Many years ago, I attempted to take up the hobby of geocaching. Using nothing more than my wits and my GPS, I attempted to find small objects located in the physical world. Sadly, it never came to fruition. But, I remember being very fond of the idea.
Long before that, a pair of video games for the Nintendo Game Boy were released to mass acclaim. Those games were Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue. In those games, the player took on the role of an eleven year old boy sent out into the world to catch elusive creatures known as Pokemon.
After many iterations on Nintendo handhelds and console spinoffs, Pokemon finally received its first game on smartphones. Released on July, 6th, Pokemon Go quickly took the world by storm.
Pokemon Go combined the familiar Pokemon brand and the creatures within it with the exploratory nature of geocaching. Pokemon would show up in set GPS coordinates, and the player is tasked with finding and catching those Pokemon.
These Pokemon could then be powered up and could participate in Gym battles. Gyms are specifically designated locations where people can go to battle other Pokemon trainers for control of that location. These are divided into Pokemon Go’s three teams, Valor, Instinct, and Mystic.
Of course, I had heard of Pokemon Go when it came out, and all of my friends decided to join the fun. I decided to follow suit and took up the role of Pokemon trainer once again.
Caterpies and Crashes
In the beginning, Pokemon Go was a blessing. I was provided with a reason to go exploring, arranging group Pokemon Go adventures with my friends. Most of us picked Team Valor.
Local businesses capitalized on the app’s success. They organized Pokemon catching events. People suffering from depression reported improvement in their mental health thanks to getting exposure to the outside world, and the game facilitated face to face social interaction.
Rumblings of discord were felt. Clever muggers placed lure modules in secluded areas to ensnare trainers and rob them at gunpoint. Distracted drivers crashed their cars while playing the game. The Holocaust Museum was troubled by the fact that the gas-emitting Pokemon, Koffing, could be caught on the premises.
As players, there were bugs that we encountered throughout the game. The app would freeze upon trapping a Pokemon with a Pokeball. Gym battles would be broken by a bug in which Pokemon would stop taking damage at a single hit point. Tracking would often give inaccurate results, showing a Pokemon as being further away than it actually was. This was represented by paw prints, which would ostensibly decrease the closer the trainer got to the Pokemon. On occasion, the anti-cheat algorithm built into the game would be triggered by accident. This made Pokemon nearly impossible to catch.
But for most, these were minor concerns. The enthusiasm for the game went onward for several weeks. We were catching and training Pokemon happily. But it was not long until changes to the game rendered it virtually unplayable for most of us.
Killing the Golden Goose
The developer, Niantic, released an update that removed tracking. Now, the only method of tracking is the order placed on Nearby. If there’s only a single Pokemon in the area, there’s no frame of reference that can be used to track the Pokemon in question. Sightings, however, curates a list of unique and unordered Pokemon that are much more quickly removed when the game itself removes them in a process called “despawning”.
As a result, Pokemon Go has been subject to a steady stream of harsh reviews on the App Store, though for now that hasn’t managed to bring the game’s rating below three and a half stars.
Nevertheless, analysts have reported the number of active users has peaked. During that peak, 45 million people were playing. As of Aug. 23, 2016, the game has shed a third of its user base. Thirty million players is still impressive given that Niantic is comprised of less than 50 people, but it still casts an ominous shadow over the game’s future. Fewer active users necessarily means fewer microtransactions, the game’s sole form of monetization.
Some have speculated that the GPS’s drain on the battery has driven off casual players, though hardcore fans would be more willing to buy an additional portable power source.
But for us, the event that sealed the fate of our Pokemon Go adventures was the loss of our preferred location to catch Pokemon. We would trek out to the Historic District of Ellicott City, as Pokemon spawn more in densely populated areas and it was the closest spot that fit that criteria. On July 30th, a flood demolished the town. Even after a month, the district is still rebuilding.
Someday, I hope to return to the game. It was a good excuse to go out and wander aimlessly for the sake of exercise. But Niantic will have to fix the problems they have created, and I will have to wait until Historic Ellicott is rebuilt.
Until then, I will be Pokemon Gone.