Pokemon Go is a game we’ve all been waiting for ever since Google pranked us on April 1st, 2014. Their little joke game made us want what we thought we would never get. Then, one faithful day, we got it. With the help of Niantic, creators of the popular augmented reality mobile game Ingress, we have finally gotten to live the dreams that we had as children while watching the Pokemon TV show and playing the Gameboy games. Folks, Pokemon Go is here and it is a phenomenon that we may never see again.
Mechanics in Detail
The basic premise of Pokemon Go is that you are a trainer and must travel far and wide to collect Pokemon and do battle against other trainers. This isn’t much different than the original Pokemon games. What is different, though, is the execution. In Pokemon Go, the real world is overlayed with a virtual Pokemon world. You must use your phone and travel in real life to move your Virtual self in the game world.
In the original Pokemon games, you did battle against wild Pokemon. This is no more, because in Go you simply capture. It’s like a trip into the safari zone, where you use Pokeballs and berries to capture the Pokemon. The old battle and stat system is out, too. It has all been greatly simplified and battle is now real-time rather than turn-based. Much is different, yet still the same.
There are three teams in Pokemon Go, and you are asked to decide between them once you hit level five and visit a gym for the first time. The teams are separated into colors representing the three original games and the three original legendary birds. That is Red for Red version and Moltres, Blue for Blue version and Articuno, and Yellow for Yellow version and Zapdos. They are named Team Valor, Team Mystic, and Team Instinct, each representing a different outlook on Pokemon and how to research them. Within the game’s lore, these teams are led by three of Professor Willow’s assistants.
For the most part, however, people either choose their favorite color or join up with whatever team their friends are on. There are memes and jokes about certain teams acting certain ways, but the reality is that you’ll find all kinds of people in each team. As of yet, at least in my area, I’ve not found many organized groups. Usually it’s small teams of two or three friends acting independently. In some of the larger cities you can start to see the beginnings of organization, with teams working together to create tier ten gyms. But so far these seem to quickly fall, undoubtedly as a result of overclocked servers and mechanics that favor the attacking team over the defending gym leader.
Speaking of gyms, in Pokemon Go, there are two types of locations that are overlayed on real-world monuments, works of art, important buildings, etc… These are things like the Arch in St. Louis, that odd sculpture in your downtown-district, or your local Post Office or Library just to name a few. The two types are PokeStops and gyms. PokeStops can be visited every five minutes to receive rewards such as Pokeballs, Potions, or even Pokemon eggs.
Gyms are where the three factions do battle. Each gym has a level and prestige. You can think of Prestige as the ‘health’ of the gym, with the level of the gym going up based on the amount of prestige. With each level of the gym, a new slot opens for friendly players to place a Pokemon into the gym’s defense team. As enemies successfully defeat defending Pokemon, the Gyms prestige is lowered. If it is lowered enough, the gym will revert back to level 0, with all defending Pokemon sent home and the gym going neutral for anyone to capture. And I mean anyone. If you defeat a Valor gym as a Mystic and are too slow to place your own Pokemon, you might find that an Instinct newbie has placed their 24CP Pidgey on your gym. Yes, this did happen to me and yes I did crush the Pidgey.
Right now, you capture Pokemon without battle. Personally, I find this as a good thing. At first, while reading about the no-battle against Wild Pokemon before the game released, I was a bit skeptical. It’s such a cornerstone of the series. However, after experiencing it first-hand I admit that it’s the much better method. Some encounters with Pokemon last a long time already without having to battle them. And there are no PokeCenters, so while healing items aren’t exactly scarce, they’re more needed for taking on Gyms.
The basics of the capture system are that you throw a Pokeball at Pokemon and it has a chance to capture it. You can try multiple times, if you fail there is a chance that the Pokemon will run away or backs away to make your next shot a bit harder to land. You can use a special throw, by spinning the ball before throwing it at an angle, and try to hit within a slowly closing circle to receive bonuses to your capture chance. You can also feed the Pokemon a berry and use higher tier balls (such as Great or Ultra) to get a better chance.
The fact that there’s berries and other types of balls in the game bodes well for the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the implementation of more diverse balls from later games in the series, and perhaps other types of berries that will have different effects. In fact, I’m hoping for them. I’m also looking forward to the potential of Held items being introduced. I feel like they would add a lot to the game and perhaps introduce an interesting dynamic to trading once it’s released. Anyone remember PokeMail?
