A Simple Joke
No series has managed to reach mass popularity as quickly as the Pokémon franchise. With the combined efforts of its popular trading card games, anime, and wide variety of video game experiences from the mainstream to obscure, Pokémon was able to win over the hearts and minds of millions of players around the world for nearly two decades. However, by 2016 there once massive fanbase had begun to dwindle due to the franchise fatigue that oh so many video games receive. The Pokémon Company needed to find a new way to bring back the fans that had launched their franchise into the stratosphere while appealing to those who would have never even touched the series before; something that just wouldn’t work on the handhelds that they called home. But there was another option on the table, a device universal to the majority of people living today, the smart phone and with it mobile gaming. With this in mind there was one remaining question, where to start?
As a sort of testing ground for this more contemporary outing it all began as a joke. On April 1, 2014, the immeasurable media giant, Google, revealed the Google Maps Pokémon Challenge to the world as a mere April Fool’s joke. Using Google Maps players could scour the globe in search of 25 Pokémon from each successive generation and the ever-elusive Mew with all of them being strewn about various real world location. The idea was conceived by The Pokémon Company’s Tsunekazu Ishihara and Nintendo President Satoru Iwata as a way to test whether or not a mobile Pokémon title could possibly succeed. The results of this experiment spoke for themselves as millions took up the challenge that they had extended en masse. A mobile Pokémon title was a sure bet but who could take on such monumental task? Game Freak had the mainline games to worry about and the rest of Pokémon’s plethora of secondary developers had little to no experience with mobile titles. There was only one team up for the task and conveniently enough they had just worked with them on their little joke, Niantic.
An internal startup founded within Google itself by John Hanke, Niantic’s main business interests were within the newly budding augmented reality side of gaming. Starting off by developing Field Trip, an app that let you find interesting things hidden throughout the world, the team truly came into their own with the release of Ingress, a team based augmented reality game. Tasking players with choosing between two teams and fighting for dominance over portals that appeared throughout the world, Ingress was an engrossing app that encouraged many players to travel, make friends, and uncover the hidden story behind it all. Whole communities, friendships, and even relationships blossomed due to the apps influence, an experience that even drew in Ishihara and his wife back in their home country of Japan. He was intrigued by how players of the game were drawn to recognizable landmarks and the many possibilities that the mechanic provided. Possibilities that the Pokémon franchise could latch onto and further improve. Seeing an opportunity, Ishihara along with Satoru Iwata soon began talks with John Hanke on making a collaboration between their respective companies, with Iwata in particular being excited by their new endeavor. In the year after the deal Iwata would continue to provide further insight on the project, crafting it to be worthy of the Pokémon name. But he wasn’t the only franchise veteran overseeing their effort. Pokémon’s executive producer and iconic musical composer Junichi Masuda was at the helm for the majority of the time, giving Niantic the knowledge he gained from his work on the franchise from the beginning. Very few Pokémon spinoffs had ever been given such attention, with the majority of them being left to their own devices. But, Niantic’s case was special. They were building Nintendo’s first entry into the mobile gaming market, it had to be spectacular, it had to blow everyone away, it had to be a hit, an instant classic in every shape and form. And Niantic was willing to take up that cause as it had just been freed from Google and become its own independent company.
Officially announced by Ishihara on September 10, 2015, Pokémon Go’s reveal trailer inspired awe and wonder in the millions of people who watched it. Real Pokémon in the real world, a dream that many had dreamed of when they were children and one that franchise creator Satoshi Tajiri had envisioned from the very beginning. Iwata too was a part of this dream, however, sadly he passed away before he could ever see it become a reality, even giving advice on the project when he was admitted to the hospital near death. It was a sad turn of events for Pokémon Go’s development but, as they say, the show must go on. The world was hotly anticipating this new release and Niantic was happy to oblige. Releasing on July 6th, 2016 in North America with a slowly rolled out release around the world, Pokémon Go was what fans had been craving for and wasn’t at the same time. It most definitely let players live out their dreams of catching Pokémon in the real world yet not in the fantastical way it had been advertised as. Pokémon Go’s Gameplay was deceptively simple. All players needed to do was step out into the real world and hopefully run into a Pokémon in the wild. Using a GPS and internet connection they could be found anywhere. They could be in the grass, rural areas, mountainous regions, or even near historical landmarks. Where one would assume a real-life Pikachu live is probably where you would end up finding one. Once you have one of the critters in your sights all you had to do was simply swipe forward, throw your Pokéball, and pray that you successful capture the Pokémon, no battling required. Catching Pokémon was the bread and butter of Pokémon Go with battling only being a supplementary affair. As you gain levels like any standard RPG you eventually unlock access to the games rival teams, Team Valor, Mystic, and Instinct, and choose one to represent. With teams came gyms that you could takeover and run, using a light version of Pokémon’s standard battling system to overcome your opponents that involved less skill then one would hope. The only way to takeover a gym was to, of course, level up your Pokémon and evolve them to even greater heights. But how could you do that without battling? Easy, Pokémon candies. Sending you unneeded Pokémon to Professor Willow earns you candies to level up your Pokémon’s CP. The higher the CP the more powerful the Pokémon, encouraging players to catch as many Pokémon as they could, no matter how weak they were. It was essentially a bare bones version of the battle system Pokémon fans had come to expect, a nice distraction to be sure yet unmemorable in the long run. Other features such as eggs, potions, and Pokestops strewn about famous landmarks that gave free items were additions that only slightly improved the experience but, over all, it was mediocre in comparison to past Pokémon entries. But what they were trying to sell wasn’t amazing gameplay, it was the experience of it all. And people ended up buying into that.
The Social Connection
Downloaded over 15 million times in its first week, Pokémon Go was one of if not the most successful launches of any app of all time. As it went onto downloaded 500 million more times in the preceding months, it was official, Pokémania had returned. What had swept up the world into a frenzy in the later years of the 90’s was now repeating itself nearly two decades later. Not the games nor multitude of spun off media could hope to match its success. But its true success wouldn’t be measured in sales numbers or apps downloaded. No its true success came in how it impacted a generation. Pokémon Go got many gamers to step outside for once and explore their surroundings. It made people want to exercise, travel, and even make new friends along the way. Whole communities sprouted up around the title with massive crowds chasing after rare Pokémon and some people camping out in groups just to keep on catching late into the night. People who would have never met each other before were brought together because of this one little title and the endless friendships and relationships brought forth because of it are all the accolades it needs. Rarely does a game impact the industry but never has one effected society socially as much as Pokémon Go. As it slowly fades into obscurity, possibly never to regain its popular status again, Pokémon Go will always be remembered fondly as something that showed that video games can be much more than just story and gameplay mechanics. They can be something that changes who we are for the better… when they look where they’re going first.