is boring, and the summer heat (and accompanying humidity) of Florida doesn’t exactly motivate me to get off my ass and out of my apartment. But the possibility of catching that elusive Dratini or Scyther or whatever else? Yeah, that’ll do it.

And I know, at least anecdotally, that it’s not just me. The street on which I live was, until recently, almost always devoid of any non-automobile thoroughfare, save for the occasional jogger or bicyclist. Now when I step onto the sidewalk, I can’t even throw a rock without hitting dozens of others like me, out living their own Pokemon adventures. Like Ingress before it, Pokemon Go has taken folks who would otherwise be hard-pressed to summon the motivation to go for a walk just for the hell of it, and pushed them to the sidewalks in search of rare and powerful Pokemon.

But I think that the most exciting aspect of the game to me is actually the social dimension the game seems to naturally foster. The first six or seven paragraphs of this article were written freehand, scribbled on notebook paper as I sat at the end of a pier — a landmark in my hometown previously known only for being the location of a local-favorite restaurant, a lovely view of the bay, and a statue of a Spanish conquistador. It now also happens to be the spot of three Pokestops, situated within spitting distance of one another so that if you stand in the right spot, you can hit all three of them – and catch all the Pokemon, mostly water-types, attracted by the lures that players seem to keep perpetually installed on them.

The whole pier plaza had been taken over by throngs of would-be Pokemon masters, chatting with one another as they went about their Pokemon-capturing business. When a Gyarados spawned just off the edge of the pier, shouts of excitement rippled through the crowd as everyone wandered en masse to catch themselves a Gyarados in hopes of skipping the obscene amounts of candy grinding needed to evolve a Magikarp by hand. It’s honestly a kind of surreal experience, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The crowd I saw wasn’t just a gaggle of nerds and geeks who’d been coaxed out into the real world by the lure of Poke-mastery, nor was it only twenty-somethings like myself, reveling in the nostalgia of living their childhood fantasies. There were people of just about every conceivable age and background, moms and dads enjoying the game with their kids, the whole spectrum of my city’s population condensed into a crowd at the end of a pier, pointing each other toward rare Pokemon that were hidden nearby, and bonding over what ultimately amounts to a fairly simple mobile game.

I’m not usually one to get too sentimental about things like this, but as someone who has historically not been the type of person who is particularly comfortable striking up conversations with strangers, Pokemon Go has so far proved itself to be a capable social lubricant as it were. The long and short of it is that, while Pokemon Go has a ways to go in terms of feature-completeness and performance optimization, the fact remains that the gestalt experience of playing the game, from wandering my neighborhood searching for rare catches to joining a huge, impromptu Pokemon-catching convention, is one that is decidedly and uniquely compelling.