One detractor we found though, especially with Pokemon Go only for now focusing on the Kanto region’s 150, is a lack of variety between areas. Testing the game in the watery coastline of the Netherlands, the heart of the American plains, and the hot and mountainous east side of Los Angeles County in California resulted in very little differentiation in the Pokemon found, as seen in the images below.
American West Coast Mountains and Coast
This is honestly a positive or negative depending on your point of view. It seems like you won’t have to go globe trotting to find all 150 Pokemon as they all seem to be available within a rough geographic distance from most players. On the negative side, it kind of cheapens the experience and accomplishment of collecting them all when really anyone with the time can do so without leaving their state/province.
You can “Power Up” and evolve Pokemon, which will increase their Combat Power. Combat Power, or CP, is the replacement for levels that Pokemon Go uses. This has had a bit of a sour effect on many former players of the original games. We’re used to levels and we wanted a Pokemon MMO, but instead got a cut-down casual game. Or so that’s how it seems on the surface. Battle mechanics are still complex, it’s just not as apparent when you’re a low level newbie.
In the earlier days, there was a lot of debate on whether or not you should Power Up a Pokemon before or after evolving. It’s not the majority consensus that it doesn’t matter. The current big debate is whether or not it’s worth Powering Up Pokemon at all before you get to a certain level. Why waste precious Stardust on a low CP Pokemon when you are likely to catch an eight-hundred or higher CP Pokemon by the time you hit level seventeen? For me, the answer is somewhere in between. I want to be able to dive deep into the gym battles and be able to provide strong defenders, yet I also want to conserve Stardust so I can power up the Pokemon I get that truly matter.
It’s been my experience, after powering up a couple of my Pokemon into the thousands, that it’s generally a better idea to save your Stardust. At level nineteen, it’s not uncommon for me to get Pokemon with CP’s well over eight-hundred from the wild. These Pokemon do great as buffers on a gym, dealing damage to enemies as they fight towards the Gym leader. I also know that as I get higher level, the CP of the Pokemon I come across in the wild will continue to rise. What was once an occasional eight-hundred CP Pokemon may become the occasional one-thousand CP Pokemon. There will come a time (somewhere around level 25, from what I hear) where the experience required to level will make it acceptable to start spending CP to Power Up my Pokemon, and I’ll be conserving my Stardust from now until I reach that point in a week or two.
Battling is now done in real-time, and (so far) direct player-to-player battling is not in the game. Instead, you will battle the computer-controlled Pokemon that players leave at gyms. Each Pokemon has a pool of abilities it can have and when you capture it, two moves are chosen. A Basic attack executed by tapping on the screen, and a special move that is activated by tapping and holding on the screen. You can also swipe left and right to dodge incoming attacks.
An interesting battle mechanic is the ability to fight with others. If you are on the same team as someone and you both go into a gym battle at the same time, you will both appear in the fight and be able to attack the defending Pokemon. This may seem broken, but it is a good counter to the inevitable hardcore players who reach high levels and gain high-CP Pokemon to forge unstoppable gyms. A group of friends and some effort can take down the most heavily fortified gym. It just takes coordination, strategy, and knowledge of your skill sets in the greater scheme of the Pokemon type chart.
Pokemon types, along with their advantages and disadvantages, are present in Go. For example, a Water type of a lower CP will be able to deal great damage to a fire type of a higher CP. So if you have a 600CP Vaporean and the enemy gym is guarded by a 1,000CP Flareon, you will definitely have a chance. Especially considering you can take a team of six Pokemon when attacking an enemy gym. With some clever team compositions, a lot is possible.
When you are attacking a friendly gym, called “training,” you are only allowed to take one Pokemon into the fight. This means you may be fighting many friendly Pokemon with just a single. For each defending Pokemon you defeat, the prestige reward the gym will receive becomes greater. As it gains prestige, it will level up in tier and allow for more defending Pokemon to be placed. However, each player may only place one Pokemon per gym. Plus the daily rewards for owning gyms caps out when you have a presence in 10 gyms, preventing one grand master from running the town like some sort of Giovanni Team Rocket leader.
