Explaining Pokemon Go's Real Genius

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Posted by Captain Marvelous |

Original Article on Masters.gg

It's two in the morning. I'm wandering around my neighborhood. Hell, maybe I'm nearly in the nearby nature preserve or maybe I'm almost in a stranger's backyard. If you saw me before July you'd think I'm either insane or some kind of creeping monster. Now? You'll see the phone in my hand and (provided you don't try to mug me) you'd know I'm playing Pokemon Go. Pokemon Go has had the unique side effect of being the perfect tool to get people out of the house and walking around. Michelle Obama tried to do this for eight years in the White House and Nintendo does it in four hours. (Quoted from someone I can't find on Twitter)

Consider this something as a response to Frosthaven's article, which you can find here. While I respect his disapproval of the game, I can't say that I wholehearted agree with his dismissial of it as a game itself. In a way, Pokemon Go's genius and gameplay doesn't come directly from the game itself but from the menality and capturing the essence of Pokemon's biggest strength: finding and capturing the little buggers.

The Mechanic: "Nearby" and Geocentric Pokemon

Nearby

For those who aren't aware, Pokemon Go's hunting system isn't like traditional video games on mobile devices. To hunt these pokemon, you have to go outside. "Well ok but how do I track them?" you ask. It's simple really. A "Nearby" panel will tell you what's in the area. This means that you'll know right off the bat what is nearby. The footprints at the bottom indicate how close (or far) that pokemon is. As you track it, the footprints tick down until it appears on your smart phone. In addition, pokemon depend on your area and will change accordingly. As I live near both the woods and a lake, I've seen grassy-bug pokemon as well as water pokemon appear near my house.

For simplicity's sake, this means that if you want to find good pokemon you have to travel far, hunt down stuff with your phone and THEN capture them. It seems simple and it is, yet it's working compared to other get-out-and-interact things better than something like the Nintendo DS. Don't get me wrong, I leave streetpass on, but it's nothing compared to Pokemon Go. Which is doubly odd because outside of that, Pokemon Go is incredibly simplistic.

The Perfection: RNG + Skill

Scyther

The true genius of Pokemon Go is how they handle both RNG and skill, blending them perfect to create the feeling of a rewarding experience, even if the reward and the experience itself isn't all that complex. As a comparison, let's take Counter-strike's Loot box system. You pay for a key, you open a crate. Woooooo. Amazing, you got a knife! RNG is on your side...but there wasn't a lot of skill involved. You gave them money and prayed to RNG for good drops. Now League's system. You grind key fragments and S-ranks. The win and the S-rank takes skill and the chest's contents are RNG...but they feel divorced. You can get fantastical drops from these chests but the skill portion is almost wholly unrelated. There's no feedback loop of skill to RNG outside of getting components.

Pokemon Go, on the other hand, approaches it from the perspective of RNG first, skill second. At any time I can kick open my nearby menu and look. New pokemon/pokemon I haven't seen yet are greyed out. Sometimes you can tell by the silhouette what it is. Holy sweet jesus, there's a pikachu nearby! RNG is on your side but the skill of tracking it down is the rewarding part. You look, turn, search and follow the beeps until you see that Pikachu pop up on your smart phone and catch it with a few flicks. The RNG element was there but your skill is what won you the pokemon you were looking for. I feel lucky when a rare appears and I feel accomplished that I was able to hunt it down in time to secure it. Ironically, the skill isn't in the actual game, it's in the real-life-search.

The Fairness: Microtransactions Need Not Apply

The Shop

Pokemon Go also succeeds in another area: You can't "buy" your way to rare drops. In most smart phone games, there's often a premium option that encourages you to stay on par or ahead of the competition. A chest with guaranteed ultra-powerful goodies. A giga-booster that will protect you and steal resources. All of the things in Pokemon Go don't really empower you to be insanely stronger than your enemies. Even the "lucky egg" isn't instant gratification. It may be XP boost, sure, but you still need to jog and hike to get that reward. Consider it like buying a card pack in Hearthstone: It's less about buying power, more about buying another option.

Lures and Incense only draw pokemon to you, they don't increase your strength or chance of rares. Leveling up gives you a higher chance of rares but there aren't any easy-peasy instant gratification options. These items are what microtransactions in smart phone games SHOULD BE: options that are cheap and offer something extra if you really, absolutely want it. You can get all of these from just playing the game and even if you do buy them, they don't offer instant success. You still have to hunt and you still have to play, you just have something extra to look forward to.

Wrap-up: Being the Very Best (without spending a dime)

My PokeBank

Every single option combines together to make a rewarding experience hitting the core of what pokemon was about: Finding rare pokemon and adding them to a growing armada. All the pokemon you see (And there are more, that screen's outdated!) are from me just being lucky where I live but also tracking like a true pokemon master. I didn't buy my way to success and I didn't fork over money to get my CPs higher. I just played the game. Pokemon Go found the golden promise land between skill and RNG and it's scratching gamer's itch to track without forcing them to plunk down a few hundred for a 3DS.

Is the game PERFECT? No, not at all. I'll echo Frosthaven in my criticisms of the game itself: The catching portion can be unclear, the gyms are confusing, it'll get you into a car accident and pokemon battles are non-existant. This is by no means the second coming of a gaming messiah. However, I felt it was extremely important to draw attention to what Pokemon Go does right because a game type like this WILL be repeated. We saw it with World of Warcraft, Clash of Clans, League of Legends, Over of Watch, etc. A game that boosts your stock nearly nine points will do that to you. It's important that we isolate WHY it's successful before trying to copy it however. We're going to see a lot more failures than success with a game like this but there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty:

If a game can make me run around my neighborhood at two AM with a phone in my hand and only one shoe on because there's a rare pokemon nearby? They're doing SOMETHING right.