As a twenty-something in the year of 2016, I've been catching Pokémon for almost my entire life. Never before has it felt as interactive as it does with Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game by The Pokémon Company and Niantic. After a rough few days of server errors and frozen screens, I find the game mostly stable. Enough at least to provide my overall thoughts on the phenomenon that's sweeping the nation.
You have to walk?
It's as if millions of millennials cried out and were suddenly silenced by the main objective of the game, to exercise. For me, exercise is not one of my main concerns. I have an Apple watch with all but the weekly feedback notifications of the health and fitness tracking software disabled. I occasionally play tennis or go for walks with my girlfriend and pup. Apart from those leisurely jaunts around town, getting out much hasn't been a focus of mine. That was until Pokémon Go landed.
I'm lucky to live in a historic part of town. That means there are 15 Pokéstops and 3 gyms within view on my map while sitting on my couch. From what I've gathered by chatting with friends and coworkers, I have a pretty generous supply of Pokéballs cached in interesting locations around my home. Armed with my phone and a battery pack, I've spent roughly 4 hours traveling around my neighborhood that would normally be spent doing anything else. It's working.
Using your map, you'll instantly recognize your neighborhood. Maps sourced from Google are textured with grassy plains, perfect for Pokémon to hide in. Rustling leaves mean there could be a Pokémon hiding out, waiting for you to enter its radius. Once you do, it's on.
The act of catching Pokémon is much different from the Game Boy games of yore. In Pokémon Go, you're expected to take aim and flick a Pokéball at the critter ahead of you. Those who remember a simpler time in iOS gaming will surely recall office-based paper basketball games, a concept that hasn't changed much in the years following. While obstacles in games like that often included desk fans and rolling chairs, Pokémon Go has Pokémon that will jump, flip, or knock away a Pokéball if your timing isn't just right.
The visual AR aspect of the game kicks in once you've engaged a Pokémon in battle. Using your camera, you can move the view around to bring the Pokémon into frame. Personally, I prefer to turn this off. The disorienting nature of the AR view provides an additional challenge when chucking Pokéballs, but since I'm frugal when it comes to in-app purchases (more on my moment of weakness in a moment), I'd rather set myself up to succeed. Turning it off allows me to continue walking to the next PokéStop, rather than stopping in place (which could be dangerous to myself and those around me. I've seen young kids stop short on busy walkways, doorways, and in roads to catch a Pokémon whose name they've never even learned to pronounce.
As the game progresses and you level up, the Pokémon catching aspect of the game gets more involved. Berries become a useful tool in keeping Pokémon around. Depending on the level and species, Pokémon will flee after attempts at capture. A berry here and there will make them stick around for a least a few more tries. The rarer the Pokémon, the more I use. I take no chances at missing the good ones.
One evening, I slipped up. There was a Clefable in the street and I decided that I must have it. After attempting capture with 5 berries and about 20 Pokéballs, I ran out. Against my better judgement I bought 20 more and luckily captured him before I grabbed another batch. The freemium model is very much alive in this game, but completely avoidable with an attention to the levels on your supplies. Know your Pokéstop hotspots, folks!
The more you play the more you and your Pokémon can level up. Increasing your trainer level will encourage more higher CP level Pokémon to show up around you. Increasing your Pokémon's stats will improve your shot at taking and controlling local gyms. Experience points and candies are the key to success. Here's what you do.
Visit PokéStops and you'll gain experience by stopping at local points of interest and grabbing free potions, revives, berries, Pokéballs and eggs. Winning battles in friendly or opposing gyms will also net you some heavy point hauls. You'll get some for every Pokémon caught, for each medal you earn for catching Pokémon, and for every upgrade and evolution your initiate with candies.
Candies... This is where the game takes its most drastic turn from the Nintendo games I grew up with. Rather than battle experience bolstering the power of your Pokémon, you'll need species specific candies to reach the results you desire. For example, to obtain a Pidgeot, you're going to need to catch a Pidgey or 50. Each Pidgey is essentially worth one Pidgey candy, so to cash that in you'll have to transfer all but one to Professor Willow—a one-way transaction that is necessary to become the best. Once you've traded in a bunch of those flapping little twerps, you can use your candies to evolve the remaining Pidgey into a Pidgeotto and eventually a Pidgeot. This works for every Pokémon with possible evolutions, so good luck with evolving your starter. As rare as starters appear to be in the wild, it's going to take a while.
Once you hit level 5, you'll have the opportunity to partake in gym battles. The first thing you'll do is pick a team. There are 3 choices, Instinct (Yellow), Mystic (Blue), and Valor (red). I chose Team Instinct which is not the controlling party in my hood (yet), but is the controlling party at my place of work. This means that I can train at the friendly Yellow gym there to boost my experience. If that gym is taken over by a visiting trainer of an opposing team, I will have to take on the Pokémon left there to restore allegiance to my team. This is the most directly competitive aspect of the game so far. Until the game expands their feature set, this is the only way you have to engage with another player's Pokémon.
Battling has two input commands. Tapping attacks the opposing Pokémon, swiping left or right dodges attacks. It's basic and rather frustrating, but super effective.
The Social Experience
By far, the most interesting aspect of the game is the social one. Walking down familiar streets feels new when met by other trainers out and about with the same goal in mind. Sidewalks that are usually empty in the late evenings when we take the dog for a stroll are now filled with dozens of locals hitting Pokéstops before bed.
Its pretty fun, actually. It's nice to interact with strangers with common interests and it's surreal to interact with things you can't see with the naked eye with others at the same exact time. Running across a mall or neighborhood to nap an Abra together is exhilarating in a way. Playing Pokémon Go is unlike anything else.
What I'd Like to See
The game is far from perfect. In fact, it hasn't even hit a one-point-oh. As a beta, there's a lot left to do. Many bugs to squash, many servers to bolster. However, I'm a forward thinker and I have some ideas that I would love to see used once the time comes.
I would love to be able to trade some rare Pokémon I catch on a trip to an oceanic area to friends when I come home. Having that last Drowzee needed to evolve your friends' into a Hypno would add an additional level of comradery that has been a staple to the Pokémon world since 2000.
Certainly once trading is available, so will PvP. Battling outside of a gym will provide entertainment to those who live in more remote areas and make the game that much more interactive with players on the street.
Seasonal and Event Pokémon:
There's little doubt in my mind that this is coming. In Pokémon MMO, the frowned upon hack that runs on Gameboy Color-era games with realtime chat and player visibility, there are Pokémon that are only available during certain times of the year or at in-world events. This sort of exclusivity would increase the length of time a player dedicates to the game and also makes for a good marketing ploy. Imagine the headlines every time a rare catch appears at a major sporting event or cultural gathering.
Apple Watch Support:
As cute as the $35 Pokémon Go Plus accessory is, I'd very much like a simple app on the Apple Watch that allows me to simply attempt catches or collect loot from PokéStops without pulling out my phone. If these things were possible, along with accurate distance tracking for egg incubation, I would be willing to subscribe to or purchase a "Pro" version of the app. No dongle, just my existing equipment as an extension of the game.
Overall I'm a big fan of Pokémon Go. The work it's done so far to get kids (and adults) off of their keisters and into nature is staggering. There's a lot of room for potential as the months go on. I'm not sure if I'll be grabbing the Pokémon Go Plus arm band just yet, but I'm dedicated for the time being.