+One Gaming

Published on July 26th, 2016 | by silent brotagonist

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Pokemon GO [Youngster Joey Simulator]

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Nowhere to be seen on the App Store frontpage.

What characterizes most of the current Pokemon GO coverage seems to be poorly researched clickbait: ignoring that Niantic CEO John Hanke essentially said that Pokemon GO ‘isn’t about catching them all’ in a Polygon interview, and then making every headline covering the game include the phrase “gotta catch them all,” using a Pokemon GO headline to recirculate content from Gamespot that doesn’t actually have anything to do with Pokemon GO, the launch coverage that ignored all the glaring issues that ruin the user experience (granted, this is from Australia), or posts that focus on repeating the exact same joke about ‘exercise and socialization’ instead of making fun of said glaring issues.

The Pokemon GO launch was troublesome. On July 6th, and even now- July 18th as of originally writing this, there has been almost no presence for the app on the iOS Appstore and only appears on the “Top Grossing” chart. Niantic, if not The Pokemon Company, seemed to have minimal advertisement for the actual release of the game, and I had only been reminded that Pokemon GO had finally released by word of mouth. Yes, there was coverage that the game was in development, and the occasional TV spot that circulated before release, but for someone who tries to be well tread on the internet, I find it absurd that I only knew about the release, of such a well established brand, solely from other users.

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This defined the first week of the release.

The single most damaging aspect of Pokemon GO’s release was the minimal server support and connectivity issues. This represents a huge gap of expectation: Niantic is a veteran mobile developer, but they seemed to judge their potential server load off the expectations of an app that does not bear such a strong brand. Any new IP is risky, I understand that, their previous game, Ingress, was a risk that had to establish their brand almost solely by the gimmick and functionality of the app. The Pokemon branding alone does not make the difference: Pokemon Shuffle Mobile has the same install base to work with, but Shuffle is nowhere near as representative of the brand as Pokemon GO, an otherwise unremarkable puzzle game with a Pokemon Skin compared to an app where you go and explore to find Pokemon. That is the trifecta of why Pokemon GO was so popular, though granted this can be seen as purely hindsight: Huge install base, popular brand, product that is representative of the what has made the brand popular and recognizable.

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There were serious connectivity issues, which can be accounted for by server issues alone, but are related to the inherent infrastructure of the app, which Niantic should have more experience with after Ingress. The operation of the app relies heavily on mobile data, as you are moving around between wifi networks and possibly between cell tower coverage, and it has to constantly ping back with the server to confirm your movements and actions. That structure alone can be very flimsy depending on where you live and local infrastructure, and certainly contributed to connectivity issues independent of underwhelming server support. This commonly plays out as lag between any meaningful action, which is too long to only be the client loading data. It becomes even more clear when battling Pokemon in gyms: where instead of letting a battle play out and register the result or possibly keeping a slower, turn based system, the player’s every action has to ping back with the server while the foe Pokemon is free to act unhindered by any lag. Which seems absolutely absurd, as the gym fights are not actual Player versus Player activity where a methodical netcode would be relevant, not to mention that apps like Marvel Contest of Champions had a similar type of faux-PVP that never had this problem. Beyond this, the notorious issue was your ability to connect, reconnect, and even sustain a connection, which seems to be mostly addressed by the 1.0.1 patch.

The Beta periods ranged from 4 months to 2 months in the US, which might not be abnormal, but really fail to raise confidence in the product that was released at launch. Aside from the classic connection issues, the app was far from stable. There is a menagerie of glitches, many of which caused the app to crash or required you to restart. As anyone would have come to see, the spinning Pokeball icon was not a ‘loading’ icon, but a critical error message.

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Logged in to the app but your player data isn’t loaded. You may as well restart.

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Pokemon Gym fights 1: The 1 HP glitch. The client is unable to sync with the server at when you would have otherwise won the battle. Because of the “netcode”, the opposing Pokemon was free to keep attacking your own Pokemon. This required restarting the app, which given the infamous connectivity issues, almost completely ruined the gyms entirely.

