Five years ago today saw the launch of Pokémon Go, just before it seemingly took over the world. Sam Brooks looks at how the game has developed since its 2016 debut, and talks to New Zealanders who are still playing it.
There is an image from about five years ago that’s been burned into my brain. I’m standing down at the Auckland ferry terminal waiting for a boat with a friend. It’s the middle of the night, the temperature sitting at a single digit. All around us stand people wrapped up in puffer jackets and hoodies, all looking down, their faces illuminated by the blue light from their phones. It’s an oddly haunting sight; a crowd of people together but alone.
That night I quickly realised the reason for this crowd’s intense concentration: the newly released mobile game Pokémon Go. Such sights would become common in the months that followed. That winter, New Zealand cities were full of players hunched over their phones, walking as if in a trance, while others ran by in an attempt to catch one of the 154 Pokémon that were then available. (These days, of the 898 Pokémon in total, 683 are available to be caught on Pokémon Go.)
Pokémon Go was born from the ashes of developer Niantic’s previous game Ingress, an augmented reality (AR) game that used GPS to let players interact with “portals” around their real world location. Working in collaboration with Japanese companies Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, Niantic laid bare bones Pokémon gameplay on top of its previous game, allowing players to walk around in the real world catching the Pokémon which showed up at “PokéStops” around them. The game would later add more complex, deeper mechanics that drew from the Pokémon series proper, including battles, trades and raids (teaming up with other players to take down a strong monster), but the core gameplay loop remained the same: You walk, you swipe, you try to catch ‘em all.
When it launched on this very day five years ago, Pokémon Go became the kind of gaming phenomenon that most developers can only dream of. Within a week, it had been downloaded more than 10 million times. By the end of that month, it had generated more than US$160m in revenue through in-game purchases and microtransactions.
It was the game of 2016. Both US presidential candidates mentioned it in their election campaigns – “Pokémon go to the polls” ranks among history’s cringiest remarks – while the game itself caused a massive influx of visitors to national landmarks, public buildings and places of worship across the world. The buzz had died down by the following year, but the game has remained a core part of the Pokémon franchise ever since, including the release in 2018 of Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, shinier, upgraded versions of the game designed for the Nintendo Switch.
You probably haven’t seen Pokémon Go in the news for a while, and you almost certainly haven’t seen people gather in those strange swarms like they did back in 2016. I can promise you, though, that if you thought Pokémon Go was over, you couldn’t be more wrong.
The numbers tell the story of the game’s wild, runaway success. Revenue in the first full month alone broke records, at $207m (all figures are in USD). Thanks to in-app microtransactions, annual revenue has increased every year topping $1.23bn in 2020. Pokémon Go developer Niantic is currently valued at over $4bn.
As of 2020, the app had 166 million users. If Pokémon Go players formed a country, it would be the ninth most populous nation on Earth, behind Bangladesh and ahead of Russia. In 2016, according to Niantic Labs, players walked 8.7 billion kilometres collectively, enough to get to the end of the Solar System. By March 2019, that number had risen to 23bn km. As in, the distance you’d walk from your house to Pluto and back again, twice. Last year, at Niantic’s annual Pokémon Go Fest (held virtually, for pandemic reasons), players captured over a billion creatures in just one day.
In short: Pokémon Go was huge when it launched and it’s still huge now. But what is it about Pokémon Go that has so thoroughly captured players’ hearts, eyes, and phones?
New Zealand was one of the first places to get Pokémon Go, along with Australia and the United States. There’s little evidence that New Zealand has a larger proportion of players than anywhere else, but when I made an open call on Twitter for superfans to get in touch, the response was overwhelming. The message that came through was loud and clear: New Zealanders are not just still playing Pokémon Go, they’re bloody loving it, and the majority of them have been around since launch day. (As an added local bonus, the above Rian Johnson-directed commercial for Pokémon Go Fest was filmed in New Zealand, including outdoors at Fort Takapuna.)
In the weeks after Pokémon Go first arrived it seemed to Molly, one of the players who contacted me, that everyone she knew was out playing it. “There was this particular part of town in Dunedin – down Hanover street around the hospital area, with PokéStops on every corner, and different groups of 10 or 20 people right along the street with their lures on, catching Pokémon. It was such a wholesome thing to see, people were just meeting each other and bonding over this app.”
