This article was originally published in Issue 6, 2016 of Edmond Active Magazine. Some information has been updated for 2019.
To say that Pokémon GO, the latest entry in the multibillion-dollar Pokémon entertainment franchise from mobile developer Niantic Inc. and The Pokémon Company, has taken the world by storm is a massive understatement. In the space of two weeks, Pokémon GO broke the all-time sales/download records of any prior game in a series that spans two decades; raised the stock market value of its parent company, Nintendo Corporation, by 25 percent; and has become one of the most-used mobile apps on the planet in the iOS and the Android markets.
While it may be fair to say that a chunk of the game’s success comes from cashing in on nostalgia in the franchise’s 20th anniversary year, allowing Pokémon’s original fans from the late 1990s and early 2000s to live their childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon Trainer, Pokémon GO also benefits from what the franchise has always benefited from: cute and colorful monsters, the spirit of exploration and a basic desire to “Catch ’Em All,” as the saying goes.
However, the simplest explanation for the game’s success is probably also the best one: the experience of joy one gets from playing GO is what Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri, and the late former Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata, wanted with Pokémon all along.
The Promise of Pokémon
It’s early September, 2015. The Electronics Entertainment Expo, the video game industry’s cardinal press gathering, has come and gone. The gaming community is still reeling from Satoru Iwata’s sudden death in July; aside from attempting to steer Nintendo’s slowly-sinking ship from the brink of financial disaster and creating entertaining product announcements through the company’s “Nintendo Direct” platform, Iwata was a veteran game designer partially responsible for franchises like the Mother series, Super Smash Bros., and Kirby. His creations formed the foundation of many video game enthusiasts’ experiences with gaming, and the eulogies and retrospectives lasted into the new year.
Meanwhile, aside from the usual announcements from Triple-A video game developers about new additions to existing franchises, things are pretty quiet in the video game world.
And then, this trailer gets released to YouTube. At, like, two in the morning on Sept. 10. I know this, because I was at a Taco Bell in OKC when it got released. I will accept all judgments of my character and life choices.
The trailer starts with an image of the Earth at night from space, quickly zooming into some fancy cuts of different people getting ready to leave their homes mixed in with airborne footage from urban areas all over the world. In bold, white lettering, the video asks the viewer to do one thing:
“Imagine Pokémon… in the real world.”
As an adult in the Millennial generation, I’ve come to accept some brutal truths about the world. I understand that, on some level, we have to give up our dreams in order to survive. I understand that we’ve probably got a rough climate situation to reckon with on the horizon. I understand that the tradeoff for a college education at this point is to incur a steep mountain of student loan debt, or work myself into the ground between classes for the next six years. A lot of my friends and colleagues are doing that.
But there’s still a part of me that resides in 1999. There’s still a part of me that sits enamored with this other world, filled with wondrous, powerful monsters and challenges that can be overcome with the power of friendship and a good Pokémon team alone. For 16 years, this desire to participate in the world of Pokémon sat dormant. And unless this video is a joke, it’s promising to bring this desire into fruition.
The next three minutes depict several groups of people, including a Japanese businessman, a father with his daughter, and some teenagers at a skate park, catching, trading and battling Pokémon in real-world locations. It culminates with a girl standing in Times Square, watching as all the video billboards turn into countdown clocks. People are running into the square. Everything is silent, and then a legendary Pokémon, Mewtwo, appears. The gathered Trainers all throw their best monsters at it, whittling its hit points down as it zooms around Midtown Manhattan in a flashy, overly-CG battle sequence.
Throughout the trailer, short slogans have been appearing on-screen periodically. “Go catch.” “Go trade.” “Go battle.” “Go play together.” “Go unite.”
When the trailer gets to the climax of the fight with Mewtwo, and the dust has settled, another moment of quiet has draped over the gathered players. Then, the biggest billboard in Times Square flashes the trademark “Gotcha!” exclamatory, signifying that everyone has beaten the legendary monster and caught him as their reward. The final slogan appears: “Gotta Catch Em All.” The trainers all cheer in tandem. I’m shedding tears.