This however does detract from the incentive to take gyms after a while. Seemingly no matter how much of an advantage, or how long you stay to build up your gym, with how popular the game is, your gym will invariably be taken back by another team within the hour. Even in our testing of the game in the Netherlands where the game was technically not even available for download yet, we found holding gyms in the most rural of no where towns still to be an impossible chore.
Early on, battling seems very repetitive and basic. From level 5 to level 19 or so, I essentially just spammed my basic attack as fast as I could. Of course, I paid attention to the basic types, using fire against grass as an example. But as people have leveled up and gotten higher CP Pokemon, it becomes more apparent that you’ll have to make use of the dodge mechanic (which is actually more difficult than you might think) and pay attention to their Pokemon’s moves.
Each Pokemon has a pool of abilities available to it. When you capture it, a basic attack and a special attack are chosen from this pool. Basic attacks are simple, usually quick. Stuff like Tackle or Quick Attack. Special Attacks are a bit more diverse and where a lot of the strategy is involved. I mean, sure, the basic attack is important too. Special moves are a bit more so though, because having the right move or the wrong move can mean the difference between having a special attack that’s even worth using and one that will quickly win you a battle. Fireblast on my Flareon, for example, is typically not worth using for me. It takes a long time to charge up my single bar and the animation lasts way too long.
Each special attack has a damage value and a bar value attached. My Fire Blast example has a high damage amount (70) but has only a single bar that will take a long time to charge. Meaning I will be lucky if I get off a single use of it in a battle, and luckier still if I manage to get through the animation without dying. In contrast, a move with three charge bars and a short animation, but only dealing 40 or 50 damage, would be worth more to me. My Flareon’s Fire Blast is devastating and is often the end of the fight when I get a chance to use it, but my Exeggutor with the three-charge bar Seed Bomb that does thirty damage has the potential to do more over-all damage in a battle. Of course, that’s not counting type advantages and disadvantages.
A Social Phenomenon
The effect Pokemon Go is having in the real world is stunning. Each day, it gets hundreds of thousands of new players and it’s noticeable everywhere. I live in a small town of 900, yet I went out last Friday and came across a lure placed at our library with around six cars parked, filled with players, and five or six people that had walked up there. In large cities, there are stories of fifty or more, sometimes hundreds, of people gathering around to participate in the bounties of a Lure Module. Certain locations seem to have a regular turn out in large numbers of players getting together to capture Pokemon.
These Lures are incredible in that, in the game at least, they are designed to attract Pokemon. Yet they seem to attract more players than anything. Stories of communities being revived because a kid placed a Lure and it attracted enough people and a spontaneous BBQ ensued are fairly common on the Pokemon Go subreddit. Some people have put on their entrepreneur hats and have set up kiosk to let people buy items for profit or to support certain causes. It’s incredible the way this game is bringing communities together.
Businesses that are near PokeStops have taken advantage of the increased foot traffic, giving discounts to their favored teams or setting up lures to bring in more customers. Some locations, especially churches, have placed Go-related messages on their signs. Locally, in a nearby city of 70,000 or so residents, I’ve heard of a bookstore employee dropping Lures at a nearby PokeStop. The effects of this have been hit or miss, but I imagine that we’ll see more of this. Of course this is where the cash shop takes a darker turn, hammering players in less urban areas hard to be able to continue playing.
The Cash Shop Trap
And even though we have a lot of bigger cities as well in the Netherlands, the majority of people live in smaller cities around the bigger ones, and we simply have a lack of poke stops and gyms to keep us afloat. And this is unfortunately a huge issue I have with the game. We cannot really keep up with the rest of players, and our areas become seriously pay to win as a result. Zubats haunt our dreams in the sparse Pokecenter zones as every pokeball counts when you have to walk over a kilometer to obtain fresh balls for free. I have to make a choice, either pay money to continue playing like its meant to be played, or focus on the next several hours sitting on my bike getting to as many pokestops as I can. Just driving there is pointless, as the cost of fuel and maintenance balances out to what the balls are worth in the cash shop anyway. In just a week to stay competitive and complete my review, I’ve spent the equivalent of a retail game in the Pokemon Go cash shop. That is honestly a major flaw, perhaps not for The Nintendo Companies bottom line, but for the longevity of the game.
