Less a year after its announcement in September 2015, Pokemon GO has hit the App Store and Android Market and has seemingly instantly taken the world by storm. A collaboration between The Pokemon Company and Niantic Labs, a game design studio formerly part of Google, Pokemon GO allows users to “experience” Pokemon in the real world, using augmented reality and global positioning to simulate what being Pokemon Trainer might be like in the real world.
This isn’t Niantic’s first rodeo with video games that use the player’s physical movement as the primary controller. In November 2012, Niantic introduced Ingress, where players competed globally on two teams to collect “Exotic Matter” and capture portals—which coincide with real-world landmarks—from the opposing team.
Pokemon GO borrows a number of mechanics from Ingress. After given an introductory message from Professor Willow, the player is given the chance to catch either Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle, the three original starter Pokemon choices from Pokemon Red and Blue. Subsequently, the player is shown a map on their mobile devices, with their avatar displayed at their GPS location. As the player moves, the map and list of nearby Pokemon is updated.
When a player is in range of a Pokemon, the character appears on the map. When trying to catch a Pokemon, the player swipes upward on a PokeBall to “throw” it at the Pokemon, which has been rendered in either a simulated grassy plain or, if the player allows, directly augmented onto whatever is behind their phones. The classic suspense of capturing a Pokemon, where you anxiously watch as the PokeBall twitches and pray it doesn’t escape, has been retained, but the mechanic of battling wild Pokemon is not included. As players capture more Pokemon, they gain experience points and raise their players’ levels.
Upon reaching level 5, the player can opt to join one of three teams, similar to Ingress: Yellow (Instinct), Blue (Mystic), or Red (Valor). Once chosen, the player can participate in battling gyms of opposing teams with the aim of converting it to their team. Battling is not nearly as sophisticated as what you will find in the main-series console games, but it gets the intent across.
The game has become a sensation in the three regions it has been released in so far: the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. Within 24 hours of release, the game hit the top of the Free and Top Grossing charts on the Apple App Store. But the game’s launch has been rocky, with many users experience substantial and extensive lag and inability to play due to server errors. Niantic has put worldwide release of the game on temporary hold while the problems are resolved.
Overall, my feelings on Pokemon GO are mixed. From a conceptual standpoint, the game passes with flying colors. I can’t remember how many times I wanted to be a Pokemon Trainer in real life when I was younger, and this game gets me as close as possible to fulfilling that dream. However, on both the feature and release standpoints, I am underwhelmed. Server issues aside, the game definitely could be more filled with features. Granted, the augmented reality functionality is definitely groundbreaking, but I would have been more happy with a later launch that included more functionality overall. However, the nostalgia and game experience are already worth playing, and I can see why the game has already seen a major adoption.
Get out there and catch some Pokémon!