Words On Wednesday

2016-02-17 Pokemon GO Hype

Pokemon GO is scheduled to drop soon, and the hype is real.

To someone who isn’t a fan, it may seem like a trivial release. Popular game series are released on mobile platforms all the time, what makes this any different? But to someone so vested in the Pokemon universe, this is enormous. It’s a big deal that Pokemon is going to a platform besides Nintendo, it’s big that we’ll be able to see Pokemon in a virtual reality world, we can battle people we come across in real life. It’s just huge.

While I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities that Pokemon GO holds, I also have quite a few doubts and concerns that could completely kill the game for me. I’ve learned before that overhyping something will make the final product a let down, no matter how great it may be (looking at you, Final Fantasy VII remake). Coming up on the release date with expectations that we’re all going to be virtual Pokemon trainers in the real world is bound to leave people disappointed.

Shallow Gameplay

The biggest point that any trailers or discussions have pushed is the ability to use your phone screen as almost like a viewfinder to see and interact with Pokemon in the virtual world; is that all?

Don’t get me wrong, if you’d told 8-year-old me back in 1999 that we would be chasing around Pokemon in the real world, I would’ve lost my mind. Today, though, I want more than just a wild goose chase to fill up the Pokedex. The main series of games pushes for catching all the Pokemon, sure, but it also has a tremendously deep system of levels, skills, type advantages, and party balancing that far overshadows the simple goal of just “catching ‘em all.”

The ad that aired during the Super Bowl gave me a good feeling that they’re pushing for more. During the last few seconds, there were 2 trainers in an arena, with different Pokemon surrounding them. It very much gave me a Pokemon Stadium vibe from back in the N64 days. While 3D Pokemon battles have been incorporated into the main games with the release of generation 6, there’s just something magical about the idea of VR Pokemon combat after training and honing your party.

I’m not saying that the gameplay of GO has to be as deep and complex as the main games, but give me something to do besides run around and chase things. Give me battles to fight, stats to tweak, all that jazz.

Bad VR Mechanics

Even if there is more to the game than just finding Pokemon in the world, having a badly implemented VR system is going to suck when virtual reality exploration is such a huge focus of the game.

You’re walking down the street looking for Pokemon when all of a sudden, a Rattata pops out of… the lines on the sidewalk? If the VR isn’t particularly good, the game might detect corners or areas that aren’t actually present in real life. My understanding of and experience with VR are minimal, but as a programmer, I know that seemingly simple tasks can often be absurdly difficult to perform in code. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I can’t help fearing that this game could be an absolute mess with Pokemon coming out of random areas that wouldn’t make sense.

My other concern with the VR side of things is the availability of game areas in more rural areas. Though I haven’t done a ton of my own research about the game, I’ve entertained the idea that any retail stores could be Poke Marts, Pokemon Centers could be situated at police stations and hospitals, and various other structures in the Pokemon universe would be tied to similar equivalents in the real world. How are players in more rural areas going to access these necessities? If you need to heal your Pokemon, how are you going to get to a Pokemon Center outside of walking distance without access to a vehicle. Surely, Nintendo will address these sorts of issues, but I want them to do it in a way that is fair to players without breaking the immersion in the game.

Microtransactions

Basically all free mobile games (and even some paid mobile games) have microtransactions, and those so often manifest themselves as the ultimate bane of long term success.

Microtransactions serve as the bread and butter for most mobile game developers. Advertising revenue helps, but they get most of their income from players who are willing to drop a few dollars here and there for in-game currency or other such benefits. While many players (such as myself) will likely never spend a dime on Pokemon GO, plenty of people will spend a buck or two each week, and some may even spend tens if not hundreds of dollars over the course of playing. This gives Nintendo a fairly steady revenue stream, far more constant than the one time purchase of buying a cartridge or disc game.

Having given a basic justification of microtransactions in games, I will come clean and say that I absolutely loathe them. Developers often shove them in the faces of players, never relenting that some players just don’t want to pay for these luxuries. The worst examples will unabashedly make a game pay-to-win, where hemorrhaging money into a game will automatically make a player superior to a free player, no matter how much time they’ve invested. A free game should be *free*, and fair to all players.

As long as Nintendo makes any microtransactions fair, I’ll accept the necessity of their inclusion. The company needs to make money, and that’s a perfectly legitimate way to do it. However, I sincerely hope that they strike a delicate balance to make sure some players do have incentive to pay, without automatically making them better than free players. Giving too much power to real money purchases makes the game pay-to-win. Giving too little power means most people won’t bother paying and this could eventually cause Nintendo to abandon support of a financial liability.

The Good

What indicates a good example of fair microtransactions? Probably the most appropriate function would be the ability to purchase more in-game currency. If players can buy PokeDollars (or whatever they’re called) with real dollars, all they stand to gain is time. Any free player could eventually invest the time to make that money at no real world cost, the paying player just gets the money faster. Unless real world money converts to this currency at an absolutely absurd rate, I would consider it perfectly fair.

