Thoughts on Pokémon Go

- 11 minutes -

I knew I had to talk about this sometime or other, even just from my unending affinity for the franchise. But, at this point, it’s become not just unavoidable, but bogglingly ubiquitous to the point where it’s a little unsettling seeing types of people who you wouldn’t peg as Pokémon fans at any point in their life engage with this game.

I knew I was going to probably link to an article or video about it, but after seeing Casey Neistat dedicate an entire one of his vlogs to the phenomenon, I think I’ve got a lot more to say than I initially thought.

 
 

Ubiquity

First things first, this thing is unbelievably popular. Even if you consider the factors — for example, Pokémon being a household name already, or the game, somewhat ironically, encouraging people to go out and walk around their neighborhoods, which is a relatively unprecedented and original concept — even with all that considered, it still boggles my mind how quickly this became a cultural phenomenon, perhaps more so than any other Pokémon game before it.

Here’s what I’m talking about: it not only outpaced Clash Royale as the fastest game ever to top revenue charts, but it is already the biggest mobile game in US history. It did all of that before launching in other continents like Europe and Asia. In fact, it isn’t even in Asia at my time of writing, and I still feel compelled to address it. (Update: Yes, an update before actually publishing my post. Nintendo is now almost worth twice as much as itself pre-PoGo. All because of this one game.)

Success

With that brings Nintendo immense and continued success: the game alone added $7 billion to Nintendo’s market value, and that figure is still growing. At first you wonder how a game like Super Mario Maker couldn’t do anything close to this for Nintendo, but it goes to show how big the mobile gaming industry really is.

It also tells Nintendo that mobile really is the best way forward. If this and Miitomo is anything to go by, their mobile efforts are almost guaranteed to go mainstream at this point. They would be incredulous not to pursue it further, but there isn’t any reason to believe that’s the case.

In fact, if any one company can see a future in mobile gaming, it absolutely has to be Nintendo. Only they have the IP with mass market attraction (e.g. Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, just to name a few franchises) that appeals to almost every demographic, ranging from the long-standing nostalgic fanbase to completely new fans. (I think Neistat’s video should be enough evidence.)

They also have an understanding of casual games no one else has — to the point where “hardcore” gamers would scoff at their offerings, especially with the Wii a few years back — which lends itself to the smartphone gaming platform and how popular titles on that platform are developed. (There’s a reason why AAA titles on PlayStation and Xbox don’t have just-as-popular equivalents on mobile.) Thinking about it now, it’s strange that it’s taken this long for Nintendo to pop up as a big name in mobile gaming, which they’re mostly at fault for.

It’s just that good

I have the app installed on my phone — though I haven’t really got into the game as Pokémon have yet to pop up in my region, the tutorial procedures were refreshing to experience.

They weren’t an insult to my intelligence like many other mobile games. It just fleshed out almost exactly like in a regular Pokémon game, asking for a name, some customization of my avatar, and a quick walkthrough of how the mechanics work. They didn’t reveal everything — in fact, there are things in my inventory I have no idea what they do yet.

While there are in-app purchases, I wasn’t at all reminded of them by the game. I’m guessing they want me to compelled to purchase items and/or capabilities as I would need them in real-time, which I think is pretty smart.

The app itself is pretty solid. The design, while not very Nintendo-like (I’ll get to that in a bit), is tasteful, more similar to a productivity app than a more gaudy interface typical of mobile games. Also, I think the simulated map loads quicker than any of my ride-sharing apps. We’ll see how it fares once Go’s operational in Asia. (Update: Yes, another update before actually publishing my post. Apparently there are no plans to release the game in Asia. What a bummer. A little sad to think that even Japan of all places will not be receiving the game.)

Some nitpicks, though. As I already mentioned, you can tell Nintendo didn’t have much control over the development of the game. It was developed mostly by Niantic Inc., which was funded by Google along with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company. That’s why the app asks for your Google account information before letting you play, which is the only annoying part I’ve encountered in the game thus far.

While I can easily deal with that, what might grate at my mind a bit more is the art direction. Not only is it inconsistent, but it’s as if Nintendo just let Niantic do whatever they wanted, especially with the style of the avatars. (I will say, though, that the Pokémon themselves look terrific.)

Where the game lacks refinement, it totally makes up for in the concept, at least that’s how I feel from everyone else’s experience with the game. What fascinates me is the concept of a smartphone app, let alone a game, actively encouraging its users to not just be outside to play the game, but to roam around and never stay put to have the game be a rewarding experience. The closest thing to this that I can think of is Geocaching, but to have the action occur partially in the digital realm (being the capturing of the actual Pokémon) puts Niantic and Nintendo at an advantage, in that the rewards are made unlimited.

When we look back at the smartphone revolution years from now, I’m confident we’ll be looking back at Pokémon Go as a milestone.

Potential updates

That brings me to how the game could be improved over time. I think there’s lots of room for improvement, which Nintendo definitely wants considering the ephemerality associated with mobile games.

An obvious one, I think, would be to increase the number of available Pokémon to catch, especially as the average number of Pokémon caught among active users increases over time. This could be done every time a new generation of Pokémon comes out — one of those times happens to be some time soon with Pokémon Sun and Moon coming to the 3DS later this year. How convenient. It’s one of the easier ways to avoid stagnancy.

Compatibility with the traditional line of Pokémon games could be established, perhaps with Sun and Moon. For example, Nintendo could somehow create a link between Pokémon Bank and Pokémon Go, or create a reward system that rewards players using both games with items.

Speaking of the traditional games, traditional Pokémon mechanics could be introduced in the future. A lot of them seem to be missing from this game, I think to create a strong initial focus on the capturing aspect (“Gotta catch ‘em all” and all that). One that should be introduced later on is the use of Pokémon moves (i.e. limited to four moves and PP, use of TM’s, etc.) as opposed to the tap-based and level-based combat that exists now.

My bigger point, though, is that there’s a lot of stuff for Nintendo to draw from to keep the game exciting, which Nintendo has plenty of incentive to do given the game’s massive success — brand recognition isn’t the only advantage this game has by being backed by an established franchise.