In an effort to improve my over all quality of life, I have resumed this blog. Hopefully someone still reads it, although it has been… five entire years since I last posted? Seriously?
Uhm. Right. Well tonight I will talk about a game that statistically speaking you have either played, or heard someone else talk about, Pokémon GO! Specifically I want to take a look at why such a simple game blew up beyond what anyone expected. Most people are just shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘Eh, because Pokémon’ but I don’t think that’s the case. Pokémon is huge, sure, but no Pokémon game has ever been this big.
So why is it so huge? Why did millions of people suddenly start playing a Pokémon themed Marco Polo game? I have my personal opinions on the subject, and that’s all this will be, my intuition as someone who studied game design, and who has played more games than I would ever like to count. Please follow me down the rabbit hole of Pokémon GO!
So what exactly is Pokémon GO? While most of you reading this probably know, for those of you that don’t, Pokémon GO is a smart phone game developed by Niantic. It is their second major release, and is by design very similar to their first game ‘Ingress’. Both games take advantage of your phone’s GPS co-ordinates to create an augmented reality world. In Ingress this manifests itself as portals that open in your neighborhood that you and your friends must close, but in Pokémon this takes your world and turns it into a Pokémon game. Users create a custom avatar, which is then dropped on a flat, cartoony map of their immediate nearby area. Creatures called Pokémon (which if you want to read more about I wrote a thing on, five years ago) will pop up nearby the player, and tapping them will switch on your camera. Using the camera, they render the Pokémon wherever you are, leading to you, say, dueling with a purple rodent in your own living room, as a totally non-specific example.
Players can use their finger to toss the Pokeball (the red and white ball at the bottom of the screen) at the Pokémon. A successful hit will capture it. After that you return back to the map screen with a new friend! You find more Pokémon by walking around, which translates your movement to the game itself. There is far more to this, but as I mentioned above, you probably already know all of this.
So how did something so simple become more popular than tinder? Ingress never achieved those sort of numbers and it was a much more complicated game than this ever was. I think to cover this we need to first understand what makes a game so appealing, because Pokémon GO checks all the boxes for the mega hit. For a game to succeed, it must have a very broad appeal. If a game is too complicated, casual gamers will get turned off of it, but if it’s too simple none of the dedicated fans will stick around. It has to appeal to boys, girls, men, women, teens, adults, and everything else on the scale that I miss. If you think that’s easy, try even ordering pizza with a group of ten people, and you will see how diverse people’s tastes are.
Pokémon GO, more so than any other Pokémon game, has hit all those boxes and more. The game is incredibly simple, no difficult controls, no puzzles to get past, no final boss to stone wall you. It’s Marco Polo, crossed with one of those simple papertoss apps. That alone wouldn’t be enough to draw in a huge crowd though, and I think that’s where the actual Pokémon come in. Pokémon, as I have discussed before, beautifully cover a range of bases. Whatever you like, there is probably a Pokémon for you. Are you dark and edgy? Do you happen to like cute birds? Looking for something adorable and pudgy? There is a Pokémon for that. There is even a mime!
So now huge amounts of people are interested, but it gets more inclusive than that. Normally for a game with as rich a heritage of Pokémon, you would have to go in with some previous experience. Pokémon GO cleverly sidesteps that, not only by only including the first 145 Pokémon, but by leaving out any sort of story at all. This means even people who know absolutely nothing of Pokémon can leap in with no problems. Pokémon GO also manages to capture that oh-so-elusive sweet spot of ‘Easy to learn, difficult to master’ and draw in the hardcore crowd by including Gyms. If you want to dominate your local area, you better be ready to train only the best Pokémon, and do plenty of research! Or just catch a Snorlax and dominate, like most people.
Once more though, this is all stuff any Pokémon game has, and most of them do it better. Why is this one the one that swept up the world? I think it was all about timing, and platform. First of all, the platform was a widely accessible one. Everyone and their grandmother has a smart phone these days, it’s part of the society we live in. This meant that a huge population were receptive to this game instantly. That alone wouldn’t be enough though, the other thing I think that made this game a hit was it’s timing. It released in the middle of summer, at a time when everyone is thinking about their health.
I know I, personally, love going on walks. This game gave me a reason to go out, even when normally I wouldn’t. I would be sitting at home and go ‘Oh hey, there is a rare Pokémon nearby. Sure, why don’t I go out looking for it. Oh and while I’m out I can restock on Pokeballs, and maybe go check that Pokémon gym up the road, and-‘ so on, until I have been out for over an hour. People would encourage each other with this too, sending whole groups on pokemon hunting expeditions.
That brings me to the final reason this game, I think, was a huge hit: It brought people together like most games could only dream. I can vividly remember walking through parks and seeing people catching pokemon even at four in the morning. Pokémon players are immediately recognizable, and (usually) they love running into others who share the same hobby. That’s what it came down to, was word of mouth. When four of your friends are playing the same game and going out for hours at a time to catch Pokémon, chances are you probably will check out the app too. This is to say nothing about the fervor people feel for their favorite team, even if there is no real difference between them! Speaking of, I will refrain from mentioning what team I belong to, for fear of making two-thirds of my reading audience hate me.
Again, to clarify, these teams have literally no difference in gameplay beyond color, but people will actually get genuinely furious if you say you are on the wrong team. This was a community that simply did not exist two months ago, that is now strong enough to form rivalries with itself.
Many competitors will come in the near future to try to match Pokémon GO, but I have a sneaking suspicion none of them will ever come close. Pokémon GO’s success isn’t because of its Augmented Reality gameplay, it isn’t because it’s a particularly well programmed game, and it isn’t even because it’s Pokémon. What made Pokémon GO a success is a beautiful blend of features that came together in a unique way that will likely never be seen again. I plan to keep playing it, after all, I want to be, the very best. Like no one ever was!