It was so big, and then it disappeared
Remember Pokemon Go? It was only a few months ago that (literally) thousands of people were walking the streets chasing critters living in their phones.
We all lost our minds a bit. We thought we’d cracked it. The perfect game. The biggest thing since Flappy Bird.
And then it seemed as quickly as it arrived, it was gone.
But it wasn’t for a lack of genius. The game may have had short-lived success but it did show us there was a serious market out there for games that change the game. Augmented reality felt like the next evolutionary step in gaming. It was free and tapped into a massive global fan base who had, for the most part, not seen a significant reinvention since the days of the Gameboy. Largely, it didn’t need one.
Pokemon is one of those modern classics – like The Lion King, Nintendo and Britney’s Hit Me Baby One More Time, it is the beloved childhood icon of GenYs and Millenials the world over. It makes appearances at most coming of age events, like 18th birthday parties and the Sunday morning’s that follow. A revamp was welcome, but not vital to the brand’s survival.
The problem with Go: there was little to keep players involved in the game. Sure, there were Pokemon living in your kitchen. Pokemon in the park. Pokemon, literally, everywhere.
But when the novelty of catching virtual monsters wore off, the game quickly ran out of steam.
Developers went quiet after release, one gamer said, with few updates and little support to keep the hype rolling. Players quickly lost interest.
Go returns with a (brief) flash
A teaser on the Pokemon Facebook page was shared more than 17,000 times and viewed by almost one million users in just 11 hours on February 16.
Go was back. And there were more than 80 new Pokemon to catch.
The release of new virtual monsters to chase and catch followed a stable of Go Plus accessories, including guide books and a Bluetooth wristband that flashes when Pokemon are nearby, but that may not be enough to reinvigorate the hype of months past.
Trevor Collier from Tamworth had played Go and said the new release would see a resurgence in popularity. But added the game needed more to stay viable.
There is no denying Go made it’s mark in the gaming world, but the new release did not seem to be enough to help the augmented reality game stick around.
On February 15, 2017, Pokemon.com announced more than 80 new creatures from the Johto region in the Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver games will begin appearing on the world of Go.
They will include Chikorita, Cyndaquil, and Totodile, and players will be able to catch gender-specific Pokemon, while some of the Pokemon players have already encountered may be able to evolve into Pokemon that were previously not seen in Pokemon Go.
The new release also includes option to customise player avatars, new behaviours for ‘wild’ Pokemon and features to change the way Pokemon behave during the hunt.
The app was the 15th top grossing game in the Apple store on February 16.
Hype hits its high point: When Go arrived
“I’m back!” – It’s July, 2016. Sophie Myhill, a computer science student at Inverell High School, has her phone by her side while her friends, and Pokemon Go teammates, Harry Jorgensen, Jack Staader and Jack Roussos check the staff common room for activity.
“The servers go down quite often on this,” Harry explains, showing how the game uses his phone’s camera and GPS to project virtual Pokemon around the room.
“Sophie has been off all day, and now she is back on,” he says.
A Rattata, the 19th First Generation Pokemon -- a small purple rat -- appears on the table, as Harry lobs virtual Pokeballs to catch it.
The game, developed by Niantic, uses augmented reality to bridge the real world with the virtual Pokemon world. Go became a national sensation in the hours, and weeks following the launch in early July, 2016. Thousands of players around the country downloaded the app and set off on the chase, with some even travelling across the state to collect Pokemon.
“I met this guy from Taree, who said he had come from Taree because he was chasing Pokemon. He had no reason to be in Inverell but to be Pokemon hunting,” Sophie says.
Niantic, a Google breakout, had similar albeit more niche success with Ingress in 2012, an earlier augmented reality game. By 2015, Ingress had around seven million players across the globe.
By comparison, Pokemon Go was released in the US, New Zealand and Australia and registered millions of players. Server crowding, according to Vox.com, delayed global launches.
The release was leading app store top grossing lists in mid-2016. Players and commentators are thinking the explosive popularity of the game may not be a flash in the pan like some predecessors.
For players, Pokemon Go emerged from an increasing market for other-reality development and a well-established fan culture reaching back to the early ’90s.
