Central to Pokémon Go is an exciting concept: that your smartphone is the perfect real-life analog to the Pokédex. By mixing software with a device’s camera and sensors, you can bring to life a video game and blend it with the real world. All the while, your phone can catalog and store the pokémon you capture and act as a gateway into a new world layered on top of our own.
After spending a few days with the beta version of developer Niantic's new mobile game, I can safely say the title mostly makes good on this promise. What’s holding it back, however, is the technology. For those who were expecting something even remotely as fully-featured as Google’s 2014 April Fools’ joke, you will be disappointed. AR software, coupled with the limitations of current phone hardware, can’t fully map out the environment or understand objects in physical space, not yet. It sounds silly to have expected such a mind-blowing experience in the first place, but it’s important to temper your expectations.
Pokémon Go is held back by the limitations of AR technology
The viral YouTube gag showed off a Charizard hidden in a remote cave and a Mew soaring around a parachuting sky-diver. The app does not work like that. Algorithms dictate where the pokémon in Go are found, and the software isn't able to seamlessly merge the creatures with the environment around them. Instead, they float there in front of you and — if you position your smartphone camera appropriately — can appear to be sitting on your desk or hanging out on the sidewalk.
Of course, as new devices like Lenovo’s new Google Tango-ready Phab 2 hit the market, developers can start taking advantage of smartphones that can see, understand, and map environments. Tango technology uses cameras and depth-sensing units to map spaces and track objects. So we may see Pokémon Go evolve over time to include the kind of jaw-dropping effects found in the April Fools’ joke it’s based on. But for now we have to settle for a more narrow experience when the game launches some time in July for iOS and Android.
With that said, Pokémon Go is an exploration game designed to get you walking outside. Its core components involve checking in at Pokéstops to collect items, capturing the creatures that do show up on the map, and battling. Pokéstops could be anything from your favorite coffee spot to a funky building you’ve walked by but never noticed before. Visiting them just means spinning a small circular photo of the location when you’re physically nearby. Items then spill out in bubbles for you to pop with your finger to collect. There’s also a system to hatch eggs, which may contain rarer pokémon not easily found in the wild, by walking with the app open or when wearing the Pokémon Go Plus wearable on your wrist.
Fighting at gyms is Go's most fulfilling exercise
I was able to spend about five days with the beta and that made it difficult to fully grasp the battling system. But it’s clear fighting at gyms, which are located at distinct landmarks in the real world, is the game’s most fulfilling exercise. By pledging to a team — either Red, Blue, or Yellow — you can claim a gym and set up a powerful pokémon to hold down the fort.
Other players have to show up to that location and battle an AI version of your pokémon to try and lower the prestige of the reigning team low enough to take it over. Battling involves a tapping minigame-like mechanism to perform attacks and a swipe motion to dodge, so don’t expect the full turn-based RPG style of the video games. You can switch between one of two moves over the course of a battle, with one doing more damage than another and requiring a charge. You can also continue to switch out pokémon in your attempt to take down the foe. There's a way to team up with others at gyms as well, but considering the limited scope of the beta, this was not possible to test out.
With my lowly Charmander, I couldn't put a dent in any of the gyms I frequented, which only had higher-level players with strong pokémon defending them. The app said I needed 25 candies to evolve Charmander into a Charmeleon. I didn't receive anywhere near enough in my time playing, as you must catch duplicate pokémon to collect the requisite candies. (You will be able to pay real money for in-game coins, but the shop in the beta did not sell candies.) I imagine for players who invest enough time and energy into defending gyms and claiming new ones, the game should take on a new life with much more depth. For those who aren’t willing to do that, battling is a bit of a lost cause.
In that sense, Go can feel like a time sink. You realize after a few days of play that the real challenge is how much dedication you're willing to put forth. Every rinse-repeat activity is there to help you level up your character and make it easier to battle — so most of your time is spent performing the more mundane tasks when you’re out and about. Niantic designed it that way. The game’s mission is to "help people discover the awesome stuff in your town," Niantic CEO John Hanke told The Verge earlier this month. " Trying to re-create the experience of the main games and port that to mobile "would be silly," he added.
Pokémon Go Plus is a grinding machine you wear on your wrist
That’s where the Go Plus wearable comes in. The $35 gadget lets you play the game without having to keep the app open on your phone, so you can walk around, capture pokémon, collect items, and gain experience more easily. It’s a grinding machine you wear on your wrist. Because capturing new pokémon doesn’t involve having to weaken them with your own, you should be able to play Go on autopilot for the most part.
For players of Ingress, this may all sound awfully familiar. The Android app, Niantic’s first game which has one of the largest AR communities in the world, was built around a similar approach. It asks players to travel to portals and claim them for one of two factions in an underground struggle. Ingress was less a video game than it was a community-building software platform, one that urged players to explore the real world and make friends offline. That’s perhaps my biggest criticism of Pokémon Go — it’s just a Nintendo-licensed skin draped over the AR game Niantic spent years building out on its own.
Ingress' popularity may be Go's biggest strength
Ingress' niche but intense popularity also has the potential to be Pokémon Go’s biggest strength. There’s no telling how big the community can get, or how deep one can descend into the gym battling world. The strength and longevity of the app will depend entirely on how players adopt it, make it their own, and build networks around it. So for those who love the completionist aspect of Pokémon and its "gotta catch ‘em all" mantra, what we have now may be good enough for a free app. For everyone else, Pokémon Go is an AR game that starts slow — yet has a ton of promise. Let’s hope it can live up to the lofty expectations.