Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

Note on Pokémon Go: fantasy of collecting and exploring “urban nature”

Pokémon Go (logo).
Pokémon Go (the game logo).

For those of us who started doing r&d on location-based mobile games decade or two ago, the exploding popularity of Pokémon Go has been exciting, but also perhaps a bit bewildering to follow. There have been many games that have exploited the collaborative, competitive, user-created or spatially based functionalities of augmented reality play in more innovative manner than Pokémon Go, but none of them have managed to grow their player base as fast and into the scale this Niantic’s game has done. Our own research in University of Tampere included work with The Songs of North prototype which our team designed and implemented in the Mogame research project in 2003-2004. Before that, there had been e.g. Botfighters (2001) by the Swedish company It’s Alive, which was neither not yet based on GPS technology, but rather on the use of cell triangulation and SMS messages. It has been interesting to follow how the motif of “city shamans”, teamed up into competing factions and using might and magic to struggle for control of urban areas has developed, varied and re-emerged, starting from our The Songs of North (2003), followed by the Shadow Cities (2010), and then by Ingress (2013), which adopted many of the basic key elements from Shadow Cities. Pokémon Go, in turn, is based on Ingress on its location-based game mechanics.

Some of the comments of pioneering location-based or augmented reality game developers I have read have sounded even a bit irritated that a rather simple and clearly derivative game makes such a breakthrough, supposedly solely on the basis of association with a popular IP (intellectual property). What we witness here is related to the nature of innovation processes, though. Again and again, it is necessarily not the first implementations that become the great success stories; rather, it is the “second penguin” jumping in later, who can learn from the experiences from the pioneers, and implement something that is perhaps not as ambitious, but that is designed and suitable for large-scale, mainstream adoption. The detailed analyses of Pokémon Go will no doubt start appearing soon in game studies conferences and journals, and it is interesting to see how the key elements of its popularity will be described and interpreted. Simplicity is no doubt one such element, but there is more.

The holding power of Pokémon Go is perhaps relatively easy to explain in terms of certain key player motivation theories, plus counting in certain love or nostalgia with the revived transmedial Pokémon phenomena itself – plus certainly some novelty effect from augmented reality, location-based mobile game play, which is still new experience for many people. In player motivations, there are classic achievement motivations, pleasures of accumulating advancement, repetition and variably rewarded effort (a well-known addictive mechanic), that Pokémon games tap into; there is a long series of these games, starting from the 1996 releases of Red and Green games for Game Boy in Japan, continuing through what is now considered seven generations of video games, and also a popular trading card game, plus manga, anime, films, and other related Pokémon branded products. It is often quoted how Satoshi Tajiri, the producer and main creator of the original concept, based Pokémon on his childhood hobby of insect collecting. What is perhaps not so often noted is that Satoshi has also spoken about how exploration into urban wastelands was one of the key inspirations for Pokémon games, and how urban developments according to him had driven away all these fascinating life-forms – Pokémon games were thus designed from the start to mimic exploration into “urban nature” and stimulate the joy of discovery of both common and rare creatures of all kinds, and of learning about their individual characteristics and even potentials for (insect-like) metamorphosis.

Even if the range of Pokémon creatures is large and understanding their characteristics provides plenty of room for learning and improvement, the basic game in Pokémon Go game is so simple that it can be immediately comprehended: move around, catch Pokémon, collect them, power them up, evolve them into new species, and join teams for tournament style battles for the domination of certain key spots (marked as “Gyms” in the game). Thus, Pokémon Go shows key virtues of classic “casual” games: easy to learn, difficult to complete or totally master, leading to near-infinite replay value, or even addictive potential. What remains to be seen, however, is how many of the millions of players will continue to play the game when the novelty effect wears off. The location-based games in the past have remained in the margins, and one of the key reasons is that the extra effort of going out (sometimes also when it is raining, dark, or the surroundings are otherwise not so inviting or even safe) has meant that only the most dedicated parts of “core gamers” audiences have stuck with these games in the past.

In addition to analysing what features Pokémon Go has as a game, it is also interesting to see what features it does not have. Joining teams (blue, red, or yellow) is part of the game, but coordinating or communicating with team members is not part of the game. This is something that happens naturally between people who play in same locations and meet each other, when there is a critical mass of them, and social media also plays an important role for assisting players in this kind of contemporary “pervasive game”. Thus, playing alone in isolated locations, or disconnected from popular media services would inevitably have an effect on the Pokémon Go player experiences. This is a game that is designed for populated, urban areas and there is also heavy reliance on the location data and sites recorded for the earlier Niantic game, Ingress.

The “perfect storm” of Pokémon Go is, in my quick analysis so far thus mainly a combination of two things: the successful simplification of earlier, tested location-based game design features so that they are clear and straightforward enough for mainstream adoption, and secondly, of the critical mass provided by fans of the second-best selling digital game franchise in the world (only Mario games have sold more). There is also the additional boost from its associated, widely familiar “transmedial storyworld” that millions of people who have not played Pokémon video games will also recognize. The threshold for stepping into the shoes of a Pokémon hunter and trainer is low, and pleasures of real-world exploration, rare creature hunting, collecting, points and levels accumulation, competition and collaboration mean that Pokémon Go provides highly accessible and enjoyable combination of real world and gaming fantasy.