It hasn’t even seen a worldwide release yet, but in less than two weeks, Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm and seeped into every corner of society and culture. It has taken hold of social media, spawned some excellent fodder for net culture jokes, turned quiet parks into destination spots in every major city in America, and led to the creation (and resolution) of social conflicts. It’s a phenomenon so massive in scale that most #brands, businesses, and media personalities have felt the need to weigh in on it, including presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
If you live in a densely populated area, then you’ve already seen first-hand how this single app has transformed the look and feel of your daily commute, whether or not you play. You can’t walk to the local convenience store, stop to rest in the park, go to a museum, or hop on a train without seeing the evidence of this game all around you. If you see a cluster of people walking while looking down at their phones this week, they are very likely playing this game. Children are playing. Parents are playing. Retirees are playing. It’s become THE summer sensation for listless teens with time to kill. Employees on shift are sneaking catches in between customers. Police officers are playing their downtime. I have never in my life seen such an influential takeover, so quickly, by a single app in the mobile scene. And because of mobile’s presence in the hands of nearly every American, I’ve also never seen a game carry more influence over the world on a macro and micro scale than I have with Pokemon Go.
Despite all of this, I was initially quite the Pokemon Go detractor. See, I’m very particular about my gaming habits. Between home consoles and portables, I own game hardware that allows me to play games for over fifty platforms. It is there that I play. I like to hold my games in my hands and know that I own the right to see this game through, beginning to end, without financial interruption. I’ve never had the kind of money at any given moment to get myself a sweet gaming PC rig, and I’m a bit uneasy about the all-digital, games-as-a-license future that PC gaming offers. But I reserve a special kind of ire for the mobile gaming market, a space I make no bones about sticking my proverbial nose in the air at. I resent how the free-to-play model has diluted the value a game holds, and has encouraged some of my favorite third-party developers to jump ship on dedicated gaming platforms in favor of the promise of easy money on mobile. I can generally even forgive this, as long as the free-to-play pay structure is fair, entirely optional, and designed to prevent pay-to-win scenarios like you see in Clash Royale and Game of War. But when I heard that Pokeballs would be for sale in the store, it made me worried. How would balls be doled out? Would you get a certain number each day, and then have to pay for any more than that? As someone who deeply cherishes the traditional Pokemon games (I mean, look at my footer at the bottom of this article – I went through the trouble to gather a complete “Living Dex” of all 719 Pokemon), I’m deeply protective of the series, and this detail had me worried.
When the game launched on July 6th in the US, I decided to give it a try, and thankfully, the pay structure is entirely forgiving thanks to the addition of PokeStops, little nodes on the in-game map located at real-world destinations that let you check-in, in exchange for free items, every five minutes or so. I found right away that if I kept the game open during my commute and checked into every PokeStop on the way, then I would never have the need to pay real money for Pokeballs. In fact, as I took a closer look at the in-game shop, I realized that none of the purchasable items gave you any sort of real edge over anyone else – no XP doublers, no way to pay to catch specific Pokemon, not even a direct way of paying to level up or evolve your Pokemon. All of this is left to be done organically through in-game play, leaving everyone on pretty much the same playing field. Even lures, which you can apply to a PokeStop to boost Pokemon encounter rates at that spot for thirty mintues, don’t single out particular Pokemon, and benefit everyone in the area equally. At the very least, Pokemon Go is fair. What a relief!
So, with a slightly more optimistic frame of mind, I set out to see if Pokemon Go is any good, comparing it of course to the traditional Pokemon games. And this is what I found – Pokemon Go is a janky, unstable, shallow and all-too-often non-functional game. Through that entire first weekend of release, the game had nearly constant server issues that prevented me from even logging in. This is how I described my first afternoon with the game to my friends: “I saw a park filled with a bunch of PokeStops augmented with lures… so I went to the park… and the game crashed. So I force-closed the app and re-started. Now it’s asking me to sign up, but I am signed up. Ok… It’s back. I logged in, all set. Oh cool a pidgey! Nope, it froze as soon as I caught it. Force-close, re-starting… Got a message complaining of server issues, asking me to try again later… Rebooting… Oh, it thinks I need to sign up again… Froze on the Gyrados loading screen… Rebooting… Okay, now I’m already logged in. Cool. A Spearow! Damn it! Froze upon catching it. Rebooting… Server issues again!? Ok, ok… I think I’m finally logged in and it’s working, time to catch some… Nope, never mind. All of the lures expired. Everyone is leaving the park.” This first afternoon left such an awful taste in my mouth that I swore off playing it again.