The more levels you gain, the harder and better the Pokemon you find. Thankfully you get berries and greatballs to have better odds against these Pokemon. But as soon as I had hit level 15 I felt the game wasn’t honest to me either. Suddenly balls curved a lot more, despite throwing them in the exact same way as I had before. Even the weaker Pidgeys that used to quietly fall from a single Pokeball were able to break free and flee from me like I was the worst trainer in the world. And this is another huge issue to us living in areas with too few Pokestops around. We have to play more, and do more to stay equivalent with kids in the big city. Seemingly Pokemon Go has adopted the horrible monetization model of luring you in with fun gameplay, and then slapping a hefty paywall on you once the addiction has set in.
Unfortunately this is far worse than the typical mobile games known to do this. I suddenly love going outside; I feel healthier and have lost some weight in just the week since I started playing. Yet the double standard of have and have-not players is discouraging when you’re on the unwanted side of the spectrum. Ironically those without Pokecenters often are from poorer neighborhoods and so the forced paywall hits us double hard. The last great negative is the immersion breaking this causes. The world of Pokemon is supposed to be all about traveling into the unknown, climbing mountains and delving into forests to find rare Pokemon. Yet Pokemon Go seems to reward those who journey to their local Wal-Mart or Starbucks to sit on their butt for hours sipping lattes. With my Pokeball supply running dangerously low and my paycheck a couple weeks away, I have to question if this game is really worth it. The simple answer is – right now it’s not.
Will the Hype Last?
My biggest fear with Pokemon Go is that the hype will die and the popularity of the game will disappear. Right now I know I can go outside and find others playing. Heck, at 2AM last night there were two lures in my town’s center. That’s a town of 900. In a nearby city, I know I could drop a lure and expect at least fifteen or twenty people to show up. Moms will set up Lures while watching their kids play at local public water parks.
But will this last? Will Pokemon Go fall into obscurity in another week? Or will people continue playing? How many people are really enough of a fan of the series or at least the game itself to continue playing after the initial hype of playing the next big app is over? Just how much long term retention will Pokemon Go have?
I know I’ll continue playing and, based on my experience with Ingress, I expect there will be at least a healthy (if perhaps small) local community for the game. But part of what makes Pokemon Go so fun right now is that surreal experience of knowing that you can go take a walk and likely come across another Trainer. That there’s always going to be a Lure going downtown. I’m afraid of the game losing that magic and, from what I’ve seen on Reddit, many others are too.
I can’t answer whether or not the game will continue to be popular. The cynic in me says no, why would it be? There are tons of apps that become insanely popular and then disappear into obscurity. Sure Pokemon Go has had a bigger impact than most. But it’s not exactly Facebook. It’s very likely that there will be a time when you ask, “Wanna go play Go?” and receive the response, “Pokemon Go? That thing is still going? Huh… No, thanks.” That will be a horrible day, especially after experiencing what is happening now, where you’ll have no problem finding players to play with.
Pokemon Go is one of those rare games that transcend the digital and make an imprint on the real world. It’s not alone in this, but it has made the biggest impact. Whether or not it will retain its record-breaking popularity doesn’t matter in the long-run. There will still be a huge following for Pokemon, even if it seems the rest of the world has forgotten. While there may be a time when we can no longer go outside and expect to see other players, there will certainly be other trainers in your community playing with varying levels of activity. What I’m saying is, even if the hype dies, the game won’t.
City Rating – The buggiest, most frustrating Excellent score ever.
Country Rating – Good.
Pokemon Go, in its current state, is far from perfect. Trading is not yet implemented as of the time of writing, for example. The servers are incredibly unstable and it’s not uncommon for me to have to restart the app tens of times per play session. The only time I can hope to get a semi-reliable experience is during the dead of night. The tracking mechanics are confusing and often seem to be broken, with some Pokemon with three steps never appearing no matter where you travel.
However, for every negative there is a positive. It’s encouraging people to get out and explore their town, gaining exercise along the way. It’s allowing many of us to live fantasies from our youth, where once we threw plastic Pokeballs at invisible Pokemon, we throw digital Pokeballs at real (digital) Pokemon. It’s reviving communities, bringing people together and forging new friendships. Even if Pokemon Go falls from popularity, the positive effects it’s had on communities and the friendships that were borne between its players will remain. And that’s why I have to say that Pokemon Go is truly the best gaming experience I’ve ever had; it’s had an actual impact on my life and that impact will stay with me for as long as a live.