Pokémon GO came out on July 6 for the Americas, and since then it has taken the world by storm. I had the pleasure of taking the game out on an excursion to the beaches of Ka’anapali, Maui, and then the busy streets of my neighboring city in Irvine, California. From the quiet and isolated coast lines of Maui to the bustling craziness of the Irvine Spectrum center, I’ve experienced it all.
Pokémon GO is not without its merits. It takes an existing concept in Ingress, developed by Niantic Labs, and sprays a Pokémon skin on top of it. Pokémon GO became a cultural phenomenon, quickly grabbing the attention of mass media internationally and yielding the highest stocks for Nintendo since 1983. For the first time ever, people were taking to the streets and reliving their childhoods, capturing Pokémon and increasing the foot traffic revenue for local businesses, which had been assigned as PokéStops or Gyms.
Pokémon GO is very simple in its approach. Create your player avatar, and go wander the streets, finding which Pokémon are available to catch. The process can be enhanced with items purchased using the premium currency PokéCoins. Coins can be used to purchase lures and eggs to boost experience, Pokéballs, incenses to attract Pokémon for those in the home or office, and incubators to hatch eggs (more on that later). Pokémon that appear on the world map can be tapped and out pops the battle interface, where the player then proceeds to toss Pokéballs until the catch succeeds, or the Pokémon runs away.
Battling goes a little further, and requires a bit more explanation. Players can opt to use the augmented reality feature to have the Pokémon feature in their exact location; on the other hand, players can catch the Pokémon on an easier, centered field by switching the option off. The ball can be spun around on the screen, and tossed to yield a curveball. Pokémon are targeted in a ring that gets smaller, and in shades of green, yellow, or red to symbolize difficulty levels. That difficulty can be alleviated slightly with the Razz berry option.
In addition, players can take their caught Pokémon on excursions to local gyms that are scattered around the world. These gyms are heavily simplified from the main series, and Pokémon do battle by tapping on the screen and swiping to dodge incoming attacks. When a gym’s merit points have been eliminated, a player can seize the gym for their faction (Valor, Mystic, or Instinct).
Besides the mass catching of Pokémon throughout, the game is just about wrapped. At PokéStops, players can sometimes pick up eggs. Eggs require walking or other means of slow movement in order to hatch, and come in three varieties: two, five, and ten kilometer eggs. The more walking required to hatch, the better the Pokémon outcome, of course. Eggs can be placed in incubators or the provided individual incubator for hatching.
The game has its fair share of problems, though. With the massive demand and appeal for fans who have had a childhood in the last twenty years, Niantic’s servers took a real toll. With hackers trying to actively take down the servers, and with the demand of additional countries being added to the fray, the games have been messy to say the least. Frequent disconnects that result in a freezing Pokéball, maps that don’t generate the location information, the three step tracking bug, all of these small sand piles add up and break the game in fundamental ways.
As I mentioned above, I took a brief vacation to Maui and played the game. The difference between Maui and California is night and day. The Hawaiian islands felt scarce in comparison to the mainland. Hawaii had the same clusters of species with little variation in their spawn patterns, although this can definitely be attributed to the lower level I was at compared to my romp in California’s mainland. The big problem is that there isn’t enough species variation between rural, suburban, and urban areas, and that alone can ruin the experience. There weren’t many lures out on the Ka’anapali coast, despite being a popular tourist’s attraction. In California, lures are placed on a lot of PokéStops for easier catching. Niantic Labs are definitely going to have to address this going forward.
Leveling in Pokémon GO is also a huge problem. The early levels are easy to breeze through with a few Lucky Egg and Pidgey mass-evolution sprees. The experience curve from the low levels to the twenties and thirties is not linear, but exponential. 10,000 experience to level up becomes 15, 20, and then 25,000 at level 20. After that, it suddenly becomes 75,000 and then increases to 500,000 at level 30. The leveling curve is insane. I get that the game is meant to be played casually, too. All this level curve is going to do is scare people off sooner or later, especially when Pokémon give only 100 experience, maybe a little more with a good throw.
Beyond the leveling curve, let’s not forget to explain how hard Pokémon become to catch at the higher levels. I get a Pokémon like Venusaur requiring a lot of Pokéballs to catch, sure. I don’t have problems with that. In no way does it make sense for a CP 10 Pidgey to escape the ball more than three times, against a level 20 trainer. It’s a waste of resources and my time. It also happens very frequently.
Despite all of these issues, though, when the game works, it does so in such a great way that it brought a lot of my friends and family together. It’s addicting and it’s great to see progress in the earlier stages, from finding those Zubats and Pidgeys to suddenly finding Golbats and Pidgeots roaming the streets. Pokémon GO has a ripe roster of almost a thousand Pokémon to choose from – this game isn’t going to die out anytime soon, and we’re in for a ride.