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For the record, I have never watched an episode of Pokémon, played any of the Pokémon games released on the Nintendo systems, or even remotely know an iota of the backstory.  The extent of my knowledge regarding the world of Pokémon includes a boy wearing a cap, some fat yellow cat-thingy with a lightning rod tail, and a red / white ball.

 That’s it.

So, it’s pretty amusing that for the last 3 weeks, I have been obsessed with the new mobile app titled “Pokémon Go” that has taken the world by storm and will most likely be the hottest, most successful mobile game of 2016.

I found out about the game one average morning after parking my car.  On my way into the office, I saw one of the IT guys standing on the corner of the street, engrossed with his phone.  At first, I paid no mind, dismissing it as him reading a text he received like anybody else you see in public.  Greeting him, I asked what he was up to and without breaking his focus away from his screen, he said “I’m looking for Pokémon.”  He continued, informing me that another IT guy on his team was on an adjacent street corner and that as soon as they caught a specific Pokémon that apparently was in their radius, they were going to team up and try capturing a “gym”.  Knowing he was in his mid twenties, I figured it was a nostalgic thing from his childhood and wished him luck in his endeavor.  Once I got into the office, I discovered that several other employees were also playing the game; men & women with ages that ranged from early 20s to early 40s!  Amused, I found myself eavesdropping on a few of their screens to see what all the fuss was about.  The game was not visually impressive; it just looked like a slightly more colorful version of Google Maps with an anime styled character standing there doing nothing.  Lunch time came and we went out for Sushi.  As we were socializing, a coworker sitting next to me kept checking his phone with the aforementioned colorful map / anime dude standing there with a ring emitting out from him.

There on his screen, was a fully animated Pokémon that was accurately perched on the edge of my Bento Box, the game tracking my coworker’s movements while using the video feature of the iPhone to create a back plate for it to exist in.” 

Why are so many people into what appears to be a dull casual game?  Then a Pokémon appeared and my coworker engaged it, which introduced me to part of the game’s brilliance: Augmented Reality.  There on his screen, was a fully animated Pokémon that was accurately perched on the edge of my Bento Box, the game tracking my coworker’s movements while using the video feature of the iPhone to create a back plate for it to exist in.  In my profession, I have done tracking shots with live video and CG, but this was the first time I was seeing it done via an interactive experience in real time.  I watched in amazement how my friend flicked a Pokéball at the Pokémon and the game calculated the trajectory based on the direction & velocity of the flick, in relation to where the Pokémon existed in the restaurant.  I decided to download the game to gain a better understanding of its game mechanics and whether or not I found it appealing.  That weekend, I met up with friends at a bar for a birthday celebration, which would turn out to be the fateful night I fully understood what all the fuss is about regarding Pokémon Go.

 

Trying to catch Pokémon jumping or hovering around the bar, my friend’s shoulder, my beer glass, etc was quite amusing.  At one point, I asked a friend what the blue towers are on the map and he said “oh those are Pokéstops – that’s where you can obtain items to help you catch more Pokémon.”  “How do I activate it?” I inquired.  “You have to get close to it for it to register”, he replied.  I hesitated – here I am a full grown man, 37 years old about to walk outside to a public fountain and test this thing out…how ridiculous am I going to look?!  Eventually, my curiosity got the best of me and I went out to give it a shot.  What blew me away was that other people were also playing; not children mind you, but full grown adults.  At that moment, it hit me: this game is leveraging real world locations and incorporating them into the gaming experience!  No other video game has ever done this before.

The fact that I have seen gamers outside enjoying the game in Texas during the summer time, tolerating 110 degree heat plus humidity is a testament to the novel game design.”

At its core, Pokémon Go’s allure involves tapping into our natural desire for exploration and discovery.   Niantic, a spinoff from Google, are the developers behind the game, so it makes perfect sense that the game leverages a “Diet Coke” version of Google Maps.  It is worth pointing out that Niantic created another game with essentially the same gameplay mechanic before Pokémon Go, which proves once again how much influence a game’s “skin” can have on a title’s success.  Without digressing too much, this carries over to virtually every product-based industry; Bill Gates for example introduced the world to the first tablet back in the year 2000, but it was Steve Jobs who convinced the masses to fork over the cash for the iPad a decade later.  Anyhoo, let’s get back to Pokémon Go.  Using real world exploration as the foundation for gameplay yields several payoffs.  First of all, it gets us out of the house and back into nature.  There are folks I’ve seen hiking about on their search to find Pokémon that you just KNOW don’t normally go outside.  This is a major triumph for the developers

because it means they have created a fun factor that motivates people to get off their couch and be active.  It’s a big deal that Microsoft and Sony will attest to as they have created peripherals for their respective video game platforms involving the gamer to simply stand up and flail their body parts, which has been met with lukewarm success.  The fact that I have seen gamers enjoying the game outside in Texas during the summer time, tolerating 110 degree heat plus humidity is a testament to the novel game design.  Payoff number two is, it is healthy to be physically active and get some Vitamin D.  I have read on several forums that weight loss has been achieved by playing Pokémon Go as well as lowered blood pressure and high cholesterol.  The third payoff is community interaction.  Sure, we to a certain extent, have had limited social interactions with fellow gamers using headsets while playing online, but actually playing the game with complete strangers in person is a night and day difference.  It’s always a thrill to hear some exclaim something like “A PIKACHU JUST SPAWNED OVER HERE!”, causing a stampede of bodies to rush over and attempt to catch the virtual creature before it disappears.  There is a natural tendency to be helpful towards one another while hunting for Pokémon and then celebrate with each other over the spoils of exploration.  The fourth payoff is discovering real world places you didn’t know existed.  Whether it’s close to where you live, work, socialize, or travel to intermittently, Pokémon Go encourages the user to seek out destinations that result in real world discoveries of parks, businesses, public buildings, or even a new route to get somewhere faster.  This has been a particular delight for me since I’ve only lived in the Dallas area for a short while and therefore don’t have intimate knowledge of what’s out there.  Aside from the game being designed from the ground up to be played outdoors, it was imperative for the developers to integrate gameplay methods to not only get the gamers outside, but keep them outside.

