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Review of Pokémon GO for iOS and Android

The newest “exergame” to hit the market is a close relative to what many deem one of the first exergames for smartphones.

Back in 2012, Google developed a location-based game called Ingress for Android, which was ported over to iOS in 2014. In the game, you move around a virtual world on your screen, which happens to correspond to the real world. In other words, the world itself is your “game board”.

The game is essentially a worldwide version of “capture the flag”. In the game you join one of two sides–the “Enlightened” or the “Resistance”, and then you work with your side to “take over” areas in the real world by walking around your neighborhood, your work area, while shopping, and so on and capturing “portals” that are scattered around the virtual world (typically corresponding to certain landmarks in the real world).

Ingress was hugely popular, with a reported 7 million players at its peak. The game developers spun off from Google as an independent company called Niantic in August 2015. But the game had its flaws. The first was in the premise. The science fiction plotline was clearly targeted towards “geeks”, so casual players were probably turned off, intimidated with words like “”Resonators”, “Mods”, “Amplifiers”, “Heat Sinks”, “Keys”, “Portal Links”, “MUF Capsules” and so on. The second issue was that in some circles there was widespread cheating going on, which proved a disincentive to players who played the game “honestly”. Still, Ingress is definitely a game worth downloading and checking out.

pokemon go iconNiantic did something brilliant. They teamed up with The Pokémon Company and released a new game for your smartphone called Pokémon GO for iOS and Android.

Just about everyone who’s a Gen Y’er or Millennial has had a collection of Pokémon cards. I remember once watching some kids playing with their Pokémon cards, reciting every character, along with their info, type, heal points, stage, attack, damage, and weakness and thinking to myself…if only they used that part of their brains to memorize the Periodic Table or the Bill of Rights.

Well, those kids are all grown up now and all have smartphones and disposable income. And so the time is rife for Pokémon GO.

You start out Pokémon GO by signing into your Pokémon.com username and password, if you have one, or a Google ID.

IMG_0886When you start the game you’re greeted by a Pokémon Professor, Professor Willow.

Do you know that this world is inhabited by creatures known as Pokémon? Pokémon can be found in every corner of the earth. Some run across the plains, others fly through the skies, some live in the mountains, or in the forests, or near water… I have spent my whole life studying them and their regional distribution. Will you help me with my research? That’s great! I was just looking for someone like you to help! You’ll need to find and collect Pokemon from everywhere! Now, choose your style for your adventure. 

From there, you can choose a male or a female avatar and do very basic customization.

Then you’re asked to give the app permission to access your camera. From there Pokémon GO works a lot like Ingress does. You see a virtual map on your screen where you’ll see streets that correspond to the real world.

My initial view in Pokemon GO, which happens to correspond to the streets in my neighborhood.

My initial view in Pokemon GO, which happens to correspond to the streets in my neighborhood.

The good professor will hand you a few “Poké Balls” that you’ll use to capture Pokémons you encounter.

Your first Pokémon will show up soon after that, and you’ll also be able to play with the camera feature. If you turn it on, you’ll see an image of your actual surroundings in the real world, and you’ll see the Pokémon hanging out there through the magic of augmented reality. In my case, it showed up in the baby’s playpen.

IMG_0902

You need to flick your screen to try to hit the Pokémon with one of your Poké Balls. Catch him and he’ll end up in your PokéDex.

As you walk around the real world, you’ll encounter “PokéStops” (which correspond to landmarks in the real world–it’s what they called “Portals” in Ingress) where you can collect additional supplies. Just sitting in my apartment, there was a sculpture right across the street that I could tap and collect a few more Poke Balls.

sculpture across street

What’s cool about this is that I’m finding even in my own neighborhood I’m learning things about the real world I never knew before–the names and locations of sculptures and public artwork I’d previously just passed by without thinking.

I could see on the map that there were more down the street, and the only way for me to get to them was to walk…and walk…and walk. And you need to walk–if you’re traveling by car or train you’ll be going too fast to “check in” to any location.

As you collect the same species of Pokémon enough time, you can “evolve” them into a different Pokémon. And when you reach “Level 5”, in a concept similar to Ingress, you’ll be able to enter something called a “gym” and join one of three teams. In gyms your Pokémons can do battle with others with the goal of capturing the gym for your team. Unlike card games and video games the battles aren’t turn-based, but you can tap the screen, hold down your finger to build power for special attacks, and swipe to dodge attacks. The old rules from the card games and video games apply (e.g., water Pokemon are effective against fire). Battles are the most effective way to strengthen your collection of Pokemon and raise their levels.

