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Pokemon Go - Ingenious Idea, Disappointing Execution

Pokemon Go tried to take over the world by storm, but it didn't quite make it. Let's take a look at why.

Stanislav Costiuc

January 23, 2019

6 Min Read

The following is a Design-specific excerpt from my Pokemon Go YouTube video, which I thought would be the section of most interest for discussion on this site. If you want to listen more about Context, Aesthetics, Cohesion and Emotions feel free to watch the full video.

"Here’s how Pokemon Go can be described as a game: it’s a collection of reasonable systems with some hidden depth that don’t really work well when everything is put together, and that fail to provide an overall long-term goal for the player to keep their interest.

There are three main components a successful live game needs to have:

1. An engaging and polished core-loop.

2. A meta-game that will provide additional mid-term and long-term goals.

3. A steady amount of updates or live events to spruce things up.

Let’s first talk about updates. I have to note that nowadays Pokemon Go has got a lot more going for it than it did at the time of its release, but the game has got to have one of the slowest update cadences I have ever seen. It took more than two years for the game to receive a Trainer Battle feature that players have been asking since, well, the beginning. A feature that is now much less effective than it would’ve been at the Pokemon Go boom of 2016. New big updates come at a VERY slow pace, which can be deadly for a live game like Pokemon Go, but let’s take a look at what the game does have.

So at the core of the Pokemon Go experience is the loop of catching them all. You go around the actual real world, to catch Pokemon that you find on your way. As you catch more Pokemon of the same type you can use candies to power them up or transform into their evolutions. You also have eggs that hatch when you walk a certain amount of kilometers - which is a nice passive bonus for your exploration. City landmarks are transformed into PokeStops which provide you with items that can help you catch more Pokemon.

With updates a couple things have been added, like ability to assign a Pokemon as a buddy, receiving candies for that particular Pokemon as you walk around, and PokeStops providing you with quests that can reward you with an item or a rare Pokemon encounter.

There are some systems that aren’t really shown well to players, like Pokemon of the same species having different stats or movesets, but not that it matters much, because sooner or later every Pokemon Go player that I personally know, including me, asks a question: well why should I continue collecting Pokemon?

Even though “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” has always been the slogan of the Pokemon series, the collectible part existed in parallel to the adventure part - you going around the game world, defeating Gym Leaders, saving people from criminal organizations, training up a team of Pokemon, to eventually become the Pokemon Champion. Collecting was essentially the meta-game rather than the core gameplay experience.

And it makes sense, because a lot of people don’t like collection as an activity on its own, but as something that spruces up the main experience. For example in Collectible Card Games, the actual matches between players are the draw, not the aspect of collecting cards by itself.

But Pokemon Go tries to draw you in by making collecting Pokemon the main activity, and while there are definitely players around there who enjoy this sort of thing, it’s not something everyone will be interested in for a long time. So how then does Pokemon Go handles the adventure part of the brand?

The answer to that is… strangely? Like, there are gyms, there are raids that will help you get legendary pokemon, there are trainer battles now, there are quests… but it doesn’t really connect together in any meaningful way.

Pokemon Go has essentially switched places of the adventure and collecting part of the brand - the overlaying collecting meta-game became the core, while everything else turned into supporting systems. Which potentially can work, if the supporting systems tied well with the collecting part - right now only raids and daily quests help with getting new Pokemon and honestly that’s not enough.

Now let’s get to the social aspect. This has also always been a pretty big part of the Pokemon brand - players were encouraged to trade Pokemon with one another and battle against each other. Though of course it was more of a side thing. And it remains a side thing in Pokemon Go as well, even though an AR game like this should focus much more on the social aspect. And the game tries to do it, but again there’s an overall lack of purpose. There’s trainer battles and trading, but not really a reason to engage in any of the activities.

Then there’s the whole faction system, which is just…. There. Again, why does it exist? It doesn’t really matter which team you choose, nor does it matter that much which team holds a gym. While we’re at it, holding gyms doesn’t really help with the main collecting loop, so you might as well just ignore all that part altogether. It all is just so poorly connected, you know.

As an AR game that asks you to go out in the world, Pokemon Go should be focused on human interaction much more than it does now. But as it is, other real people that you can see in the world are essentially no different than random NPCs.

I’ve mentioned Pokemon battles several times already, I gotta say that Pokemon Go has a pretty strange battle system. It’s at the same time both simple and obscure, you know? Even though you can only do three actions: basic attacks, special attacks, and dodge, the battles while fast-paced are always confusing when you actually play them. I can’t even provide an analysis of what exactly is going on there. Well, that applies to the gym battle system more so than the trainer battle system, and this inconsistency is also a weird thing.

In the end, Pokemon Go needs something to hold all its systems together, to give reasons for people to socialize and try to group up and actually make teams matter, to reach a goal that is more than just ‘collect everything’. As it is now, though, the game caters only to the specific group of people who finds joy in just collecting things. And that’s great! I do think collecting is done well in Pokemon Go. But collectors also don’t need at least half of the systems that exist in game.--"

"--It has good things in it, and has got potential, but it’s still so far off from being a phenomenon that it wanted to be."

Thank you all for reading. A special thank you goes to my Patreon supporters. If you'd like, feel free to support my campaign at www.patreon.com/farlands

Farlands has a Discord server focused on gathering people interesting in talking about games and game design. Feel free to join!


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