Pokémon is officially out-Digimon-ining Digimon.
New details released this week about the upcoming mobile title, Pokémon Go!, put the game on track to meet all of fans’ expectations for this highly expected mobile toy and I really, really hope Bandai Namco are kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.
For those of you who don’t know, Pokémon Go! is an AR (augmented reality) game where the player can find Pokémon lurking in the real world via their mobile device and capture them. The Pokémon Company and their partners, Niantec, have given us some more tantalizing tidbits about how this is going to work this week. As expected, Pokémon will be tied to areas of the world that fit their type – the element that each Pokémon is linked to. The specific example that the game’s devs gave is that water Pokémon like the infamous Magikarp will only be found near bodies of water. Presumably this means that I can hope to find some ice types in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Neat.
Other details revealed included Pokéstops – places tied to real-world locations where you can pick up Pokéballs and other supplies, as well as eggs which, just like the game, will be hatched by walking a certain distance (only you’ll be wearing out your legs instead of your finger holding the D-pad) – and even Pokémon Gyms, which will be tied to the game’s PvP content. As you play, you’ll be encouraged (it is unclear at this point if this aspect of the game is required or not) to join one of three teams to set up defenses at certain points throughout the world. You can only put one Pokémon at any given point, so you’ll have to work with your teammates to defend these gyms from incursion. You can even evolve your Pokémon (of course), though it seems to be tied to capturing multiple versions of a certain Pokémon rather than leveling or some other extraneous conditions, which is a bit disappointing and leaves one to wonder what sort of training/advancement mechanics, if any, there will be in the game.
So far, Pokémon Go! sounds like everything fans (including myself) could have expected from the title. I’m still prepared to be disappointed but I, for one, look forward to wandering around the real world looking for my favorite Pokémon while shedding a few unneeded pounds. But more importantly, I’m excited to see what Pokémon Go! inspires other developers to do with AR and the mobile platform in general.
For some of you, the mechanics listed above sound awfully familiar. Likely as not, that means you’ve played Niantec’s other title, Ingress. Ingress operates under almost identical mechanics (and it’s likely most of them were ripped wholesale from that game). You pick a side in a fictional conflict – either the Enlightened or the Resistance (Enlightened for life!) – and locate “portals” at real-world sites of interest. You defend these portals while siphoning “XM,” an extra-dimensional energy source, from them. It’s an interesting enough concept, and not only can it get you off your butt to get some much-needed exercise, but it can also point you to some neat landmarks in your own hometown that you might never had seen otherwise.
But I think Pokémon Go! aims to expand the game in all the right ways.
For one, there wasn’t much “game” to Ingress. While you could certainly get swept up in the “us versus them” mentality of the game, there wasn’t much more to it than simply watching an arbitrary number rise in comparison to another arbitrary number. And if you’re a fellow Enlightened like me, you know that there’s not even much joy to this because the Resistance is almost always a million miles ahead. This is the curse of an always-on competitive game. Balancing the sides can be brutal, and when one side is always losing, it’s a cyclical descent as more people quit and new players flock to the winning side.
While I’m not convinced that Niantec will have learned their lesson (or even if there is a lesson to learn), Pokémon Go! seems to be going the right direction by putting content that single players can enjoy without necessarily being hooked up to the competitive side of things. Sure, the game will have sides. Sure, you’ll have points to defend and battles to fight. But a lot of us will just be content by simply tracking down our favorite Pokés and filling in our Pokédex (at least, I assume we’ll have a Pokédex. What Pokémon game doesn’t have a Pokédex?).
In essence, this makes the multiplayer, competitive aspect of the game, which can seem arbitrary and pointless to some, unnecessary, optional, or even a nice addition to the single-player side of the game. And I think it’s this single-player aspect of the game that will make or break Pokémon Go! If the game is enjoyable for the lone individual playing the game by themselves with no regard for the competitive aspect, then it will be a success.
More importantly, however, the fact that Pokémon, the fad to end all fads, is jumping on the AR ship and, hopefully, doing it right, will almost certainly show us what augmented reality – and at the end of the day the mobile platform in general – can do. In the past, AR was restricted solely to silly little time-wasters (which I suppose could describe the bulk of the mobile gaming market in general) where you shot poorly-animated foes overlayed on the camera view. But with the success of Ingress and other games of its ilk, the gaming world is really starting to see what this unique medium can do, and I really think that this is the renaissance that mobile gaming needs to really carve out its niche in the industry. Because this is the sort of thing mobile games can do that nothing else can emulate, and that’s the sort of epiphany that really propels a medium forward.
Of course, we’ll always have the silly time-wasters and sleazy money-grabs (I am currently, shamelessly sinking far too much time and money into Avengers Academy), but hopefully, once we see what can really be accomplished on a cellphone, developers – real developers – will start to see that there is value, something to be respected, to this underused and often-abused gaming platform.