A veteran location gamer assesses Pokémon GO

Candy Elsmore is a seasoned veteran of Ingress, the Niantic-developed predecessor to Pokémon Go. Here she compares the two, and puts Pokémon Go in its rightful place. 

Ten days or so ago, Pokémon GO hit the world like a giant Magikarp in the face. Before that, the concept of real world gaming was somewhat of a mind flip for gamers used to slouching in front of a console, PC, or on the couch making birds angry, feeding cats and crushing candy. Now in the Post-PoGO real world that we live in, going outside to play with virtual red and white balls is fast becoming our new national sport.

I first learned to PoGO as a beta tester for the game. Most, possibly all, of us testing were players of Ingress, the Niantic game which launched in late 2012 and whose game engine powers Pokémon GO. Since PoGO was released, friends and family who have heard me bang on about Ingress over the years have all asked “Is Pokémon GO like that game that you play?”. Let’s say Ingress and PoGO are like sisters: There’s the complex, nerdy, proof-of-concept firstborn, and the younger, pop culture lovechild that brings all the milkshakes to the yard. Both are Niantic’s progeny so they share genes, but they’re definitely individuals.

Both Pokémon GO and Ingress are Augmented Reality (AR) games which means the real world (the geography, map, built environment) is overlaid with the virtual (digitally designed elements, animations) in an interactive game framework and narrative. Both use Niantic’s game engine and map, just with a different skin, and the principle of physically moving into range to interact with geolocated game elements is the same. Because Ingress is the older sibling, it has handed down the geo-located game elements: the pokéstops and gyms in PoGO are Ingress “portals”, and interacting with these gives players of both games gear. These virtual and real landmarks were largely all submitted by Ingress players back in the day, before the submission process was put on hold because the queue got too big.

There are many more portals in Ingress than there are Pokéstops and gyms in PoGO. Unlike Pokémon GO, Ingress has an Intel map where you can see every portal in the world if you zoom in far enough. Ingress portals are everywhere; up mountains, many days walk from civilisation, on remote islands even in the Arctic and Antarctica. Ingress players have swum, paddled, hiked, flown and taken every form of transport to capture isolated portals. Usually with whatever equipment required to connect to any sliver of signal available.

Why? Because Ingress has a major, well developed gameplay mechanic that PoGO does not: the ability to capture and link game locations together. Players can link one portal to another if they have a ‘key’ gained from that portal. When three locations are linked together players make what’s called a control field and their faction then controls the territory, and as the backstory goes, the minds of the people underneath it. This earns points (‘AP’) and medals for the individual player, and has a regional and global scoring impact. Control fields can be a tiny triangle between three proximate portals. Or, with the right level portals and game gear, they can cover whole countries and continents.The logistics, planning and teamwork that goes into making fields is a big part of what makes Ingress complex, strategic and rather epic.

pokemon go downtown

PoGO play isn’t very strategic and epic, but it does bring joy, fun and a huge fanbase to real world gaming. The Pokémon story is all about discovery and collecting, and that’s a great fit with the concept of geo-located gaming. The camera-based AR of catching Pokémon in situ is clever, much fun and screenshot-worthy. The novelty of catching and collecting does wear off though. Even the lulz of snapping a Rattata on your cat, a Golbat on your friends face, or a Goldeen in the bowl of a public toilet gets old eventually. There comes a time (maybe sooner than you think) when you’ve seen, caught and evolved most of the in-game Pokémon. The elusive, rare “mongos” play hard to get, and the rush of discovery, collecting and leveling slows to a halt. Then what? In other more complex and challenging games that’s when strategy, a rich and evolving narrative and advanced tactics can continue to engage a high level player.

It’s early days, sure, but it is difficult to see the depth in Pokémon GO gameplay so far that would support that.

Pokémon fan boys and girls were hanging out for real PVP battling in GO, but as yet there is none. PoGO gym battles and attacking a portal in Ingress are more or less the same mechanic: players try and take down a gym/portal using weapons in Ingress or Pokémon in PoGO. In Ingress, however, if there is a player from the other faction in range you can live battle over the portal ownership, or if a remote player has a “key” for that portal they can recharge the portal heath to make it hard for the attacker. Based on this Niantic runs large scale battle events all around the world called Anomalies. It not unreasonable to think that Niantic would develop something similar for PoGO, which would up the teamwork factor.

Many budding Pokémon GO trainers are disappointed that there is no capability to trade or share Pokémon and game items amongst players. There is also no PoGO in-game communication, and real collaborative team play (rather than simply playing as individuals in a group) is awkward. The gossip, or at least hope, around the Pokéstops is that some of these things are under development now, and it’s fair to say that early Ingress lacked some desirable features that a then much less well-resourced Niantic did roll out in the fullness of time.

Pokémon GO, the baby of the family, still has some annoying teething problems affecting gameplay, especially the 1% HP gym battle bug. There’s also the frequent freezing and glitching, usually right when that <insert favourite Pokémon here> appears. PoGO also sucks battery like a hungry Lickitung and is demanding of even fairly new and high-spec’d phones. It is rolling out to more and more countries, but the sheer numbers of Android users sideloading the APK, with all its risks, is causing Niantic servers to crash as they scramble to upscale their provisioning.

And yet, in spite of the issues that could have sunk many other games, over the last week Pokémon GO has become less of an extremely popular and highly anticipated game release, and more of a fully-blown social phenomenon. There’s people using the game for social comment, it’s being talked about extensively and sensationally in mainstream media,  Pokégyms are the new fitness venues, and it’s bringing people together in, well, pokémobs.

Ingress players are a little bemused at the popularity of the new little sister – one friend of mine says Pokémon GO is “Ingress easy mode with a furry bunny skin”.  I’m not quite such a Gloom. There’s widespread passion for PoGO and it is built on a platform and type of gaming that I love. I want mobile location based gaming to become as much a part of everyday gaming as pulling up a bean bag and playing Call of Duty, or inviting your mates around for a tabletop game of Risk. PoGO might have finally cracked that, in a way that Ingress never could.

Three and half years on (and almost 3000km walked in-game) I am still playing Ingress. It continues challenges me and I enjoy that. Right now I’d be surprised if in three and half months time I was still playing Pokémon GO. But, I’d be as happy as a Jigglypuff to be proven wrong.

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