Augmented reality is relatively new to the videogame space. It was only back in 2010 that Nintendo showed off a tech demo at E3 called Target Shooting, which Siliconera founder Spencer Yip predicted would ultimately lead to an “Invizimals-like Pokémon game,” referring to the 2009 PlayStation exclusive that came bundled with the PSP Camera at launch. As it turns out, Yip was right.
Announced in September of last year, Pokémon GO has been in development at San Francisco’s Niantic Labs, the ex-Google startup behind Ingress (2013), since late 2015. The new partnership between Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Niantic promises “a groundbreaking mobile game that will encourage fans to search far and wide in the real world to discover Pokémon.”
Niantic’s new AR game uses its own Real World Gaming platform to bring familiar Pokémon mechanics into players’ physical environments on GPS-enabled smartphones. Recent screenshots at the developer’s blog give a fair representation of what the final version might look like: 3D character models mapped onto real spaces, a digital overworld to represent geolocation data, and a Pokédex detailing your trainer’s stats, as well as those of your Pokémon.
After creating your trainer—not unlike the player characters from more traditional Pokémon titles—you’ll venture out into your neighborhood, your city, your greater region, and ultimately the world to battle, capture, and train Pocket Monsters with other players from all over the globe. The official Pokémon website says players will be able to “look for PokéStops located at interesting places, such as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments, where you can collect more Poké Balls and other items.” The game will also include three teams made up of players vying for control of Gyms, presumably serving as this title’s far less sinister take on factions like Team Rocket and Team Magma.
A field test that began in late March in Japan has now reached Australia, New Zealand, and North America, letting handpicked Android and iOS users play a pre-release build of the game. Unsurprisingly, loads of footage from the game has leaked online, though I’m less interested in what the game looks like than the more pointed question: is it any good?
“there was a Bulbasaur in my kitchen”
I spoke with one alpha participant, who wished to remain off the record, about his experience so far. The source, who’s been playing Pokémon since 1998, said he’s long been hoping for an open-world Pokémon game in the vein of Red Dead Redemption (2010) or Skyrim (2011), adding, “this is definitely a step in the right direction.” The source said it’s “clearly an adult game,” with the combat being vastly more participatory than in previous entries. “You have to actually control your Pokémon. It’s basically swipe to move, and tap or hold to attack, but there’s no turn-based attacks here.” Say goodbye to all that button mashing!
This is a definite departure from a series that has, historically, felt like a straightforward JRPG. The source, who already has experience playing Niantic Labs’ Ingress, explained that players will be able to team up with one another and launch coordinated attacks on rival Gyms, with friendly Pokémon visible throughout the stadium. But encounters can happen anywhere.
“I am frequently opening up my app and there’ll be a Meowth, or an Abra, in my apartment,” the source told me. “Yesterday, I opened it up and there was a Bulbasaur in my kitchen. So it’s like VR that you don’t wear over your head.”
Another anonymous source, who also has past experience with ARGs, was less kind. “Honestly? I don’t think there’s anything they could add that would make me play it [over] Ingress. I like the franchise enough, but right now it’s just not compelling like Ingress is.” In a word, he said, it’s simply “boring.” Of course, these kinds of reactions will depend on how familiar a particular player is with augmented-reality titles, and whether she enjoys Pokémon.
“leading the charge for future AR”
A third alpha tester I spoke with said, “[Pokémon] is one of my favorite videogame franchises,” so it’s been “a unique experience,” even if there are some issues with battery drain. The build is incomplete, he noted, so it’s hard to judge the game’s entire potential on that basis alone—trading still hasn’t been added, nor proper PvP battles. It’s therefore fairly “lightweight as a Pokémon title,” at least for the time being. The finished game will no doubt account for some of this missing functionality; we can’t know for certain until after the field test. That said, “Niantic is doing a great job with the game,” the source added, “and is definitely leading the charge for future AR [titles].”
Pokémon is already inescapable. On March 17th, The Pokémon Company announced via Famitsu that it’d sold a total of 279 million “Pokémon-related” games in its first 20 years. As for core titles like Red Version (1996) and Omega Ruby (2014), the number sold is closer to 210 million—still a staggering figure when you consider that Mario sold 240 million units in his first 25 years, going all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros. (1985).
People love nearly everything about Pokémon: from the character of Pikachu to the collectible card game; from the anime series, movie tie-ins, storybooks, and manga to the more than 70 electronic Pokémon games published by Nintendo. I distinctly remember its arrival, as such, in my small Midwest hometown being heralded by a kids’ meal–toy promotion through Burger King, followed shortly after by the feature film Mewtwo Strikes Back (1998) and the first North American release of the Pokémon Trading Card Game (1999). The property spread like wildfire, and hasn’t gone anywhere in the two decades since.
At the end of January, Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke published a report on Ingress’ first three years that showed the game had been downloaded upwards of 14 million times in over 200 countries. It isn’t hard to imagine what the familiarity and staying power of Pokémon might do with similar software, especially if given the sorts of ongoing narrative elements and live events used to support Ingress.
It’s also worth pointing out that, according to Hanke’s report, Niantic’s player base walked a distance of 258 million kilometers while playing Ingress in its first three years. The obvious exercise benefits are sure to appeal to parents wishing their children would put down their gamepads and go play outside, and to teens and adults looking to get healthier without living at the gym. That’s something console and PC games can’t really provide—and it’s outright antithetical to current conceptions of virtual reality. For those unmoved by standard gamification apps, AR may well offer a path to greater fitness. We’ll find out later this year, when the full version of Pokémon GO lands on mobile devices around the world.