The advent of a widely accessible other-reality playing experience was on the fringes of the gaming community for some time. For players and the numerous global development companies exploring virtual and augmented reality technology, Pokemon Go looks the future -- one that blurs the boundaries between real and virtual worlds and increasingly relies on a highly social experience for players.
Several leading development companies have released virtual reality technology, like the Samsung Gear VR headset and the HTC Vive system. But, it is games that exist in the boundaries between the fully-fledged real and virtual worlds that are hooking dedicated gamers and bringing a new generation of ‘social’ players into the spotlight.
“Augmented reality is you have the world around you, and then there is an overlay. So, the table is still there, you still see the table, and things interact on the table,” Inverell computer technician Ridge Wilkins explains.
“So, Pokemon will appear on the table or, as Josh found – he had Pokemon hiding on the shelves. That’s augmented reality; you see the world and it puts on a digital overlay. Virtual reality – you have the glasses and things like that, and it creates a virtual world around you.”
Meet and play – not the first game to go social
Josh is Josh McPhee, the manager at The Dust Jacket bookstore in Inverell. When he spoke with the Fairfax Media in July, he and his organising team were in final preparations for Inverell’s first Pokemon Go gathering, ticketed to bring Go players together to meet, compete and catch Pokemon.
Estimates following the event on July 24, 2016, ran above 200 – an excellent turnout on a wind-chilled and overcast day.
Josh said the social part of the game was an evolutionary leap forward, but the concept of an immersive social game did not start with Pokemon Go. Early versions of Gameboy, the tech that made Pokemon a global hit in the 1990s, pioneered a social playing experience. Now, the limitations that were once science fiction for old-school gamers are becoming real.
“Pokemon, itself, was a huge game in the ‘90s on Gameboy,” Josh says.
“Everyone loves the idea of being a Pokemon trainer and walking around and catching Pokemon. The problem was, on Gameboy you didn’t walk around anywhere because your little man moved around the world.
“Now, you basically get to be a real-time Pokemon trainer. So, you get to explore the forests and the lakes. And, it is geographically based so if you are near water, you are more likely to spawn water Pokemon; if you are in a park, you’re more likely to spawn park of foresty-type animals; if you are in suburbia, you will find different Pokemon.”
The Facebook invitation to a two-hour walk and gathering at Victoria Park was a hot ticket in the weeks leading up to the event. It followed a similar invite on Friday, July 8, which showed more than 5000 Sydney players listed as “confirmed” to attend a city event, with more than 11,000 registering interest.
The incredible response has turned the game into a global social phenomenon, but the app is comparatively simple.
Players cannot trade or battle the Pokemon they catch with other players, nor can they use caught Pokemon to battle those still in the ‘wild’. But in those early days, it was the blurred lines between the real and virtual world, and the almost seamlessly social aspect to the gameplay that made Go so accessible.
“It is encouraging people to explore and get out and about and meet up with people by going to these Poke-stops,” Josh says.
“You could originally trade between Gameboys, but it was a very physical thing. You had to plug the cord in, and you had to wait, and it was tedious. I think, eventually, (the developers) will have trading and battling for everyone, but it is still, very much, a new beginning,” he says.
“It (older Pokemon versions) was always a social game, but in an exclusive or an individual setting. It was your game. Someone else might be playing the same game a little further from you, but you still talked about it, you could compare Pokemon, and it was a social thing.”
Now, the augmented reality platform has exploded the social aspect, transforming it from optional in-game feature to a seemingly necessary aspect of playing. The idea of a primarily social game comes with significant effects forecast for the future of gaming and game culture.
Real time trainers: What it is like experiencing Go from the inside
“The game itself isn’t anything ‘Wow, huge’. We get out with our friends to look for Pokemon and enjoy ourselves,” Back in the Inverell High School staff common room, Harry explains, with Jack, Jack and Sophie, why Go has proven to be the coveted ‘billion-dollar’ app.
In the weeks after the release, Nintendo stocks ballooned around 50 percent as players scrambled for the game, but the company suffered an equally rapid depression as it emerged Nintendo have little direct connection with Pokemon Go.
