Pokémon GO

September 1, 2016

I’ve never seen people play a game like this. I feel like everyone in the world immediately had this game and played it intensely. For the first month. And now, I notice there aren’t as many lures down. I see less people congregating. I’m personally not playing as much. Why?

Video game development and software distribution has changed a lot since the original Pokémon games in ’96–’98. Cartridges, not downloads. Remember Missingno? What about unlimited Master Balls? Or infinite Rare Candy? Level 100 Pokémon in no time. You can look at exploiting glitches as cheating, or you can look at it as changing the game.

When the original games’ glitches were found and exploited, Nintendo did not recall cartridges and redistribute patched versions. They couldn’t. Not to mention, who would volunteer?

Modern software distribution now allows engineering teams to require updates to the client software by checking with the server. Which means if they consider something crucial, everyone has to update, whether you like it or not.

When websites and services popped up to provide real-time location information on Pokémon, Niantic didn’t see it as changing the game, they saw it as a bug. And while Niantic maintains that these services equate to something like a DDoS attack (which I can certainly agree with as they functioned by scraping Niantic’s servers for data), they miss how important that functionality became to the game’s players.

Now I must admit that any of these services were not necessarily used by everyone. But through their use, I found a new way to play the game.

Pokémon GO launched as a “real-world” Pokémon game. That is an exciting premise. It’s one that I’ve heard people pitch since 2008. It’s been a long time coming and it’s what we’ve all been waiting for.

But if you strip away the software component and imagine there really are Pokémon in our world (bear with me), this game has a lot of differences to the ones you play in a virtual world on a mobile console. For example, in the real world, you can look up information on the Internet about any animal’s habitats. That information is easily accessible.

The other part about the real world is that animals don’t live as diversely as Pokémon seem to in Pokémon GO. We don’t see (Zu)bats flying around everywhere. They might only be found in certain locations (caves). While they’re classified as “common” because they can be commonly found in caves, they should not be “common” on every city block. (If you equate all birds to Pidgeys and Spearows, I can understand their level of population in Pokémon GO.)

With these two combined, it makes it seem like Pokémon should have habitats. Pokémon that can be found only in certain locations. Niantic says that different types of Pokémon can be found in their respective locations. Magikarp near the water, for instance. Fine. But why do I see Magikarp on land so frequently? Shouldn’t it only be found near the water? And just as people know where certain fish can be caught, shouldn’t we know exactly where Goldeen can be caught?

That’s why wild Pokémon maps appeared. That’s people working together to provide information. But because they scraped Niantic’s servers, that functionality is now gone.

Niantic even removed their own Nearby functionality within a month of its release. That’s not enough time to remove a primary gameplay component.

In the main Pokémon franchise games, functionality changes between releases. And releases are a year or two between. One thing I’m really enjoying in Alpha Sapphire (yep, I’m playing the 3DS game instead of Pokémon GO now) is the PokéNav. This is a crucial element of gameplay that could be adapted very well for Pokémon GO. What it does is simple: it has silhouettes of Pokémon you’ve encountered in the area, but haven’t caught. Very similar to Pokémon GO, with one important difference: there’s a badge in the corner that lets you know if you’ve caught all the Pokémon that can be reliably found in the area.

Which brings me to the fundamental flaw in Pokémon GO: while some creatures can be found reliably in certain areas, others cannot be found reliably at all. And that’s just not how Pokémon has ever worked. That’s what makes catching ’em all—this time—insanely frustrating. You don’t want to catch hundreds of Pidgeys. You want to catch the Kangaskhan you know exists but can’t find. (It’s region-locked to Australia and New Zealand, sorry.)