But that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me about Pokemon Go. The first time we heard about this game, it captured our imaginations, because we saw ourselves becoming Pokemon trainers out in the real world! In a lot of ways, the finished product didn’t live up to my expectations. When I encountered my first wild Pokemon, I was ready to toss out my Bulbasaur to get it some experience. Oh wait… It’s just me with the ball? You’re just supposed to toss it? Ok. As you hold the ball, ready to throw, a circle will appear in front of the Pokemon, like a target, with another circle inside of it, beginning as big as the first, shrinking to nothing, and then resetting and repeating. Some players think you’re supposed to throw it when the circle as small, but others are certain that you throw at the very second the animation resets and the circle is biggest. The game doesn’t bother to clarify. Sometimes it says “Nice!” when you bag ’em, but that seems to mean little, because Pokemon can and will sometimes break out of the ball, and I’ve had “Nice!” catches that have failed plenty of times. Sometimes the ball wiggles once and then the game just freezes, forcing me to close the game an re-open it. Checking my collection after, I will sometimes end up with the Pokemon, sometimes I won’t. This one is so notorious that it’s a common complaint amongst all players and is a regular occurrence during everyday play, even two weeks in.
Well hey, that’s all fine and well. But the entire mechanical basis of Pokemon is battling your creatures to gain experience, level them up, gain them new moves, and eventually evolve them. So how does one develop and train their team in Pokemon Go? Well, you certainly don’t do it by battling friends or strangers. As of right now, there is no way to directly interact with other players at ALL. There’s no way to directly battle with others. There’s no way to trade Pokemon with others. There’s no way to add trainers you come across to a list of friends, to build local groups for your team of choice (I’m Valor, bitches). There’s no way to foster a community internal to the app, forcing players to wither get creative outside of the game. Hell, you can’t even see the other trainers around you, or any evidence that anyone but you is playing this, outside of Gyms and the occasional PokeStop augmented with a lure. Based on a series built around direct social interaction, Pokemon Go is oddly passive by design.
Gyms are actually the only place that your Pokemon will even get the chance to battle. If you don’t plan on competing for control of the gyms in your neighborhood, then you’ll never need to use a Potion or a Revive, because it’s the only way your Pokemon can be hurt. Your Pokemon come with two moves when you catch them, and they can’t learn any other moves then the two they already know. During a gym battle, your basic attack is activated by tapping your Pokemon, and your special attack is activated by holding down on your Pokemon. You can also swipe left or right to dodge moves from your opponent. But that’s it. There’s absolutely nothing else to it. Typing does come into play when it comes to how hard your moves will hit, but the game never bothers to explain this to newcomers, and I’ve found that it matters little if your Pokemon is more beefed up than the opponent, or you’re just good at timing dodges. As somebody who is fascinated by the Pokemon battling metagame in the main series, I’m a bit disappointed!
I should mention that even gym battles don’t have any bearing on raising your Pokemon’s stats. And by “stats”, I should really say CP. CP is sort of an overall battle strength statistic that sums up every stat under a single number, making it easy to size one Pokemon up against another at a glance. I understand the need to keep this particular detail simple for newcomers, and the CP system doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What does bother me is how one raises a Pokemon’s CP value. Get this: to raise CP, you have to catch more of that Pokemon. Are you used to catching a Pokemon, giving it a nickname, taking it along for the long haul, and becoming attached to it? Not anymore you won’t! Each time you catch a Pokemon, you get three “candies” for that specific Pokemon. You get a fourth candy for releasing that Pokemon and letting it go. The way you boost and evolve your Pokemon in Go is by feeding them these candies. So, that means if you want to make your Bulbasaur awesome and eventually turn it into a Venusaur, you need to catch dozens of other Bulbasaurs, stick with the strongest Bulbasaur you caught (often not the one you snagged first), and release the rest. In the name of grinding to the top, your Pokemon become faceless beings you care less about unless/until they rise above the others. What a bummer!
To top it all off, even the mechanic that helps you locate particular Pokemon is buggy and under-explained. There is a little button in the bottom-right corner of the main screen that, when tapped, will take you to a menu showing Pokemon that are “Nearby” in a list, with a certain number of paw prints below them, demonstrating how far away a Pokemon is from you. The Beta offered an actual mile/kilometer distance, but this was replaced with these vague paw prints in the release version. The big problem with this is that there is no explanation as to how far away one, two, or three paw prints means, not to mention that no direction is applied to this distance. What’s worse, Pokemon frequently change locations or disappear completely on the fly, without warning, as frequently as every five minutes or so, giving you very little time to bother searching anything out that isn’t already standing right in front of you. There’s even a bug that’s affected all users for days, where every creature on the “Nearby” list has three pawprints under it, even when that isn’t true.