If you live in a big city, chances are you’ll be seeing a lot of people on the sidewalks in the coming weeks and months with their heads glued to their smartphone screens, and occasionally stopping and swiping at them. Now you’ll know what they’re up to 🙂 Just today I saw about ten people like this on the streets of Manhattan, desperately trying to look nonchalant, but clearly obsessing over collecting Pokemon items.

This of course begs the questions, can Pokémon GO (or Ingress for that matter) really be considered an “exercise game”. You’re not really running, or breaking a sweat, or even getting an elevated heartrate.

This is all true, but what it is doing is promoting more movement. For example, I take the train into Manhattan every day, and then I can either take a 10 minute subway ride or a 30 minute walk to my office. For example, in my daily commute after work I have the option of either hopping on the subway (at $2.75 a pop) for a 10 minute ride or taking a 30 minute walk to the train station. At the end of the day I’m usually exhausted and end up giving in and paying the $2.75. But for a time at least, trying to “catch them all” is probably going to give me all the incentive I need to save the money and walk for the foreseeable future. Similarly, if I’m walking and see a Poké Stop just a little distance away, I find myself walking out of the way to get it.

This morning was a beautiful day and I opted to walk. Right outside Penn Station I saw a Zubat to capture (being Manhattan, people weren’t getting creeped out that I was pointing my phone at them and swiping, but YMMV depending on how weird the people in your neighborhood are).

pokemon outside penn station

Being Manhattan, my map was filled with dozens of Poké Stops, including the Eagle Statue right outside Penn Station.

penn station eagle

As I walked I encountered many more monsters, including this rat-inspired monster, appropriately near the same place in the City where I saw real rats at one point.

raticate pokemon in nyc

And the early reviews show the same thing–people are abandoning their cars and buses and trains and choosing to walk sometimes ridiculous distances to play this game and find all the items they can get. In a city like New York, there are certainly a lot!

pokemon go in midtown

Niantic’s servers have had its troubles in the last few days since the app launched, most likely due to the huge amount of downloads and usage the app has gotten. This, unfortunately, has negatively affected early reviews for the game. Hopefully this will just be a temporary thing.

Ultimately I’m impressed. This is a peek into the future of mobile gaming, where addictive (but rather mindless) games like Farmville and Candy Crush meet location-based services like Foursquare and Waze. When I was on the train and not able to play Pokemon Go, I fired up my Candy Crush and it felt so…pointless (granted walking around collecting monsters is equally pointless, but there’s enough extra value in the augmented reality experience that your brain convinces you it’s not).

Put another way, walking around hunting for monsters and finding one every now and then gave me a thrill not unlike the thrill I get when fishing–even to the point of being more thrilled when I find and net a “big one”.

It’s also is a brilliant way to extend the 20-year old Pokémon franchise, and since it has a much more accessible and understandable premise than Ingress, I fully expect it to take off and be as huge as any (every) other Pokémon product in history.

Game: Pokémon GO
Publisher: Niantic
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Walking (outdoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS Android.

Is Pokemon GO free?
Yes, it’s completely free and you can enjoy the game without ever paying a dime. However, there are in-game purchases that can enhance your enjoyment, such as purchasing Pokeballs, Incense, Lucky Eggs, Lures, Egg Incubators and upgrades so you can store more items and Pokemons. Purchasing each of these will require use of Pokecoins, which is fake money that you purchase with real money :).
Does Pokemon GO use a lot of data?
No, the average use will use about 5-10 megabytes of data for every hour of continuous play, and most sessions last much shorter than that. Even though it uses the same GPS as a mapping app, it uses substantially less data.
Is Pokemon GO safe?
It really depends. The game hasn’t been out a week and there are already reports of people getting robbed, people crashing cars, people falling into ditches and walking into oncoming traffic and each other, and so on. The key is to remind yourself of what it says on the opening screen–“Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” Use your common sense. Don’t keep your face buried in your phone as you walk–your phone will buzz is there’s a Pokemon or a PokeStop nearby. If you’re on a crowded street and a Pokemon pops up, don’t walk and throw PokeBalls at the same time, but calmly step to the side and dispatch of the Pokemon calmly. If you’re alone at night and see a Pokemon or a PokeStop in an isolated area, let it go.
Help! My Pokemon GO hung up! What do I do?
Stay calm. If your Pokemon Go freezes after you’ve just caught a Pokemon, wait for the little “loading/saving” icon to appear in the upper left hand corner. If it does, your accomplishment was successfully saved, and you can force-quit the app and start over without losing anything. If you quickly re-open the app, chances are all the PokeStops and Pokemons that were there before will still be there. Unfortunately this is happening quite a bit, but expect it to get better as Niantic improves their servers and a lot of the curious users start dropping off.
How do I catch Pokemon?