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Pokemon Gym fights 2: The “GO” glitch. The pre-battle “GO” lingers on the screen for about 1 extra second before crashing to the Pokemon Gym menu instead of initializing the battle. No idea why this happens. Does not inherently require a restart, but you may as well if you were set on trying for that gym. As of update 1.0.1, I believed this was resolved; if the “GO” lingers on the screen for a few seconds longer, you are likely fine and the battle will still initiate.

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Catching Pokemon 1: Freezes on the Pokeball. This comes without warning, but sometimes you’ll still register the Pokemon as caught if you restart the app.

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Catching Pokemon 2: Augmented Reality UI error. Unlike most of these glitches, this is one that I have only run into once and have no anecdotal confirmation for. While attempting to catch a Wartortle, I ran into these glitches. There are AR UI elements active when the AR is not activated, and then later, there was a disembodied target ring for the Pokemon floating around.

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Evolving Pokemon: This is pretty harmless, after evolving a Pokemon and being taken to that Pokemon’s status screen, you’ll find that the model is loading at the wrong coordinate. While this is just a graphical hiccup, I have seen this consistently.

 

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A gym as seen on the map. Shoutout to the Z. J. Loussac Public Library.

Aside from the Glitches, the game itself needs some balancing. Because of the server issues, it was absolutely fraudulent to have the Incense item’s timer be entirely client-side, instead of only counting time while the app was connected to the server. The same can be said for the Lucky Egg items. The “Nearby Pokemon” has always been esoteric, useless, and is currently broken. The mechanics of the gym battles are absolutely broken, and needlessly obscured. Any Gym can be claimed by players aligned with a team corresponding to one of the Generation 1 Legendary Bird Pokemon, simplified to Red/Blue/Yellow, and the basic competitive action of the game occurs from here. Allied players can bolster a gym with their own Pokemon and opposing players can try to defeat the Gym into vacancy: which is completely unbalanced, given that a meager reward of  in-game currency is at stake.

Players attacking a gym can: freely do so with a full team of 6 Pokemon, and have a higher reward for victory. Meanwhile players seeking to bolster a gym have far more burdens to deal with: not only does “training” at an allied gym limit you to a single Pokemon, it also gives you extremely meager rewards for any victory, and it further punishes you by having to heal your Pokemon after each attempt at “training” (read: non-competitive sparring). This is unacceptable, and changing any one of those three grievances would improve the experience immensely, especially since you are able to join an allied gym at the default prestige, which is 50%, but the moment the gym is challenged you would have to grind up the prestige to 100% in order to join.

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Any single Pokemon has little value without the candy from a dozen more of the same Pokemon to evolve it.

Pokemon GO is still very confused about what it’s supposed to be. The Pokemon collection mechanics in the app are essentially the mobile-standard randomized collectable game where you are incentivized to collect duplicate Pokemon in order to accomplish anything with any given monster, which is reminiscent of a far less exploitative version of how Marvel’s Contest of Champions worked (which is an unsurprisingly sleazy game itself). The problem with this is that it is central to the Pokemon brand that you have some kind of incentive to treat the Pokemon as pets. The main games have basic experience mechanics for individual monsters, alternate non-combat stats that can be groomed, and most recently Pokemon-Amie, but nothing of the sort is found in Pokemon GO.

Pokemon growth and evolution is dependent on candies gained from catching multiple Pokemon, instead of growth of an individual monster, and any given Pokemon is highly disposable. All this means that for the players who want to interact with the Pokemon brand in the same way that the main games offer, they’re relegated to just being uninformed, if not delusional users.

 

 

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A Magikarp as seen in it’s natural environment: the asphalt parking lot.

