The Barren Nature of Pokemon Go

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how the Pokemon games aren’t really about Pokemon. It’s a thought that’s been gnawing at me for years, and it turns out it’s rather fortuitously timed, for this year has seen the biggest resurgence of Pokemon popularity in years. I am speaking, of course, about Pokemon Go.

The interesting thing about Pokemon Go is how little it has in common with the games it is named after. There’s no complex combat system or Pokemon stats, traded for Infinity Blade combat and a simple “Combat Power” rating. The roster is down from Pokemon’s current 726 to its original 151. And Pokemon Go IS about Pokemon- it isn’t a slave to a gameplay design that make the cuddly creatures and your adventure with them secondary to math.  Niantic’s cell phone phenomenon has traded these issues for a very different problems: Pokemon Go isn’t about people.

It’s baffling, because on paper, this is clearly the most social Pokemon game ever. Message boards alight with folk discussing where to find elusive beasts. Strangers meet on the street with their phones out, and having moments of real connection as they discuss PokeStops, Pinsirs, and everything in between (which, granted, is not a great deal). With the way people have bonded over this game, how could this NOT be a game about people? Here’s the short version is: all of these interactions are what people do around the game, and none of it is the game itself.

Think about the experience of walking around with Pokemon Go. You stare at the screen of your phone (because if you switch apps, it stops working) and walk, looking for Pokemon that randomly pop up or PokeStops that you can get items from. Pokemon encounters are unpredictable, so you need to stay focused on the screen- you never know when one will appear! And all this time, you’re hooked up to a server telling you all of this information. Everyone else playing the game must also be contacting this server (or more realistically set of servers), and yet there is no trace of them on the real world map that is your game. There are no vibrations or sounds when you get close to another player, no notification of any kind.

pokestop

Perhaps that’s a lot to ask. With how many people play this game, I can only imagine what a mess hubs of activity like the grocery store would be in my home town, and I live in Springfield, Missouri. Downtown New York could well be unplayable. There are, of course, solutions to this- instancing comes to mind. But even if you say that they can’t integrate other players into your game in real time, the game still fails at involving other people asynchronously. You cannot trade Pokemon with another player, which was literally the foundation of the “two games per generation” design of the handheld releases. You can’t battle them. You cannot even friend them, or view their profile! The only way in which this is not an isolated, solo experience is the gyms, where a trainer can leave their Pokemon behind for you to fight. Of course, that Pokemon then acts under generic AI in no way reflecting its trainer, and there is no interaction between the two players whatsoever, but technically something one player did affected another player. That’s it.

Normally, this is the part in an article about Pokemon Go where they say “but none of this matters because it’s doing amazing numbers and everyone loves it.” And I suppose in the short term that’s true. But no king rules forever, and only by inspiring passionate fans can a game like this hope to last. However many billion people play for a few weeks and enjoy the experience of nabbing a Nidoran on the way to the park will not make this a great game. They will make plenty of money- they already have. And they will leave people with a lot of fond memories. But they will leave people– that is the important part. Unless Niantic makes some major, major improvements to this game, it’ll pass in the night like any other iOS darling. Its incredible concept has carried it thus far, and if well executed, it has the potential to be an entirely different breed of runaway mobile success. But if they are happy to be the next Flappy Bird- to make their fortune for a few months, and then be forgotten- then that’s deeply disappointing.

After the release of World of Warcraft, teams rushed to be “the next WoW,” trying to make games as accessible, engaging, and versatile as Blizzard’s release. These games were of varying success, but certainly none of them approached the success of WoW- even now, only the free-to-play model is making other MMOs able to seriously compete. WoW was of course extremely well made, and had an already beloved series as its foundation, but its true secret was far more simple: people. WoW had the community of a huge number of passionate players, and it was built and maintained in a way that served their interests. The game was inherently social, but it was also about people. We’re now twelve years into WoW, and it’s still a huge force in the marketplace, despite having dwindled- the last reports have it at 5.5 million subscribers. It serves its players, and they serve it in return.

Imagine what Pokemon Go could achieve, with a similar focus. A game that has captured this much passion, audience, and market share without even encouraging interaction between players? Once it gets some social tools in it, it could be unstoppable. Maybe we’d be looking at ten years of people trying to make the next “Pokemon Go-killer.”