A couple of days ago I ended my short but intense excursion into the world of Pokemon GO. Here I am sharing some of my experiences which I want to use to challenge some of the myths about the game. For example, is Pokemon GO really an augmented reality phenomenon? Or will it improve exercise of its mostly younger fan base? What I will not do is provide an extensive game review. I am neither a game critic, nor a credible gamer (and the review would come rather late since much has been said already).
Let me start by saying that I am on holidays, so I had time to get into the game. And time is what is needed to play Pokemon GO seriously. As far as my own achievements go I made it to Level 14. That’s not bad but not good either. My main issue with the game is: I have more or less already done everything there is to do in the game, yet I have not reached a competitive level: I have collected lots of Pokemon (55 different ones, didn’t catch’em all of course), evolved them, trained them, did power ups, competed in gyms and held a few briefly, collected medals and heaps of stuff at Pokestops.
My most advanced Pokemon is a Vaporeon with CP1160 – again not bad but not good enough either. In order to be competitive in the game anything below Level 20 is not good enough. But here is the catch – it gets progressively and exponentially more “expensive” to climb up the level ladder. It cost me about 5 days of gaming and 85,000XP (experience points) to get to level 14. It requires a total of 210,000XP to get to level 20, 710,000XP to get to Level 25 (where many competitive players in busy locations sit) and a staggering 3,000,000XP to get to Level 32 (the highest anyone has made it yet).
In other words, the time commitment to be competitive in the game is insane. And it is mostly about time, there is no skill involved, and it gets very very repetitive. As I said, I have done (pretty much) everything there is to do in the game – from here on I would have to do the same things over and over again, so I called it quits. Have a read of this article by Dominic Knight in the Sydney Morning Herald who nicely puts in words this frustration.
At the same time Pokemon GO is strangely addictive. It sucks you in and is quite fun to play (if it wasn’t for the frequent bugs and server crashes – seriously, is this the biggest beta test ever?). Walking around, finding Pokemon, collecting stuff, evolving Pokemon can be very absorptive. It’s a very sticky game, for better and for worse. But is it augmented reality? Will it have lasting exercise benefits? Is it a collaborative game?
Augmented reality (AR)?
The idea behind augmented reality is to “enhance one’s current perception of reality”, usually by overlaying certain imagery or information over a view of the “real world”. We have all seen the pictures of Pokemon where they seemingly sit in the real world. But here is the catch – this is merely a gimmick in the game, no one in their right mind will use it. It sucks too much battery and the little buggers will move around wildly on the screen. So no serious gamer uses the ‘AR’ feature but the more conventional game screen.
Of course, Pokemon, Pokestops and Gyms are overlaid onto a Google Maps mashup of the real environment – but does that qualify as augmenting reality? I would say, yes, at first at least. It was quite exciting setting out trying to find Pokemon or Pokestops in my environment. But this sense of hunting Pokemon in the “real world” wears off quite quickly, at least it did for me.
What happened instead is that I frequently lost track of my real surroundings. It also didn’t matter that Pokestops showed photos of real landmarks – I swivelled them and moved on, collecting stuff and pushing on hunting more Pokemon to keep those XP and Stardust clocks ticking.
Experientially, I would not describe Pokemon GO as augmented reality. Much like any other well made game it sucks you into its own world. What is new is the way in which the player controls the game – by walking around in the world. So it is more an innovation in game control than a form of augmented reality in my view.
But if Pokemon GO is taken as the flagship concept of AR, it will only muddy the waters and distract from what AR can actually, seriously do.
A great exercise App?
Sure, I was out and about walking – in my case Townsville in Northern Queensland. But here is the thing. Catching Pokemon requires you to hold still and flick a ball, so most people will stop when they encounter a Pokemon. What is more people walk very slowly while playing (the game is slow and requires lots of tapping and flicking for each pokemon, you also don’t want to run into people). As a result players walking around will invariably be outpaced by everyone else, parents with toddlers, people on crutches, bugs crawling about.
And if you want to catch a lot of Pokemon, you go where there is lots of people, lots of Pokestops and thus lots of Pokemon. But then you won’t need (or want) to walk much. This explains the groups of young people sitting around in parks just harvesting Pokemon as they appear, attracted by the ‘lure module’ someone installed on the nearby Pokestop.
In other words, walking faster than snail pace is counter productive to serious game play. In my view it is more likely people will get seriously sun burned playing the game than walking off those extra calories.
Collaborative game play?
Pokemon GO has all the makings of a great collaborative game. But it is not at the moment. In fact playing can be a very solitairy affair, even though the game leads to mass congregations of people in certain locations. Every player plays for their own profile. Sure, it helps to team up with other people to attack and hold a gym, but that is about it.
There are no in game leaderboards, communication, sharing or swapping of Pokemon or items within the App. Other players do not appear on the in-app map. While some of those features might come in future releases it feels quite incomplete at the moment.
Encounters with other players happen. They are easily indentified because others show the same characteristic behaviour – slow, stooped movement, green glow from their smartphone and a lot of upward swiping. For me those encounters felt quite strange as they are usually very brief, short exchanges about what stuff can be found in a location, or questions about which team I was with or if I was attacking a gym nearby, before each one disappears back into their own collecting frenzy.
At the moment Pokemon GO is a remarkable collective phenomenon but it is not yet a collaborative one.
On a final note
Pokemon GO is certainly fun and addictive. But as with any addiction, the fun part wears off rather quickly. What remains is the compulsive-repetitive behaviour characteristic of any addiction as players chase the next level-up. Plus there is the loss of control and the lack of sense of one’s surroundings.
Players completely absorbed in the game are rendered into stimulus-response zombies, controlled by and responding to whatever the game engine decides comes their way. I certainly observed myself falling into this pattern. It does not require much fantasy to see that this offers a powerful form of crowd control. Whoever is in charge to decide where the next rare Pokemon will show up has the power to congregate large crowds of people in certain places. This has all the makings of a dark (not-so-science-fiction) movie plot.
So, while I thoroughly enjoyed my short time with Pokemon GO, the game leaves much to desire. But it also is an interesting experiment and a platform on which others will no doubt improve with future ideas and new forms of gameplay.