Pokémon released into the Wild

Gotta catch ém all! Pokemon, again!

The biggest game franchise from the past, that started back in the 90s (people played on the GameBoy a lot) just got a new release. This year for everybody´s smartphones – including an augmented reality view. We´ve followed the plans and the beta and now it got released officially… well, partly. Due to high demand servers went down and it is yet to be rolled out globally. People are going mad about it already. Is it really worth it? What`s the deal? What is it?

Well, Pokémon is nothing new. Honestly, you must have been living on another planet not to know about Pikachu and the other cartoon monsters. The franchise started off as a GameBoy title to collect little monsters (pocket monsters) and let the trainer (you) fight them in virtual arenas. Animé series, around a dozen movies, many games and merch followed. In 2016 the new video game release comes from the Niantic Lab team (that created the GPS-geocaching game Ingress with Google). So, expectations are very high (Niantic has earned their street cred through their first game and Pokémon frenchise supposed to have big funding in the back).

The new game ships to your smartphone and is free to play (but you pay to level up faster). You seek new little monsters by scanning the included Google maps data. It builds a virtual world ontop of your real surroundings and let´s you catch pokémon by throwing balls at them. This last step can be done in 3D (on your phone) view or via the prementioned AR mode. One of their trailers goes like this:

Obviously that´s not how the game looks (in 2016). It´s rather a regular GPS-based geocaching game like any other with a simple AR view in it. See a short video review with real world footage here or another mixed review here.

(Since I couldn´t play it yet myself (no, I don´t want my phone to be highjacked) this won´t be a full review, but rather some thoughts on it. Germany is still to come.)

The GPS-geocaching approach, catching pokémon will definitely be big fun for people who like to have a reason to go outside (to catch virtual stuff). It might even occasionally lead to nice meetings with new people that play, too. It sure can be motivating for a while to “collect them all” and to level up.

But to me, on the first sight, the game looks too casual and with the greedy industry you can be sure to never have caught all. There will be impossible catches or expensive ones you cannot reach freely. People – and long-term fans – already discuss the new battle mode. It sure looks simple. There is no real battle going on – like in older beat-em-up-days on a gaming console – now it´s just tap-tap-tap-dead. This seems a bit dull, considering that the reason of collecting all pokémon is to let them fight against each other. But then the battle is so simple and boring? Hmm…

Graphics and menus look fun and matching the overall game design (not being photorealistic). Nevertheless the battery will get sucked empty quickly when you run around with your GPS heating up and the AR mode enabled. Ah, the AR mode! On the one hand it´s nice to see a major world-wide played game integrate AR. The public will finally know about AR (if they don´t know about it yet). Well… and they might get disappointed. At least I am. The AR mode is so simple that the initial ARToolkit`s Snowman looked better integrated into the real world than this! Pokémon Go switches on the camera and you don´t need any additional reference inside the view. Fine. They probably assume a typical hand-held height and angle towards the ground, maybe added some computer vision to track the floor a bit. But tracking is very shaky in the videos I have seen and the visual integration is not existent. At least they could have adjusted the monsters by some white balance or color correction. Ideally with an adjusted brightness not to see a Pokémon stand out in utter darkness. Probably they needed to find the lowest common denominator to roll it out on 99,9% of all devices – but it´s a shame to see such a bad AR mode in 2016 go public from such a big player. We can only hope for updates to come – maybe making use of occlusion handling and 3D recognition of the real world next (using Lenovo´s Project Tango phone for instance).

Moreover, the AR view does not seem to give additional functionality. Probably people use it once and leave it off later on (to save battery as well). Hopefully a later version will enforce AR with better technology and a proper reason to switch.

It seems like good fun for a little while, but then again I´m probably way out of the target group. So, let´s see what the youngsters say and how long they stay loyal to it. It also depends on how well Nintendo manages the up-scaling of it and the free-to-play spirit. Will the players get swamped by ad content, e.g. the Coca Cola monster? Will people really hunt down monsters outdoors long-term? It already raises some social discussions and security questions: first people got mugged when stepping into a remote Pokestop or some people just get annoyed by the new flashmobs in their surroundings (e.g. turning an old church into a Pokémon gym

Overall it feels like a good step towards a great come-back for Nintendo who missed the mobile era until today. Only the AR mode is too basic now and might scare people off of AR for many years. Imagine the above marketing video with a Hololens, Meta or MagicLeap device to really play it that way! That would so awesome!

Update, July, 13th, 10:59 cest

Now Pokémon Go is available in Germany as well! Gentlemen, start your downloads! I`ll double check my above assumptions and see if my thoughts were justified. :-)