This is Pokémon Go, the ambitious AR game bringing pocket monsters to life

A first look at Niantic's newest mobile app

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The seeds of Pokémon Go were first planted with an April Fools’ joke. It was 2014, and Google’s Niantic Inc., the studio behind augmented reality Android game Ingress, got a glimpse at what a Pokémon game may look like if AR technology was many years more advanced than it is today. The hoax video, which was bundled with a Google Maps mini-game, showed a slew of explorers finding Pokémon hidden in nature, using software that could map a virtual creature to the physical surroundings. The clip quickly racked up millions of views on YouTube. Even though people were quite aware the video was fake, they wanted it badly to be real.

Two years later, that wish is coming true in the form of a mobile game called Pokémon Go. And Niantic, now a standalone company, is responsible for making it happen. We got an inside look at the title last week at the company’s offices in San Francisco, and it’s clear Go is one of the most ambitious AR games to date. In true AR fashion, Go overlays text, graphics, and, yes, your friendly neighborhood Charmander by scanning a scene and understanding where to place the objects.

Perhaps more importantly, Go is the first full-blown mobile-first Pokémon game, with the blessing of both Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. For a series that has long resisted the urge to migrate beyond Nintendo-made hardware, this release marks a pivotal moment for the franchise’s gatekeepers and its diehard fans. Not only that, but Pokémon Go may just thrust AR, a relatively obscure technology, into the mainstream, thanks to one of the most beloved brands of the last two decades.

Pokémon Go comes out later this year as a free-to-play title for iOS and Android. You’ll be able to fire it up, see your character on a map, and wander a city looking for and capturing the titular creatures in their natural habitats. Niantic says around 100 Pokémon will be available at launch, many from the series’ original 1996 releases, with more to come over time.

'Go' will include 100 Pokémon to start, many from the original Red and Blue versions

In a way, Pokémon Go is a completely rethought version of Ingress, which launched as one of the first publicly available AR games in 2013. Similar to Ingress’ global conflict, which had players pledging to a side to capture "portals" around the world, Pokémon Go will let you join one of three teams: Red, Blue, or Yellow. From there, you can travel to notable landmarks and take over gyms, which is Pokémon parlance for a kind of group HQ. To take a gym back from an opposing side, you’ll have to travel to that location and do battle against the opponent’s Pokémon.

"We know that dynamic from the Ingress experience works really well, drives a real-world social dynamic," says Niantic CEO John Hanke. "It’s something you can do, like seeing a movie, going to a baseball game, going to the park. It’s something you can do with your friends, and go outside." Because Niantic is working closely with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, it has all the help it needs in making something that feels less like Ingress and more true to the Pokémon universe.

Although Niantic won’t disclose a concrete release date just yet, Pokémon Go is in active beta in the US, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The company wants to have a global launch, and not be forced to release it in select regions on a rolling basis. That requires carefully improving the algorithms used to determine which Pokémon show up where. Niantic leans heavily on global mapping data, morphology, and other ecological traits to categorize environments. Combined with every scrap of data the Pokémon universe has to offer, its software can intelligently place Pokémon in locations that fit their descriptions.

In a demo of Go’s beta version last week, Niantic employees took me to the San Francisco bayfront to hunt for water-type Pokémon. We found a Tentacool near the ferry building, and captured it using a Great Ball, the series’ more powerful version of a Pokéball. You don’t have to weaken the wild Pokémon by battling it with one of your own. Instead, you simply tap on the screen to claim it. Niantic wants capturing to be an easy and quick process, so you can keep moving around the real world and exploring. "We’re not trying to re-create the experience of the game. Those are great experiences," Hanke says. "It would be silly for us to try and port that to mobile."

From there, we traveled to Cupid’s Span, a large bow-and-arrow sculpture that towers over the bayfront. It’s these types of landmarks Niantic hopes Pokémon Go can highlight for visitors and longtime residents. "The key points in Pokémon Go are built around historical places, museums, a fountain in your park," Hanke says. The game’s mission is to "help people discover the awesome stuff in your town."

At Cupid’s Span, a gym controlled by the yellow squad was using a strong Grimer to hold down the fort. My Niantic guides attempted to take the opponent out by joining forces on two separate smartphones, but ultimately failed. Battling is less your typical turn-based play and more a kind of timing mini-game based on your character’s level and the strength of your Pokémon. Again, Niantic is choosing to prioritize real-world discovery over replicating any of the depth of the video games.

That said, Pokémon Go is designed to support various levels of investment. If you’d like to fire up the app every now and again and see what’s going on in your area, you can certainly get a rich experience, Hanke says. "You as a new player, you download it, play, start capturing Pokémon," he says. "You’re not dissuaded by the more experienced players."

If you’re a little more serious, you can delve deep. "You can have leagues of experienced trainers battling at gyms and doing advanced things in the game," Hanke adds. You can even plan your vacations around Pokémon Go. A Niantic employee suggested to me that Kangaskhan, a Pokémon modeled after the kangaroo, may only be available in Australia, so you’d have to travel there to catch one.

To complement the mobile app, Nintendo is developing a wrist-worn wearable, called Pokémon Go Plus, that can act as a stand-in for the software when you want to keep your phone in your pocket. The goal is to keep people’s heads up at all times, so they don’t wander into traffic or bump into a telephone pole when looking for a nearby Oddish. The Pokéball-modeled device will pair with your phone via Bluetooth and use vibrations and a LED light to notify of completed tasks, like collecting items or capturing Pokémon.

It’s a bit of a compromise on Niantic and Nintendo’s part. In an ideal world, Pokémon Go could built into a Google Glass-style device we could wear over our eyes, but we’re not quite ready for that yet. Players will need to rely on the wearable and the mobile app "until we have awesome sunglasses giving us an augmented reality experience," Hanke says. "I think we’ll get there, but it will be a few years."


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