Pokémon GO has been a phenomenon. That much is undisputed.
There was a moment there when it felt like everyone was playing it. And when I say “everyone,” I don’t mean the standard “everyone who plays games.” I mean everyone. During those first two weeks, it was easy to pick out dozens of people playing the game in public, phones out, swiping to catch some nearby Weedle, Pidgey or Ratata. You’d see people hunting in groups, joking and mock fighting with strangers over which team was best, Team Valor or Team Mystic (Team Instinct, you’re not even in the running). You’d walk by a store or a park and see players camped out, battling over control of the virtual gym. It was — far and away — the single most popular thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
And then, suddenly, it was gone.
I rarely ever see players by the local gyms anymore. Sure, if I load up the app, I can see that they’ve changed hands since last I checked, meaning people are clearly still playing, but I don’t actually see them anymore. By and by, I might still catch the odd errant group on the march, phones in hand, charger cables extending into their pockets, but it’s nowhere near the zeitgeist it used to be. The sad part is, I’m not really surprised.
Plain and simple, when you strip it down to its core mechanics, Pokémon GO just isn’t very fun.
Pokémon GO’s initial success, in large part, can be attributed to three factors: nostalgia, gimmick and free. The “Pokémon” name, even decades later, still carries massive weight, especially when you’re talking about the original set of 151 Pokémon. Everyone loves Pikachu, Charmander, Bulbasaur and Squirtle, and it’s surprisingly fun to see them superimposed into the real world via the phone you carry around with you everywhere already. You can play Pokémon GO anytime, anywhere, without spending a dime. There’s simply zero friction between hearing about the Pokémon GO craze and downloading the game for free to check it out for yourself. It was a brilliant pitch to consumers, and it’s no wonder it took off as quickly as it did.
But all the same, it’s no wonder it burned out just as quickly, either. Nostalgia and a neat gimmick can only carry you so far, after all, and that’s all Pokémon GO has, really. You find Pokémon in the real world, swipe Poké balls to catch them and that’s about it. You can also, of course, collect bonuses by swiping Pokéstop locations, take over gyms and level up your trainer and crew, but the primary goal of the game is catch Pokémon and there’s not enough there to hold your attention for very long.
While it was fairly intoxicating in the beginning to go out with friends catching Pokémon, taking over gyms and gawking at the crowds of people out doing the same, the further you get into the game, the more bland it becomes and the more annoyances crop up: The distance between trainer levels gets greater and greater. You tire of seeing the same Weedles, Ratatas and Pidgeys again and again. Wild Pokémon become harder to catch, exposing all the weaknesses of the game’s core action component. Collecting bonuses for spinning Pokéstops becomes a chore. The battery drain from needing to leave the app open in the foreground becomes unforgivable. The core action never changes, no matter what level you are; it only takes longer to accomplish the same goals.
Furthermore, as an old-school Pokémon fan, there’s a lot about Pokémon GO that simply doesn’t make sense to me. In a traditional Pokémon game, my choice of a starting Pokémon mattered. My Charmander, Bulbasaur, Squirtle or Pikachu would be my first and most trusted companion on my journey, the Pokémon I would try hardest to level up and keep with me at all times. And whichever one I picked was a permanent decision that locked off the others for the duration of the game. In Pokémon GO, my starting Pokémon is far and away my most worthless. The only way to level up or evolve a Pokémon in GO is to catch dozens more of the same one to collect “candy” specific to that Pokémon, but I’ve still to this day never seen another wild Charmander. Unlike a typical Pokémon game, I can’t battle him against other Pokémon to level him up naturally; it’s only through “Charmander candy” (which I can’t find) so he remains a paltry level 34. I keep him around out of habit more than anything else. The second Pokémon I caught, however, was a Squirtle, which doesn’t make much sense. By choosing Charmander, shouldn’t Squirtle be locked off? Days later, I stumbled on a Bulbasaur. Then another. Then another Squirtle. Then two Pikachus. It makes no sense.
There’s just nothing to do in Pokémon GO. In a normal Pokémon game, you’d catch exactly one Weedle, then never again. There would be very little reason to do so. In Pokémon GO, you need to wander around hoping to catch your fiftieth Weedle of the day to help evolve one into a Kakuna, then a Beedrill — a Beedrill, it should be noted, that you won’t even be able to use because by the time you’ve gotten it, it’s too low level to be worth spending any more resources on to level up. You’d need to keep dumping more Weedle candies and valuable “Stardust” into it just to get it up to par with your other Pokémon, but it’s never worth it. As a result, there’s not a single Pokémon in my crew I feel any attachment to, a stark contrast from most Pokémon games which are all about building your personal crew of killers.
There’s of course a very fine line for developer Niantic to walk here: too much “game” and you’ll overwhelm the mainstream audience, but too little and you’ll lose all but the most hardcore players. Right now, Pokémon GO is firmly over the “too little” line and it’s a bummer. Niantic has publicly stated that more traditional elements are coming to the game: trading and battling with friends, Pokécenters for healing and more guidance from team leaders. Nintendo even has its Pokémon GO Plus wristband coming out to allow you to perform basic in-game actions without taking your phone out, but the company delayed it to September. Frankly, that’s too late. Most people I know have dropped off the game, I rarely ever see strangers playing it and I’ve already deleted it from my phone. It became a chore.
But I miss Pokémon GO. I miss when it was big and everyone was outside, laughing and playing and staying healthy and chatting up strangers like some weird trip into the 1950s. I miss colliding with another group of players and jokingly shouting taunts at the other team, everyone fully aware of how ridiculous the situation. I miss walking down the street with friends as a car drives by, blasting the Pokémon cartoon theme song and bursting into laughter.
And that’s the key: Pokémon GO was never fun. The people playing it were. It’s too bad then that Pokémon GO couldn’t bring us together for more than a few weeks.