A Lesson in Augmented Reality: Pokémon GO
I remember the days of waking up around 7am to catch episodes of the Pokémon anime with my siblings before heading to school. I also played my share of Pokémon Blue when it was my turn to have the Game Boy. When the Pokémon Super Bowl ad aired earlier this year, my brother, sister, and I speculated whether Pokémon GO would finally be released for their 20th anniversary in February. Sadly, it wasn’t. We had to wait until May before Niantic offered signups for beta testing. As someone prone to nostalgia, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. But again, sadly, I was disappointed. I wasn’t chosen to play the beta version of the game, but I did get to hear about it from my sister.
When Pokémon GO was finally released in the United States in July, I didn’t have to be jealous of my sister anymore! On the day it came out, I downloaded the app, slathered on the sunscreen, filled up my water bottle, and set out for my first Pokémon hunting expedition. Within five minutes of heading out the door, the servers went down. I stood by the app through the server issues because I really wanted to play my first augmented reality game. I loved the idea of the game being connected to my real-world location, and being transported to another version of reality where you can search for and encounter little adorable pocket monsters.
What I loved about Pokémon GO
Once the servers were finally stabilized, I would regularly go out and take walks to catch Pokémon and hatch eggs. I found the game to be a great way to discover new things in the places around me. I started out with short, spontaneous walks near my house, then taking longer ones down to the nearby lake and also to totally unfamiliar parts of my neighborhood. Soon, I moved on to finding new parts of town I could explore on foot. While playing Pokémon GO on a road trip throughout Colorado, I realized that I was far more inclined to walk around each new town that I stopped in. It was exciting to check out the various Pokéstops and gyms within the unfamiliar towns. With Pokéstops and gyms as real places, I learned about different interesting structures and landmarks in every new place — my favorite stops are the ones that feature local street art. I loved that the game was able to connect me to locations and things I probably would have never noticed before.
Another reason I really enjoyed playing Pokémon GO is the inherent social aspect. Even though there are no social features built into the game, such as a chat function or a map that shows fellow players, it has succeeded in bringing people together. Players can talk directly to each other outside of the actual game, while hanging out in the same spot. The augmented reality component of the game draws players to the same locations, and every player has the opportunity to encounter the same Pokémon. When a Dragonite appeared on my sightings list while walking around downtown, I wandered around sort of hoping I’d come across it. A teenager spotted me and asked me if I was playing also playing Pokémon GO. He called me over to where the Pokémon had spawned. We chatted about our progress in the game and he lamented about the fact that he only had regular Poké Balls to catch this Dragonite. We both caught the guy, and for that brief moment, we both had a shared sense of excitement and accomplishment. It was awesome to be able to connect with a stranger over a cooperative experience, even just for a couple of minutes.
The game has also been a fun way to connect with my brother and sister. While the three of us don’t have a lot in common and we all lead very different lives, we all play Pokémon GO. Since the game is location-based, it features different types of Pokémon depending on population density and even natural geographical characteristics of your location. With my brother in Minnesota, sister in California, and me in Colorado, we are spread across the country, and we have varied experiences with the game. We often send each other screenshots of our silly Pokémon encounters in AR, new catches, current stats, and locations within the game. It’s nice to have a lighthearted and amusing shared experience with my siblings that we can bond over.
What I’d love to see with Pokémon GO
In the past month, my interest in Pokémon GO has kind of waned. I still play every once in awhile, but far more passively. I’ll turn on the game when I’m walking to the bus or riding my bike to hatch my eggs and collect candies with my buddy. The Pokémon GO Plus was recently released and pre-orders have already sold out. The Bluetooth device disconnects you from having to look at your phone screen, making it easier to collect items from Pokéstops or catch Pokémon with a touch of a button, and it tracks your walking distance. Honestly, I wonder what the product is actually good for, besides reminding me of the grinding aspect of the game. Although my decreased gameplay is mostly due to lack of time, I feel that Niantic hasn’t held my interest because it isn’t taking full advantage of what augmented reality can bring to the game. Instead of releasing useless $35 accessories (feel free to prove me wrong), there are some other things I think they can do right now to improve the game and make it more immersive.
Bring back a tracking system, please. If you played the game in the very beginning, you probably remember the three step tracking system. As you got closer to tracking down a nearby Pokémon, the number of footprints in the tracker would decrease to indicate whether you were headed in the right direction. There was a three step bug for a while, where players had to deal with a tracker that was perpetually stuck on three steps. Niantic’s solution was to get rid of tracking altogether, so if you want to find a particular nearby Pokémon, you have to wander around until you’re lucky enough to find it. AR allows you to make a connection with your current location, so I think that tracking is essential to a good AR gaming experience. Without a tracking system, it almost doesn’t matter where you are, and you aren’t encouraged to walk around and learn about your surroundings. The virtual part of the game is not integrated into reality enough, so the game loses its immersive quality.
Currently, you can only interact with the Pokémon in AR if you encounter it in the wild and are in the process of trying to capture it. But how cool would it be to be able to take your Pokémon out to play in AR? If you could choose a Pokémon from your collection to bring out into reality and place it where you want, it would create a more compelling augmented reality. It would be fun take photos of your selected Pokémon with the current surroundings. And yes, I’m prepared for all of the inappropriate Diglett photos. Being able to interact with your virtual Pokémon in the real world blurs the lines between virtual and reality. It could also be integrated into a more exciting player vs player battling experience, as the current gym battling system is seriously lacking. An enhanced AR feature would allow you to feel more a part of a world where these creatures exist.
Pokémon GO and the future of AR gaming
Remember Google’s April Fool’s joke from 2014? Google created a mini-game within their Google Maps mobile app where you could catch Pokémon that were placed on the map across the world. They even turned the Googleplex into a Pokémon Center. The accompanying video trailer depicted augmented reality gameplay, which is very similar to the Pokémon GO teaser trailer. Both of these videos show you a version of the world where Pokémon actually exist. I think it would be amazing to discover wild Pokémon on the streets or in nature. Your ball of choice would materialize in your hands and you would catch the Pokémon with an arm gesture.
Within the world of gaming, I find augmented reality to be far more interesting than virtual reality. While VR offers totally immersive gameplay, I think that it is too confined. My favorite games have always been action role-playing games that allow you to run around and explore a world. Because AR allows for mobility, you can physically go out and explore while gaming. The interaction between reality and virtual objects enhances your experiences as a person, rather than completely reconstructing them as in VR. If computer-generated elements could be seamlessly combined with reality, it would make gameplay far more convincing. Unfortunately, we’re still limited to our phone screens at the moment. Pokémon GO is just one of the first iterations of AR gaming, so I’m definitely excited to see where technology takes it into the future.