The words “alternate reality game” were the last thing some hardcore Pokémon fans wanted to hear last night. I understand why. It’s a spin-off. It’s on mobile. You can’t play from the comfort of your own home. And yet! Pokémon Go could be the shot in the arm that the monster-collecting series needs.
The key lies with Niantic, the developers who are working on Pokémon Go. Normally, this sort of partnership might be cause for side-eye: people find it easier to trust that Game Freak, Nintendo, or The Pokémon Company wouldn’t mess up their own beloved franchise. But based on what Niantic has worked on before, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future of Pokémon Go.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Ingress, Niantic’s previous game. We’ve written about it before, and over seven million people played it over the years. Big picture, it’s a game where people use phones and real-world locations to set up “portals” at interesting landmarks. Players are split into factions that often war with one another for control over these points.
OK, look. It’s nerdy as hell, there’s no getting around that. Let me put it to you another way. It’s the sort of game that people fly to remote towns in Alaska for. It’s the sort of game that people have climbed mountains to play. It’s the sort of game that has gotten people accidentally detained by the police. It’s the sort of game where people try to electrify fences to stop other players from progressing. It’s the sort of game where a lot of unexpected stuff happens, basically.
And this is that Ingress doesn’t have the sort of cutesy branding that inspired a world-wide mania over make-believe creatures like Pikachu. While all we have right now is a snazzy trailer that may not be indicative of what the actual experience is like, I think that Ingress gives us a good sense of just how crazy Pokémon Go could be.
[Me discussing this via video, uploaded to my personal YouTube channel.]
Concretely, we know that Pokémon Go is a game where people will have to travel to real-world locations to capture, trade or battle monsters. This detail, along with the fact that the game requires interacting with other people in real life, opens up a lot of possibilities.
Imagine, for example, having to travel to an actual volcano to capture a Charizard — Pokémon are region-specific, after all. Imagine making eye contact with another stranger, and feeling the need to challenge them right there, just like you would in the games. Imagine banding together with other players to form a real-world Team Rocket, whose sole aim is to cause havoc and steal Pokémon — Ingress certainly had its share of trolls. Or what if people take it upon themselves to free Pokémon from their masters? Imagine real-world PokémonLeagues forming, complete with actual gym leaders or Elite Fours. I can’t even fathom all the cool things that could happen. Nevermind the bonkers things that probably will happen.
A lot of the things I just mentioned, well, they’re not exactly the sort of things you’d want a little kid to be involved in on their own. I’ve seen a lot of people joking about the possibility of kids getting lost or in danger for trying to play a game like Pokémon Go. Unsurprisingly, the trailer for the game shows mostly full-grown adults playing the game. It might be the first Pokémongame that’s aimed primarily at adults, which in of itself is cool and worth supporting. Just the same, I fully expect to hear ridiculous stories like “Florida man gets shot while fighting over Mewtwo,” “Woman dies in Antarctica while searching for Articuno,” if not “Pokémon players arrested for breaking into [insert place here.]” At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised if some phones, accounts, or actual money got stolen.
Pokémon is already the sort of game where people are willing to cheat if it means being able to catch them all, and this is that doing so has never been easier. If people get upset and worked up over special Pokémon being limited to certain stores and locations, I have no idea how they’re going to react to an entire game with that very premise, especially if there’s any semblance of scarcity. I have a feeling we’re going to see some wild stuff.
There are still a lot of unknowns at play here. We don’t know how the nitty gritty of how the game will work. We have no idea what the microtransactions will be like. And we don’t really know if people are really going to brave wearing this fugly thing:
We just have a nice trailer for a game that nobody really wanted. Nobody might have asked for Pokémon Go, but it might legitimately be the most exciting thing that’s happened to the franchise in years.