The next Pokémon game, Pokémon Go, will be an augmented reality (AR) mobile game, encouraging players to go outside and capture Pokémon in the real world. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw the announcement and thought about how I’ve been dreaming of Pokémon in real life since I was introduced to the series as a kid, but whether this game will live up to those expectations rests on its free-to-play (F2P) features.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, the announcement trailer is below:
There is so much going for Pokémon Go that I have no doubt it will be a hit. First off, as mentioned above, this is something people have been dreaming about for years (Pokémon turns 20 in 2016), and the technology has finally arrived to make it a reality. Back when I was absorbed in Pokémon Blue and the trading cards, there was a stretch where I would hope to see some Pokémon playing in the yard, even though I knew they weren’t real and never actually expected to see anything.
Which makes this announcement sort of surreal for me, because Pokémon are coming to our world now, in a sense. When wearing the optional Pokémon Go Plus wristband, the player will be notified every time they are physically close to a Pokémon, integrating the player in the game’s universe in a way few titles have attempted, and certainly more than any other Pokémon title before. And because you don’t have to be constantly checking your phone to play, you can go about your business and seamlessly join the game on your terms. That being said, I can already imagine people (read: me) being late to things because a rare Pokémon pops up nearby, and the chance to catch it will be too good to pass up.
Certainly this game will lead to a fair amount of obsessed players not just because of how many people have become obsessed with the battling, training, and breeding of the previous entries in the series, but because of who’s working on the title. The Pokémon Company is teaming up with Nintendo and Niantic; Nintendo has been a partner of Pokémon since the beginning and has a clear history developing strong fan bases, but Niantic is really the important one in this relationship. The backbone for Pokémon Go is essentially Niantic’s Ingress, an AR game that looks to be quite similar (minus, you know, the Pokémon): players explore the real world, guided to waypoints by their phones, and connect with and challenging other players who are in the area. Ingress’s most devoted fans are incredibly passionate, with stories of players traveling across the globe for important events not being uncommon. And this is even though the game’s story and universe at their core don’t sound terribly inspiring: Players become agents for one of two generic-sounding factions (the Enlightened or the Resistance), establishing and capturing portals for territorial control of the world. But Ingress has become incredibly successful due to not only its fan base, but also because Niantic has been incredibly supportive and has created an expansive and constantly evolving backstory to complement the game. While the scenario ending the debut trailer, where scores of players gather together in a city to emphatically battle a Mewtwo, might seem a little preposterous at first glance, if Niantic, Nintendo, and the Pokémon Company support the community like Niantic has Ingress’s, we could be seeing something like that actually happen in the near future. If for no other reason than that it has already happened for Ingress.
With region-specific Pokémon, there’s the potential too for players to not just travel for sponsored events, but also to become actual explorers. During the press conference, it is mentioned that you may find water-type Pokémon near actual water, but let’s take this a step further. Imagine Pokémon which can only be found in specific regions, encouraging travel: maybe Porygons only exist in tech-heavy areas like Silicon Valley, or Articunoes are only catchable on snow-covered mountains, or volcanoes being the only place to find Magmars. The quest to catch them all no longer means just exploring the game world but rather exploring the real world. I already have plans to travel, and I’m not saying that I would go somewhere just to catch a Pokémon, but it does provide a little extra incentive to see the world, which is more than I ever thought a video game might do. Trading and/or battling with friends using only Pokemon you caught abroad, for instance, could also provide a better way to entertain your friends with your travels rather than simply showing them your photos. At a simpler level, Pokémon Go is an excuse to leave the house and get to know my hometown a little better, which is the opposite of what video games are normally accused of doing.
But all that being said, Pokémon Go will be a huge disappointment if its F2P model is poorly implemented. Nothing about this has been detailed yet so I’ll have to speculate, and while I’ll dream for a game without monetization, that just isn’t going to happen. Given the history of F2P I’m a little worried about one element shown in the trailer: the item system.
Let me clarify that I highly doubt that Pokémon Go will feature the sort of exploitative F2P systems that give F2P a bad name. The Pokémon Company et al. know that even a bare-bones monetization system would make enough money to justify the project. And especially if you’re targeting children and families, as the trailer emphasizes, pay-to-win tactics are out of the question. I could see a system where you get maybe 5 Poké Balls a day, capped at 20 total or something, plus a Great Ball a week and one Ultra Ball a month, then maybe a Master Ball or other exclusive item on your birthday or something, all of course with the ability to buy more if that isn’t enough. Or maybe just doing stuff in-game gives you currency to spend as you wish (similar to Ingress, I believe). Or, since you can find Pokémon in the world, maybe that’s how you find items too, considering you can find items scattered in the video game world as well. Likely we’ll see some combination of these, and honestly I’d be fine with any and all of them.
What scares me about this (and F2P games in general, I suppose) is, what if the game is too good? With traditional games, where you pay upfront, any additional fun you have is in a sense free, since you’ve already paid all you have to. F2P games have essentially infinite total cost, and while I’m not prone to purging my bank account with them, Pokémon Go is unique. The last Pokémon game I played was on the Game Boy Advance, but my nostalgia for the series hasn’t diminished. What happens though when you want to binge on the game one weekend, then run out of Poké Balls, and a rare Pokémon pops up nearby? Will I be able to turn it down, or will I be purchasing a set of Ultra Balls to make sure it’s mine? Maybe I can say no to myself, but what about when my competitive side takes over and I have to be the first in my friend group to catch a specific Pokémon? Or for parents, when you run out of items but your kid wants to keep going? Are you really going to tell them “No,” because let’s face it, you want to keep playing too. The game doesn’t come out until 2016 and it already seems hopeless to resist.
Pokémon was such an important feature of my childhood that, even though I’ve been disconnected from it for a decade, Pokémon Go is the game that could drag me back in. Paradoxically, I almost want this to game to fail so it can’t capture me, but in truth I’m expecting my nightmare: a free-to-play game so good that I can’t help but pour money into it.