Post-Hype Train Pokémon Go Analysis

I’ve been average almost one Pokémon Go article per month at this point, but now that the craze has died down it’s time and it’s time for a post-hype analysis of what’s nonetheless been a fascinating phenomenon to watch. I could take the easy route and indulge in some schadenfreude about how Pokémon Go turned out to not be the biggest thing in the history of ever for small businesses and point out that most marketers have gotten bored and moved on, but let’s be more constructive.

At first I was pretty enamored with Pokémon Go. A lot of games today try to emphasize social functions, but many of them either stagnate due to a community that’s too small to have any real appeal like Battleborn or they don’t really encourage in-person connections. I still remember the first Pokémon I caught, the first gym I captured, the first evolution, and the first time I ran into someone else who was playing the game. Pokémon Go is a game of firsts; unfortunately that’s where a lot of the wonder ends.

After about a month and a half the buzz started wearing off and the cracks started showing. The big problem is that when you really think about it, as a game Pokémon Go is kind of crap.

Even with the recent updates it’s still a threadbare app that barely qualifies as a game with no real goal other than to catch all 150 Pokémon, which you can only do by partaking in the same endless cycle of walking while staring at your app in hopes of something you don’t have spawning. Unlike the mainstream Pokémon games where there’s a fairly linear direction and a clear sense of what Pokémon are likely to be found where, this is a game that relies on shared knowledge, although it’s fairly self defeating since Pokémon – including rare ones – despawn after about 15 minutes.

I understand the motivation of populating different areas with different types of Pokémon but the algorithm that controls Pokémon spawns needs tweaking. I have six Vaporeons, two Flareons and a Jolteon, all acquired from evolving the obscene number of Eevees that spawn where I live. My area has a fairly distinct town center with four gyms and it’s not uncommon to see three or four Vaporeons and Flareons per gym. A friend of mine who lives down in Texas has yet to see a single Eevee but Doduos spawn as frequently as Pidgeys.

The sense of competition between teams starts wearing thin around the same time you realize that there’s no reason to take or hold gyms. As it stands the in-game “battle system” is hot garbage; you either tap as fast as you can to do standard attacks or press the screen to initiate a special attack while the opposing Pokémon wales on you. The dodge system is so janky and fails to register so often it’s not even worth it. Between that and the limited moveset gym battles are little more than wars of attrition that hinge on the gym not bugging out or damage failing to register, which still happens frequently enough that Pokémon can often get several hits in after  you’ve drained their health meters. This, of course, hinges on the app itself just not crashing for the umpteenth time; even months after the launch the game is incorrigibly buggy.

Speaking of attrition, even if you have a team of Pokémon stationed at level 6 or 7 gym with CP up in the 2000s range a single player with a strong enough team of Pokémon and enough potions to burn can easily whittle away at your gym’s prestige until it trades hands. There’s no way for people in control of the gym to defend themselves, and I was in more than one situation where those shitcakes players from Mystic and Instinct would just trade a gym back and forth with me because until one of us got bored and moved on.

The in-game currency rewards you get even for claiming four or five gyms are a pittance and even the Stardust is pretty negligible compared to just walking around and catching Pidgeys and Rattatas for 20 minutes and then evolving a small batch of them. This is likely intended to encourage people to buy coins directly in the online shop but it takes away the one tangible reward for capturing a gym other than E-penis bragging rights.

It says something that despite all that having been said, I appreciate Pokémon Go as an experience more than a game. During pretty much all of July and August – though the craze seems to have tapered off where I live – I saw huge groups of people walking around, standing near PokéStops and gyms, with their phones out. I’d get a smile and nod of acknowledgement when I realized we were both playing the game and it often resulted in conversations. I’ve chatted with groups of middle schoolers, parents with their kids, people my age, business employees on breaks, and people who had just stopped to do some hunting.

There have been some truly amazing stories about how Pokémon Go has helped people with social issues or shyness get out of the house and interact with people. One mother shared a story about how it helped her autistic son make eye contact with people and even make friends. Look at this entire page of stories on TVTropes; Pokémon Go players resuscitating someone who overdosed. Of people dropping lures at childrens’ hospitals for kids who want to play. Pokémon Go – despite probably being the worst Pokémon game I’ve ever played – channels the spirit of Pokémon and has brought people together in incredible ways.