Enter the Pokédex.  Bringing up the Pokédex shows every Pokémon you’ve caught plus the ones you have not.  It reminds me of the classic Advent Calendar because the Pokémon you haven’t found are represented by a simple square with a numerical value associated with it in descending order.  For those not familiar with the Advent Calendar, it’s basically a calendar containing small numbered flaps, one of which is opened on each day of Advent, typically to reveal a picture appropriate to the season, most commonly seen around the month of December.  As a kid, I was always curious about what the next picture was going to look like.  Come to think of it, my brother and I would get the Advent Calendars that contained a unique piece of chocolate in addition to the pictures, so it was always a treat to be able to reveal what the next day had in store for us, no pun intended.  This brings out the OCD in all of us because we’re constantly in wonderment over what the Pokémon look like behind their respective “flaps” and it fosters the desire to collect them all.  The developers are certainly aware of this as you can see silhouettes of the evolved versions of the Pokémon you’ve already caught as well as the ones that you’ve seen, but managed to escape your Pokéball trapping attempts.

 

Another classic activity celebrated worldwide, is going on a treasure hunt.  The game has a “sightings” feature, revealing various Pokémon that are fairly close to your position and are updated in real time; getting closer to a particular Pokémon will result in it moving up the list – the farther away you get, they will move down the list.  The whole “getting warmer / getting cooler” kids game also comes to mind as I type this.  In addition, the game, to my understanding, employs a procedural countdown timer.  This means that each Pokémon generated anywhere in the world will be there for a finite amount of time.  Once the timer reaches zero, the Pokémon vanishes.  Depending on how rare the Pokémon is, it may or may not have a likelihood of respawning in that same spot, which generates urgency in the gamer.

 

The end game is the Gym where you can pit your toughest Pokémon against other gamers’ Pokémon in a bid to see who can dominate.  It’s a mix of the classic “King of the Hill” kids game we all played in elementary school and the “Territories” online multiplayer game type.  If you’re able to hold a Gym for 20 hours or successfully take over an inhabited Gym, you get Pokécoins that go towards micro-transactions in the store.  This provides incentive for gamers to compete at any gym they come across as the number of Pokécoins you receive increases based on how many Gyms you control.  The actual Pokémon fighting is uninspired vigorous tapping on the screen, but it is gratifying to see your Pokémon floating above the Gym for all to see and marvel at.

 

Perhaps my favorite gameplay mechanic is hatching eggs.  Growing up on a farm, I have fond memories of watching chicks hatch over the years.  Plus, it was always fascinating to watch other types of eggs hatch on various nature shows.  This is most likely a universal curiosity, so it makes perfect sense to apply this part of life to Pokémon and adds another layer of unpredictability in terms of not knowing what will hatch.  I have purchased a great many incubators, maxing out my hatchery queue and get to walking in order to hatch my eggs.  Having this supporting feature compliments the primary gameplay mechanic of hunting for Pokémon by reinforcing the motive to get out and walk.  I have also found it to be a nice alternative to hunting for new Pokémon since most of the Pokémon that hatch are new.

 

A third method of adding new Pokémon to your Pokédex revolves around evolving the current Pokémon in your roster.  This adds a bit of depth to the Pokémon already caught, giving them purpose that goes beyond just glancing at them from time to time.  Speaking of evolving, I am proud to say that as of this writing, I FINALLY was able to evolve my floundering Magikarp into a ferociously handsome Gyrados and believe me when I say that it took dedication collecting 400 candies!  All of these features act as a balancing mechanism, preventing the gamer from getting burned out on doing too much of one thing, keeping the entire gameplay experience refreshing.  However, my delight with this game does have its limits.

 

Currently, I am at level 23, so being halfway through the leveling up process, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the game’s flaws.  One of the game’s biggest strengths is also its biggest weakness: discovering Pokémon.  As of this writing, I have caught 110 out of the 147 Pokémon in the game.  Being at this juncture means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new Pokémon, which, as I pointed out earlier, is the main reason why I got hooked in the first place.  I have become increasingly reliant on hatching eggs and evolving Pokémon in order to discover new Pokémon as opposed to just walking around and have them spawn on my screen.  Not knowing just how many Pokémon there are, I think it would be wise for Niantic to release a sizable second batch in the near future.  Doing so would most certainly act as a shot in the arm to reignite interest with gamers (read: more $$$ for Niantic).  Also, they need to revisit the concept of joining a red, blue, or yellow team.  Currently, it only acts as a visual cue for which team occupies any given Gym.  How about introducing certain attributes that are exclusive to each team?  Adding a community, team-based instant messaging feature would enable folks on the same team to coordinate taking over Gyms.  Ideas like these add a sense of consequence when deciding which team to choose.  Other ideas that come to mind:  Having your Pokémon either fight a lot or train at your team’s Gym should result in gained XP or earned special abilities for that particular Pokémon.  A Pokémon trading feature between players is a must.  If Niantic can address these issues, it will propel this title from being just a novel concept into a long-lasting gaming experience.  Despite these shortcomings, this game is without a doubt, one of the best titles of 2016 and makes me genuinely excited to see how the industry embraces this new technology and incorporate it into future titles.

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