Play Time (Goof): Your Life
Developers: Nintendo, Niantic and The Pokémon Company
For the last month (give or take a week or two) I, along with the rest of the world have been obsessed with Pokémon GO. Since it’s turning into a bit of a habit to write about the things I’m addicted to I thought I’d give my thoughts on this amazing game (spoiler alert). Because it’s never fair that I’m the only one riding the addiction dragon(ite).
I’ve been in love with Pokémon since I was four years old. I used to play pretend that I had my team of six and that I was travelling the world, trying to become the world Pokémon Master. This turned into a more socially acceptable love of the Gameboy games, Pokémon Stadium, Pokémon Snap and the Trading Card Game. It’s nice that as an adult, I can wander the streets playing pretend again.
Sure, the game has its issues. Server troubles and Nearby lists being the first to come to mind (though they’re getting better). In my limited understanding of how massively multiplayer games work on a technological side, I’d assume that was to be expected. Although a quick scroll through Facebook tells me that sort of mentality has no place and JUST LET ME CATCH MY DAMN POKEMANS!
I’m going to take a wild guess and make the assumption that if you’re reading this then you probably have a rough idea how to play. But then I’ve been receiving Facebook messages and friends in real life asking me what the hell is all this with the poké and the mons so I figured I’d give the briefest of brief rundowns to get us all on the same page. If you know how to play don’t panic, just scroll down a little and we’ll meet you in a couple paragraphs.
The game revolves around you walking out there in the real world (they still make a real one. Who knew?) and catching Pokémon as they are generated around you. You can then increase the strength of these Pokémon, get items from places called ‘Pokestops’ that are around culturally significant areas and parks, or even compete in one of three teams for control of places called ‘Gyms’
Essentially the game boils down to a collection game where the higher numbers beat lower numbers with a few type strengths and weaknesses thrown in. It’s World of Warcraft meets Neopets with the most popular 90s kids theme. And I adore it.
IF YOU SCROLLED DOWN, WAIT HERE!
Alright, now that we’ve all caught up (thank you to those considerate few) we can continue.
This game has done some really incredible things for the mass of people who play it. It’s so addictive that I’ve had friends leave their work during lunch breaks to do a few laps around the block and catch more Zubats… you know… not intentionally but those damn things spawn everywhere. So there’s a real fitness element. Even if you’re the sort to drive around town in your car (look we’ve all done it. Just park before you play), in all likelihood you’ve still walked more often than you would have without the game.
I’ve seen a lot of posts online about people who have had real mental health benefits from this game. I’ve seen firsthand people come out of their shell, overcome social anxiety and even had strangers on the street approach me for a chat. Sure, sometimes you don’t want to talk to odd people in the street. If that’s the case I’ll teach you the magic words: “it was nice to meet you. I’d like to be alone now.” (I add this only because of some of the horrible ways people have handled this online).
Can these real world benefits really be considered a part of the gameplay? I’d argue yeah. To play this game you actually need to be out in the real world. The avatar walking around in the digital world is in the related area in the real world. Like the world’s most exhausting and high maintenance controller.
The collection element is super addictive, every time I come across a new or rare pocket monster I feel a rush of excitement. And if it runs… well… I cried like I did in Pokémon: The Movie. That film runs deep.
The territory control element is awesome fun. We’ve created a local Mystic chapter social media page and we’ve coordinated both offensively and defensively. I get excited thinking about the other players out there battling us for control, as they realise that we’ve just taken their long-held Gym, or as they struggle to face the overwhelming strength of our well protected Squash Courts (that gym has been the focal point of many PokéWars). It’s light hearted fun, but it’s great to have so many player coordinating and feeling like we’ve secured a real world location.
If you’ve read my recommendations to Ninteniantic, then you’ll know how I feel about the combat system. If you haven’t read it, click on any second word in this paragraph. Do it. You know you want to. I wonder how long I can make this paragraph to keep adding more links. Tell you what. I’ll cleverly conceal three separate links to other reviews in here. See if you can catch them all!
If you still don’t wanna read it (you break my heart), I don’t like the combat. I’m sure you’re surprised. I just don’t see why we had to mess with such a good system. I’ve heard people justify the decision by saying that a simpler system is more accessible or that they wanted to keep the established combat system for the main franchise. Pffft. No.
