How Nintendo’s unlikeliest collaboration caught my attention again, two years after its explosive entrance into the mobile gaming scene.
I reinstalled Pokémon Go on my phone the other day.
Only because my last phone finally kicked the bucket after its last and fatal drop, and because my friends have been getting back into it. Fine... Gen 4 is my favourite Gen out of all the Pokémon releases.
If you’re not familiar, the premise of Po-Go (as the game has become known as) is simple and similar to the main series games: walk around and encounter Pokémon out in the ‘wild’ and catch them to fill up the Pokédex.
The hook is those Pokémon now exist in the real world and the game uses GPS and augmented reality to overlay the experience across neighbourhoods and cities.
When Po-Go first came out, the game was unique enough to catch the attention of many players young and old, not just through its concept, but through it's clever tie-in with the Pokémon IP
Niantic, at the time a relatively unknown AR company, who previously worked on the Google backed Ingress which employs a similar gameplay loop, came out with a game based on Nintendo’s largest intellectual properties - and one of the first games Nintendo released that was not on on of their home consoles or handhelds.
Like everyone else who played, I followed suit with the crowd: I caught Pokémon, spun Pokéstops, exercised, and camped out near the Brisbane river where the spawn rates were high. Everyone had a power bank to juice up their phones and a spot claimed on Southbank; confusing the general public as to why there were suddenly hundreds of people glued to their phones, rubbing their screens in circular motions - overall, not a bad time.
But while the game had some good mechanics, the community made it even better.
Valor, Mystic and Instinct, are the three teams you could join at the start of the game based on what traits you best identified with as a player. This would in turn create some well needed rivalry between players to a point where people were actively going out of their way to beat.
There is nothing like watching two groups of people at a particular landmark tapping repeatedly at a gym and plopping their tankiest Pokémon there once cleared. Rinse and repeat for a hilarious real life scenario.
But I think one of the best things that Niantic has successfully done with their free to play game, is how they make money.
For a game of this calibre, it was very smart for Niantic to not advertise to players the way many other free mobile games do. It doesn’t make the game feel cheapened nor encumbers it to the point where players find it annoying, it’s also an effective way to keep players immersed.
Another smart thing move was that micro-transactions felt more like a minor convenience. The game in the beginning is balanced well where it doesn’t feel like a pay-to-play and the effort required to get to anew level feels well deserved.
Pokémon Go's popularity was its own downfall as Niantic's servers struggled under the weight of it's ballooning player base.
Server overload contributed to numerous outages and the game crashed frequently for players, including me, to a point where you couldn’t even load into the game and play when it first came out.
The battle system felt like an afterthought, and the rewards for most people didn’t feel worth the effort of just mindlessly tapping the screen until one Pokémon fainted. I know many people (including myself) dropped the game only after a month or so purely because it got boring and battery life became near dead before sunset.
Perhaps there may have have been hurdles along the way Niantic had to jump over initially but over time, the game has slowly but surely evolved (I do not apologise for puns) into something quite robust.
And from what we can see, it seems like Niantic is listening to user feedback and fixing up gameplay where possible with each and every update they push out. For example, walking now has a role to play in certain Pokémon evolutions, as does the time of day -i.e. Evolving Eevees into Umbreon during the night and Espeon during the day.
To also name a couple, trading and Community days are bringing people back and raising community engagement the way the game used to. I joined a Facebook event back in July where the organisers sorted over 100 people into groups for the Zapdos day raid and we all trekked around the city hitting every gym that had the Thunder chicken. I got about 10, one of which was a shiny.
Overall, the game is great and has the potential to be even better. There has never been a better time to go for a walk in search of digital creatures.
With the upcoming release of Pokémon: Let’s go, Eevee!, and Let’s go, Pikachu!, Nintendo must be convinced that that this format of the 20 year old Pokémon franchise is doing something right.
The game has certainly come a long way since we first discussed it during its release back in Episode 39 of the Pixel Sift podcast.