Pokémon Go Is Not Good Enough

I know this sounds more like clickbait than a serious story, but as Pokémon Go is practically the most popular online service now, I think some analysis is needed.

I’ll not be the one saying the game is childish bullshit, as it clearly isn’t — it attracted millions almost overnight. Not only that, but augmented reality games are by no means bullshit — the fact that people are wandering around may seem odd, and may result in jokes about the players, but that doesn’t make a game bad. In fact, walking around and exploring is a pretty good thing. I like aimlessly walking around, but doing so with a smartphone game is not so bad either.

The game mechanics of finding things while walking around and interacting (transformed) real-world objects is a very good one, if you can make it work in a broader picture, if you can build a gameplay around it.

Which, I think, Pokémon Go didn’t get right. We are still too early for that to result in loss of interest, but I think that loss of interest is inevitable. I have already done everything in the game, and continuing to play it would add nothing. I’m already bored of catching Pokémon, I’m bored of swiping pokestops, and although I have just one Pokémon in a gym, I’ve had enough fights to be bored by tapping my screen until the more powerful Pokémon wins anyway.

Technical glitches, battery drain, and little annoyances, like having to regularly empty your bag, or some Pokémon randomly escaping too many times, don’t even matter for the game mechanics to work. But it’s not the gameplay that made Pokémon Go so popular.

First, it’s easy early rewards and the fact that it’s a new type of game (for most people). And then there’s the social aspect. I suspect that gyms are so few and at the same time so central on purpose, in order to have people flocking around them, which is visible to a bystander. A person walking with his phone doesn’t mean he is playing Pokémon Go, but dozens of people on their phones in a park or a big square is a different thing. This social aspect I think drove the media attention, and therefore higher adoption.

The third factor is timing. If Pokémon Go was released 4 years ago, when smartphone adoption was not that high, teens were not addicted to their smartphones, screens were not that big and batteries were lasting less, then it would not have gained such mainstream popularity so fast.

But easy rewards + social + timing is not good enough. Pokémon Go is like a Farmville of augmented reality game. Hugely popular initially, and then quickly losing steam. Even more quickly, I suspect.

I cannot avoid the comparison to Ingress, the first popular game of this kind. It was maybe released ahead of its time, and so didn’t become as popular, but it was way better than Pokémon Go. And I’m not saying that only because of the “good old times”. It had a story and a vibe. I just fired it up today again after a few years of inactivity and it still immediately catches you with the graphics, the sound and the voice. Pokémon Go, on the other hand, is just a person going around some grassy streets. But the story and the vibe are not the key factor. Ingress is not (just) about clicking on a smartphone. It requires a bit of strategic thinking in order to properly link portals. It drives you into a mode of thinking “how do I get these portals and link them in a most efficient way”, “how do I increase my faction’s control field”. Even “how do I draw something on a map with links and control fields”.

This is the least a map-based augmented reality game should be based on. Just walking around doesn’t cut it, at least not for long. Maybe Pokémon gyms could be linked as well, maybe teams could own a given area, maybe a team-owned area would give benefits if a team member is within it.

Maybe that would make it too complex, and maybe simplicity is the winning factor so far. But that is not enough for a game based on a model with so much potential.

I hope that the (initial) success of Pokémon Go will drive more advanced and meaningful augmented reality games, where walking and tapping on a screen will be just a means to a more advanced and interesting goal.