I nonetheless have concerns about the long-term viability of Pokémon Go despite my defending it as being far more than a fad in a previous article. My issue is the game’s maker Niantic more than Pokémon Go itself, largely because of how Niantic has launched and subsequently handled the game.

As it should be abundantly clear by now, Pokémon Go was launched far, far too early. It’s essentially one of those early access games you see on Steam that’s launched in a severely incomplete state for better or worse. Launching incomplete isn’t necessarily a bad thing; games like The Long Dark and Rimworld have cultivated adoring fan bases – myself included – by launching on early access.

Here’s the difference: Even when in early access, The Long Dark and Rimworld have both felt like substantial games on their own. Rimworld has remarkable depth and I’ve clocked 93 hours in the survival mode of The Long DarkThe Long Dark main story mode isn’t even out yet and it still felt like a fully finished experience

Pokémon Go, by comparison, is lacking basic Pokémon features like actual moves for Pokémon, a more dynamic leveling system, and trading Pokémon themselves. Niantic has only recently said they’re “looking into” battles between players, which is sort of like saying you’re “looking into” adding Jedi and Sith to a Star Wars movie.

We live in an unprecedented era where more games are being developed and released on PCs, consoles and smartphones alike, and it becomes that much more of a challenge to hold your audience’s attention. The instant they get bored they’ll likely be tempted by any number of Steam sales, or free iOS games or whatever their friends are recommending at the time. Pokémon Go may have an easier time retaining its audience due to the popularity of the app and the attachment people have to Pokémon but I can’t help but feel like releasing this a year later would have done a lot to encourage retention.

People started sounding the alarm bells when the inevitable drop off came, and Pokémon Go lost more than 12 million active users since its peak of just above 45 million in mid-July, as reported towards the end of August. By the middle of September the paying player total had dropped 79%, but the game has remained the single most profitable mobile title in the world – responsible for generating nearly 25% of total mobile game spending as of September 3, 2016. So it says something that even though the app could have done more, it’s still extremely lucrative regardless.

If Pokémon Go does peter out, it will be the result of Niantic’s handling of it more than the app itself, which I still think has a tremendous amount of potential. What I’d like to see – and what could potentially get me back into the game – is a bigger game plan. When it comes to new features all we’ve heard is wishy washy “suggestions” that we’ll see new Pokémon generations, or more elaborate features.

I’d like to see a huge, five to ten year plan ala the Marvel Cinematic Universe because if any franchise has both the long-term appeal and built-in audience to do this it’s Pokémon. Different phases over five years could introduce subsequent generations of Pokémon, which would go a long way to keeping the game fresh in a manner similar to Hearthstone. I’d like to see news and updates of Pokemon “migrations” that introduce Pokemon to areas where they’re severely lacking. I’d like the actual process of training and evolving Pokemon to be less about just walking around and more interaction with the game itself; seriously, why can’t we fight Pokemon in the wilderness at all?

For that matter, why the hell does the app need to be open in order to hatch eggs or fill the Buddy system meter when Incense and Lures will run out on their own? God forbid I have to close the app to answer the phone and by the time I’ve hung up the Incense has run out. It’s almost as if casual mobile games are designed to be picked up and played on the fly without penalizing you for pausing them.

I think my biggest gripe is the lack of a sense of camaraderie you ultimately have with your Pokémon because of how interchangeable they all are. In the main series of games you certainly have the capacity of catching hundreds of Pidgeys, but it’s disincentivized because your focus is on training and evolving the one Pidgey you caught early on. It becomes a core part of your team and may remain with you up to the very final battles. In main Pokémon games they aren’t just Pidgeots or Vaporeons – they’re your Pidgeot and Vaporeon. I’d like to see the ability to build more meaningful connections with your Pokémon rather than have them just be treated as factories to produce candy from.

As it stands the app is still basically a clumsy Pokedex (look it up). The next year will determine whether or not it becomes something more, even though the initial craze has died down. Though even if the app were to be shut down tomorrow, I think we’ll be experiencing its impact and legacy for a long time. For such a mechanically lackluster game, Niantic deserves credit for that.