Another fair example more specific to the Pokemon universe would be the ability to pay real world money for better tiers of Pokeballs. In the main series, Pokeballs are the lowest tier with a 1x catch rate, Great Balls offer a 1.5x catch rate, and Ultra Balls have a catch rate of 2x the Pokeball standard. Perhaps free players could be limited to Pokeballs and Great Balls, while paying players could purchase the ability to use Ultra Balls. The main series also has a variety of other balls with catch rates that depend on certain circumstances. I could feasibly see each of these types of Pokeballs being a small real world fee to unlock, and that would be fair in my mind.

The Bad

What about examples of bad microtransactions? The line is very fuzzy, and different people would suggest that different things are fair or not. I would personally say that anything vital to completion or success in the game should not be behind a paywall. No types or species of Pokemon should require real world purchases. Even if it takes a free player longer, or requires more skill/luck, all players should be able to catch all available Pokemon without paying a cent. Likewise, trainers and gyms should be available to all players, without any sort of exclusive paid content. The only possible exception to this rule would be a sort of after-release DLC, but I still don’t know if I would support the idea of paying for that.

The Ugly

Though I would hate to see this sort of system implemented, the ability to purchase “energy” to play for longer spans is a common microtransaction type. These systems limit free players to only play while they have energy, while paying players can purchase energy refills in many cases. It’s fair, and it makes sense in the right context, but I would hate for Nintendo to make Pokemon GO an energy-based game. If I want to be a Pokemon master, let me achieve that status at my own pace.

Scale

There has been talk about how the game will feature certain Pokemon in certain appropriate environments, but how does that work for players who can’t easily access big cities, rivers, lakes, or any other environment containing specific species?

I could see maybe taking a field trip every now and then to the closest pond or river, possibly going to the park for grassy area Pokemon. What about Pokemon from the mountains like Geodude? I live a solid hour from any mountainous areas, so that’s a hard sale to drive an hour 1 way just to catch some virtual Pokemon. Beach Pokemon that wouldn’t be found in fresh water, that’s 3+ hours. Sure, I could make a point to catch as many as I can on vacation, but what about people who live even further from the beach than that?

One possible solution I can envision is pushing more for trade between players in different areas. Someone who lives near a beach could catch a ton of those Pokemon and trade them for Pokemon from other areas. The Global Trade System in the main games does a great job of facilitating trade between players, so that could probably be implemented in GO successfully.

Veterans vs. Noobs

Obviously, a lot of people are going to start playing the game within hours or minutes of being released, but what about people who start playing months or years down the road?

Different people play Pokemon games at different rates, but I’d argue that 50 hours is probably a good estimate to play through the main game, beat the elite four, and build up a solid team at max level. Maybe a little longer if you spend time catching Pokemon that don’t end up in your final party. Regardless, in the main games, a month of playing could easily put you in prime form to compete against the best players.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of 2 people. One guy downloads Pokemon GO as soon as it is released. He plays almost nonstop until he builds his perfect party, levels them as high as they go, and just slays everybody he battles. A year after the game is released, another guy hears about the game and decides to start playing. Within that year, most of the biggest Pokemon fans are already going to have extremely powerful parties. What is Nintendo going to do to ensure that the new players are just getting pummeled anytime they battle other players? Will there be level ranges that people can play within or scaling systems to put Pokemon on about the same ability level? There are several possible ways to make this work for everybody, but I hope Nintendo chooses a solution that is fair to both new players and old veterans.

I’ve discussed several concerns here, but these are all just things that COULD go wrong. I have high hopes for the game, given the track record of those creating it and the amount of money Nintendo stands to gain should it do well. Niantic created Ingress, a game that I never played personally, but have heard absolutely stellar things about. If they learn from mistakes and successes with Ingress, they can apply that knowledge to make Pokemon GO an absolutely amazing game. Plus, Pokemon has an enormous following, with fans of all ages.

Ultimately, I’m pretty excited about Pokemon GO, and the level of engagement and variety it could bring to the Pokemon series. I’ll probably pick it up very soon after it comes out, within a day or two, but I don’t want to invest a huge number of hours before some of the more severe bugs get ironed out. There will be issues and problems, the only question is how quickly and effectively Nintendo deals with them.

I have high hopes that it will be a fantastic game. Nintendo may be lagging behind on hardware lately, but their software is still top notch and they really need to score big with a new Pokemon installment. If GO turns out to be anywhere near as good as I hope it is, I’ll be outside on my lunch break catching and training every single day. Don’t let me down, Nintendo.

All aboard the hype train, choo choo.

Meta:

Words: 2155 | Characters: 12185 | Sentences: 103

Paragraphs: 36 | Reading Level: College Student

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