This has been the dream, ever since I was a kid. But more importantly, it’s a chance for folks my age and a bit older, who may now have kids of their own, to pass their love of Pokémon down to them.
From Hobby to Household Name
The conceit behind Pokémon was initially formed in 1990, following a demonstration of two new pieces of Nintendo technology, the Game Boy and its peripheral Link Cable system, and inspired by bug-catching.
Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon (known in Japan as “Pocket Monsters” or “Poketto Monsutā”), was an avid bug collector in his childhood. According to some accounts, Tajiri was so engrossed by the activity of finding and researching insects that his childhood friends called him “Dr. Bug.” As Tajiri grew older and more interested in computer programming and arcade games, he began looking for ways to bring his childhood love into the virtual space. With the advent of the Game Boy, Tajiri found the perfect medium. He pitched the idea to Nintendo, who decided to gamble on the odd premise and its focus on collaboration via the Link Cable, and offered financial and intellectual support.
Six years later the first Pokémon games, Pokémon Red and Green, were released in Japan, becoming a sleeper success. Pokémon officially came to North America with the release of Red and Blue in 1998, sparking off a veritable firestorm of catch-em-all fervor from kids across the continent. Followed in quick succession by a Pokémon anime and a Game Boy Color Red and Blue reiteration, Pokémon Yellow, the franchise quickly ballooned into a pop-culture juggernaut.
But it almost didn’t happen this way. According to an interview with current The Pokémon Company CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara in late 2015, Tajiri’s production company, Game Freak, wasn’t focused on international localization (the translation of their games into other languages) at all.
“At the time, Game Freak was moving onto the production of the next title with Pokémon Gold and Silver, and we didn’t even have any people to spare to even do any kind of port,” Ishihara said in an interview with Japanese publication 4gamer. “For starters, when we made Pokémon Red and Green, the thought of bringing it to countries outside of Japan didn’t even occur to us in the first place.”
Despite pressure from higher-ups within Nintendo to localize, Ishihara said the Pokémon team considered it an impossible task, given their tight production schedule on the next two installments in the franchise.
The Obsession Started Young
My experience with the Pokémon franchise started with Pokémon Yellow, on the Game Boy Color. I got it as a birthday gift in November, 1999, and had no idea how it worked or how to play it successfully. All the same, I was enthralled. The game, coupled with the anime and the trading cards, essentially swallowed up my life for the next couple of years. I battled and traded with other kids in my neighborhood, kept up on all the latest Pokémon news, and even — astoundingly — helped organize a group at my elementary school to “legalize” Pokémon cards on school grounds. If memory serves, we actually got them to do it, too.
As I grew older and my own interests changed, I stopped following the franchise as closely. However, the feelings I’d associated with the series never went away, and as the years went by, the visceral excitement it once generated turned into intense nostalgia.
Even now, as a bills-paying, job-having Adult, Pokémon has a certain pull over me. A couple of years ago, I picked up Pokémon Omega Ruby, a Nintendo 3DS remake of Generation III’s Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire series, and had an incredible time indulging in the memories. I will occasionally drop $5 on a pack of the new trading cards.
I know I’m not alone in my continued enjoyment of this childhood cultural touchstone, either.
To this day, Pokémon is still a heavily-played, heavily-watched and heavily-enjoyed franchise among people of just about any age. The last main game set, Pokémon Sun and Moon, has sold over 16 million copies worldwide since its release in November, 2016. Its direct sequel, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, have sold over 8.37 million copies. The trading card game maintains a large enough professional player-base to maintain the Pokémon World Championships, a yearly competition among the best players of all ages for scholarship and cash prizes up to $25,000. Even the cartoon, which has backslid a bit since being a Saturday morning staple, entered its 22nd season in October 2018.
