The game that caught us all
An Overnight Sensation
As early as Sept. 8, 1998, children in the U.S. sat cross-legged in front of low-definition television screens and watched as a fictional 10-year-old boy in a red and white baseball cap named Ash Ketchum became their hero.
They cheered for him as he traveled through an eclectic realm, smiled when he found himself in the company of unique and brilliant companions, and most importantly, sat in awe and admiration as he struggled to capture and train extraordinary creatures big and small — creatures that soon bore the household name Pokemon.
In the 1990s, those wide-eyed millennials watched Ash as he strove to be the very best, to catch and master the mystical creatures. On July 6, 2016 — nearly 20 years after the anime series’ initial release — their greatest childhood dreams were finally realized.
They became him.
But it isn’t just millennials who are living that dream. The release of the overnight sensation Pokemon Go, a free mobile smartphone application, has reached people of every generation, every race, every gender and every nationality. Pokemon Go reached the top of Apple’s U.S. App Store charts a mere five hours following its initial release. Within three days, the game had accrued more daily active users than either Twitter or Tinder. It has now surpassed Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat in terms of average time spent on the app per day.
“No one expected this type of response. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are lying,” Frank Lee, an associate professor of digital media at Drexel University and co-founder of the game design program at Drexel, said via email correspondence.
The game itself is relatively simple. Each user creates an account and a customizable avatar. Then, that avatar is dropped onto a real map based on the user’s location. All paths reflected on the screen are the real roads and highways surrounding the user. And because the app updates in real time, the user sees the avatar heading in the same direction they themselves walk in.
A small bar on the bottom right of the screen indicates which Pokemon are lurking nearby. If there are three footprints under the Pokemon’s silhouette, they are considered far. Two footprints, and they’re a little closer. One footprint, and they’re within steps. No footprints, and the user is practically right on top of them. Once a player gets close enough to a Pokemon, it will pop up on the map near the avatar. The player then taps the place where the Pokemon appears on the map, which switches the screen to a first-person view showing a Poke Ball on the bottom and Pokemon in the center.
“Use your touch screen to throw Poke Balls to try to catch the Pokemon. Careful—Pokemon will sometimes move around, making it tricky to catch them!” the instructions state on Pokemon Go’s website.
More populated areas such as cities or shopping malls generally have a greater amount of Pokemon and more stations, known as Pokestops. Pokestops appear as blue cubes on the user’s map, and are places where users can pick up free digital goods such as Poke Balls, potions (which can be used to replenish a Pokemon’s depleted health), and eggs (which can be incubated to hatch more Pokemon).
Once a user has acquired enough experience to reach Level 5, they are eligible to pick one of three teams, each represented by a legendary bird-type Pokemon and a color. There is Team Valor (red), represented by Moltres, Team Mystic (blue), represented by Articuno, and Team Instinct (yellow), represented by Zapdos. Once they have picked teams, users can battle their Pokemon in arenas known as gyms. Pokemon with higher Combat Power (CP) levels are more likely to reign victorious, and if a user’s Pokemon is able to defeat a gym’s reigning champion, that user’s team is considered the owner of that gym for whatever duration their Pokemon is able to successfully defend it.
The most surprising thing about the app is not an aspect of its gameplay, but rather the sheer magnitude of response to its release.
Niantic, the company responsible for Nintendo's development of Pokemon Go, previously released a game called Ingress. According to Lee, Ingress had a total of approximately 11 million downloads, and it took them several years to achieve that number. With 15 million downloads in less than a week, Pokemon Go blows its precursor out of the water.
The nature of the game, with its integrated maps and augmented reality, is also unprecedented.
“There has not been anything like this as it relates to pervasive mixed-reality games like this,” Lee, who also serves as the director of the entrepreneurial game studio, stated.
Lee also suggested that referring to Pokemon Go as an augmented reality game doesn’t do its gameplay justice.
“It’s not just augmented reality, but it’s augmented reality, plus location-based gameplay, plus extensive mapping data to transform our world— the real world— into super reality where Pokemon can exist. Absolutely, I see this as a fundamental shift and transformational in mobile games,” he said.
Lee pointed out that the game is also unique in that it is only available on a mobile platform. Most mobile games are just mobile versions of games that can be played on a variety of other platforms, such as PCs or consoles. Pokemon Go, however, can only be played one way. It’s a game that relies on travel, and is therefore mobile in nature. Therefore, Lee explains, it wouldn’t make sense to play the game on anything other than mobile.
The limited technological nature of the game has done nothing to minimize its overwhelming success. And, as with any trend of such incredible magnitude, it can only be expected that other organizations will try to capitalize on it.
“Pokemon Go has huge financial ramifications for Nintendo. It will do two or three things. The first is it will reinvigorate Pokemon,” Stephen Joyce, an assistant clinical professor in economics at Drexel, said in an email interview.