So, I often found myself more just reacting to the Pokemon that naturally came way way, which often consists of Pidgey, Ratatta, Spearow, and Drowzee. Speaking of the latter, something is UP with Drowzee in this game. They’re not terribly rare in the Generation I games, but they’re located on a few select routes and nowhere else. In Pokemon Go, Drowzee is the new Pidgey. They are freaking everywhere. Just earlier today, three of them appeared around me at once. I’ve captured nearly 100 Drowzee in just these two weeks I’ve been playing. Maybe this one is just a Boston thing. Let me know in the comments below if you, too are drowning in Drowzee or not.
If I didn’t already make it painfully obvious, there’s plenty I found issue with in Pokemon Go. Some of my gripes are admittedly personal hangups about Pokemon Go not being (and not trying to be) more similar in function to the main series games I love so dearly, but this game needs some serious work. And many of the server issues can be seen as understandable growing pains, but you really only get one shot with game launches, and this very well could have sunk Pokemon Go’s reputation from the start. That said, despite all of it’s flaws and shortcomings, despite how much the game fights you when you’re trying to play it, Pokemon Go has become a phenomenon unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
I’ve never seen a game have such broad impact among so many different facets of American culture after such a short period of time. As somebody who studied Social Psychology in college, who is fascinated by cultural trends, who believes that a game is sometimes only as good as those who play it, I found myself ultimately falling in love with Pokemon Go – not for its quality as a game, but for what we as a culture did to make it a sensation, a movement that quickly became impossible to ignore, whether you played the game or not.
The middle of July is generally a quiet time, both in video games and in American culture at large. The temperature hits its peak, and the pace of life slows down. But there was a palpable energy in the air these past two weeks that felt notably unusual, and irresistibly novel. Every public space in America suddenly came alive. Wild stories started popping up in the news and all over the internet, each more absurd than the last. Anyone with a microphone, a blog, a Twitter following or just a loud voice would feel the need to weigh in, share what they think, and perhaps even share their own Pokemon stories. And, in this era of social media saturation, share they did!
There were the two separate incidents where players stumbled upon a dead body while trying to locate a Pokemon. Then there was the 2000-person impromptu Go meetup in Sydney that turned into a weekend-long party, which itself turned into a conflict with local residents who couldn’t stand the noise… the ironic gym fights over real world locations like the Westboro Baptist Church, Trump Tower and The White House… armed teens using remote PokeStops as ways to mug people… the wave of popularity of Pokemon Go nudes… the fact that it only took one writer a few days to throw together a Pokemon Go erotica and sell it on Amazon… that super weird gif of the CBS Evening News reporter with what appear to be Pokemon from hell… Hollywood scrambling to secure the rights to a Pokemon live-action movie… (as I mentioned earlier) Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump weighing in… the game taking over WWE and MMA events… the stampede of humanity in a city park upon hearing a Squirtle was nearby…
My favorite story was of South Koreans flooding into the north-eastern coastal city of Sokcho because it’s the only city in the country Niantic missed when blacking the country out from Pokemon Go pre-launch. Buses were completely sold out for days, traffic was gridlocked, sleeping accommodations completely booked… A micro-economy even formed in Sokcho around cyclists offering to ride your phone around the block repeatedly until your Pokemon eggs hatched.
All of this over a game that’s shallow and broken! Without our cravings for both nostalgia and novelty, and, and without the urge to reach out and interact with each other and the world around us, none of this would be possible, and Pokemon Go would just be another forgettable mobile game, albeit one with a Nintendo property attached to it. Yet here we are! In this era of deep socio-political division, it just might be possible that we all kinda sorta like each other. We just needed something in common to bond over, something to remind us to laugh and smile together, something to remind us that life can still surprise us in the most unusual ways. And I couldn’t be more grateful that my favorite video game series of all time, Pokemon, was the catalyst.
Pokemon Go and the stories attached to it have captivated our nation (as well as the people of New Zealand and Australia) these past two weeks, and now it’s headed to the country where Pokemon was born. Japan will soon get their first taste of the experience, as will much of the rest of the world. Whatever you might think of Pokemon Go, things are only getting started. I just hope that this time, Niantic is ready to deliver.