Look, I get that a four button system with the potential for hundreds of combinations can be daunting. If you want to simplify the combinations to a few dozen and give each Pokémon one or two moves then that would be fine by me. But the argument that this was designed to keep the game simple is tauros-poo. Not only are there still moves that are assigned at random, so players have to identify which of the Pokémon to keep based on their move sets; but the game also includes hidden statistics called Individual Values. The idea behind these hidden stats is that each Pokémon is unique, being born with a set of stats that are within a certain range for that species. In the main franchise of videogames, this has essentially led to the dystopian society in GATTACA, Pokémon being bred and thrown away until only the perfect Pokémon are trained and used to compete. And with breeding being announced for Pokémon GO, there’s no way this won’t go down the same route (was going to use the word path, but route just felt more poké-esque). While I’m not sure about whether the other hidden series of statistics from the main series, Effort Values are in the game or not (discussing them is a whole other thing), I do know that as it stands, third party sites are vital if you’re looking to be competitive. Add to that the fact nowhere in the game tells you what type is weak against what and I just don’t think you can argue that the intention was for this to be a casual game. Sure, casual players can play it, but casual players play the main series too. And that combat system didn’t give me RSI.
To the second argument, the one about keeping the traditional combat system to the main franchise… my question would be why? To my knowledge there are 25 games across six generations so far, with two more due out this year (I’m getting Sun). If they were worried about flooding the market with their system I’ve gotta say that they’ve got a funny way of going about it. Not to mention that spinoff games like Pokémon Stadium used almost identical systems. People are still buying these games, and that really isn’t going to be negatively impacted by adding the system to another incredibly popular title.
Look, if it’s some kind of stupid trademarked issue then surely they could have negotiated a work around. Or created a system that isn’t going to cause me to want to put my finger through the phone when my damn charged attack doesn’t go off. If you’re going to invest in and publicise the game as much as you did, Nintendo, then you could have spent a bit more time on a better combat system. That’s all I’m saying. Well… no, that’s not all I’m saying. I’m saying your new combat system feels cheap and shoddy. But also the other thing.
Pros: ++Health Benefits, ++Addictive Fun, +Territory Control
Cons: –Combat system
I’m about to say something controversial here. But it’ll take a moment to get there so bear with me.
To answer the question about theme in this game we first need to really examine what the core of Pokémon is. It’s easy on the outset to think of Pokémon as a collection game, which is exactly what I called it earlier in this review, because in a few ways it is. The catchphrase has always been “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” and hell, Pokémon creator Satoshi Taijiri was even an insect collector and it is well known that this influenced the original concept of Pokémon. But stop for a moment and think about who the most well-known Pokémon is. Without a doubt it’s Pikachu. Ash Ketchum’s best friend and ally. If you think about the Games, your starter Pokémon always obeys you regardless of the amount of badges you own, and I know a lot of people who have their starter all the way through the game. The games continually comments on the strong relationship you have with your Pokémon, and mega evolutions rely on that strong attachment. To say that relationships are an essential part of the theme of Pokémon would be an understatement. It’s at the very core of what the series is about. To emphasise this point, the original games removed the ability for multiple save games and had to be reworked in order to allow for players to individually name every Pokémon in the game. And this is honestly why I’m saying Pokémon GO fails heavily on the Pokémon theme.
When I first got my starter Pokémon, Squirtle, I had such high hopes for him. I named him ‘Poseidon’ and had plans to rise to the top on the cannons of my Blastoise. But that’s just not how this game works. You can’t form attachments to your Pokémon or you end up feeling guilty every time you ship them off to the Professor in exchange for Candy (which you need to do a lot). Alas, poor Poseidon is off on a farm somewhere… somewhere where I can’t visit him…
Here’s the thing about Gyms I don’t get. In mainstream Pokémon canon Gyms are a place where you get badges in order to be able to compete in select tournaments against groups like The Elite Four and eventually become a Pokémon Master. These badges encourage Pokémon to respect you, and are seen as almost a pilgrimage amongst trainers. But it’s not like Gyms swap hands to whoever beat them. When you kick a Gym Leader’s butt, you don’t force them to pack their bags.
Some of the areas where this game lives up to the theme would be that you really do feel like you’re out in the real world tracking down Pokémon and catching them (I was so confused in the beginning because in the main series you had to weaken wild Pokémon with one from your team before you catch it). It’s the reason I love well-made Augmented Reality games. In some of the social gatherings of the game, which are largely around Pokéstops with Lure Modules, players talk about where nests of certain Pokémon are, where they’ve caught what, or asking for information about where to catch certain types. This reminds me of the people Ash runs into on his journey, or the NPCs you can talk to in towns in the videogames. It’s hard to argue that the game isn’t immersive when the first thing I wanted to do was chuck on my bag, throw on my Pokémon cap and hit the streets. Even when I catch Pokémon in the app I turn my cap on backwards at the start of the encounter (turns out you can give yourself a little friction burn doing that, which I did. Why has that never been explored in the canon before? Ash must have one thick forehead).
