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[blog] I wish I enjoyed Pokémon Go

I’ve been trying really hard not to be a sourpuss about this, because everyone seems to enjoy it a lot and I don’t want to be the jerk pissing in their cornflakes.

And yet!

Despite all the potential of the game, despite all the fervor all across the world, it doesn’t tickle my fancy.

It seems like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy. Pokémon is kind of my jam, if you hadn’t noticed. When I don’t enjoy a Pokémon thing, something is wrong with at least one of us.

The app is broken

I’m not talking about the recent update that everyone’s mad about and that I haven’t even tried. They removed pawprints, which didn’t work anyway? That sucks, yeah, but I think it’s more significant that the thing is barely usable.

I’ve gone out hunting Pokémon several times with my partner and their husband. We wandered around for about an hour each time, and like clockwork, the game would just stop working for me every fifteen minutes. It would still run, and the screen would still update, but it would completely ignore all taps or swipes. The only fix seems to be killing it and restarting it, which takes like a week, and meanwhile the rest of my party has already caught the Zubat or whatever and is moving on.

For the brief moments when it works, it seems to be constantly confused about exactly where I am and which way I’m facing. Pokéstops (Poké Stops?) have massive icons when they’re nearby, and more than once I’ve had to mess around with the camera angle to be able to tap a nearby Pokémon, because a cluster of several already-visited Pokéstops are in the way. There’s also a strip along the bottom of the screen, surrounding the menu buttons, where tapping just does nothing at all.

I’ve had the AR Pokémon catching screen — the entire conceit of the game — lag so badly on multiple occasions that a Pokéball just stayed frozen in midair, and I couldn’t tell if I’d hit the Pokémon or not. There was also the time the Pokéball hit the Pokémon, landed on the ground, and… slowly rolled into the distance. For at least five minutes. I’m not exaggerating this time.

The game is much more responsive with AR disabled, so the Pokémon appear on a bland and generic background, which… seems to defeat the purpose of the game.

(Catching Pokémon doesn’t seem to have any real skill to it, either? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand how I’m supposed to gauge distance to an isolated 3D model and somehow connect this to how fast I flick my finger. I don’t really like “squishy” physics games like Angry Birds, and this is notably worse. It might as well be random.)

I had a better time just enjoying my party’s company and looking at actual wildlife, which in this case consists of cicadas and a few semi-wild rabbits that inexplicably live in a nearby park. I feel that something has gone wrong with your augmented reality game when it is worse than reality.

It's not about Pokémon

Let’s see if my reasoning is sound, here.

In the mainline Pokémon games, you play as a human, but many of your important interactions are with Pokémon. You carry a number of Pokémon with you. When you encounter a Pokémon, you immediately send out your own. All the NPCs talk about how much they love Pokémon. There are overworld Pokémon hanging out. It’s pretty clear what the focus is. It’s right there on the title screen, even: both the word itself and an actual Pokémon.

Contrast this with Pokémon Go.

Most of the time, the only thing of interest on the screen is your avatar, a human. Once you encounter a Pokémon, you don’t send out your own; it’s just you, and it. In fact, once you catch a Pokémon, you hardly ever interact with it again. You can go look at its stats, assuming you can find it in your party of, what, 250?

The best things I’ve seen done with the app are AR screenshots of Pokémon in funny or interesting real-world places. It didn’t even occur to me that you can only do this with wild Pokémon until I played it. You can’t use the AR feature — again, the main conceit of the game — with your own Pokémon. How obvious is this? How can it not be possible? (If it is possible, it’s so well-hidden that several rounds of poking through the app haven’t revealed how to do it, which is still a knock for hiding the most obvious thing to want to do.)

So you are a human, and you wander around hoping you see Pokémon, and then you catch them, and then they are effectively just a sprite in a list until you feed them to your other Pokémon. And feed them you must, because the only way to level up a Pokémon is to feed them the corpses — sorry, “candies” — of their brethren. The Pokémon themselves aren’t involved in this process; they are passive consumers you fatten up.

If you’re familiar with Nuzlocke runs, you might be aware of just how attached players — or even passive audiences — can get to their Pokémon in mainline games. Yet in Pokémon Go, the critters themselves are just something to collect, just something to have, just something to sacrifice. No other form of interaction is offered.

In Pokémon X and Y, you can pet your Pokémon and feed them cakes, then go solve puzzles with them. They will love you in return. In Pokémon Go, you can swipe to make the model rotate.

There is some kind of battle system in here somewhere, but as far as I can tell, you only ever battle against gym leaders, who are jerks who’ve been playing the damn thing since it came out and have Pokémon whose CP have more digits than you even knew were possible. Also the battling is real-time with some kind of weird gestural interface, so it’s kind of a crapshoot whether you even do the thing you want, a far cry from the ostensibly strategic theme of the mainline games.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think some no-name third-party company just took an existing product and poorly plastered Pokémon onto it.

There are very few Pokémon per given area

The game is limited to generation 1, the Red/Blue/Yellow series. And that’s fine.

I’ve seen about six of them.

Rumor has it that they are arranged very cleverly, with fire Pokémon appearing in deserts and water Pokémon appearing in waterfronts. That sounds really cool, except that I don’t live at the intersection of fifteen different ecosystems. How do you get ice Pokémon? Visit my freezer?

I freely admit, I’m probably not the target audience here; I don’t have a commute at all, and on an average day I have no reason to leave the house at all. I can understand that I might not see a huge variety, sure. But I’ve seen several friends lamenting that they don’t see much variety on their own commutes, or around the points of interest near where they live.

If you spend most of your time downtown in a major city, the game is probably great; if you live out in the sticks, it sounds a bit barren. It might be a little better if you could actually tell how to find Pokémon that are more than a few feet away — there used to be a distance indicator for nearby Pokémon, which I’m told even worked at one point, but it’s never worked since I first tried the game and it’s gone now.

Ah, of course, there’s always Pokévision, a live map of what Pokémon are where… which Niantic just politely asked to cease and desist.

It's full of obvious "free-to-play" nudges

I put “free-to-play” in quotes because it’s a big ol’ marketing lie and I don’t know why the gaming community even tolerates the phrase. The game is obviously designed to be significantly worse if you don’t give them money, and there are little reminders of this everywhere.

The most obvious example: eggs rain from the sky, and are the only way to get Pokémon that don’t appear naturally nearby. You have to walk a certain number of kilometers to hatch an egg, much like the mainline games, which is cute.

Ah, but you also have to put an egg in an incubator for the steps to count. And you only start with one. And they’re given to you very rarely, and any beyond the one you start with only have limited uses at a time. And you can carry 9 eggs at a time.

Never fear! You can an extra (limited use) incubator for the low low price of $1.48. Or maybe $1.03. It’s hard to tell, since (following the usual pattern of flagrant dishonesty) you first have to turn real money into game-specific trinkets at one of several carefully obscured exchange rates.

The thing is, you could just sell a Pokémon game. Nintendo has done so quite a few times, in fact. But who would pay for Pokémon Go, in the state it’s in?

In conclusion

This game is bad and I wish it weren’t bad. If you enjoy it, that’s awesome, and I’m not trying to rain on your parade, really. I just wish I enjoyed it too.

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(illus. by Rumwik)