Pokemon GO Is a Beautiful Mess

The biggest mobile game ever lives somewhere between fantastic and flawed

Pokemon GO
Niantic

If I were to use just one word to describe Pokemon GO, it would be "phenomenon." The game shot to the top of the App Store's grossing charts in just hours saw more downloads in its first week than any other app in history, and has some market watchers predicting that it could make $3 billion just for Apple, let alone its creators at Niantic and The Pokemon Company.

In short, Pokemon GO is huge. And we're not just talking profits, either.

Everywhere you go, people are playing the game. Walk down any urban street and you'll see dozens of people staring down at their phones and walking, trying to catch a Zubat or a Pidgey so they can push on with their next evolution. It's a game that has captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way that we haven't seen since, well, Pokemon.

And it's done so despite the game's numerous hiccups and issues.

What is it?

Pokemon GO is a game that does something few games have tried, and even fewer have done successfully: it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. In past Pokemon games, players have put themselves in the shoes of a budding Pokemon trainer as they explored the world around them, capturing Pokemon and participating in gym battles along the way.

Pokemon GO makes the same offer, but instead of stepping into the virtual shoes of a trainer, you're stepping into your shoes. Instead of exploring a virtual world, you're exploring your world.

It's called "augmented reality," which is really just a fancy term that means video games that use real world elements, such as your location or your camera. Pokemon GO uses both, and to great effect.

In a nutshell, Pokemon GO brings video games to real life. 

Here's what's right

It would be incredibly hard to fault Pokemon GO for its intentions.

The game sees players firing up their phones as if they had a real Pokedex, walking the streets in search of Pokemon to catch and evolve. It gets people out of the house and, thanks to key locations in most communities, leads to socialization, new friendships, and more.

The gameplay is kept incredibly simple, meaning anyone can pick it up and play once they learn the basics. Players walk around, looking at the map on their screen to see where Pokemon might appear. When one does, tapping on it triggers a capture mini-game that just involves swiping a Pokeball to toss it, (hopefully) capturing the critter in front you. And since Pokemon GO uses your iPhone's camera, you'll be able to take all sorts of silly photos of Pokemon in real life situations.

And that's more or less it. There are a few other little elements, like visiting Pokestops to get supplies, or placing lures to attract more Pokemon to a certain location, but this is ultimately a very cut and dry experience. It's honestly quite similar to Ingress; the earlier augmented reality game released by Niantic. Ingress was the most successful AR game prior to now, but as you can probably guess, a smart use of the Pokemon license has been a bit of a game changer for the genre.

 After all, few things appeal to a gamer's compulsive nature more than the phrase "gotta catch'em all."

Nobody has caught them all yet as of this writing (regardless of what some headlines might claim), and between the yet-to-be-found legendary Pokemon and the rumors that Niantic has seemingly made some Pokemon region-specific, you've got to think that a complete collection will take a while to assemble -- even for those willing to journey across an ocean or two.

And once someone does assemble all 151 original Pokemon that supposedly launched in Pokemon Go? You've got to think that an update to add some more isn't far away.

After all, the total Pokemon count in the main series is already up to 722 -- and I'd be surprised if they didn't add a few monsters from the upcoming Pokemon Sun & Moon when it launches on the Nintendo 3DS this November.

Here's what's wrong

Keeping things simple is something of a double-edged sword. While the bare bones gameplay may help keep Pokemon GO accessible, it also keeps things rather shallow for Pokemon fans who are used to products with a bit more oomph. By all standards, Pokemon GO is a great augmented reality game, but a pretty mediocre Pokemon game.

And while it can get away with choosing AR over Pokemon fundamentals, the features promised in the game's announcement trailer that weren't available at launch can't help but sting for a lot of players. Where is the ability to trade Pokemon? Or battle with other players? The lack of such seemingly obvious and expected features makes Pokemon GO's launch feel somewhat rushed; as if they felt launching in time for summer when people are outside and kids aren't in school, was more important than getting a feature complete release ready for day one.

Then again, considering the number of problems that players have been forced to endure, it's probably best that there are fewer things that could break right now. From server issues to frequent crashes, getting Pokemon GO to work properly can feel like a game all on its own. Pokemon GO is even completely devoid of instructions, leaving most players fumbling around in the dark trying to learn even just the basics.

In the 17 minute walk home from my office yesterday, I couldn't get beyond the "LOADING" screen once. I tried rebooting both the app and my phone multiple times, but no luck. It just didn't want to work. On today's walk I was able to get the game running fine, but when I went to add my support to a Team Valor gym, the button to do so just wasn't there (despite there only being one Pokemon guarding things). And for some reason, my Pokemon egg-hatching only tracked the distance for about half of my walk. Since it only counts your distance when the Pokemon GO app is open (rather than syncing with Apple's internal step counter), it's not like I could make up the progress throughout the rest of my day either. So thanks for that, Niantic.

In short, the experience can be kind of a mess.

Here's why it doesn't matter

Despite the seemingly flawed, buggy, and unstable nature of Pokemon GO, there are a hundred or so people sitting on the lawn of my local City Hall every evening. It's a spot where four Pokestops overlap, and when lured, you can chill out and catch Pokemon all night while sitting in the grass and enjoying the company of your peers. This isn't an isolated experience, either. There are stories like this in just about every community.

Who cares if it's broken? What lies underneath is a social experiment that's too exciting to miss. You'll want to be a part of this; you'll want it enough to overlook Pokemon GO's many little hiccups and frustrations.

Pokemon GO manages to sit at a perfect crossroads of timeliness, technology, and comfort. People are always looking for something new, love a summertime excuse to go outdoors, and find themselves tickled frequently by nostalgia. By keeping things accessible, Pokemon GO is a game that checks all three boxes while remaining playable by millennials, retirees, and schoolkids alike. Even if you've never picked up a Pokemon game in your life, you know who Pikachu is.

Pokemon GO is a Pokemon game for the rest of us.

Pokemon GO is available as a free download from the App Store. It is also available on Android for free from Google Play.