With all of this latent potential, it’s no wonder that Pokémon GO has reignited a fever for the franchise.
One Man’s Dream, Realized
If it hadn’t been for Satoru Iwata, Pokémon likely wouldn’t have made it to North America when it did, if at all.
According to Tsunekazu Ishihara, Iwata took the game’s original source code and performed an in-depth analysis to see how best to port it over to American audiences. When he made these recommendations, Iwata was the president of another game production company, HAL Laboratory — already famous for its Kirby and Mother game franchises. Put simply, he had his own games to make, and his own company to run. However, it was this collaboration that not only opened the door for Pokémon to come to America, but for Iwata to come to Nintendo.
Iwata gets special thanks on the credits of both Red and Blue and Gold and Silver, the second generation of games. Starting with the special Generation II spinoff, Iwata began taking on a producer’s role. Eventually, he became Executive Producer of just about every Pokémon game, as well as the Super Smash Bros. series, where iconic characters from across Nintendo’s catalog battle it out for virtual supremacy.
In 2002, he became CEO of Nintendo Corporation, tasked with bringing the company out of financial and competitive decline. He helped release the Wii gaming console system, helped develop the Nintendo DS handheld system and constantly tried to inject a sense of fun into otherwise-bog-standard corporate announcements and press conferences through his quirky “Iwata Ask” page at Nintendo’s website and the Nintendo Direct programming he helped spearhead. He was popular for his unique communication style, reminiscent of other tech industry luminaries like Steve jobs, and his penchant for performance art. He once spent a good chunk of a Nintendo Direct video staring at a bunch of bananas, for example.
Iwata was responsible for the company’s excursion into the mobile phone space, brokering the deal with mobile developer DeNA in early 2015 to make MiiTomo, a social network trivia game based around Nintendo’s existing “Mii” avatars. He and The Pokémon Company’s Ishihara began planning Pokémon GO in 2013 with the idea to “bring Pokémon into the real world.”
Pokémon GO was one of the last projects Iwata worked on before he lost a fight with cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, in July 2015. He was 55.
Using Digital Magic to Bring Pokémon to Life
How do you make Pokémon exist in the real world? Short of genetic engineering, the feat seems impossible. Virtual reality is nearly out of the question, as the current hot peripherals in that field, devices like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, are prohibitively expensive and limit player movement in vital ways. A standard mobile game with puzzle or role-playing elements would be fun, but nothing would separate such a game from fare like Candy Crush.
But what about augmented reality?
Right now, no one has augmented reality gaming down like former Google experimentation hub Niantic Labs. They started in 2012 with a little number called Field Trip, an app that uses Google Maps geolocation data to find interesting landmarks and “cool, hidden, and unique things in the world around you.” The app shows historical information based on your area, gathered by several sources such as Arcadia Publishing and Go Trippin. One such historical tidbit in our area is a snapshot of an Edmond School Board meeting from the 1950s; another is a portrait of John Mitch, founder of The People’s Bank of Edmond and one of the developers of the “Central Normal School,” later renamed the University of Central Oklahoma.
Niantic’s second app, released in 2014, took that same landmark data and added a science fiction backstory and capture-the-flag gameplay into the mix. This app, coined Ingress, became one of the most popular AR-centric mobile games, bringing in over a million players at its peak. In Ingress, players are divided into two factions, “Enlightened” and “Resistance,” and they have to travel around their environment to find different “portals” to take over for their teams. If a team captures a certain number of portals in a given area, they gain control over the entire region.
Ingress is where many of the team-based elements of Pokémon GO came from, though there are enough gameplay differences and additions to distinguish the two properties. In GO, as opposed to Ingress, the monsters you collect are more than mere resources players use to establish supremacy over other teams. Individual monsters can be powered up and evolved, you can give them nicknames, and the tap of a star icon in the display of a given Pokemon adds it to a “favorites” list. While it’s no Tamagotchi in terms of how you can interact with your Pokemon, it definitely doesn’t feel like a cold, calculated resource management game, either.