As you walk, from time to time different Pokemon will appear on your map (you don’t need to be constantly looking at your screen–your phone will vibrate to let you know). Tap on the Pokemon and you’ll be switched to an augmented reality view of your world with the Pokemon in front of you with a circle in front of it (my first bit of advice is to turn AR off using the switch in the upper right-hand corner–it’s cool the first few times but just gets in the way after repeated playings). Fling a Pokeball at the circle. It takes practice, but the key is to line up the Pokemon so it’s right in front of you, and then then watch the animated circle. Hold the ball down with your finger and then when the circle is at its smallest point, flick with the first angle and force to throw, aiming for the middle of that small circle.

A red, yellow, or green circle shows how difficult it is to catch–green is easiest to catch, red is extremely difficult. The more advanced ones will move more and sometimes need several attempts to bag. You’ll get a bonus if you’re accurate and throw the ball into the ring it’s small. You’ll increase your chances and get a little bonus by making a little circular motion with your finger to “wind up” the ball and then fling it at an angle to shoot it in a “curveball”.

Does Pokemon Go have to be open to hatch eggs?
Yes, you need to walk anywhere from 2 to 10 kilometers (the requirement is listed under the egg) with the app open. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, the eggs you’ve collected at PokeStops can be found in the Pokemon menu. You can carry nine eggs at once–once you’ve filled up with 9 you won’t be able to carry any more. You’ll need to put the egg in an incubator (you get one unlimited orange one at the start of the game, and you can purchase additional blue ones that are good for three uses) and walk. Right now I have 9 eggs, two that requires a 2k walk (1.2 miles), six that require a 5k walk (3.1 miles), and one that requires a 10k walk (6.2 miles). It’s a great way to get you to do more exercise.
How do gyms work?

After you reach level 5, you pick a team–the red team, the yellow team, or the blue team. Ask other friends playing the game first what team they choose–once you choose a team you can’t change it. When you pass a “gym” (usually a public landmark of some kind), you’ll see which team it’s controlled by by its color. If you click on the gym you’ll see trainers like yourself who have occupied that gym.

If you go to a friendly gym (your team’s color), and there’s an empty slot, you can take that slot by adding your Pokemon to the gym. If there’s no empty slot, you can still challenge the gym to a “friendly fight”–if you win the fight it’ll increase the gym’s “prestige”. If you happen to get the gym to the next level, the next slot is yours (until a rival team kicks you out, in which case your Pokemon will be returned to you).

If you go to an unfriendly gym (another color), you need to put your best Pokemons against their best ones. Your mission is to defeat as many of their trainers as possible to drain their “prestige” to zero. Once that happens, you can take over the gym for your own team.

How do battles in the gym work?
First, you need to build up your Pokemon’s CP (combat points) by training and evolving it. You don’t want to be putting a Pokemon with a CP of 10 against one of 1000. Then, it’s time to fight (again, fighting a friendly team is just a “training fight” with one Pokemon that can help you increase the gym’s control for your team, fighting an enemy team is where you set up six Pokemons to attempt to knock them down or out). Battling itself is just a lot of tapping and swiping. Tap the screen to have your selected Pokemon perform its basic attack. When you see a “flickering” animation, it means the enemy Pokemon is about to attack and you need to swipe to get out of the way. There’s a blue meter called a Special Attack bar–once it’s filled up press down on the enemy for a few seconds to unleash the attack. Each Pokemon has a certain amount of “Hit Points (HP) and your goal is to wipe out your opponent’s HP before yours is. Your Pokemon will “faint” if defeated. In either case, you can bring your Pokemon back to fighting strength for the next time by using “Potion” and “Revive” medicine (which you collect at PokeStops).
How do I train or evolve my Pokemon to have higher CP?
Every time you catch or hatch a Pokemon, or place your Pokemon in a gym to defend it you’ll collect Stardust (which can be used for any Pokemon) and Candy (which apply to an individual “species”). You can use these to increase the CP of your Pokemon.
Come on, is this really exercise?
I’ll speak from personal experience. In the past I’d usually be too tired after work to take a walk, but I’ve gone out three times in the humid summer night. In the past I probably would have taken the subway from work to the train station a few times but decided instead to walk (Manhattan has PokeStops every couple of steps). At home there have been several times I otherwise would have driven somewhere but opted to walk instead. In the past, I always looked for the shortest walk, but now I’m encouraged to take longer roads, and I’m learning a lot about my own city and New York City at the same time. So it’s worked for me. 🙂
When will this madness end?
Well, the good news for you if you’re completely annoyed by the zombies walking around with their heads in their phones swiping monsters is that like all fads, this one will eventually quiet down, just like Farmville, Mafia Wars, Draw Something, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush normalized. But until that happens, why not just download it and enjoy it? But as you live in augmented reality, don’t forget to live in actual reality too. 🙂
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