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A week with Pokémon Go shows potential and problems

Two hopeful Pokémon masters talk the mobile game’s hits and misses

Pokémon Go is the franchise’s first dedicated foray into mobile gaming. It’s an unsurprising move for the series — Pokémon has always been a handheld series, meant to make monster-collecting easy on the go. But The Pokémon Company has teamed up with Niantic Labs, developer of the location-based augmented reality game Ingress, to create a unique type of experience for iOS and Android.

Polygon video producer Nick Robinson and I are diehard Pokémon fans who have had the chance to check out Pokémon Go’s current beta, which just wrapped up after launching earlier this month. Ahead of its worldwide release in July, we came together to talk about what we thought of the game — and whether it’s brought us any closer to being actual, real-life Pokémon masters.

Allegra: I’ve been playing Pokémon Go every morning for the past week, Nick, and I’m going to be honest: I don’t think I like it. Tell me if I’m being too harsh on this game, but when I’m pitched "Pokémon in the real world," I have a certain expectation that I’m going to be playing a classic Pokémon game, with the added bonus of seeing Pikachu and Charmander within my actual surroundings.

That’s sort of what the game is, in some sense. It uses your phone’s camera and GPS to suck you into a simulation of a Pokémon battle at random. I’d be walking down the street to the train station when, suddenly, my phone would vibrate and show me a Zubat in the middle of Manhattan. That’s cool, I guess ... except for the fact that fighting and catching that Zubat played out nothing like it would in an actual Pokémon game. I just swiped a Poké Ball across the screen ad nauseam and hoped for the best. There’s no strategy to that, and, to me, there’s no fun.

Was I missing something completely with the battling, or did I set my expectations way too high?

Nick: I think I like it more than you do, but yeah, this is a tough one. On the one hand, I get what they were going for — in a sense, I think they have to scale back the combat and Pokémon-catching experience, because having a full-scale, 6-minute-long, turn-based Pokémon battle while walking down a busy sidewalk just isn’t realistic for the average person. Similarly, I think this game isn’t necessarily setting out to woo the hardcore Pokémon fan — I get the sense that they wanted to make something targeted more at casual Pokémon lovers who have a lot tied up in the nostalgia of the original games, cards, and TV show, and for whom seeing a Pokémon on their street corner fulfills some basic "Pokémon are real!" fantasy.

pokemon go Niantic/The Pokémon Company

On the other hand, if you’re gonna tear out the turn-based combat that Pokémon has become known for over the past 20 years, it’d be nice if they replaced it with something, uh, competent. In concept, I actually don’t hate the fact that catching Pokemon has been reduced to a "throw the Pokéball and cross your fingers" augmented reality mini-game, or that combat has been boiled down to a short-form, swipe-and-dodge mini-game. But what I do hate is how janky and unreliable both of those things feel.

I really felt like in the build we played, catching and battling Pokémon were both woefully under-explained and kind of unpleasant — which is kind of a major stumble in a Pokémon game. Did you feel the same way?

Allegra: I definitely could have done with more instruction. It’s strange for me to admit that, though, because Pokémon is known for having stayed pretty much the same for the last 20 years. I can pick up virtually any Pokémon game and know how to play it, and know that I'll love it. That’s definitely not the case with Pokémon Go, and being so completely baffled by it surprised me.

That speaks to what you were saying about the target audience for this thing — it’s more for the casual fan who wants to look at Pokémon, as you explained. Plus, like you said, translating the complexities of battling and breeding are probably not conducive to the mobile experience. But that’s exactly why a game like this needs explanation. It’s a deviation from that traditional Pokémon formula. It’s not a typical Pokémon game, and it doesn’t play like one, so no tutorial for these unique nuances is a major misstep. You're just dropped onto a map approximating your area and left to your own devices.

As for how catching works ... I think there’s some trick to it with these little colored rings that close in around a Pokémon? But I wasted 20 Poké Balls this morning trying to catch a Nidorina, and that’s not cool. Were there any other major systems in the game that you felt needed better explanation?

"Catching Pokémon feels unreliable"

Nick: Hahaha, I had a similar experience in a bakery early on where I burned 10 Great Balls on a Golbat and eventually just had to to give up. But yeah, I really do think the thing is riddled with poorly explained mechanics that are actually extra-nonsensical to Pokemon die-hards. Like: In order to evolve my Diglett into a Dugtrio, why do I need 50 "Diglett’s Candies?" What the fuck is a "Diglett’s Candy?"

And while we’re on that subject, what is "Stardust?" Why do I need an Egg Incubator to hatch eggs now? Why, instead of a level, does every Pokémon have a "Combat Power" rating, like "254" or "73" or "148?" At times, it feels like being a big Pokémon fan actually makes Pokémon Go harder to play, as the game is constantly undermining decades of established knowledge about the series — often in ways that don’t even seem necessary. With all the depreciable currencies, it begs the question of whether Niantic’s driving philosophy in Pokémon Go was to take pre-established free-to-play concepts and wrap them around the Pokémon formula, and I think what I wanted would’ve been the opposite: make the most authentic, intuitive mobile Pokémon experience you can, and then figure out how to monetize it from there.

