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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 20 February, 2019
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What the heck is Pokémon Go - and why is it so popular?

To think it all started out as an April Fools’ joke.

Image: Jordan Bajc/Flickr

IF YOU HAVE been paying attention to the internet this weekend, chances are you have seen at least one mention of Pokémon Go.

For those confused, Pokémon Go is a free app that has taken the internet by storm. It only had a limited release – launching in Australia first on Wednesday before hitting the US on Thursday – but it has exploded in popularity.

It’s been so popular that it comes close to surpassing Twitter in daily active users, and Nintendo’s value has increased by $6 billion because of it.

While it’s not officially available here yet, Android users can download the APK files to play the game now (be very careful about where you download it from), but if you’re confused as to why people are going mad about Pokémon Go, you’re not alone.

pikachu-march-2 Source: mooming013/YouTube

So what exactly is Pokémon Go?

Pokémon – short for pocket monsters – is a popular videogame series from Japan which lets you capture and train monsters so you can battle them against other players.

Twenty years after the originals were released, Pokémon Go, a free app which places a particular focus on exploration, makes its debut. The original aim, to catch them all, is still the main focus here.

It’s worth mentioning how Pokémon Go started out as an April Fools’ joke back in 2014. The end product might look different but the love for the idea – 18 million views and 122,000 upvotes for one YouTube video – was enough to convince Nintendo and Niantic Labs that it was worth exploring.

Pokémon Go is split up into two main parts. The first part is the actual exploring – a key part of the entire series – as it uses your location to track where you are.

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Looking at the map, you will see that around you are numerous Pokéstops (real-life areas of interest like statues, monuments and graffiti that you can visit to get items) and Gyms (where you battle against other players) which you must physically walk to. 

There is a lot of walking involved here – this is as much a fitness app as it is a gaming app so bring your walking shoes.

The first part of the game is to find Pokémon. It’s like a hot and cold treasure hunt – monsters don’t appear on your map until you’re close to them. When one pops up on your map, you tap on it to start catching it.

The game switches you to an augmented reality mini-game where the monster appears in front of you through your camera.

Wartortle 1

Part of the fun of the series is the tension involved in catching a monster. A monster like Pidgey is common and easy to catch but a rare monster like the Wartortle above will require more effort to catch.

Catching the same monsters repeatedly is the only way you can evolve them. This is essential if you want to fight other players and take over gyms.

So who is behind it?

The company behind Pokémon Go is Niantic Labs which has a lot of experience in location-based apps and services. Its founder John Hanke originally founded Keyhole, which created Google Earth, and Niantic Labs was spun out of Google itself.

It already has a similar app out called Ingress, which follows the same template as Pokémon Go but with a sci-fi backdrop.

It has a core group of players and regularly holds gatherings where the two main teams can play against each other – Dublin recently played host to one last month – but isn’t near the level of popularity as Pokémon Go.

PKMN Go map

Why the hell did it explode in popularity?

That can be tied into the very concept of Pokémon itself. The game has always been about exploration – travelling through fields, towns, mountains and other areas in search of rare Pokémon to catch – and Pokémon Go gets people out and about.

The opportunity to do some real-world exploring makes it appealing to many fans.

It’s also worth considering just how beloved the series is as a whole. Pokémon may have started out on the Game Boy but it became one of Nintendo’s strongest franchises.

People walking around glued to their screens searching for Pokémon. That’s a recipe for disaster, isn’t it?

Compared to people being glued to their phones for texts/social media/YouTube etc, eh?

As with anything popular, there have been positive and negative stories surrounding the game since its launch.

One incident in the US saw robbers use the app to lure players to them but were arrested, another saw a player discover a dead body while searching for a Pokéstop, one man saw his home marked as a Gym which led to numerous players visiting the area. (Although some of the other ‘viral’ stories have proven to be hoaxes).

Yet at the same time, there have been numerous heartwarming stories. Some players who are suffering from depression and anxiety have claimed the app has encouraged them to leave the house, some players have said the app has encouraged them to be more active, and others have made friends through it.

It’s early days but the more popular something is, the more likely stories like the ones above will appear. Granted, you do need to be careful about where you’re going and standing but the game only requires you to be within a certain radius of a monster or landmark.

But it’s going to be a fad, right?

It might be. Bloomberg referred back to Nintendo’s last massive success, the Wii, was very popular initially but the novelty wore off.

The popularity has put pressure on the Pokémon Go servers and while the game is solid, it might not keep people for the long-term.

Niantic says it will be introducing more features over time, like trading, but for now, it still has to roll out the game to the rest of the world.

The worst part is just how much it drains your battery. The game is very demanding on your phone – it’s using your GPS, your camera and your CPU to show the Pokémon in front of you – and it doesn’t work in the background.

wartortle 2

But Pokémon Go has potential as a game and also as a way of creating new communities.

It needs some fine-tuning but if it develops a strong social element, where people get together with teams and team up to fight/defend gyms, that will give it an edge.

Familiarity may encourage people to download it, but new friends could be the reason why they’ll keep playing it.

Read: It’s now 20 years since this title made the Game Boy a must-have item again >

Read: Finding it hard to fall asleep? These apps can help you out >

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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