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Niantic’s Pokémon Go

In Part One, we donned our rose tinted spectacles and managed to convince ourselves that Niantic’s first manouevre into the AR mobile gaming space was broadly a success.

In part two, we’ll talk about the explosively popular second manouevre, Pokémon Go.

Ingress v Pokémon Go

The same, but different. Both games revolve around nodes arranged on a map. In Ingress, these are portals. In Poké Go, they are Pokéstops and gyms. Certainly at the beginning of the Poké Go, every stop and gym mapped back to an Ingress portal – they even shared the same photos.

Where Ingress generated collectable XM (which players required to perform interactions in the game) around places of heavy footfall, Poké Go generated Pokémon. Where Ingress had badges for total game distance travelled, Poké Go promoted this to a first class concept, making eggs hatch based on how far one walked while in game.

Ingress is due for a revamp next year, during which, according to Niantic, the game’s backend will be merged into the same platform as Poké Go. That sounds wholly believable given those similarities. One hopes the logical separation between the games is enough that Pikachu doesn’t start trying to hack portals.

Wasn’t this meant to be a post about Poké Go?

Oh, yes. Sorry.

Pokémon Go was unleashed into the world in the summer of 2016. I willfully endangered the security of my phone and installed an APK of it from somewhere other than the play store, such was my level of enthusiasm. A little digging around yielded a couple of external batteries from days of heavy Ingress play, and off I went.

Full disclosure – for many folks, Poké Go was their first introduction into the world of Pokémon. That wasn’t true for me – I played the Gameboy red and blue editions heavily, and even briefly (because it was dreadful) played Stadium on N64. So I came to the game with baggage, and it probably coloured my view of it.

An unpleasant shock

The Ingress scanner was not famed for its reliability. Quite the opposite. Given the explosive popularity of Poké Go, further wobbles were, I suppose, to be expected. Splash screens complaining of too much load – yes, OK, explainable. Constant client application crashing, on the other hand, was not. At times it felt like very basic error handling was missing from the client, leading to no small amount of frustration.

It says a lot for the pulling power of Pokémon that I persisted at all.

The good

Some mediocre pokemon

“Gotta catch ’em all” is probably one of the better hooks created in the 20th century, and Go exploits it brilliantly. In an urban area, pretty much any park spawns Pokémon in places where footfall is high.

Specific species would be findable in specific places – it would suddenly be public knowledge that Holland Park was the place for Squirtle. Every now and again (I assume someone at Niantic pushed a button) a migration would be triggered, and the types of Pokémon that ‘spawned’ at a particular location would change.

Online atlasses of where to find particular pokémon sprang up on reddit and elsewhere and were mostly quite well maintained. I travelled all over London to keep my Pokédex numbers ticking upwards and found the process quite satisfying – particularly on weekends, where I would come across small crowds of other people doing exactly the same thing.

In addition to flicking Pokéballs at pokémon until they eventually caved and stayed inside, one could also hatch other Pokémon from eggs collecting by visiting Pokéstops. To hatch an egg – pop it in an incubator and get walking! In 2, 5 or 10km time the egg hatches (hint: it’s usually a Pidgey) and a Pokémon emerges.

What's in the egg? Disappointment

Wait, is that it, for good? Well, yes – it should be pointed out that I still spent hundreds of hours and travelled hundreds of kilometres for that amount of good, though.

Before the longer and rather rantier section of this post begins, let’s recap the good:

  • Has pokémon in; catching, hatching, evolving pokémon is fun (honest)
  • Progress requires movement
  • It’s quite a pretty world
  • The ‘overlay a pokémon onto the real world using your camera’ was cute, if unplayable

The frustrating

In Go, Pokémon are levelled up and evolved by feeding them species specific candy. Candy is acquired by hatching eggs or catching more specimens of that particular family of Pokémon. This is in contrast to my previous experience where Pokémon level up through battling.

