Pokémon Go

Take a quick look at the landscape of the Internet since last week and it’s quite apparent that Pokémon Go has taken over the planet. Nintendo’s market cap jumped $9 billion since last Wednesday, at least five of the top Techmeme stories right now are about Pokémon, and my mother-in-law (!) knows where to find all the Pokéstops and gyms around town. Seriously.

The phenomenon is really impressive, but I really don’t understand it. If I were reviewing Pokémon Go in a bubble and hadn’t seen the Internet’s reaction to the game, I’d have written that Niantic/The Pokémon Company should probably scrap the whole game and start over. But people really love Pokémon Go…

It may be an extreme case of FoMO, but I haven’t deleted Pokémon Go and don’t plan on it. My wife is playing, her mom is playing, and the kids working at the ice cream shop on Sunday night were playing and even wanted to compare which Pokémon everyone has caught so far when they heard the game music on our iPhones.

Parts of it are really fun too. The social connection is very real. I live in a town with a population under 20,000 people but Pokémon Go already seems to be taking off. After ice cream, my family drove around on a Sunday night for an extra 30 minutes to check out Pokéstops and look for new Pokémon. The adventure aspect is really neat, especially if you’re looking to discover interesting locations out-of-town.

My favorite part of Pokémon Go so far has been receiving some truly laugh out loud funny messages from my mother-in-law as she plays the game (on her own!). From Saturday night and Sunday afternoon:

But in general, I really don’t get Pokémon Go or why it’s exploding like it is. (Full disclosure: I don’t really get Snapchat either although I’m a millennial (hate that word) by definition.)

Starting with the log in screen, the Pokémon Go app on iOS is pretty clunky. The birthday picker isn’t very polished and creating an account through Nintendo is hit-or-miss but mostly miss. That will change when servers can keep up with the rise in traffic levels, but other parts of the log in experience are rocky too.

Choose to log in with Google and there’s no back button. Force quit the app to return and log in with Nintendo. And if you use a password manager like 1Password, you can’t copy and paste your secure password into the Nintendo login screen.

Pokémon Go

Not to mention the whole Niantic requiring full access to your Google account (something used by Chrome as well but not most apps including Ingress which Pokémon Go is based on).

The actual gameplay is very different too. The AR-experience is neat and oddly addictive. You have to get out and move to find Pokémon, acquire items, hatch eggs, and battle at gyms. Pokémon Go is fun in that way but it’s definitely not Pokémon as you’d expect coming from a handheld Nintendo console.

Pokémon MissingnoI bought a Nintendo DS when Pokémon Black and White were released in 2010 and the game was exactly what you’d expect if you played Pokémon Red and Blue in the 90s. Clearly that’s not a bad thing judging by the response so far, but I’d still love a true Pokémon experience on iOS.

Speaking of iOS, Pokémon Go really isn’t optimized for the platform. It has to work the same on both Android and iOS, and its developers aren’t targeting iOS features that could greatly improve the game yet. The future could hold *big changes*, but Pokémon Go as it stands now is just kind of rocky.

The app is a huge hit on battery life as gameplay requires the app to be opened with your screen on (Low Power Mode may be more useful than the app’s battery saver mode). Ideally, Pokémon Go would access the iPhone M8 or M9 motion co-processor and detect your steps and activity when the app isn’t active, but for now it doesn’t request access to fitness activity.

I’d also expect some sort of notification system to promote gameplay when the app is closed. Hatch is a Tamagotchi-style app for iOS that uses this model (although the app hasn’t changed in a while). Pokémon Go could use location services in the background, then alert you when you’re near a Pokéstop or gym or rare Pokémon.

My guess is this would all be available if Pokémon Go was an iPhone-only app, but Niantic is developing for both Android and iOS simultaneously at launch so neither app is especially optimized for its respective platform.

Given the current shape of the iOS app, asking for a watchOS companion app for the Apple Watch is a real moonshot but such an addition could also really enhance the experience. Manage your favorited Pokémon, interact with nearby locations, or just get credit for Apple Watch workouts.

Pokémon Go’s social features are all by chance, so far, not by design, which is especially surprising for traditional Pokémon fans. People are meeting up at the same locations to catch Pokémon and takeover gyms, but you can’t battle nearby players or trade Pokémon with friends. (I consulted with a real life Pocket Monsters Go expert to verify this; apparently trading is in the works too.)

Pokémon Go

So that’s my confusion with Pokémon Go. The app isn’t top notch, the gameplay is unexpected, the opportunity for improvement is endless, and I still don’t want to stop playing … for now. I wouldn’t have predicted Pokémon Go would explode in the way it has, but I also don’t see it’s popularity maintaining beyond the summer and maybe part of the fall.

I think it boils down to Pokémon Go being an experience greatly enhanced by the social connections in real life for now, but when that settles down the gameplay may not be as satisfying as a traditional Pokémon title on a handheld Nintendo console or a real Pokémon app for iOS. Some of its success right now could be because of hype generated from availability too: it’s currently only live in a handful of countries.

Either way, it seems clear now that The Pokémon Company should be hard at work on a true and traditional Pokémon game for smartphones and tablets that costs real money to buy up front (although the more likely scenario is free with in-app purchases in reality). The promo video first posted last September definitely looks promising:

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About the Author

Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created SpaceExplored.com.