Troy didn’t care much about Pokémon Go when it was announced, but he says he became intrigued by this new game that people all around him were freaking out over. He too soon fell under its spell. “As someone who had played the first Pokémon games on a blocky, monochromatic Game Boy screen, Pokémon Go’s augmented reality feature did a good enough job of taking that fantastical bug hunt and making it real, or real enough, to be revolutionary.”
That’s a key part of the initial pull of the game; it scratched the itch left by the first iterations of Pokémon in the 90s. The bright colours, the vividly designed creatures, and the simple satisfaction of either building up your roster of monsters or a carefully curated team are all replicated in the app. This 90s callback was a deliberate ploy by Niantic. Upon release, the first three Pokémon to choose from were the three starters from the first generation of Pokémon, and also three of the most recognizable ‘mons: Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander.
Another key factor in Pokémon Go’s enormous success is its laser-focus on the community experience. Zoe continues to play for the connections she makes through the app. “Once I moved to New Zealand, all my first friends were found through playing Pokémon Go. It’s brought me a quick sense of community with others.”
For many, the community isn’t just an added bonus, it’s the draw. Chloe believes it’s the thing that keeps her playing. “It’s just fun getting to see what Pokémon people have caught and also show what I’ve caught. It makes you feel so loved with everyone supporting one another. When I was at the later end of my last pregnancy I struggled to play and keep up with it, so I took a break until I was able to get my confidence back.
“But that’s the thing with the community; they are supporting you even when you don’t want to support yourself.”
While Pokémon Go has been constantly improving since launch, adding better gameplay elements and hundreds of new Pokémon to catch, the biggest change came just last year, as a result of Covid-19. Clearly, a game that requires you to walk around outside would need to be rethought in an era when entire populations were confined to their homes.
In response, Niantic doubled the radius for players to interact with PokéStops, increased the amount of spots where Pokémon spawned, and allowed steps taken indoors to count towards in-game distance challenges. These changes were easily implemented, and didn’t fundamentally alter the playing experience – instead, they were focused on upping the accessibility of the game in general.
Accessibility has long been a challenge for Pokémon Go; not only does the game require a smartphone and a not inconsiderable amount of data, the gameplay makes it inherently inaccessible to many players with a physical disability.
These Covid-inspired tweaks to the game were well-received, and Niantic’s recent announcement that they intend to roll them back has created some consternation among players. In a statement, the developer explained their reasoning, saying the rollback is “aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon Go on movement and exploration in the real world”. The app has also added bonuses for playing outside, including guaranteed gifts from PokéStops and bonus XP for a PokéStop visited for the first time.
As the delta variant of Covid-19 sweeps the world, these rollbacks seem premature at best, shockingly irresponsible at worst. They also spell the end of an era for rural players, who had found themselves able to compete on a more even footing during the pandemic.
The difficulty of playing in rural locations is something that has long frustrated Zoe, who lives in a small New Zealand town. “They do not make this game rural friendly,” she says. Her proposed solution? “I feel like PokéStops should just be randomly created so you never have a map without PokéStops. Like courtesy ones, that are along the road and aren’t on private property.
“Games shouldn’t be dead zones because you’re not in a city.”
Zoe is far from the only rural player who feels shortchanged by Pokémon Go – because, frankly, it’s an urbanite’s game. It’s designed to be played in a city that is easily traversed on foot, with nooks and crannies to safely explore. PokéStops are largely linked to landmarks, pieces of public art, and other monuments. PokéStops are also, obviously, linked to progression in the game. The fewer PokéStops you have around you, the slower you proceed in the game. While that might not be an issue for more casual players, the rollback of 2020’s radius expansion is definitely frustrating for more longtime fans.
It’s a shame, because that interaction with public space is a large part of what makes Pokémon Go so appealing. While it can be played solitarily, and even by remaining in one place, the game actively encourages you to acknowledge the world beyond your screen. One of the most famous and powerful artistic responses to Pokémon Go is a photography series by Syrian artist Khaled Akil. Akil placed Pokémon in destroyed Syrian streets as a reminder of what’s been lost, as a way to remind people of a country still devastated by war.
