How Pokémon Go derailed a franchise

Untitled-1
Natalie Minnetian/Staff

It seems that Pokémon Go came in a tempestuous flurry of mixed media hype and snuck away quietly away in the night, a forgotten smartphone icon that we will look at from time to time on our homepage and consider deleting. The summer’s hottest app took the world by storm, yet despite maintaining its position as a top-grossing app in the United States (by its in-app purchases), it has fallen past No. 50 on the top free app chart since its christening in July. The fleeting popularity of the app was anything but unpredictable; the repetitive gameplay is buoyed on a foundation of F.O.M.O., its pointlessness becoming more apparent as friends lose interest in droves. As Pokémon Go settles into the dust of the App Store graveyard, what can we learn from its Homeric rise and fall?

On a September morning, the North entrance of campus is a two-way river of frazzled students commuting to and from classes, but today a small stand has disrupted the normal flow of traffic. The stand was installed as a real-life “PokéStop,” the Pokémon Go inspired junctions that yield game essentials such as level-boosting experience and Pokéballs. Next to the PokéStop sign is a box full of engraved wood tiles each containing one of the many original Pokémon monsters. Around the crowd of onlookers, the excitement is palpable as people take turns selecting tiles and sharing them with friends and strangers.

“As a kid, I really disliked Pokémon,” says junior Eipleen Kaur, one of the curators of the station, which serves an effort — ironically — to get campus busybodies off their phones and interacting with strangers. “I didn’t watch it on television and I didn’t have a Gameboy or Playstation, whatever it is. I started playing when I got to college and Pokémon Go came out.”

Although Kaur admits she was never an obsessive user of the iPhone app, she maintains that it was a fun way to connect with friends this past summer. Watching the lively crowd grow larger around the campus PokéStop, it’s clear that others share her excitement for what the app represents. While most of them are probably no longer logging into the app on a daily basis, Pokémon Go has already left its mark in the annals of popular culture despite its many shortcomings.

In July, Nintendo compromised a decadent legacy of gaming when it coupled with Niantic Inc. to release Pokémon Go. Spearheaded by C.E.O. John Hanke, Niantic is an independent mobile game development company spawned from the Google behemoth. The conceptual architect of Pokémon Go, Hanke had worked previously on projects as significant as Google Earth and Google Maps. The app’s success was an accumulation of these two iconic forces in tech: Nintendo’s Pokémon franchise and Google’s vast resources. The result was the infectiously compelling mobile game that had businesspeople and 8-year-olds alike stumbling into telephone poles looking for Charmanders in the realm of augmented reality.

For kids like me who grew up playing the first generation games before we could read the captions on our GameBoy Colors, it seemed like a dream come true. Unfortunately, the final product landed with a disappointing flatness, cheapening a franchise that had inspired Millennials since its genesis in 1996.

The allure of the original franchise was the well-rounded style of gameplay and rich narrative that its glitchy successor lacks entirely. Besides the brief introductory scene that players encounter after signing up, Pokémon Go is devoid of any storyline whatsoever. It more closely resembles a mindless digital version of fishing than cultivating a party of individualized Pokémon. There is little to no strategy involved, and the main interface is mostly composed of a thinly veiled rendition of Google Maps. Instead of leveling up a party through battle and experience, Pokémon Go is a one-trick pony, based on an unsophisticated catch-and-release method of strengthening your Pokémon.

For kids like me who grew up playing the first generation games before we could read the captions on our GameBoy Colors, it seemed like a dream come true. Unfortunately, the final product landed with a disappointing flatness, cheapening a franchise that had inspired Millennials since its genesis in 1996.

 

Understanding Nintendo’s mistake requires some background information on the Pokémon legacy itself. Pokémon is the second best-selling game franchise ever, having sold more than 279 million games (excluding Pokémon Go sales) since the Japanese release of Pokémon Red and Green in the mid-90s. The popular animated television show hit its stride in America around the turn of the millennium, and the franchise went fully multimedia with the wildly popular trading cards and toy memorabilia that are now a ubiquitous presence in attics across the country. Every couple of years, a new “generation” of games would be released on the Nintendo platforms, revolving around the same basic premise of gameplay: catch, train and battle as you meander through storylines and environments. The games, when sticking to their roots, were and are usually met with rave reviews, and the television series is tottering toward its 1,000th episode.

“It lacks any true storyline and doesn’t have any of the emotion that I would say defines a Pokémon game,” said UC Berkeley freshman Cole Spencer, a longtime Pokémon fan who is currently attempting to play through all generations consecutively, “the fear of being halfway through a cave with no potions left and half of your team being dead, or the elation of beating that gym leader that really gave you a rough time.”

Like many loyalists, Spencer shared the sentiment that many Pokémon Go players did not grow up playing the original games. It’s like seeing bandwagoners tuning in to your favorite band’s worst song. Still, he admits, the Niantic release didn’t miss the mark completely in maintaining the integrity of the franchise: “I would say that the Pokémon ideal of the average boy or girl, getting up out of their average lives and going on a journey to capture mystical and amazing creatures is what Pokémon Go hits in spades.”

Even with its frustrating lack of substance, playing Pokémon Go is astonishingly fun, habitually addictive in the same way that scrolling through Instagram can be on a commute. Once you are walking, it takes little to no effort (or cognitive threshing) to achieve a linear progression of leveling up, and it is helplessly exciting to run into a rare Pokémon such as a Hitmonchan on your way to class. So if a game is fun to play, does it really matter if it continues the legacy of its predecessors?

Perhaps only time will tell. There are already rumors foretelling more highly advanced updates that will transport users deeper into the augmented reality that makes Pokémon Go conceptually interesting. This rudimentary first release may only be the backbone of what potential exists for Pokémon in virtual reality, and in a way, Pokémon Go has already succeeded in a way that other virtual reality conduits failed to do.

Whereas the highly anticipated Oculus Rift headset ($599.00 retail value) hardly seemed to make an impact publically since its release, Pokémon Go (free on the App Store) has allowed average citizens to experiment and familiarize themselves with what may be a new generation of gaming in virtual reality. In this way, its unvarnished interface may be its greatest virtue in terms of tech progression. While it’s a shame to see Nintendo weaken its traditionally strong brand by implicating Pokémon with Niantic’s pulp prodigy, it may have finally cracked a fissure in the untapped well of virtual reality.

John Lawson is a writer for the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]