by Jacob Garr, Video Game Columnist
On July 6, a childhood dream came true: the world of Pokémon and their trainers that lived on the tiny screen of my purple see-through Game Boy Color became a reality when Pokémon Go was released. With trainers moving en masse on foot and on bikes with the pocket monster-catching app as if they were holding a pokédex instead of a cell phone, I truly understood what is meant by “life imitates art.”
Currently the most downloaded app in Apple App Store history, according to USA Today,Pokémon Go sets the app user in a map that represents the world around them and has them walk around using GPS technology to hunt and catch Pokémon hidden around the world. Using Augmented Reality technology, clicking on these randomly spawned Pokémon puts your camera to use and places the Pokémon in the real world. Once Pokémon are discovered, they can be caught with Pokéballs and stored with your other Pokémon. It’s a nice little gimmick that harkens back to the N64 game “Pokémon Snap”: the idea of going on a Pokémon safari and using a camera to discover the creatures. It has taken the idea of the original Nintendo games literally and brought it one step forward by placing it in reality.
Like the mobile game Ingress, which preceded Pokémon Go from the same developer, Niantic, city landmarks are another piece of reality that magically transform in-game as they become PokéStops and Gyms. If you visit a PokéStop, you fill up on Pokéballs and other useful items, and going to Pokémon gyms allows you to pit your Pokémon against other trainers to gain control of the city’s biggest hotspots. The gym aspect is all about being the very best, like no one ever was; you can catch duplicate Pokémon to evolve and power up your strongest Pokémon to knock out enemy teams.
Once a user reaches level five, they have the ability to join Team Valor, Mystic or Instinct and help their fellow teammates gain control of gyms. It’s a system that keeps Pokémon’s famous competitive edge alive while keeping players connected in a game that otherwise requires focus on personal cell phones and tablets.
The real phenomenon isn’t so much in the game as it is outside the game. In an age where indoor personal media has been bigger than ever, the game has drawn people outside and has created a unique social dynamic. Areas of towns that were otherwise dead can now be compared to street festivals or other large public events with gatherings and group-hunts taking place through social media and by word of mouth. The game offers very little in terms of instruction and relies on talking to people both online and offline to find out secrets and tips for playing. The game emphasizes creating community and collaboration to heighten the experience for all users and now has more daily-active users than app store giants like Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.
Developers Niantic and publishers The Pokemon Co. and Nintendo are making billions off of this mobile title. Within the first few days of the game’s release, Nintendo stock increased 25 percent, although stocks have dropped a little since many investors discovered Nintendo did not have a direct hand in developing the software. With the popularity of the app, business is booming beyond Nintendo, such as local businesses. Many establishments are running promotions and adding in-game lures to draw in trainers. There are also many Facebook events and gatherings to bring the masses together like the Westport Pokemon Go gathering that took place July 24.
I have really liked what Pokémon Go has done in terms of a unique gaming experience. It has successfully brought a massive audience together in real life using GPS mapping technology. While it isn’t the first of its kind, Pokémon Go has a level of polish and direction that makes for the perfect free-to-play game. While free-to-play game models aren’t the end all, be all of gaming with slow game progression and a level of grinding that can be downright frustrating, Pokémon Go offers a lot for free and is certainly worth the download.
I think the greatest thing you can get out of Pokémon Go is what you get outside of the game. For a game that has a minimal approach in the app, it has helped forge a lot of friendships outside of it.
I have a fun memory of going to a local church which doubled as a Pokémon Gym. We spotted a car parked right outside with the windows up. “Are they playing Pokémon Go?” we wondered aloud. After a minute of hanging out, the driver unrolled his window and yelled out, “The friggin’ Pokémon servers are down!” and zoomed off. I also have memories of wandering the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City and finding groups of people to talk and play PoGO with – just simple moments of talking to other people and feeling connected outside of the Internet again.
This new design has combined technology and social environment integration in a way that I’d like to see implemented in future games. The age of active multiplayer is coming up in a big way and Pokémon Go is just the jumping off point.