When Pokémon Red & Blue were released in North America back in the late 90s, several news outlets referred to the obsession that kids (myself included) had for the game as “Pokémania.” You could put the name Pokémon on pretty much anything at would be relatively successful, officially licensed or not. I know that my long-suffering parents would have to put up with me going on and on about the game and wondering why I could play outside like a normal child. Perhaps if they’d had me nearly two decades later, they might have been happy I’d be outside but worried for different reasons. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple weeks, Pokémon Go, the long awaited pokémon-catching mobile game was released in Oceania, the US, and parts of Europe. There isn’t a word in the English language to describe just how successful Pokémon Go is. The game is so popular that the original global release plans are on hold so that Niantic can deal with the server issues from all the traffic.
The game has become so popular that I can’t say I’ve seen anything like this in 20+ years of playing games. Based on an earlier Niantic ARG (augmented reality game), primarily you roam the world (the real one) and head to different locations known as Pokéstops to catch pokémon on your phone. You also join one of three teams to take control of various Pokémon Gyms across the planet. What started as a very simple time killer has exploded into the strangest cultural phenomenon I’ve seen in a very long time. This past week alone we’ve had stories of public spaces getting swarmed by players in the search for new pokémon, Pokéstops used for good and bad, car accidents while people played and drove (please don’t do that by the way), even some poor kid finding a dead body while playing. It’s just mind blowing.
Insane public behaviour aside, Only since July 17th (while I was writing this blog post in fact) has Pokémon Go been available to download in Canada. Before then you had to either use the AKP version if you were on Android, or spoof a US Apple ID and download the iOS version. I’ve been incredibly busy these past few weeks, so I hadn’t given much thought to getting a copy before it became available here. But this past Friday, with things finally calmer, I created a US Apple ID and got a copy of Pokemon Go.
I’d read enough about the app before I downloaded it that I had some expectations of what to expect. I picked Bulbasaur as my first pokémon (like I did with Pokémon Blue), grabbed my shoes, and headed out into the city on a Friday Night to catch some Pokémon. What I noticed first was that all the pokéstops were plaques or sculptures. I’ve heard that as the app comes online, more locations will eventually become available, but I’m not holding my breath. But the real reason why players have spent hours roaming their neighbourhoods is catching Pokémon, and I certainly did that. The actual act of catching pokémon is straightforward; I caught about 20 different pokémon on my first pokéwalk (yes we have a word for it now) of which 15 were unique species. It’s not something I’m going to get absorbed into, but if I have some time to kill I can see myself bringing up the app. All the while you could tell who was playing and who wasn’t. Not so much that you could see it just on their phones, there was a shared “look” amongst all the Pokémon Go players. Looks of excitement and frustration, the latter which occurs for the wrong reasons.
The problems with the game also became evident very quickly while I was on my walk. The servers just aren’t able to handle the traffic that the game is generating, which means that the app freezes, a lot. Plus while you only notice it if you’re on the app for long periods of time, but your battery life will drain faster than your realize. These are all things that they’re working on, but it’s kind of a buzzkill if you’re in the middle of catching a rare Pokémon or taking control of a gym and your app dies. I for one couldn’t even log in at several instances the problems got so bad. Maybe now that the app is officially available here the problems will get resolved faster, but we’ll see.
Words cannot adequately describe the impact Pokémon Go has had both on gaming but also on popular culture. I know people completely passed on the Pokémon franchise only to get sucked into this because it was more their style. Only time will tell how long this kind of phenomenon will last, but for now, it seems like everyone is going to try and catch ’em all.