When it was first announced last fall, Pokémon Go seemed like a fan's dream: Finally, here was a way for players to become real-life Pokémon trainers.
But don't expect the augmented-reality mobile title, which draws from developer Niantic Labs' earlier location-based title Ingress, to be a direct translation of the handheld role-playing games.
"We're not trying to recreate the video game experience," J.C. Smith, The Pokémon Company's senior director of consumer marketing, told Polygon. "What we wanted to do with the mobile game from both sides — from Niantic as well as Pokémon — was, we wanted to make a new experience that was native to mobile."
As we've already seen in gameplay footage from Nintendo's E3 2016 livestream, that means Pokémon Go has some marked differences from the series' Game Boy roots. The player doesn't start off the game with a partner Pokémon, and gyms are dispersed around the world; players themselves can be recruited to and manage them. Pokémon battles are instead a fight between a Pokémon and players' index fingers as they swipe a Poké Ball across a screen, not a match between two skilled monsters.
A major reason for these changes is the location element. Pokémon Go uses your smartphone's geolocation functionality to chart where you are in the actual world. The wild Pokémon that appear on the in-game map, and subsequently the city streets or hometown park on your phone's screen, are tied to the geographical features around you.
In a way, that makes Pokémon Go a good first Pokémon title for newcomers, Niantic CEO John Hanke said.
"We're trying to make the game accessible to a person who doesn't yet know how much they want to commit to the game, who just wants to explore," he explained. That includes not just the Pokémon newbie, but those on the opposite side — a diehard who's played all of the RPGs but isn't sure if an augmented reality game that requires them to get up off the couch is really their speed.
"You do not need to collect all of them"
"At the same time, we think that there's an opportunity to build depth," Hanke added. "There's an emergent complexity that doesn't hit you over the head at first blush, [from] trying to power up your Pokémon and evolve and ultimately start competing for gyms."
Still, strengthening your core team and trying to build your own gym as opposed to defeating their leaders is a departure from the standard Pokémon games. There's another major departure, too.
"You do not need to collect all of them," Hanke replied when we asked if "gotta catch ‘em all" was Pokémon Go's modus operandi, as it is in the RPGs. "You don't have to collect them all to compete for gyms and progress."
Part of that is because of the more limited way that Pokémon are discovered. Since the game relies on your physical location, that means that people in more rural, isolated areas could be stuck seeing the same monsters over and over and over again. Although they can still encounter PokéStops, which are various landmarks that house special items, certain legendaries are tied to special international locations, meaning those who don't get to travel much may never complete their Pokédexes.
Hanke understands the concerns of those without the means to do the necessary exploration to find every single Pokémon. (In the context of Pokémon Go, that means the original 150.) As someone who grew up in a small town himself, he understands the 30-mile drives just to find a Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, there's no promise that people in areas like that will be able to find a diverse set of monsters.
The expectation is that only the most hardcore Pokémon Go players will spring for that worldwide trek, however. That's why the development team is pushing the power-up and gym-capturing angles. But more than that, the hope is that hometown players will look to the game for its social features.
"One of the aspects in Ingress that people enjoy more than the other aspects of the game is cooperative play," Hanke said. He and Smith envision players meeting up to search for Pokémon together as an after-dinner or post-drinks activity.
The Pokémon Go Plus is more accessible than a smartwatch
The $35 Pokémon Go Plus peripheral is meant to encourage and support that type of gameplay. The stand-alone device will be sold through the app and other retailers and allow players to continue playing the game, even when they have their phones away. It can be worn as a bracelet — like a Fitbit or Jawbone step counter — or on one's lapel for an even more conspicuous look.
"It could be that you're out walking in the park with friends and meeting friends somewhere, and may not want to interrupt the conversation and break the social dynamic that's going on [to check Pokémon Go]," Smith explained. "With a few clicks of the button, you can harvest items and catch Pokémon and continue to build up progress in the game. In all of those scenarios, it would be really awesome to have a device not to completely replace interacting with the phone, but supplement it."
As for the perhaps steep price point — almost the cost of a full-priced Nintendo 3DS game — for the free-to-play title's battery-powered peripheral, Smith mentioned that it's more accessible than a hundred-dollar smartwatch which has a more limited user base.
With the addition of Pokémon Go Plus, the mobile game becomes an even more streamlined, perhaps rudimentary Pokémon experience. That's okay, Hanke and Smith said. The excitement they hope players feel when they discover their first Pokémon in the outdoors is the real crux of Pokémon Go, not the satisfaction of completing the Pokédex or collecting all the badges. Fans who have long dreamed of seeing a Pokémon in the real world can look forward to that experience when the game hits iOS and Android this July.