"It’s not a typical Pokémon game, and it doesn’t play like one"

Allegra: That’s exactly what I wanted, too! We already have Pokémon games in the free-to-play format. I can think of at least one person on staff who’s spent a whole bunch of hard-earned dollars on Pokémon Shuffle. But Pokémon Go was supposed to be different. It seemed like it could be the game that best translates that turn-based RPG-style play to mobile, maintaining its spirit while adding in the geolocation element to broaden its appeal. But I guess doing that means you’re going to alienate people in the process, because that wider audience includes more people who are more familiar with shorter gameplay and free-to-play contraptions.

Obviously the beta doesn’t reflect the full game, but I can see how microtransactions will factor in. There’s a store that uses golden Pokémon coins — why not just Poké Money, the currency from the games? Whatever — to buy balls and various other items. The beta gives you a very generous serving of gold, but I'm sure the full game will be a little bit more miserly. I can’t imagine spending money on Pokémon Go, though, because I’m not compelled to evolve my Pokémon so that they can take part in bland battles. Those especially include the seriously disappointing fights against gym leaders, who are just random, normal trainers who stick a flag in the ground somewhere and call themselves a threat. I have no idea how these battles work or why, since there's no tutorial, but I’m guessing it amounts to the Pokémon with the higher combat power winning ... or, really, whether you can tap on your Pokémon to make it attack faster than it can take damage.

I feel pretty negatively about this game, obviously, but man, there’s got to be something fun about it, right? Was there anything you didn’t find annoying?

"I’ve seen glimmers of the game Pokémon Go aspires to be"

Nick: Y’know, for all the little technical things that it gets wrong (and there’s no shortage of them: The game frequently gives me a "GPS signal not found" error that renders the entire game screen unresponsive, which is irritating every time it happens), I also think there’s a lot Pokémon Go gets right. The 3D models of the Pokémon themselves look great and are pretty well-animated, and the way Niantic retrofitted their enormous bank of location data from Ingress to generate PokéStops and Gym locations has (in my experience in San Francisco) actually been pretty consistent and clever.

Walking around in real life to hatch an egg is one of those fun pieces of Pokémon logic that the game actually dutifully duplicates in the real world, and watching the "kilometers walked" meter under an egg you’re working on actually feels surprisingly productive. (That said, the game could be a LOT more clear about when it is and isn’t active — on the iPhone, setting the phone in your pocket with the game running will dim the screen and put it in a "power save mode," but pressing the lock button on the phone seems to halt all progress you’re making.)

pokemon go

Allegra: Man, my other problem with the game is that I was never able to progress far enough to actually obtain eggs, or capture a Gym, or any of the other, cooler features of the game. Maybe that's because I didn’t try to go out of my way to see how the game reacts under different geographic conditions; I pretty much just whipped it out while I was in my regular spots, either leaving work in the city or hanging out by my house, out in the woods. So the egg-hatching mechanic does sound cool, but I also wonder how likely it is that I can make use of it or even find more of those good-looking Pokémon without going too far away. Like, I only just made contact with my first gym today, which, I know this is just a beta, but that’s disheartening. (I also fought several water-types on the street in midtown Manhattan, which was weird.)

What’s your final take on this game? You sound a bit more hopeful than me, I think. I really wanted to love this game, as I do almost every Pokémon game, but my first experience with Pokémon Go soured me on it. Are you as pessimistic as I am about its potential to turn us into the actual Pokémon trainers we were first destined to be 20 years ago?

Nick: I’m of two minds on Pokémon Go right now. Over the past week, there have been moments where I’ve seen glimmers of the game Pokémon Go aspires to be — a recent walk through Golden Gate Park saw me chaining together PokéStop visits, picking up items, stalking a Growlithe in 20-meter increments, and hatching an egg along the way. And it was kinda fun! It got me to explore a part of San Francisco I usually never visit, and I saw some Pokémon springing up in the park’s tall grass that weren’t available around my apartment, which was a cool feeling. But the whole thing feels like it’s still quite a few months of development and polish away from being the type of game people obsess over — which is worrying, since it’s due out in just a couple of weeks.

It’s frustrating, because it’s not hard to imagine a version of Pokémon Go I’m head over heels in love with. I love Pokémon, especially the first-gen roster they pulled from for this game, and I love location-based games: CodeRunner on iOS is still one of the coolest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. But Pokémon Go, as it exists today, feels a bit skeletal, and it’s not the cool, social, hyper-location-aware game I had my fingers crossed it’d be.

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