Digital

From Lodhi Gardens to Connaught Place: Can Pokémon Go Battle the Endgame Grind?

After cashing in on nostalgia and an excellent use of augmented reality, what does the endgame look like for Pokémon  Go? It will need to address what purists have been saying since the game’s release: that this isn’t a true Pokémon game at all.

Pokemon Go on a Sunday morning in Delhi. Credit: Twitter

Gotta Catch-Em All: Pokemon Go on a muggy Sunday morning in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter

On July 16, the augmented reality game Ingress celebrated its largest ever official event, the Aegis Nova Tokyo, that saw over 4,000 agents flock to the city and battle for control.

The number is three times bigger than the February 21st Shonin Anomaly that brought 1,200 players to Austin and Florence. Ingress’ appeal is evident, as it appears to draw players from across cities for points in an imaginary game; and 4,000 is a formidable number, enabled by the extensive marketing, concerts and meta-events that Ingress built around the official Tokyo event.

Which is why it boggles my mind that 5,000 people are already expected at Connaught Place for New Delhi’s (and possibly India’s) biggest gathering of Pokémon Go players. This shouldn’t be surprising as the ‘pokewalk’ at San Francisco on the 21st attracted over 9,000 people, but there’s one major difference: Pokémon Go hasn’t even released officially in India.

Niantic, the developer and publisher behind both Ingress and Pokémon Go, has been struggling to scale their infrastructure to serve the hundreds of players joining the game every day – many from unsupported geographies. The lack of an official release has made barely any impact; unofficial installation packages can be tracked down online after every major release of the game, often leaving entire countries complaining about login issues when the servers inevitably crash. Server failures are common, and crashes are usually expected late in the evening as the West Coast of the US logs in en masse. The profile and virality of the game have reached such a peak that hacker groups have even begun claiming responsibility for some of the server outages.

But none of this is stopping players – a quick tour around Delhi shows that the game is in active use. As the game is mapped on to the real world, existing monuments and landmarks serve as in-game points of interest: ‘Pokémon Gyms’, where players and their Pokémon battle opposing factions for ownership, constantly oscillate between teams. It’s unreal to walk around India Gate, which happens to be designated a Gym, and see the odd player battling for control in the evening.

Popular ‘Pokestops’, where players pick up items, can often be identified from a distance by the players milling around with power-banks in their pockets, hunched over and swiping away on their screens. Parks such as the Lodhi Gardens are littered with both Pokémon and Gyms, but the source for amusement are the innumerable colourful trashcans which were marked as monuments and now appear as Pokestops. Indian cities don’t seem to have the same density of Pokémon appearing as in other countries with official releases, and we can reasonably expect it to take much longer to ‘finish’ the game by catching all Pokémon, but this end-game scenario is an inevitable eventuality.

Which raises a very important question that has already been popping up among the American playerbase: What next?

The three-year-lifespan of Ingress has made something very clear about Niantic’s development and release schedule: they have trouble designing the end-game. Tiered releases, where content is added progressively with each update, is a staple of Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs or MMOs such as World of Warcraft, but Niantic has never been very good at emulating this system. While Ingress’ faults need not necessarily translate to Pokémon Go, the cause for concern stems from one of the biggest complaints with Pokémon Go: that it is merely Ingress in a new skin.

Flawed mechanics

The criticism is understandable; the locations of Pokestops and Gyms are borrowed from Ingress data and the gameplay mechanics are fairly similar. However, the problems run far deeper.

The battle system in Pokémon Go, apart from being glitchy due to server lag, is unlike any Pokémon game ever made. Pokémon types, which were at the centre of strategy in the original games, are superficial and the poor balancing in battles leaves it broken. The type matching was drilled into players’ heads right from the beginning: the starters Charmander, Bulbasaur and Squirtle formed a Rock-Paper-Scissors style power triangle – Fire-type (Charmander) beats Grass-type (Bulbasaur), which beats Water-type (Squirtle), which, in turn, beats Fire-type (Charmander). Other types also had additional strengths or weaknesses: Electric-types would be faster but weaker compared to Water-types that are slower but more hardy.