So, trainer – you need to catch five more Pikachu in order to have enough candy to evolve one into a Raichu. You’ve travelled to Blackheath because you’ve heard there are Pikachu there today. You arrive, and the radar shows several Pikachu nearby. Where are they? Well, they are somewhere within the three to four square kilometres of Blackheath. Best of luck finding them before they despawn.

Unsurprisingly, a collection of third party applications that harvested precise Pokémon locations and served them on top of Google Maps sprang up, with fastpokemap.se being the best of them. Why didn’t the game provide a simple and fun way of discovering where nearby Pokémon were? It could have been a fun mini game, or a triangulation puzzle – almost anything other than the complete waste of space the existing radar was would have been an improvement. The addition to show the nearest pokéstop is a start, but still, for large open areas, a total failure.

Now you’ve caught the fourteen Pikachu required to evolve a Raichu: now – which one should you pick to evolve? Do the statistics provided by the app mean anything at all? Not obviously, but guess what – there are real differences that will make later gym battles go worse for you if you pick a dud. Why this was obfuscated is a mystery. A later update did help a bit here, in Go‘s defense.

Did we mention yet that there are three teams in Go , unlike Ingress’s two? Each team has their own traits that they look for in trainers because, uh, colours translate into meaning, and, uh, midichlorians? Why invoke the three Gameboy game colours when Go is such a poor reflection of its qualities?

A better choice would be to restrict the scope of any team in the Pokémon world to a single gym. The concept of three global teams needlessly divided the world. Antagonism in the Pokémon world is restricted on a battle by battle basis, not across some bizarre three way global vendetta.

If I had to describe battles in in the old gameboy editions, I’d say they were a sort of multidimensional tic-tac-toe combined with some neat little features, like being able to put your opponent’s Pokémon to sleep, or freeze them.

One enters a gym battle in Go hoping for a similar wit requiring activity. Unfortunately, it’s an inscrutable button mashing experience. No, worse – an inscrutable screen slashing experience. To complete the torture, you’re up against six Snorlaxes. And then the game crashes.

At some point you join a gym battle with another human player. It’s not clear if they are on the same team as you. Both of you immediately become confused, and hurt yourselves in your confusion. The game crashes again. When you relaunch it, it fails to log you in. Nearby people in the park are frightened by the stream of invective that issues forth from your unbelieving, angry mouth.

That’s not to say battles in Pokémon have ever been tremendous. Historically only a very small set of Pokémon species were worth training for battle, although at least in the Gameboy editions you could equip one or two monsters with an unexpected move to mix things up a bit. The pool of battle-ready species feels even more shallow in Go, but it feels unfair to expect things to have been improved in this area.

There were some other reasons to play the original pokémon games, right? Yeah! To collect all the gym badges, and then take on the elite four! To become the champion of the Indigo League! Some nobhead called Giovanni kept getting in the way, and there was Team Rocket, and enough narrative lying around to generate a TV series that, my god, is still going!

Every single one of these elements is completely absent from Go. It feels like Niantic worked out that the narrative from Ingress hit a bum note, and rather than trying to improve, just bailed on the concept of having a story altogether.

Another thing you could do in the 90s, was connect two Gameboys (with a cable!) and then trade pokémon between them. This was, let’s face it, absolutely bloody amazing. And is also completely absent from Go, which had the option of doing this via NFC, or bluetooth, or the internet, or, yes, even a cable, if you think about it a bit.

We haven’t even touched on how frustrating it must be to try and play Go in an outdoor area that is not in a densely populated area. Or how little the actual terrain of a place affects what Pokémon you might find there, other than that water Pokémon tended to be near water (at least do a little bit of data mining and have electric types turn up near old power stations, and ghosts near cemeteries).

That’s enough frustration – Ed.

In conclusion

In Pokémon Go, Niantic have crossed a successful AR game with a vastly popular Nintendo game. The resulting offspring is, unfortunately, the worst of both worlds; Ingress is more engaging as an AR offering, and Pokémon Red/Blue is far more charming as a game concept.

That’s not to say Go wasn’t a huge success – it was. One only wonders how much bigger it could have been if a little more care had been taken.