Lying in bed, I pull out my phone and boot up my newest app. An overworld comes up, based on my location—a digital approximation of my New York City block. On it, a 3D Rattata wanders around. Rattata! I don’t have one of those yet. Giddy, I tap it, and the digital map is replaced by my bed and my wall (my phone’s camera has turned on, and I’m looking through it). But through my camera’s eye, that Rattata is now on my bed, staring at me. I hurl a Poké Ball at it. The ball moves once… twice… three times. It stops. The Rattata is mine.
Such is the world of Pokémon GO.
Fans have been clamoring for a smartphone Pokémon game since, well, the beginning of smartphones. But Nintendo has been adamant in the face of these shouts and cries. Even so, while the company has been busy working on their handhelds, the world at large has changed. Pokémon has always been a portable game. I’ve put thousands of hours into Pokémon games myself, from the original Red and Blue versions right on up to the modern-day releases and remakes. Pokémon was a huge part of my life growing up, so I was as excited as anyone to have the chance to play it on my phone.
But Pokémon GO isn’t the franchise’s next generation RPG. An official entry in the series on mobile devices would undoubtedly be an enormous success, but I can understand Nintendo’s apprehension. Let’s be honest: If Pokémon was released for iPhones, why would people buy the 3DS (or its successor)? For years, this was the logic behind Nintendo not releasing any mobile games at all, but last March changed things. Nintendo announced a partnership with a Japanese developer, DeNA, which would release five games based on Nintendo properties. These would be games built for mobile first, not pared-down versions of console and handheld games; Pokémon GO does not come out of that agreement, but it is of like mind. GO was developed by a company called Niantic, formerly a subsidiary of Google. The company is known for its 2013 title, Ingress, a multiplayer augmented reality game which continues to have a thriving community. That game mapped the player’s location based on real data (perk of being owned by Google) to set the stage. If you wanted to take part in that game, you needed to get up and physically go to where the action was taking place.
Ingress is a far more complex game than Pokémon GO, but it makes perfect sense that Nintendo would be excited by this tech and the company that developed it. GO may be unlike any Nintendo game that came before it, but it’s the logical extension to one of their biggest pushes in the last decade: health. Nintendo has been trying to make players healthier for years—whether it was the Wii Fit series, the addition of a pedometer feature in later Pokémon games, or even the Wii itself, whose motion controls were intended to get traditionally sedentary players off the couch and moving. If they have succeeded in the past is hard to know, but if anything could bring them success, it would be Pokémon GO.
The game’s overworld, a cartoonish 2D representation of the real world’s landscape, features not just Pokémon but “Pokéspots”—pre-determined sites that you can approach to collect items. These can be monuments, churches, storefronts, etc. The morning after installing the game, I took a slightly longer route on my way to work. As it turns out, the opposite side of my building has some interesting architecture and has been marked as a Pokéspot. I walked over to the other side and was rewarded with three Poké Balls and an Egg, which requires another 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of walking to hatch.
Sitting on a park bench later that day, I interrupted a fairly deep conversation with a friend, because I saw a Nidoran on my screen. I excused myself and ran to the other end of the park to catch a Nidoran. I haven’t run in months, but there I was, determined to get that Pokémon. I’m hardly the only one. In recent days, I’ve seen more than a few people, faces buried into their screens, staring at the digital overworld, waiting for the next Pokémon to appear. (The loading screen’s warning to pay attention to the actual world, it seems, is being ignored.)
And why shouldn’t they be? Pokémon is about as universal a franchise as has ever existed. From playing the video games, to the card game, to watching the movies or the TV show, to even reading the comic, pretty much everyone has had at least some exposure to the franchise. And though there are now hundreds of gaming iterations, Pokémon GO focuses on the early Pokémon—the ones everyone remembers. At the beginning, you choose Squirtle. (You can also choose Bulbasaur or Charmander, but… why?) You see Pidgeys and Zubats and all of these shapes that bring you back. And now you’re the one catching them all, not just pressing the buttons that make someone else do it.
Even so, nobody could expect just how wide this game’s reach would be. I knew my gaming friends would be playing it, but my social media feeds are full of screenshots from friends who never play games posting pictures: a Polywag in their shower, a Caterpie in their car’s passenger seat. While I was sitting at my office desk, a colleague walked behind me and muttered, “Caught one!” The day the game was released, an Australian police station had to issue a message telling people to please stop coming inside, because so many people just had to get that Sandshrew. It’s quickly jumped to the No. 1 app in Apple’s iTunes Store, and shares of Nintendo shot up 10 percent to their highest level in nearly two months following the app’s release.
Pokémon GO is highly democratic. Anyone with a smartphone can download it. It’s free to play, and funded by micro-transactions that allow you to use real dollars to buy in-game currency to buy in-game items (many of which can be found in Pokéspots, for those disinclined to throw down cash on a game like this). You don’t need to worry about having the proper console or putting down a lot of money to get the game; it’s available on something that nearly everyone has within five feet of them right now. There’s no concern about complex controls: you physically move, you tap, you swipe.
You have it, you play it, and you talk about it. And everyone is talking about it. I haven’t witnessed this many Facebook posts about a game since Farmville, and that was mostly because posting about it would earn you in-game rewards. There is no such impetus for talking about Pokémon GO. It’s just something that people want to do.
That said, it’s hard to predict how long that will stay true. Unlike “typical” Nintendo games, which often see multi-year delays and release only when they’re “done,” Pokémon GO feels decidedly incomplete. It’s never going to be as fully featured as a proper release, but there isn’t really much to do beyond walk around and catch Pokémon. You can “battle” at gyms using a janky combat system that is more frustrating than fun... but even if the system was fun, it’s hampered by the fact that you can’t battle your friends. You can’t even trade with your friends.
With any luck, these features will come in some form down the line, but even Niantic is unsure of what the future holds for Pokémon GO. The company’s multi-year support for Ingress inspires some confidence, but it’s more than possible that players will just get bored before the game has a chance to really find its footing. As with many modern, popular games, its launch has been plagued with technical problems. Servers are unavailable, the game often crashes after a catch, etc. These issues will be ironed out over the coming weeks, but a part of me worries that people will have given up by then. Part of me wonders if I’ll have given up by then.
But as soon as I think that, I pull out my phone on the subway and catch the Eevee jumping around on top of a sleeping passenger, and all the negative thoughts vanish.