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Pokémon Go, explained

Everyone is suddenly catching Pokémon fever again. Here’s what’s going on.

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You may have heard stories of people hunting down Pokémon on their office desks, in hospital rooms, and even in bathrooms. One teenage girl even found a dead body while looking for Pokémon. And police in Missouri claimed that four suspected robbers lured in victims with a chance of catching Pokémon in a new game called Pokémon Go.

What the hell is going on? What is Pokémon Go?

Well, after a few years lying relatively low, the Nintendo-owned Pokémon, which exploded in popularity in the late 1990s, is again taking the world by storm. This time, through Pokémon Go: the series’s biggest entry into the mobile space, now available for a free download on Android and iOS. It’s so popular that it’s now competing with Twitter in terms of daily active users on Android.

In simple terms, Pokémon Go is a game that uses your phone’s GPS and clock to detect where and when you are in the game and make Pokémon "appear" around you (on your phone screen) so you can go and catch them. As you move around, different and more types of Pokémon will appear depending on where you are and what time it is. The idea is to encourage you to travel around the real world to catch Pokémon in the game. (This mix of a game and the real world interacting is known as "augmented reality." More on that later.)

So why are people seeking out virtual creatures while at work and as they go to the bathroom? Part of the reason Pokémon Go is popular is that it’s free, so it’s easy to download and play. But more importantly, Pokémon Go fulfills a fantasy Pokémon fans have had since the games first came out: What if Pokémon were real and inhabited our world? But to understand why people are so enthusiastic about the idea, we first need to go back to the late 1990s — to the original Pokémon games.

What is Pokémon Go? It’s an attempt at realizing what fans always wanted from Pokémon.

The Pokémon games take place in a world populated by exotic, powerful monsters — they can look like rats, snakes, dragons, dinosaurs, birds, eggs, trees, and even swords. In this world, people called "trainers" travel around the globe to tame these creatures and, in an ethically questionable manner, use them to fight against each other.

Based on the premise of bug catchinga popular hobby in Japan, where the games originated — the big goal in the Pokémon games, from the original Pokémon Red and Blue to the upcoming Pokémon Sun and Moon, is to collect all of these virtual creatures.

The first generation of Pokémon games began with 151 creatures, but the catalog has since expanded to more than 720. In Pokémon Go, only the original 151 are available — although some of the originals are apparently locked behind special events.

The games took the world by storm in the late 1990s — a big fad widely known as "Pokémania." The original handheld games, Pokémon Red and Blue, came out in 1998 in America, followed by Yellow in 1999 and Gold and Silver in 2000. With the games came spinoffs like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Pinball in 1999, a popular TV show, movies, trading cards, and a lot of other merchandise. For a few years, Pokémon was on top of the world. (The franchise is still fairly big; it’s just not the cultural phenomenon that it once was.)

But since the games came out for Nintendo’s handheld consoles, fans all around the world have shared a dream: What if Pokémon weren’t limited to the games’ world? What if they were real and inhabited our world? What if we could all be Ash Ketchum, the TV show’s star trainer, who wanders the world in his quest to catch them all and earn his honors by defeating all the gym leaders? I want a Pikachu in real life, dammit!

Unfortunately, Pokémon aren’t real — at least not yet. But technology has evolved to be able to simulate a world in which Pokémon are real. That’s essentially what Pokémon Go attempts to do: By using your phone’s ability to track the time and your location, the game imitates what it would be like if Pokémon really were roaming around you at all times, ready to be caught and collected. And given that many original Pokémon fans are now adults, this idea has the extra benefit of hitting a sweet spot of nostalgia, helping boost its popularity.

Pokémon Go doesn’t play exactly like a typical Pokémon game

Pokémon Go is based on the original handheld games, but it also takes some liberties with the franchise.

First, the similarities: There are Pokémon, and you do catch them. There are also gym leaders and other trainers whom you can fight for fame, glory, and loot. You can also customize your in-game character’s look and name. And there’s also a (rather sexy) professor who helps get you started, particularly by giving you your first Pokémon.

Professor Willow helps get you started in Pokémon Go — and he's also pretty sexy.
Professor Willow helps get you started in Pokémon Go — and he's also pretty sexy.
Pokémon Go via Polygon

Besides that, the game makes some big changes. For one, the way you navigate the world is obviously different. In the handheld games, you simply use a controller to move around the in-game world the developers have made. In Pokémon Go, you have to travel around the real word, and the game uses your GPS and clock to detect your location on the in-game map and decide which Pokémon appear around you.

What’s more, the game does a lot to make you explore your real-world environment at different times. For example, if you go out to a park, you’ll probably see more grass- or bug-type Pokémon. If you go near a lake or ocean, you’ll be able to pick up more water types. And if you go out at night, you'll see more nocturnal fairy and ghost types.

This is further enhanced by PokéStops, which are essentially notable locations in the real world marked on your in-game map. You can go to these to nab items, including Poké Balls and eggs that can hatch into full Pokémon. Its also possible to install special items at PokéStops that lure extra Pokémon, which also make the stops glow pink on the map so players know that hanging around will attract extra Pokémon.