Many PokéStops are local landmarks or public artworks. Around the Spinoff office are four PokéStops: a mural belonging to a takeaway store, a sign for a local hostel, a piece of street art by Owen Dipple, and the headquarters of the Auckland Polish Society. Many of the people I spoke to for this story had a favourite PokéStop, most commonly local landmarks like the Millennium Tree in Domain and Queen’s Wharf in Wellington.
Since taking up Pokémon Go, Sung Jin has visited numerous Auckland parks and reserves that he never even knew about before. “It definitely makes me walk and explore the city more. I notice and appreciate the various public artworks because of the PokéStops there, most notably the graffiti art and murals by Paul x Walsh all over the powerboxes in Auckland.”
Talking to many, many players for this piece I was repeatedly struck by how nice it all was. Everybody was delighted to speak about their experiences on the app, and their feedback about it – with the occasional gripe about glitches and the upcoming changes – was overwhelmingly positive. It doesn’t have the disquieting hold over its players that many of the most addictive games, like Fortnite, can have. People play Pokémon Go because it makes them feel good.
There’s also no target demographic; it certainly helps if you already know or like Pokémon, but it’s far from necessary. Troy remembers raiding occasionally with a group that included Navy personnel, an early childhood teacher, a couple of healthcare workers, and an Olympic athlete. “Since there was a gym right outside our house, I’d pop outside to join their raids. My wife, who found this hilarious, would I say going up ‘to hunt the Beezleblop’.”
Age is no barrier to access either. Prue was introduced to the app by her granddaughters, who installed it on her phone., “My first Pokémon was a Charmander; he was so cute, he hooked me into the game. I meant to keep him forever, but accidentally transferred him a couple of years ago. It was very sad! I caught my first Pikachu in Hong Kong, which was really exciting but people around me thought I was mad.”
For Prue, Pokémon Go is both a communal and a solitary experience. She belongs to a Discord group, with whom she goes raiding every Wednesday night. Her eldest granddaughter picked up the game again recently, and she goes on raids with the group as well. Says Prue: “Meeting those folks a couple of years ago changed the game for me. I learned so much more and became more than just a collector, now I’m more active in raiding and have friends in the USA, Germany, Japan, England and Kawerau who I raid and exchange gifts with.”
Since taking up Pokémon hunting, Prue has rarely missed a day, and is excited to have more time with the app once she retires. “It really started as an incentive to go for a decent daily walk as I went round all the PokéStops in my suburb and I enjoy that. Though I have to confess I don’t walk daily now! I’ve been known to drive around as well – lazy!”
Pokémon Go is one of the few games in existence that encourages players to “look up” even when it’s pulling them to look directly at their screens. Most games open a window into another world; they’re an escape from our one. Pokémon Go opens a window into the real world.
Or maybe it’s just a bit of fun. Troy says that the best thing about Pokémon Go is that it’s simple to quickly pick it up and put it down. “It makes it an ideal circuit breaker on a busy day or an easy way to get a quick bit of fun in while I’m waiting for the ferry or a coffee.”
“It’s a bit like that old Instant Kiwi slogan – a quick thrill.”
While I was writing this piece, I picked the app up again, having deleted it not long after downloading it in 2016, because gaming is a solitary and sedentary pursuit for me. After reinstalling, I found myself picking up my phone a few times every workday and swiping my finger up, catching many Bidoofs from the stops around my office.
I’ve been a fan of Pokémon almost as long as I’ve been alive, can name all of the first 150 in order, and the games still rub against a faintly pleasurable spot in my brain, a remnant of the genuine glee Pokémon once instilled in me. I’ll always play a new Pokémon, but the games don’t exactly spark joy anymore. These days, I decided, it’s more of a dull flame of…nice.
Then, on my fourth day on the app, a yellow electric rat popped up on my screen. My eyes widened. I tapped frantically on my phone. I swiped like a particularly eager Tinder user. It took me five tries, but I caught the damn thing.
I gasped with the same excited euphoria that I would have when I was seven. I caught Pikachu!