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Some thoughts on Pokémon GO

In this article, I share some thoughts about Pokémon GO, more specifically about the social dimension of the game, and its spirit compared to the spirit of the franchise.

Well, the topic of my first blog post here on Gamasutra won’t be really original, but let’s talk a bit about Pokémon GO! Everyone has heard about the phenomenon, so I’m not going to talk about numbers or UX problems, as people have already written about it. No, what I wanna talk about in this article is the social link of the game, and the spirit of this game versus the spirit of the franchise.

First of all, I must say Pokémon GO is a game that surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to be interested, even more when people were trying to convince me it was the next big instalment in the main line of the game franchise. While I find it is a weak game in many aspects, it is really interesting from a gamification standpoint. I don’t see it as a Pokémon game, but as a companion Pokémon app. It is an app that makes me go out and walk in the city, discovering new spots, going through streets I’ve never been before and talking to people I wouldn’t usually talk to. I take strolls with friends and family and I give them raison d’être thanks to Pokémon GO. It’s a wonderful way to start a conversation!

Why is it fun to catch Pokémon?

The gameplay in Pokémon GO is really not exciting in itself. Let’s use Pokémon catching as an example. The only thing you have to do is swipe your finger up to catch a Pokémon. Not exactly the funniest thing to do, even more when you’re doing this 30 times a day for 10 Pidgey, 10 Rattata, 9 Zubat and one rare Pokémon. When you compare it to the original games, you have to fight the enemy Pokémon, perhaps modify its status (paralysis, sleep, poison…), and then throw the ball. Throwing the ball is not what makes the catch interesting, it is the last step where the adrenaline is at its maximum, while the Pokéball is still moving. In Pokémon GO, only this last step has been kept.

But still, catching Pokémon in Pokémon GO is fun. Why is that? Well, the first reason is that, in the Game Freak’s games, you know where the Pokémon are hiding. You know that if you go to Viridian Forest and walk into the tall grass you have a chance to catch a Pikachu. You will always have a chance to catch a Pikachu here, and the Pokémon living in the forest will always be the same. In Pokémon GO, you have to physically move to see what creatures are living in the different areas, and they change over time. Which makes it more exciting when encountering an unexpected Pokémon! It makes it enjoyable to catch it, because the fun of battling the monster to capture has been changed to the fun of finding it.

The second aspect that makes it fun, is the overwhelming popularity of the game. Everyone is playing it, so when you catch a Porygon (and hell yeah, I did), you can show it to your friends who will all be jealous. And when one of your friends gets a Scyther in an egg, you’re jealous in return. These social interactions makes it really enjoyable to collect creatures.

Investing on the social aspect

You’ve probably heard and seen that people gather in crowded places and put lures into PokéStops, so that more people can catch rare Pokémon and people start talking to each other about rare creatures they just found, etc. That is great! Pokémon has always been designed to be a social game (the very existence of "incomplete" versions, so that player would gather and trade and battle) and that completely matches the very spirit of the game.

Today, I think that Niantic should release quite soon its trade and battle functions. This is the next step to maintain people into the game. Because 151 Pokémon to catch is hard work! Some monsters won’t appear before you easily, so trading is a natural option. It’s something that is on the mind of people who know the basics of the game. There is already social interaction in the streets, so now we should be able to trade, to maintain these social interactions. I’m worried that when Pokémon become harder to catch because the Pokédex starts to be filled up, people will stop playing the game.

For the same reasons, battles are also quite important. The Gyms are full of powerful trainers. Those trainers who have started on the first day have a clear advantage, and it can be really hard for "late" trainers to catch up, if they ever can. So you can breed strong Pokémon but they may never be strong enough to beat a Gym… That is where the combat system would be quite useful.

A sad dissonance and a potential bad game design

There is one point in the design of the game that makes me really sad. The plot of Pokémon is a 10 year old kid from a small town going on an adventure to catch Pokémon and become the very best. In Pokémon GO, that is… not quite the case. The first time I played the game, I was in a small French town of a little more than 2000 people. I took my cap, a backpack with a bottle of water and went out with my sister to catch some Pokémon. There was only one PokéStop in sight, and we walked 1,5km to reach it. We went there and caught a few Pokémon… but not a lot, and worst of all, we walked through a forest, and there was not even one Pokémon inside. Not even one!

While the game is about exploration, discovery in natural zones, Pokémon GO is focused on cities. In the original games, it’s even strange how the cities are poorly interconnected: you must go through caves, seas, forests, where paths are not obvious. Of course, you cannot recreate it in real life, but the countryside is what is the closest to this spirit, isn’t it? This forest should have been full of bugs!

And what’s worse is that if you live in a place like this, with so few PokéStop, you will eventually run out of Pokéballs and other items. I’ve already read some reviews on the App Store that deplore this fact. This could sadly completely ruin the design of the game for the folks not living in cities.

So what happens, for example in Paris, where I live, is that there are PokéStops every 50 meters. It’s easy to progress, collect experience points while not leaving the city. Heck, you can even just sit down on the bus and flip the dozens of PokéStops you have on your way to work. And if you wanna catch some rare Pokémon, you just have to go to a crowded place and you’ll be sure to a see a lot of PokéStops with lures.

While the social dimension proposed in the city is great, it is, in a way, sadly opposed to the very spirit of adventure of the original games. And while the game does a great job of making people go out of their home, it perhaps doesn’t incite them to go out of their city.

That is all for me today, don’t hesitate to post some comments to start the debate! I’ll be happy to hear different opinions!

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