Full Thoughts on Pokemon Go from my interview on The Verge
Andrew Webster over at The Verge interviewed Rami Ismail, Asher Vollmer, and I about Pokemon Go. It's a great piece and the thoughts from Asher and Rami are very good. You should read the piece.
Pokemon Go has been as divisive as it has been phenomenal, so I wanted to post up the full-text from the interview now that parts are up online.
--- Do you think it's a good game / does it do what it sets out to do successfully?
I think Pokemon Go is a great game.
To really understand why it's important to recognize that some games are made great by their mechanics, and some are made great by their communities. Since games really only exist when they are being played, it's very difficult (or maybe impossible) to meaningfully separate a community from a game itself. I think a lot about something my friend and fellow designer Doug Wilson (JS Joust, B.U.T.T.O.N.) told me once about how he designs games: Unlike most developers I know, Doug makes games not by designing intricate and mentally exciting systems, but by looking for interactions that are just physically or emotionally fun to do. I think recognizing this emotional/physical aspect to games is key to understanding much of what Pokemon Go has done brilliantly.
I've seen twitter folks and reviewers complaining about the experience being good but the game itself being bad, but i'm not sure it's entirely fair to pick it apart like that. "What the game is mechanically" or at least what it appears to be mechanically is a huge part of what's drawing so many people to play it, and the biggest, most magical part of playing Pokemon Go right now is that it's the first real-world sized, real world game. By which I mean, the game not only takes place in the real world, but it has enough players to fill it up.
--- Does it even matter if it's "good"?
I think what people are claiming as "bad" is actually a creeping component of modern viral game design — opaque UI. Theres no indication yet as to if the extremely awkward UI of Pokemon Go was intentional or not, but either way I think the aggressive obfuscation (and lacking tutorialization) of the deeper game mechanics is doing a lot to bring players in. Not only is it hiding the more complicated parts of the game from new players, but it enables a lot of discovery sharing amongst friends, kids and parents, websites and readers, etc. Beyond the confusing gym-battle UI you can see this practice stretches into many clearly intentional design decisions in the game: Battle-use items only show up around level 8, Great Balls at level 12, and the pokedex keeps expanding as you find higher and higher numbered Pokemon. These early-level omissions both simplify the game and add to the excitement of players discovering them. How many pokemon are even in this game? I have no idea, but I sure want to find out!
--- What do you think are the most important design aspects that led to it blowing up like this? (i.e. things other than it being Pokemon)
Obviously Pokemon being a gigantic brand is the single biggest thing contributing to the massive player explosion, but no brand is powerful enough to do something like this on it's own — it had to be paired with the perfect game.
Pokemon Go does a lot of things very right, and some of the easiest to spot pop up pretty quickly when you compare it to older team-based AR games like ConQwest or Niantic's own Ingress. Unlike those prior AR games, Pokemon Go is not initially (or necessarily ever) a competitive game. Additionally, like many of the most successful mobile games, you can grasp the entire initial ruleset from watching someone else play the game.
It seems obvious to say, but I believe one of the most substantial features of Pokemon Go is that just walking around catching Pokemon is fun, even if you do absolutely nothing else. And while it seems simple, there are a lot of clever mechanics supporting this small action. The hilariously jankey but stressful ball tossing minigame is just hard enough to make you feel proud when you catch a pokemon, but still incredibly accessible. The vaguely detective-like tracking interface gives you a good reason to rush outside if theres a new pokemon silhouette, while still making them just hard enough to find to encourage strangers on the street to offer unsolicited advice to other players. Even the AR component is used appropriately sparingly to drive home the collecting game. While the technology is still rough, it works just well enough to cement our belief that pokemon are actually in places, and drives the language that players use to communicate with eachother ("Theres a squirtle on that corner!"). AR gives the more visible and obvious side-bennefit of social image sharing, but I think its most successful function in Pokemon Go is it's capacity to feed our imaginations. Despite being an AR game, Pokemon Go is still largely played in our imaginations, just like any other game, and being able to see a Pikachu on a street-corner just for a second fuels our fantasy worlds immensely.
--- As a designer what are the most interesting aspects of the game / phenomenon to you? LIke what are things you would like to pull from it for your own?
One of the most exciting things about the success of Pokemon Go is that it gives us a blueprint for what people want out of augmented reality. As far as I can tell, the biggest thing we want from it is social camaraderie — which, feels like it should be obvious, but clearly was not when you look at just how few prior AR games have been non-competitive. Less excitingly but just as obviously, AR game players want to see and interact with other players around them. While news outlets joke that Pokemon Go is a great excuse to go out into the real world and then ignore it, I'd argue that while Pokemon Go players are potentially less connected to the physical outdoors than non-players, they're more connected to the social fabric of society outside. I've interacted with more strangers in NYC in a few days of playing Pokemon than in the last decade I lived there. In aggressively fractured world of headphones and podcasts and socially-filtered news, it's really exciting to see a piece of tech that makes the social space feel vast and whole again.
Of course, there are developers and thinkers out there who are sad to see AR require such high-levels engagement to take off, lamenting that this kind of feat is only viable to global brands, and while that may be true, I think this kind of game coming out only makes it more accessible to indies. I'm certainly not saying that it is accessible to indies, but that this can only help. Not only does it introduce huge swaths of people to AR games, but it also shows us what we're up against if we want to make something like this, and the first thing that makes solving an impossible problem easier knowing exactly what the problem is.