Pokemon Go: First Impressions Of A Game That's Changing Everything.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

1) I’ve had a lot of friends sniffing how Pokemon Go isn’t as good as Ingress (which is the game it’s literally based on), and I don’t think these folks understand how deeply a game’s theme affects your appreciation of it.
Take Magic: the Gathering, for instance.  I can give you a card that’s an Equipment:
Equipment
Equipped creature gets +1/+0.
Whenever equipped creature blocks or is blocked by a member of Faction X, destroy that creature. It can’t be regenerated.
And if you’re big into Magic, you’ll understand what that card does, but it’s not a particularly memorable card.  If you don’t understand Magic, it’s a bunch of random words.
But that’s not the real Magic card.
The real Magic card takes place in Innistrad, the Gothic horror plane overrun by werewolves and zombies, and the actual card is:
Wooden Stake – Equipment
Equipped creature gets +1/+0.
Whenever equipped creature blocks or is blocked by a Vampire, destroy that creature. It can’t be regenerated.
Suddenly, all those random statistics coalesce into a story.  It fits into your brain a lot easier.  It becomes a pleasure to see this card, even if you don’t think it’s a good card (it isn’t), because the flavor of the card conveys and reinforces rules.
And I played Ingress for a bit, and I just didn’t care.  The flavor was dead: oh, you’re the blue color or the green color.  There was some vague text in the game about one being the rebellious color, but functionally both sides were perfectly identical, so I forgot which side was which because it was meaningless: there was “my side” and “the other side.”  And I went around checking in places for a while, but my rewards were pretty much “Hey, you’re more blue, go blue,” and I wound up not caring.
Pokemon Go is saturated with flavor.  First off, collecting little cute animals?  A major upgrade, even if nothing else happens.  But these animals are also iconic, giving you the choice of finding a Pikachu or a Charizard, so the collectibles you get in the game are more desirable.  And you can photograph them in the places you got to share them with your friends, so it’s automatically more entertaining than pressing a button when you’re within thirty feet of some restaurant and getting random numbers added to a meaningless score.
Flavor matters.
And maybe Ingress got better once you got to a super high level, but the fact is that at the early levels, the rewards were not particularly well defined.  They were an equipment, not a wooden stake.
Making Pokemon Go a wooden stake is a major upgrade even if you change nothing else, and if you’re a game designer you ignore that flavor component at your peril.
2)  Pokemon Go is a super-popular videogame, yes, but what strikes me about it is how it takes a solitary pasttime and makes it visible.  I mean, millions of people were playing Call of Duty and Dragon Age when those came out, but they were seated in their living rooms.  Pokemon Go makes you go out and be seen.
In a way, it’s the most brilliant marketing ever.
3)  I suspect it will also be a real sea change for how games intersect with real life from now on.  Already we have people who’ve had their houses tagged as gyms complaining about the way random folks showing up makes them look like a drug dealer, and they have no effective way to “un-gym” themselves.  We’ve had a Pokemon Go player stumble over a dead body. We’ve had robbers setting up camp by Pokemon Go stations.  We’ve had businesses putting up signs that “Pokemon are for paying customers only.”
We’ve seen black dudes and white dudes bonding over Pokemon Go at three in the morning, and concerns that Pokemon Go could get black men in trouble, wandering suspiciously in white neighborhoods.
What I like about the game is that it encourages real-world exploring.  I live in the suburbs, and I’m pretty much all rat and bird creatures.  My friend Dave went to the woods this weekend, and he found all sorts of water Pokemon I’m unlikely to find here, and I got a little jealous – which, if you know how much I hate the outdoors, is a strange strange feeling for me indeed.  I like the idea that Pokemon Go rewards people for going to new places, and you’d be surprised just how little incentive people need to change their behavior.
We’ve never really seen what augmented reality does before, and this is going to have so many surprises – both good ones and bad ones.  It’s going to get more insane, just you wait.
4)  It’s also going to cause a run on external power packs.  This game chews through batteries like there’s no tomorrow.
5)  This game is both good and bad for your social life.  On the one hand, I like the way it encourages small talk between strangers – I know if I see a guy with his phone in the “Pokemon hunting” hand position, I can say, “Hey, what’s in the neighborhood?” and talk shop with him.  Given that the game also encourages me to get out, that’s lovely.
But it’s terrible for talks with friends.  I went for a walk with Gini yesterday, and every three minutes the game buzzed and we collected a Pokemon.  We kept going, “…as we were saying” until we realized that it’s hard to discuss anything but Pokemon while you’re playing Pokemon, because it snatches your attention away.
6)  The game itself is… okay.  Like most MMORPG variants, it rewards “time” over “skill,” which is to say that a guy who grinds a lot will be rewarded a lot more than a very talented person who only has a half-hour or two to put into the game.  And it’s annoyingly undocumented, as there’s all sorts of things the game doesn’t bother to make clear, like what you’re supposed to do at a gym or what the little footstep-meters next to the Pokemon mean.
(Forbes Magazine, of all sources, has some hints for you.)
However, the “catch ’em all” formula has worked for years, and I do feel an urge to catch all the possible Pokemon in my neighborhood.  I found a crab wandering on my neighbor’s lawn today.  I don’t know why he was there, but hey, I caught him.
Will this game have lasting value, or be a fad?  A bit of both, I think.  We’re watching the high tide crest as Pokemon Go eclipses Twitter in “number of active users” (in under a week!), but eventually it’ll subside as everyone’s tried it and levels up enough to decide hey, I’ve seen enough.
But Nintendo hasn’t unleashed everything.  Once we can start trading Pokemon, that’ll be a major change in how we interact.  And the mass-captures, where everyone assembles in a city at a given time to capture, say, a Mewtwo, will be legendary – and they’re coming, it was in the game trailer.
And with each of those changes, societal ramifications will also ripple.  What happens when you can trade Pokemon, so some enterprising robber sets up shop at a gym to force people to trade him their strongest Pokemon at gunpoint?  And then he sells them on the black market to other Pokemon users? What happens when a kid gets sick and someone decides the best way to cheer him up is to get everyone to trade him the world’s best Pokemon, making him a tremendous owner of massively overpowered artificial monsters?
This is a fascinating world, my friends.  Pokemon Go is gonna change it a lot.
Let’s see what happens.
Until then, anyone wanna go into the woods to get a Magikarp?

2 Comments

  1. Chris Meadows
    Jul 12, 2016

    The “annoyingly undocumented” thing actually adds to the play value, if you think about it. It means there’s always something more experienced players can teach newer players, which gives you even more of a reason to talk to other people. I like to explain to newer players about leveling up by saving up cheap-to-evolve ‘mons and then doing them all at once when you pop a Lucky Egg, and frequently they’re like, “Wow, I never thought of that! Thanks, random Pokémon-playing stranger!”
    It’s kind of like how, in the TV show or games, more experienced Pokémon trainers would take less-experienced ones under their wings and show them the ropes. Now you can do that in real life, too!

  2. Abby Goldsmith
    Jul 14, 2016

    Great article. I like your insights on this.

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