Additionally, while there are real-world rivalries between the three teams in Pokemon GO — Team Instinct, Team Mystic and Team Valor — the game encourages collaboration and camaraderie on an individual basis. Poke-Stops — small checkpoints that dot the landscape at small-scale landmarks — cannot be claimed by teams, and “lure modules,” items that bring different Pokemon to a Poke-Stop, can be placed by anyone regardless of their team affiliation. This leads to amusing and heartening scenes of mass gatherings at all hours of the day and night, where people of all ages flock to different Poke-Stops to farm items, drop lures and potentially even collect rare Pokemon.
In my experience, players have been very good about alerting their fellow-trainers about rare Pokemon in their area, both online and in-person. I was at Will Rogers Park the other evening with a friend, and several folks came up to us and let us know about the Kabuto (a rare fossil-type monster that looks like a horseshoe crab crossed with a trilobite) stalking the park’s interior. Several groups on social media sites like Facebook have popped up for the sole purpose of telling members where Pokemon hotspots are. Software developers have even made tools to assist in finding Pokemon — all of this within the space of a few weeks.
Sometimes, the Magic Fails
The collaborative and competitive nature of the game definitely lends to a sense of fun. But how good is the game at actually immersing the player and making us feel like we’re catching and training Pokemon in the real world?
When Pokemon GO came out in the United States, I was at work. I was barely out to the parking lot after my shift as I was downloading the app and booting it up — and it immediately crashed on me.
Force-quit the app. Re-open. Sign in with my Gmail account. App crashes. Wash, rinse and repeat several times in five minutes. Finally get to the introduction screen. Professor Willow welcomes me to the world of Pokemon! I customize my character, adding red hair, brown eyes and an orange track jacket to my avatar’s look. Willow asks for my nickname, which I put in.
After wrestling with the app a few more times, I’m finally able to give my character a nickname and catch a Charmander, one of the original game’s starting monsters. After Willow is done explaining the world and user interface to me, I’m ready to jump in: a Rattata has shown up next to me. So I tap on it, and my phone’s camera activates, projecting the little rat Pokemon onto my car’s steering wheel! It’s right there, so close I could touch it — except, you know, not.
I swipe a Poké Ball at the Rattata; it opens, sucking the Pokemon inside. It lands on the “ground.”
There’s no further movement. No indication that I’ve caught anything. So I force-quit the app again, re-open it, and wait for the servers to reconnect me. The map of my location pops up, as does the Rattata I attempted to catch.
I go through this a few more times before I eventually just force-restart my entire phone and let it cool down a bit, but that’s not the end of my troubles. Over the next week or so, Pokemon GO was all but unusable during the day, thanks to overloaded servers. Nearly a month out, the app still experiences bugs that require me to occasionally force-restart it. Things have definitely gotten better, but it’s been a long slog.
An Experience Full of Possibilities
Overall, though: the Pokemon GO app is merely a facilitator of a larger experience fueled at least in part by nostalgia and wholly designed to bring people together — and outside — in order to catch em all. The effect it’s already had on millions of people is very real. Trainers are invading public parks and downtown areas in droves. They’re connecting with their neighbors, meeting new friends, and stepping out of their comfort zones.
“I’ve been socializing with friends more, been more active posting/reading on social media about it, and also been more active outdoors,” a local trainer, Deviney Luchsinger, said. “I hardly ever exercise or go outside without a pressing reason. It’s nice to walk 5k and not even notice it.”
Perhaps the most striking effect the game has had is on people who suffer from depression and anxiety; Pokémon GO has even gotten them to get up and get outside. Businesses — including more than a few in Downtown Edmond and Oklahoma City — are using the game to bring in new customers and plan special events that cater to them. In a handful of weeks, Pokémon GO has gotten people together in previously unimaginable ways. And as things improve with time, it looks like Pokémon GO will continue to have that effect for a long time to come.