What Pokemon GO Says About The Future

In less than two weeks, the mobile juggernaut Pokemon GO has grown so big as to be almost ubiquitous. So big that, despite only being out in a handful of countries and seeming to be broken most of the time, it has app makers, filmmakers and even small business owners scrambling to cash in.

The app seems to speak to everyone, and even if it’s gone in a month that surely indicates that some part of Pokemon GO has touched a nerve.

So, is Pokemon GO the future of mobile gaming? There have been location-based apps before (remember when everyone was battling to check in to the most places on Foursquare?), and there have even been location-based augmented reality (AR) apps, which overlay digital graphics onto the real world. But something specific about Pokemon GO has struck a chord.

The game not only has a very low barrier to entry – it’s free and the primary mechanic is perambulation – but it encourages and rewards constant engagement whether you’re at home, walking to the shops, at work or school or on your commute. Pokemon (digital creatures) pop up literally anywhere, and they’re different in different areas.

When you get a little bit further into the game new hooks appear to keep you going. You join a team to encourage you to stop at “gyms”, you get “eggs” to encourage you to keep walking, and along the way everything encourages you to keep collecting items and getting new Pokemon. It’s classic mobile game design, successfully applied to a shared, real-world map you traverse with GPS tracking.

If the world’s biggest mobile developers were to attempt something similar, you might see players of King’s Candy Crush Saga swinging their phones around on the train to spot sugar drops between rounds, or warring clans from Supercell’s Clash games duelling each other in an impromptu battle on the streets.

Add in player-to-player communication, which GO developer Niantic is working on for Pokemon trades and battling, and it isn’t even too much of a stretch to imagine a World of Warcraft-type game where groups band together to hunt enemies and raid local parks.

Standing in the way of these designs, of course, is that Pokemon GO mostly works because everyone is playing it, and games with only a few players in each city would struggle to take off.

Then there’s the sheer barrier of building a game the size of GO, which Niantic did with the help of a huge amount of Google data and years of user content from a previous app. The final thing GO has that could indicate that no other AR app is likely replicate its success soon are the Pokemon themselves, which command a great deal of cultural cachet and nostalgia, and no doubt had a big hand in propelling GO to nationwide craze status.

So then, is Pokemon GO the future of Pokemon? It’s unarguable that this app is the highest point of Pokemania we’ve seen since the original handheld video games in 1996 and the start of the animated show the following year. While both are still in production and have always been popular with kids, relatively few fans from each generation continue to care into adulthood.

Pokemon GO, by comparison, has seemed to bring current fans, lapsed fans, brand new fans and even those who never cared about Pokemon into the fold.

Despite this, it’s difficult to see the GO format or the mobile platform becoming the Pokemon standard anytime soon. The Pokemon Company is part-owned by Nintendo, which has relied on the pocket monsters to be a major driver of its handheld game systems for 20 years. With a new version of the game releasing this year and mysterious new Nintendo hardware due out in 2017, the Japanese company will likely want to keep GO in a supporting role.

If anything, expect the GO craze to inform some of Nintendo’s decisions as it launches its own mobile apps, or possibly even to bolster its confidence in including internet or GPS capabilities in its own machines down the road.

Is Pokemon GO the future of going outside? While this is perhaps the most depressing possibility one has to admit it has a certain cynical appeal. There are definitely suburbs that have never seen so much foot traffic than during the weekend after the app’s release, and it’s a telling sign that social media has been filled with posts featuring some variation of “I was planning to go for a long walk to the park / some other natural landmark, but the Pokemon GO servers are down”.

Meanwhile there seem to be two schools of thought on GO’s outdoorsiness, with some arguing that any incentive – even a digital one – to go explore outside is a positive, and others arguing that players are too absorbed in the virtual world while playing to even care that they’re outside, reducing to featureless waypoints all the nature and museums that should have intrinsic value. Both sides make decent points.

With our lives featuring fewer and fewer reasons to leave the house – see telecommuting, grocery delivery apps, video on demand – it might be that gamification and virtual incentives play an increasing role in prodding us out into the sun. The concerns of the latter group would hopefully be addressed by AR apps that improve on Pokemon’s design – for instance by allowing more active engagement rather than rewarding constant phone-gazing – so you could both win points and enjoy the world around you.

Nintendo is currently working on a wearable device that will use lights and vibration to keep players abreast of what’s happening in the Pokemon world while the phone stays mostly their pocket, which should improve things dramatically in this regard, assuming Pokemon GO is still a thing in a month or two.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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