Pokémon Go throws all that out the window, providing minor type bonuses, leaving some Pokémon massively overpowered. This has led to some Pokémon such as the water-type Vaporeon being valued far more than others, resulting in mad rushes when there is a chance to catch one of these in the wild. Detailed posts in some of the dedicated Pokémon Go discussion forums break down the mechanics of the battle system, revealing something that the purists have been shouting since the game’s release: this isn’t a Pokémon game at all.

Calls for balancing fixes haven’t received any official response, and a heavily glitchy system would eventually annoy the casual players just as much as the hardcore gamers. Niantic, for its part, has been releasing patches and bug fixes for Pokémon Go, but these minor changes leave the game largely the same: Walk around. Find Pokémon. Repeat.

More and more Pokemon

Speculations are rife about what Niantic will do about future content. One very easy step would be the addition of Pokémon beyond the first 151. The total number of Pokémon currently stands at 722, and will increase with the November release of Pokémon Sun and Moon. Which means that Niantic still has enough raw content to last a few more updates. Such a release system for content would be in line with what MMOs typically do. But adding new Pokémon comes at a price – the rarity of older Pokémon goes up, meaning some newer players might never be able to catch ’em all.

If that weren’t bad enough, the reception to newer Pokémon is debatable. When I first played a bootleg version of Pokémon Ruby, the third generation in the Pokémon series, the character design and aesthetics were so alien that I had trouble believing it was an official Pokémon game (my fears were assuaged by finally spotting a Pikachu somewhere). Each generation pushes the limits of what Pokémon can be, and before you accuse me of wearing nostalgia-goggles, consider that the list of 722 includes Pokémon that are basically ice cream, car keys and a pile of literal garbage.

Another form of content that could be added is through trainer levels, which track how much experience each player has. World of Warcraft increased the maximum level with each release, but such an addition might appeal only to hardcore gamers who are willing to spend the hours it would take to level up. As it stands, the larger part of the demographic playing Pokémon Go is along the lines of other mobile games: mostly casual players, with a significant portion playing it for just over an hour every day. The choice down the road for Niantic is difficult: Add to the grind, double down on difficulty, and appeal to the hardcore gamers, or stay a casual mobile game that competes with Clash of Clans rather than World of Warcraft.

MMO or mobile?

In all this, it is interesting to observe Nintendo’s contribution to Pokémon Go. For a company that has been fiercely protective of their intellectual property, Pokémon Go is the first foray into the mobile segment. Of course, they played barely any part in its development, and the game itself is little more than a franchising opportunity for Niantic – even the loading screen credits are not to Nintendo but to The Pokémon Company, a catch-all holding company for managing the Pokémon brand. But this first step, even through a merchandising subsidiary, is a shift from their decade-long aversion to mobile.

And this first step appears to have been received rather well, shooting Nintendo stock past 200% of their value from a month ago. Some believe that the release of Pokémon Go, a game with limited substance, is merely a massive marketing operation for Pokémon Sun and Moon; but, if the reception to Pokémon Go is anything to go by, any entry by Nintendo into mobile gaming could be their biggest cash cow yet.

It’s unclear if Niantic is going to go the MMO way and consolidate the hardcore gamer base, or sail peacefully on the sea of cash-rich casual mobile gamers. Pokémon Go has been a success that has redefined virality and achieved pop culture status in a matter of days, even in regions where it lacks an official presence. It has a player base across age groups and cultures: the game is making people get out more, improving fitness numbers and proving to be a social phenomenon that is stealthily changing the way people interact with technology and with each other in public. Some die-hard Pokémon fans believe that the interest in this iteration of the game is merely a fad, echoing the sentiments of parents over the last 20 years. But now that some of those very parents are on the game, Niantic just might get to prove those purists wrong.

The author is an entrepreneur based out of New Delhi.