Niantic Labs’ Pokemon Go is an overnight phenomenon.
Last month my town had a festival themed around logging — because I live in the real-world version of Twin Peaks, apparently. The mayor challenged a local restaurant mascot, a pirate, to a log-rolling competition. The mayor won, thank goodness. But the moment everyone’s focus was released from witnessing a man in a tailored suit outpace a man with a plastic hook for a hand on a half-submerged oak, everyone drew out their smartphones — either to check the time, find the next place to grab a beer or a hot dog or, in many cases, to see what Pokemon were lurking in the vicinity.
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I did both: grabbed the beer and joined the hunt. Seated near the sidewalk at my favorite watering hole in the balmy Midwestern heat, I people-watched as they moved past the bar — my very own Pokemon hunting lodge — and was amazed at just how many people were playing Pokemon Go. I saw fathers scouring Main Street for the colorful creatures, their tween daughters doing the very same. I saw middle-aged women watching their character on their phone’s screen travel the digital version of our humble little river town, stopping to fling a Poke Ball at a Pidgey (we have a ton of those here). I saw one fellow in his pickup truck drive by while simultaneously hunting Pokemon — it should go without saying, but don’t do that — and, of course, I saw a lot of teens and twentysomethings, video games’ key demographic, forming hunting parties or going it alone. I saw a few more, then as the night wore on a lot more — to the point that if I had to guess, two-thirds of the people walking by with their phones out were looking at Pokemon Go’s augmented-reality version of our quaint resort town’s streets. Currently, I’m writing this watching the gym dominancy — pegged to a bed-and-breakfast up the street — switch between red and blue teams. It’s likely 11-year-olds pummeling each other’s creatures, but one day, once I am leveled enough, I will be the king of this side of town (cue mustache twirling).
In its first 24 hours after release, the augmented-reality creature-capturing game for smartphones rocketed to the number-one spot on the Apple app chart for free games. It currently has more daily users than Twitter and more user hours than Instagram. Pokemon Go is, in the truest sense of the word, a total sensation.
Released (brilliantly) during the dog days of summer, Pokemon Go, after a somewhat rocky launch and server connection issues, is a contender for one of the most popular games ever. The game has many true stories circulating around it, including a handful of teens who, out exploring, in a modern-day version of Stand by Me, stumbled upon a dead body. A group of Marines used the game to track drug dealers. More than one stumble from a high place has occurred. Some ne’er-do-wells used a public gathering of Pokemon trainers to rob them blind. Poke Stops — local landmarks used as places for trainers to gather more materials — have become places where trainers can congregate, gear up or get robbed. Or get shot at, as happened in Florida when two trainers were hanging around outside a man’s home for what he felt like a suspiciously long time. Despite the few mishaps, Pokemon Go has also gotten the typical gamer — a usually sedentary hobbyist — up and moving around. Personally, I’ve logged close to 20 miles just wandering around my hometown on the quest for Eevees — and I will neither confirm nor deny some light trespassing onto the local golf course.
Over the last handful of years, games that don’t require a console or an expensive PC rig have slowly been garnering more and more attention — even from the mainstream video game press. Titles such as Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans and Mobile Strike are more popular than Super Mario Bros. ever was, which is, for this aging gamer, somewhat of a sad truth to swallow. But because of their availability — smartphones are ubiquitous now — and a thoroughly researched “user retention” obtained by simple but rewarding repetitive action, a game like Pokemon Go can capture the eyes and thumbs of countless millions and make itself into an instantaneous hit, instant gratification being key.
With a mobile-based game, there is no need to run to the store and stand in line or go to a midnight release at your local GameStop (yet another way to risk getting mugged). All you need is a reliable Wi-Fi connection, a few spare minutes to wait for it to download, and you’re up and running. Pokemon Go is no different, and it’s 100% free. (Pokemon Go, like Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, has an in-game store for items and tokens that can expedite leveling up. This is often referred to as a “freemium.”)
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With interest returning to virtual reality with Facebook’s Oculus Rift — let’s not talk about the first attempts of the early ’90s — and Sony to release a headset just in time for Christmas this year, gaming has become focused on total immersion through virtual reality. Some will argue that we’re on the precipice of moving into a new type of gaming — one where the gamer is standing up, not hunched over a keyboard, one where we feel like moving around to make our characters move without need of our keyboard’s W, A, S, and D to get our characters where we want them to go.
Nintendo first attempted breathing new life into the way we play games by doing away with the traditional controller for the Wii’s motion controls. (Nintendo, for the record, despite having its stock price skyrocket since the release of Pokemon Go, owns only about one-third of the Pokemon franchise.) But many gamers balked at the lack of precision in the Wiimote and Nunchuck, leading to many customers abandoning the idea of motion controls in favor of their trusty controller, swiftly followed by the game developers too. But it would seem Niantic, makers of the Pokemon empire, saw a way to combine VR — in Pokemon Go’s case, AR, augmented reality — with a healthy dose of nostalgia and with a new, clever way to get gamers to stand up and move around.
Now just about any time you’re out, you can glance over someone’s shoulder — anyone between the ages of 10 to 40 with a smartphone in hand — and you’ll see they’re charting their created character along, waiting to stumble upon a Squirtle or Geodude or Pikachu. Either that or groups congregating outside a Starbucks, battling their painstakingly evolved creatures for bragging rights via gym dominancy. These sites are often geo-tagged to libraries, churches and community centers, public points of interest where no one (most of the time) will get a citation for trespassing.
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Pokemon has meant a lot of different things to people. I’m most familiar with the anime that used to come on after school. My friends and I were all too old for it, but it was the only thing on while I waited for Dragon Ball Z. Before I knew it, I was invested in Ash Ketchum’s quest to become a Pokemon master. Pokemon was mostly known to my gang as our little siblings’ pastime, with the cards and the requests for Game Boy connector cables for Christmas so they could battle their friends’ Pokemon. But the franchise — with countless games on devices, TV shows, merch and a feature-length animated film, it is all but impossible to not have heard about it at some point, regardless of where in the world you live. (And soon Pokemon will hit the big screens again; reportedly Hollywood has seen the success of Pokemon Go, and a live-action film has been greenlit and fast-tracked.)
Prepare to feel old with this fact: Pikachu, the franchise’s mascot, it’s been studied, is often a more recognizable icon to the younger demographic than Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and, in some cases, even Jesus. Throw in the fact that tossing a Poke Ball at your quarry is a slight matter of skill akin to the barroom arcade classic Golden Tee, and, well, Niantic Labs has basically issued themselves a license to print money.
But like anything that hits it big and fast, there is the matter of sustainability. Pokemon Go can capitalize on its familiar characters and fun, pick-up-and-play ease of use, but there are countless games released every year, all competing for gamers’ attention. Without a steady stream of new content, it’s entirely plausible Pokemon Go will be yesterday’s game in a matter of months — or even weeks. This year’s previous megahit IP, Overwatch, released by Blizzard, makers of World of Warcraft, was the title with the most buzz earlier this summer. But already, thanks to Pokemon Go, Overwatch’s player numbers have taken a considerable hit, even after Blizzard rolled out a new competitive mode.
It seems Niantic Labs knows its business, how to utilize the Pokemon brand effectively, and how to use Nintendo’s outside-the-box thinking to make worn franchises fresh again. There’s little doubt that, whatever they choose to do with it next, Pokemon will remain an ever-green franchise.