This need to travel is the game’s depth, essentially: To catch them all (and earn the medals attached to catching Pokémon), you’re going to have to explore far and wide, during the day and night — like Ash Ketchum does in the TV show. It’s the only way to become the very best, like no one ever was.

The game monetizes on this, too: You can buy items in the store with real money that help you lure Pokémon. Since Pokémon Go is free to download and play, this is how the developers are making money off the game. (They’ll also probably make money off all the data they’re collecting.)

Another huge change is the combat. When catching Pokémon, you don’t fight them with your own team of Pokémon. Instead, the battle is between you and the creature directly: You swipe to throw a Poké Ball — the device used to capture Pokémon — in their direction, which then catches them.

In fact, there’s no traditional Pokémon battles in the game at all. When you fight gym leaders and other trainers, you don’t set up your team of six with four moves each and select among those four moves to outsmart your opponent, as you do in the handheld games. Instead, battles are largely decided by your Pokémon’s combat power — a stat attached to each of your Pokémon — and you tap the screen to make your Pokémon attack the enemy while swiping to dodge enemy attacks. A lot of the strategy is gone.

Since the game lacks traditional battles, the only way to make your Pokémon stronger and evolve them (Pokémon can evolve into stronger forms) is with special items, which you can get by catching Pokémon and fighting gym leaders. These activities also boost your trainer level, which opens up content like gyms and raises your chances of finding rarer Pokémon.

The game currently has no significant multiplayer capability, meaning you can’t battle your real-life friends or trade with them — two functionalities that are very big in the handheld games. (There are even competitive Pokémon tournaments with cash prizes.)

The original trailer suggests that these multiplayer features could come eventually, though, since they were originally advertised:

The lack of robust multiplayer features and traditional battles has disappointed some Pokémon fans. As Allegra Frank said at Polygon after a week of playing Pokémon Go, "I don’t think I like it. Tell me if I’m being too harsh on this game, but when I’m pitched ‘Pokémon in the real world,’ I have a certain expectation that I’m going to be playing a classic Pokémon game, with the added bonus of seeing Pikachu and Charmander within my actual surroundings."

Another big downside is the battery usage. Having a game like this on at all times can really drain your phone’s battery — to the point that there are now several guides out there on how to preserve your battery life. For the most part, this is really just an early technological hurdle that augmented reality games will have to overcome over time.

Pokémon Go isn’t the first augmented reality game — and it won’t be the last

Ash and Pikachu meet Scraggy, the best Pokémon.
Ash and Pikachu meet Scraggy, the best Pokémon.

Beyond realizing childhood dreams, Pokémon Go is many people’s introduction into a new type of game that blends the real world with a virtual one — what’s known as "augmented reality."

This isn’t like virtual reality, in which you put on glasses or a headset to fully immerse yourself in a virtual world. Instead, augmented reality games tap into technology to enhance the world around you — by, for example, putting an Abra on your toilet.

An Abra sits on a toilet in Pokémon Go. Imgur via Polygon

Why would somebody want this? Well, everyday living can get boring. So why not spice it up with some Pokémon?

Pokémon Go is perhaps the biggest augmented reality game to date. But it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last: This is a concept that game developers are looking to tap into more, as they build on the concept established in existing games like IngressLife Is Crime, and, yes, Pokémon Go.

Google even spoofed the idea for Pokémon Go for April Fools’ Day in 2014 (although it may have been a secret early preview, given that Niantic, which made Pokémon Go, began at Google):

Ingress, however, exposes a potential problem with augmented reality games. In Ingress, players can take over each other’s "portals," which require that players go to real-world locations to take. So players can potentially run into each other in the real world while they’re competing for a portal in the game.

The problem: When people get competitive, they can get aggressive. And there have been some reports of people getting into real-life arguments over the game. This is very tricky ground for future augmented reality game developers to tread, because they definitely don’t want real-world violence attached to their products.

Pokémon Go has already revealed some issues, too. Not only did four robbery suspects allegedly set up lure beacons on PokéStops to attract victims, but there are reports of injuries due to the game, and police have had to warn players about going into places they’re not supposed to. Chances are most players will be responsible and won’t run into these issues, but these are notable risks with directly attaching a video game to the real world.

Still, if executed correctly, these games can tap into a sense of childhood imagination and wonder that most other games can’t. Remember when you used to run around the playground imagining you’re Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, James Bond, or, maybe, Ash Ketchum, Pokémon master? I do! But I don’t have time for that anymore. (And I would probably get the police called on me if I tried.) These games do the imagining for you — by augmenting the world around you, either with Pokémon or portals you can hack.

It’s also a bit of an escape. While that certainly applies more to virtual reality, which can immerse you entirely in another world, Pokémon Go gives you the opportunity to for once forget about all the terrible shit happening out there, explore the beauty of the world, and catch some Pokémon along the way.

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