There’s a fan theory about Pokémon GO that I really like. I first read about it here and have become obsessed with the idea. The theory is that we’re not playing typical Pokémon Trainers. In fact, we’re playing as the bad guys. When you think about the names of the evil organisations in Pokémon you have names like: Team Rocket, Team Plasma and Team Magma to name a few. Now think about the factions the players are divided into in Pokémon GO: Team Valour, Team Mystic and Team Instinct. It fixes so many of the issues! The reason you’re not so connected to your Pokémon on an emotional level? The only ones who we ever really see that are that attached on any level would be Jesse and James, with their Meowth. But most Team Rocket members are only interested in catching Pokémon to return them to their benefactor, Giovanni. It also makes sense why we’re competing for control of buildings. We’re territorial gang members (although the buildings really should be called “Bases” instead of “Gyms”). But until this is either confirmed by one of the producers or more of a story line comes out, I can’t base my score of a theme on a fan theory. What I can do is talk about how fan theories are a positive thing. Because giving your community information to study, delve into a research is a part of what makes gamer communities so amazing. The amount of nights I’ve been kept up researching something someone’s said, or watching YouTube shows on exploring new ways to view the meanings behind games or even applying real world science. This is the sort of geekdom that I love. And while there is still very little information given to us about the story line of Pokémon GO, it gives us exciting ways to evaluate what we do have and see if we’re right when the game develops further.
In terms of theme, there’s a lot missing. I spoke about it in my recommendations article but I figure these are a matter of time. It’ll be interesting to take another look at the game in a year’s time. What we have now is really missing core elements of the Pokémon theme. Do I think the game would have been as successful under a new or even different IP? Probably not. I understand the why, I’m just frustrated with the execution.
Pros: ++Immersive, +Thematically Social, +Open to Fan Theories
Cons: –Lack of Connection, -Inconsistent With Wider Theme
When I was first thinking about how best to address the production value of an app, I wasn’t sure if my usual model applied. But it totally does! Talking about things like the user interface is similar to discussing whether the rules are easily accessible and contribute to playability. Artwork was always self-explanatory. All in all, there are components of production that I’ve seen done well. And others… not so much. So where does PoGO rate?
Pokémon GO is in that former group. It has that anime style that is instantly familiar and somehow inviting, like it’s Saturday morning and you’re back to being a child. The Pokémon look like their mainstream counterparts and they even have their iconic videogame cries.
An area that really needs improvement is the basic and almost bland design of the map. When you’ve got to look at your phone for hours on end I really don’t think looking at blue blocks and darker blue paths is that fascinating. They’d have to balance the technological demands and not overwhelming the players with too much to look at while keeping it more interesting. Off the top of my head, why not make the blue squares look like buildings from the game? They don’t even have to be that creative, but it’d look better than blue squares. We’re not in the digital world (wrong 90s show Niantic).
I’ve touched on my other issue in my Recommendations article. That’s character customisation. Look, I get that in a world where Nintendo is getting the blame because idiots are choosing to Pokémon and drive, that the company will want to be smart about the clothing options it gives the characters. I’ve noticed that they’re all sun and sport smart. But can I have a different cap please? Maybe some more styles of clothes? Or the ability to have one of the styles and simply change the colour? What about hairstyles? For a game that’s all about wacky monsters with wildly varied designs, humans sure get the boring end of that stick. In an MMO, players don’t want to be forced to look alike. That’s why transmogrification and style selects have become a staple in modern gaming. Think about WoW, DCUO or SWTOR.
In terms of the userface, I have no complaints. It says what it needs to say and people can easily locate what they need and when (there’s like four ways to access the store, which I’m gonna go ahead and say was intentional). My father, a self-proclaimed techtard, has had no issues navigating it. And I got a message this morning confused over how the light on his computer screen was dimmed.
Pros: ++Inviting Style, +User Friendly, +Consistent Characters
Cons: -Bland Map, -Character Creation Options
I love this game. It’s fun, exciting and there’s so many health benefits. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its issues. When Dad and I first started playing, we were going for walks at stupid hours of the night (don’t tell his doctor but even after his surgery). I’ve spent more time in parks and walking around strange towns I don’t know, just to catch more Pokémon, collect more items or tackle enemy (read Valor) Gyms.
I give Pokémon GO:
If you’re not playing this yet you should. If you’re already playing then hopefully we can band together and get Niantendo to make some positive changes. I’m not going to lie, I think the game feels like a massive Beta test at this point and it’s missing features. But what it’s got so far has already kept me captivated for dozens of hours, and that’s on the relatively low end compared to some. So grab your cap, pack and Pokéballs and I’ll see you at the Elite Four.
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