Another unexplored possibility is the camera function. When you find Pokemon in the wild and initiate the encounter, you can turn on the Augmented Reality option, and use a camera option to photograph the Pokemon within the environment that you are currently in. As you can quickly Google, this has become a popular feature of Pokemon GO (Protip: you can pause any encounter to find some funny setting to photograph your Pokemon in, and you too can make your own Pokemon GO memes). What is currently unexplored is how much potential Pokemon GO has at servicing Pokemon Snap nostalgia. I don’t have any conception of how that would work, I’d like to think that some kind of expansion on camera functionality isn’t just some baseless speculation, since mobile devices are a unique and powerful platform for integrating the camera.

 

Micro-transactions are clearly something of concern in any market, even if they are all too common on mobile applications. Pokemon GO appears to handle this without being completely exploitative: ultimately things bought from the shop are doled out, albeit meagerly, to players on progression in the game, and none of which represent unique functions that would have otherwise been unavailable to non-paying customers. Well, aside from item and Pokemon storage upgrades, which should never be a problem for any reasonable player. I think it falls into “paying for luxuries” moreso than “paying for basic functionality,” but that’s debatable.

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A Bellsprout at home in the produce aisle.

You can still argue that micro-transactions are always the devil, but in Pokemon GO’s case, it seems to be working contrary to the exploitative “whale” model: Slice Intelligence reports that 53% of GO’s transactions were done by customers who had 1 to zero previous microtransactions in the past 6 months. Ultimately, Pokemon GO’s micro-transactions do not offer any way to gain the “Stardust” currency nor “candies” for any given Pokemon family, and paying and non-paying players are all equal in having to earn those.

At the end, even Pokemon GO is still a decent game, stability issues aside. Pokemon GO ‘gamifies’ going around and interacting within your community, possibly with more success than other more explicitly “fitness” apps. There is even a strange, almost profound thing that Pokemon GO accomplishes that might be unique within the broader Pokemon brand: it gives as “real” of an experience as possible to the implied experience of a normal person in a Pokemon world. All those kids on early game routes who are stuck with a handful of Rattata, any trainer with a limited viable team,  or any side character from the cartoon who only uses a few token Pokemon and is often reluctant or unable to evolve those Pokemon- are all justified when you play Pokemon Go.

You are limited to the Pokemon around you, and the need for duplicate Pokemon in order to develop them seems to strangely parallel how hard training a Pokemon appears to be for everyone that isn’t Ash Ketchum or a main-game protagonist. I’ve even seen jokes about how people walking around playing Pokemon GO are similar to the repetitive motions of NPC trainers in the main games.

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And then there are these guys running around with competitive 1k (Update: now 2k!) Dragonites. Shoutout to Bosco’s Comics, a pretty popular gym.

The fact that rare and powerful Pokemon take time and effort, makes Pokemon GO as real Pokemon experience as the hand-held games that they are based on, and that still shines through all the very, very tangible faults of the game. The micro-transactions haven’t made me hate myself and the game yet, so take what you want out of this. Pokemon GO is free, and if you live in any reasonably sized town or larger urban area, you should just download the app for yourself.

Post Script: I am finding out that Pokemon GO has a finite lifespan. When you try to evolve a Pokemon, it takes a great deal of grinding duplicates for the required candy, and when that final evolved Pokemon does not have anywhere near a competitive combat point stat you get burned out. The tedium stops being worthwhile and you feel cheated on some level. The more often it happens, the more Pokemon that you have zero interest in wasting your time on, until there is nothing left to do. Pokemon GO walks a thin line, and is further evidence that The Pokemon Company has coasted on the branding alone for years, reluctant to meaningfully develop their games into something that really deserves the long-term love that people have for Pokemon. Now Niantic is joining that esteemed tradition, complaining when players create tools to work around the poorly designed and currently broken “Nearby Pokemon” feature in the app.

Played on iOS
Also available on Android.

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About the Author

is still pretty much an amateur at this. When he's not trying to relate everything to the Doom Patrol, you can find him @quietagonist maintaining a pulse.



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