“It will also help Nintendo, whose stock price has already doubled since this came out. But I believe the real money will be made in advertising, and getting Pokemon Go to place a Pokemon near your business's site,” Joyce continued.
Joyce went on to speculate that the game could rack up more profits in the future with the introduction of advertising.
“Every time someone goes on this app, Nintendo has access to them [so] they (Nintendo) can use this to advertise their other game systems. Much the way NBC [does] when it's going to show the Olympics … [they] also show commercials for their other programs,” he said.
The companies responsible for Pokemon Go have not released any plans to incorporate advertisements into the game at this time, but it’s not out of the question. If they do, Joyce suggested they might adopt a two-tier system within the app similar to Spotify or Pandora, where users can use the free version with the advertisements or purchase a premium version without them.
Whether or not advertisements are in the cards for the app sensation, it’s already making money through the available in-app purchases that assist the user in catching, incubating and strengthening Pokemon.
Benefits and Drawbacks
But the economy isn’t the only thing the game has the potential to improve. The app encourages users to walk around to catch Pokemon, battle at gyms and incubate eggs. In short, it’s inadvertently promoting exercise. Users have also reported that the ubiquity of the app has allowed them to connect with other like-minded players. Sources like ScienceDaily, Forbes and U.S. News and World Report have all published articles speculating on either the potential mental or physical health benefits of the game.
“I like it. I feel like a lot of people give it a bad rap because you’re always staring at your phones all the time when you’re outside, but it forces people to actually get outside,” Kayla Velocci, a junior graphic design major, said in an interview.
“I have seen a lot of people play it, and then you can always be like, ‘ah, I was about to catch that Pokemon, but I didn’t!’ And then some random person’s like ‘yeah man, I didn’t catch it either!’ So, I guess it’s good for meeting random strangers and complaining about Pokemon that ran away,” Velocci continued.
“This game never ceases to amaze me! Not only has it become a world phenomenon almost literally overnight, but it appears to have also transformed the entire world!” sophomore computer science major Matthew Napolillo commented in a digital correspondence.
Unfortunately, the game has also inadvertently led to a variety of unfavorable outcomes and injuries. The app’s loading screen warns players to be aware of their surroundings, but it’s a warning that some players have failed to heed.
“Not even 30 minutes after the release last night, I slipped and fell down a ditch. Fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in my foot, 6-8 weeks for recovery. I told all the doctors I was walking my dog lol ... Watch where you're going, folks! [sic]” Reddit user Amalthea posted in the Pokemon Go subreddit July 7.
Reports have also come in of distracted pedestrians being hit by cars and distracted drivers causing traffic accidents.
Pokemon Go has also sparked an uptick in trespassing with players crossing into private property in pursuit of the digital creatures. The dangers of user’s obsessions with the game have been analyzed by major news outlets like the Washington Post, Fox News and the New York Post.
Days or Years?
There’s no question about it — Pokemon Go’s massive popularity is astounding. But how long will it last? Will the app’s response fade as quickly as it was generated, or will people be walking around the block in search of a Pikachu for a long time to come?
“That is the great question. The short answer is that I don’t know,” Lee answered.
“Pokemon Go has a lot going for it. It is a completely new type of game that we haven’t seen before, but relying on a deeply loved brand, Pokemon, with a huge worldwide fan base. My gut tells me that this game has tremendous potential,” he continued.
However, Lee expressed his worry that a potentially forthcoming load of Pokemon Go knock-offs could damage the game’s booming success.
“My one concern is that given the insane popularity of this game, we will see a deluge of similar games, most of which will be crap. But, even against that, I remain very hopeful and optimistic that we are at the cusp of transformation in mobile gaming,” he explained.
Whether the prevalence of the game will be a fact of life for days or years to come is yet to be seen. So far, there is no app available that offers the same range of features, but a similar platform could potentially compete for users.
Analysts at Gamespot have speculated about whether or not the game will be sticking around. Gamespot Editor Scott Butterworth suggested that if the app isn’t able to provide updates soon, such as trading or battling, then it may not be able to hold the public’s attention. Editor In Chief Randolph Ramsay thinks that although the game may not remain ubiquitous for much longer, it will still maintain a large and loyal fanbase that could continue to play indefinitely.
It seems only time will tell whether Pokemon Go’s popularity will fade. In the meantime, University City is littered with Pokestops and eager college students, giving those who enjoy the game plenty of opportunities to get out there and catch ‘em all.
Design and Layout Noel Forté
Reported and Authored Gina Vitale
Special Thanks to
Frank Lee, an associate professor of digital media at Drexel University and co-founder of the game design program at Drexel.
Stephen Joyce, an assistant clinical professor in economics at Drexel.