Pokémon Go became an international phenomenon in less than a week, and itꞌs easy to see why. It lets you reconnect with one of your favorite childhood properties! It encourages you to get outside, move your legs, and meet new people! It helps you discover hidden landmarks right in your own neighborhood!
And by this time next month, you may wonder why you installed it in the first place.
Let me be perfectly clear: I have nothing against Pokémon Go. If itꞌs helping massive amounts of people have fun in (mostly) safe and sociable ways, itꞌs probably a good thing overall. But every internet talking head seems ready to declare that Pokémon Go will revolutionize the augmented-reality genre, and I just donꞌt see it. The very same factors that make Pokémon Go so endearing could make it boring sooner rather than later.
Golden Age Thinking
What makes Pokémon Go so much fun? The reasons are threefold: it gets you outside, it helps you explore your neighborhood, and it lets you catch 150 colorful Pokémon. Pay very close attention to that last part. Without the Pokémon framing, would you still want to play the game? Rhetorical question: We already know that the answer is "no."
Pokémon Go did not spring up in a vacuum. Another AR game known as Ingress laid its foundations, both in terms of gameplay and actual map data. As an ambitious AR gaming experiment, Ingress has almost the same game mechanics as Pokémon Go, framed instead with a conspiracy-laden sci-fi storyline. Ingress has the exact same focus on exploration as Pokémon Go, with better gameplay and a more detailed story to boot — but it has a relatively tiny player base.
None of this is meant to knock Ingress or try to prove that itꞌs "better" than Pokémon Go. (Thereꞌs a rather interesting thread on Reddit trying to broker peace between the two communities; weꞌll see how it goes.) Instead, I only want to point out that while Pokémon Go is accessible for kids and teens, itꞌs primarily aimed at 20- and 30-somethings with their own smartphones, who grew up with the series and want a quick, easy nostalgia fix every day. Why else do you think itꞌs focused on the original 150 monsters rather than the 700-plus critters that have sprung up since then?
The trouble with nostalgia is that itꞌs a double-edged sword. Pokémon undoubtedly made you happy as a kid or teen, but so did not having to pay rent and having someone else cook and clean for you. Go back and revisit some of your childhood favorites with a critical eye, and youꞌll find that many of them donꞌt hold up. (Except for Batman: The Animated Series. That one absolutely still works.) Pokémon is still a fine series, but how many people are playing Pokémon Go because itꞌs really a great game, and how many people are playing it because itꞌs a concentrated injection of happiness into an otherwise ordinary day?
Thereꞌs absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the feeling will fade over time. Think back to Midnight in Paris and its explanation of "Golden Age Thinking (opens in new tab)." Not everything was better in the past, and if you relive it, youꞌll eventually discover that firsthand.
Assault and Zubattery
Smartphones are fantastic for games, from casual pastimes like Cut the Rope to enduring classics like Final Fantasy VI. But for most of us, smartphones arenꞌt toys. Theyꞌre communication devices that help us keep in touch with the world around us in real time. As such, keeping a cellphone on and inactive is just as important as actually making a call or sending a text. If your smartphone is dead, itꞌs of no use to anyone.
Through no fault of its own, Pokémon Go does to smartphone batteries what a Pidgeot does to a Magikarp. The game makes use of a phoneꞌs GPS, pedometer, camera and screen all at once, which means that it can eat through a fully charged phone within 2 hours. You could walk around with your phone attached to a portable power brick, but it may actually drain faster than it can recharge.
Even assuming you had unlimited mobile data (you need to be out and about, so playing it on Wi-Fi isn’t a workable solution), you would essentially be rendering yourself incommunicado for a few big chunks of the day. Depending on what you do, this may not be disastrous, but my prediction is that people are going to stop, or severely curtail, their Pokémon Go adventures once they realize their phones have become short-lived Game Boys rather than the central hub of their social lives.
I Choose You, Privacy
Pokémon Goꞌs manifold privacy vulnerabilities merit an article in their own right, but the fact is, itꞌs not the safest game you can play. Gamers are already disillusioned with the fact that the title could theoretically claim full access to a userꞌs Gmail account. There are some workarounds, and the gameꞌs developer has promised to address these issues in the coming weeks, but itꞌs still a tangible risk.
Even if Niantic Labs addresses the permissions faux pas, it doesnꞌt change the fact that Pokémon Go is essentially a way for Nintendo to collect your GPS data throughout the day. Even if it doesnꞌt share that information with other companies (and it might), that is a ton of personal information that maybe a gigantic multinational company shouldnꞌt have.
The Fellowship of the Ursaring
Ask any Pokémon Go player, and he or she will tell you that one of the best parts of the game is encountering like-minded trainers out in the real world trying to catch ꞌem all. Hotspots in Central Park were jammed to capacity, and Gizmodo is even looking into how many Pokémon Go connections culminated in real-life coitus. Twitter and Facebook are basically just big Pokémon Go forums, and given that the other news this week is the all-too-depressing specter of nonstop violence against minorities, who can blame the players?
However, the player base will dwindle. Even if it doesnꞌt take a precipitous dive, plenty of people in the game right now will discover that itꞌs not their jam over the next few weeks. The news cycle will move onto the next hot topic, and your social circle will start discussing something else. As people close to you start putting down the game, you may find yourself less inclined to play it, too.
This isnꞌt unique to Pokémon Go. Most hit video games are the toast of the town for about a month after they come out, and then invariably fade into the background as time goes on. Some of their player bases stay very strong; most donꞌt. If and when Pokémon Go players lose interest, many of their friends will do so, too. Thatꞌs the peril of making a game so inherently social. Without a multitude of players to lure out Pokémon, stake claims on gyms and interact with online, Pokémon Go will be a much less exciting place.
The biggest reason why I donꞌt expect Pokémon Go to stand the test of time is also the simplest: By most metrics, itꞌs not a game with much staying power.
I donꞌt mean that itꞌs not fun, or that people are wasting their time with it. I just mean that from a game design perspective, thereꞌs not much going on to keep players invested. Catching and fighting Pokémon is a pretty shallow system, especially compared to the games that preceded it. Thereꞌs very little in the way of an overarching narrative. Catching all 150 creatures is something youꞌre supposed to do for its own sake, not because doing so will "complete" the game in any meaningful way. Niantic Labs is planning more in the way of leaderboards and trading; whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
Given that the game is free to play and offers microtransactions, it makes sense to view it like most other free-to-play games. Pokémon Go is not a trail; itꞌs a treadmill. Thereꞌs no point at which you really have to spend money, but if you choose to, thereꞌs no logical point at which you have to stop, either. After catching all 150 Pokémon (which is a monumental task, given the randomness of finding them in the first place), you can train them or hunt down additional creatures for better stats or items, but how many people will be invested in playing for that long? If collecting Pokémon isnꞌt its own reward for you, the game doesnꞌt offer much in the way of carrots and sticks.
Remember the old adage: "If a product is free, you are the product." While Pokémon Go can be fun, itꞌs also very carefully calculated to leverage your own psychology to make it so. To play Pokémon Go, you get out of the house and walk around. Getting outside and exercising makes people happy. Pokémon is a nostalgic brand from your childhood. Nostalgia makes people happy. The game rewards you for playing in small but predictable doses over time. Operant conditioning makes people happy. If Pokémon weren’t such a happy, friendly brand, the whole scheme would be insidious — and Iꞌm not 100 percent convinced that it isnꞌt.
If you enjoy the game, play it until you’ve caught ꞌem all. Just donꞌt be surprised if you put it down well before that happens.