Typically when I write, I do so from home. I’ve got a laptop, so I could go out into the world, but instead I sit in a dark corner and eat chocolate digestives. However, today is different. According to my phone, there’s a Pokémon nearby, and judging by its silhouette, it’s impressive. So today, I venture out into the world to write about Pokémon Go in an overpriced café, like someone from an Apple commercial.
As I emerge from the Zone 3 East London tube station, I’m met with a sight of utter horror. A man has wandered into the road to catch a Porygon and caused a 15-car pile-up. No fatalities, but instead of calling the emergency services, the man (late thirties, slick, estate agent looking type) is throwing a Pokéball at a whiplash victim (apparently a wild Vaporeon appeared on his face).
My suspicions that Pokémon Go is a omen of the end times is again validated when I see a group of 15 year-olds throwing rocks at a stray cat near Poundland; they were convinced they were throwing Pokéballs at a 150CP Meowth.
Animal abuse and road traffic accidents are obviously bad, but at least it’s got me out of the house. I’ve explored more of my local area in the last two days than the previous two years I’ve lived here. I’ve walked into lamp-posts and made needless journeys to the off-license in order to up my egg-hatching kilometres.
But here’s the thing: Pokémon Go is a really bad game. Before you spam me with abuse, hear me out. We’ll start with positives. The music is nice, the simple graphics are colourful and cute, and the user interface is modern and clean. So, the bad. For a game aimed at a massive audience that will include a vast majority of ‘casual’ gamers, Pokémon Go explains nothing. There is a vague, short tutorial at the start but almost none of the gameplay mechanics are explained. What do I do with Razz Berries? How do I activate this lure module? How do I know a Pokémon is close? What are the benefits of putting my Pokémon in this gym? If at this point you’re screaming at your screen and calling me an idiot because you know these things, it isn’t because the game told you. I’m well aware of the fact that all these questions can be answered with a quick Google search, but I can’t accept that as not being a failing of the game. A mainstream, casual phone game shouldn’t require extra-curricular research.
Now let’s talk bugs, and I’m not talking Weedles and Caterpies (sorry). It’s not unreasonable to say that Pokemon Go is pretty close to being a broken game. After three solids days with the game, one in five Pokémon I catch freeze in the Pokéball and require a restart. At least two of the eggs I have got have disappeared. I’ve only managed to complete one gym battle without a crash. The Pokémon tracking doesn’t work (showing me the same distance indication regardless of where I am). It’s no secret that a huge number of mobile games and apps are released at 60% completion and basically finished months later with big updates, but Pokémon Go doesn’t even feel that far ahead yet. This feels like it should be a limited alpha release. Perhaps the developers knew that people would demand the app regardless of its technical issues, and essentially we’re all just acting as game testers for them; but from a critical perspective of this as a video game, it’s close to unforgivable.
Yes, the game is free, so ‘what can you expect?’, but honestly I don’t think we can accept that argument. The freemium model is so successful in convincing people to spend real currency that to call the game free feels disingenuous.
I guess it should be obvious that Pokémon Go would always be a success. The millennials that collected the cards at school are now in their late-20s and they all have £600 smart-phones. Combine the nostalgia, pre-existing fanbase, augmented reality novelty and viral marketing, and it’s a sure recipe for success. Inevitably, the hype will die down and I’d expect usage to drop down in two or three months, but there’s no question Nintendo have bottled lightning with Pokémon Go. Despite its shortcomings as a game, its idea is genius. While it may dissipate over time, there is a real thrill in stumbling across a rare Pokémon while you’re out buying shower gel, and it does add a little magic (however superficial) to mundane life.
Normally I’d end here by speculating on where Pokémon Go can develop going forward. What innovations can it add? But it really doesn’t need to, Pokémon Go is almost at a point now where it can rest on its laurels and still achieve unprecedented success. Perhaps as interesting as the question of where Pokémon Go develops, is what this means for augmented reality.
The next year will surely see a massive increase in the rise of augmented reality experiences and for every hundred Pokémon Go rip-offs; we could see something genuinely creative and different (anyone else hoping for a The Purge Go?).