By Irene F. Starkehaus -
My kingdom for an innocent distraction during this summer of escalating violence. I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for a silly diversion.
Pikachu to the rescue! Pokémon Go is here and gamers are quickly making this the "it" game of 2016. The interest in Go continues to outpace forecasts, and I predict that this game will ultimately attract a much wider demographic than Nintendo originally envisioned.
The Starkehaus kids, like many of their friends, have been playing Pokémon since grammar school, and they have grown through the various platform metamorphoses as the game adapted and evolved. Trading cards became Gameboys. Gameboys became the DS, the DS branched out into Wii, and now if you want to train and battle your legendary Victini, then Nintendo in cooperation with Niantic has an app for that.
Nintendo's purchase of the Niantic company and their app was by all accounts pure genius. The acquisition will revolutionize the look, feel and portability of gaming forever. Nintendo's giant leap in augmented reality is going to revitalize the Pokémon franchise and bring back former Pokémon players who were starting to age out.
Those two achievements alone would be enough to make this a blockbuster game.
Actually, the audience that I believe will ultimately surprise Nintendo will be Gen X and Boomers who like hiking and geocaching. That crossover is natural and geocachers will likely appreciate the new portability of this real world Pokémon scavenger hunt.
For readers who are unfamiliar with geocaching, it is a game of sorts where a geocacher places a waterproof container holding a log book and items or trackables. They then record the cache's coordinates. These coordinates, along with details of the location, are posted on a listing site. Other geocachers obtain the coordinates from that listing site and seek out the cache using their GPS handheld receivers.
So here's the Evelyn Wood history of Pokémon Go for your perusal. Nintendo is coming up on its 20-year anniversary of Pokémon and wanted to do something big for the celebration. They wanted an app, but they didn't want to just rehash the same old experience that players can get on the DS and Wii. After some careful consideration, they approached and then acquired Niantic, which was the creator of a game called Ingress.
Ingress is what's known as an augmented reality game that details a story of an alien invasion of the planet. The game has a sort of virtual Capture the Flag vibe, and it takes place out in the real world but it is done with the aid of the Ingress app.
Imagine the park that's just down the street from your house. Maybe there are some toddlers with their moms or there's an evening soccer practice that's about to wrap up. Most likely, there's not too much going on.
Now imagine you turn your Ingress app toward the park and voila. The park is now transformed into a portal and that portal is locked in a territory battle. This is an example of augmented reality – an electronic world that kind of overlays the natural world.
So Nintendo saw the genius of the Ingress platform and realized that it could be repurposed beautifully for use with the Pokémon universe. Anyone who has kids involved with Pokémon knows what I'm talking about here. Your kids already talk about these storylines and creatures like they are real. The only way to improve on that experience would be to get kids pretending that Reshiram and Zekrom are sitting on the tool shed in your backyard.
Imagine walking over to your neighborhood park and opening your Pokémon Go app. Sitting next to you now is a Pidgeotto or a Zubat or a Pikachu. You throw your Poké Ball and capture it. Now that character is part of an inventory of Pokémon for you to train, battle and eventually trade.
* environmental extremism alert – PETA hates Pokémon because they don't like the idea that mythical creatures are captured and used for battling.
But I digress. While it is true that I'm a buttoned up, stick-in-the-mud conservative, I'm not too proud to admit that I've been a gamer for years. Turn based or real time; RPGs, simulations or puzzles. For the Starkehaus family, happiness is unleashing an alien invasion in a newly constructed megalopolis. I was naturally curious to see how Pokémon Go worked.
I took a walk with my kids last night to see Pokémon Go in action. Child one opened the app and we started walking toward our neighborhood park. Not four steps out of the driveway, child one showed me the Rattata standing on our neighbor's lawn. Child two threw a Poké Ball at an Evee and captured it before we moved on.
As I looked back and forth at the neighborhood from a reality stand point and then the game's perspective, I started to appreciate the possibilities of Nintendo's brainchild.
"What's that blue thing at the park?" I asked.
"It's a Poké Stop. We can go there and pick up items like Poké Balls and healing potions."
After about fifteen minutes, I decided to download the game for myself. This is when I came to regret that I hadn't purchased Nintendo stock three months ago when my kids first started talking about release dates for Pokémon Go. We arrived at the park and what we saw there was nothing short of fun.
Moms and dads were walking with their kids; teens were hanging with their friends. There were a couple of police cars driving by to check out why a park that never gets used was suddenly filled with people. More than half of the groups that we saw had phones out and were scooping up virtual items while they chatted together.
We scanned the phone around and I saw another blue symbol not far away floating above the neighborhood restaurant, so we walked over to the restaurant to see what the second Poké Stop had to offer. When we got there, we were thirsty. We went in to get some drinks. The place was nearly empty, so we were, needless to say, conspicuous.
While we sipped sweet tea, my kids kept picking up virtual items from the Poké Stop icon and showing me what they had. Our server eventually noticed our activity and came over to ask what we were doing.
"Have you heard of Pokémon Go?" I asked.
"That thing they're talking about on the news?"
"Yeah! Did you know your restaurant is a Poké Stop?"
So we proceeded to explain what a Poké Stop is. We showed her how the restaurant looks in the game and then pointed out the window at some kids with their phones. She downloaded the app. When she left our table, I could hear her on the phone with her manager talking about what we had showed her.
I kid you not. They're going to do a Poké Stop special to stir up some business.
Okay, so this is what I like about Pokémon Go:
a) Kids have to get out of their houses if they want to find the best Pokémon and virtual items. They have to walk about three miles to hatch eggs.
b) The game has in-app purchasing, but it can be played effectively without spending a dime.
c) This is a game that families can play together.
d) For enterprising businesses that are fortunate enough to be Poké Stops and Poké Gyms, there are opportunities to make the most out of it and become part of the fun.
e) It is a game that can continue to expand. With twenty years of Pokémon characters to choose from, there is no end to Nintendo's ability to capitalize.
This is what I don't like about Pokémon Go:
a) There is a legitimate risk that kids will fail to pay attention to their surrounding and walk into traffic. Nintendo gives a warning before the game app opens, but coaching from parents would be wise.
b) As we drove around this afternoon, my kids were calling out all the places that are Poké Stops and Poké Gyms. Lots of colleges, universities, White Castles, coffee shops, movie theaters…translation – young drivers might be enticed to take their eyes off the road to capture their Pokémon. And this makes for potential accidents. Students should be coached to keep phones locked in the glove compartments to avoid temptations.
c) Currently the game has some stability issues. Nintendo underestimated interest in US markets and failed to plan adequately for server demands. Some are still trying to create accounts. When accounts have been successfully created, players can expect screens to occasionally freeze while Nintendo works out the kinks.
d) Watch those data plans. Pokémon Go has the potential of being a huge data hog.