The app was developed in collaboration between Niantic and The Pokemon Company – of which Nintendo owns around a third. As news emerged that license profits would be limited owing to the indirect connection, Nintendo stocks took a 17.7 percent dive in the weeks following the Go launch on July 6 but, according to the BBC, Nintendo shares were still up by almost 60 percent after the app’s release.
But for Jack Roussos, “the best part of the game is it’s an excuse to go out with your friends,”
Sophie Myhill adds: “Pokemon has been around for years”, but it is the social aspect of the game that has everyone talking.
The students are not alone in their opinion. In the weeks following the launch, Go whitewashed app store top lists, Josh and Ridge recall.
“Already, more people have downloaded this than people have downloaded Tinder,” Ridge says with a grin.
“It has more downloads than Twitter in the US, and has more run time than Facebook in the last two weeks, as an average daily app loaded,” Josh adds.
From early days of hardwire connections between Gameboys, players were suddenly interacting with and experiencing the game from the inside -- a virtual film over the real world.
For hardcore and casual gamers, Pokemon Go was bringing people together who might not otherwise have met.
“I was with my friend pretty late, and I left my car at the park,” Harry says.
“I was walking back to the park, this is at 10pm, and there were still people sitting on the benches, walking around on their phones.
“I didn’t feel intimidated because …
Sophie jumps in: “They were all playing Pokemon.”
Josh and Ridge have a similar story.
“We were in the park, and there was a group of four of us guys in our mid-20s. There was a 20-year-old girl who came up. She was by herself, in the park at 10.30 at night,” Josh says.
“She was on the same team as us, and we talked for 15 or 20 minutes.
“There was a group of boys. There was four or five of them, around 14 or 15-years-old. They came up and all of a sudden you’re connecting with different groups you wouldn’t normally talk to.”
Josh, Ridge and the Inverell High team agree immersive gaming had its stigmas for seclusion and introversion, but they also agreed in greater part the success of Pokemon Go was its social component.
“That is the big issue with gaming,” Josh says.
“It separates you. But people want that escape, but they also want to connect. That’s why people have the headsets. Whereas this takes you out of your room.”
Ridge takes a different approach. He says, the concept of escaping to another world has been around as long as spoken word, and certainly as long as books. Virtual reality, he said, was the “ultimate escapism”.
“You jump into a book because you want to be someone else,” he says.
“The augmented reality is you want to be you in the world. Your world is still you, but you have that extra bit in there.”
How to make a billion on a free billion-dollar app
“I guess it is an odd thing because it is what’s in and what’s out,” Harry says. “They took a really big leap making this Pokemon Go. They knew they had this huge fan base.”
The question for Jack, Jack, Harry and Sophie was what makes the billion on the billion-dollar app.
Pokemon Go was released in Australia for free on July 6, and the developers have not taken the same approach as many others. The game has premium features to help players rise through the ranks more rapidly but, as Ridge explained, “it has that aspect that if you push it, you can win”.
“You can buy certain things, but I haven’t bought a single thing in the game, and I’m on level 11.”
Jack Staader says some gamers consider purchasing premium features to be a kind of cheating -- describing a cheaper win to beef up accounts without, in the case of Go, literally ‘walking the distance’ to catch the prize.
But Harry takes a different point. Developers, he says, need to make wages. “When you put out a free game there is not a massive amount of revenue.”
“There is no ads in this. You can pay for the coins. But, there is no advertisement in it, and they have to make their money somehow.”
When asked how the computer science students would turn a free game into the coveted “billion-dollar app”, Harry says: “You either charge 99 cents to play it, or you start using ads.”
“You can make it so you can watch an ad to get this (particular thing). That is what a lot of people do.”
But, he said, Pokemon Go was a unique case.
“That is the turning point here. They have not made purchases completely necessary, but they have made it so that ‘this will be so much easier if you go and pay for this’.”
Balancing the books, what makes and breaks Pokemon Go for players
Though Pokemon Go skyrocketed in the weeks after the launch, both Harry and Jack Roussos predict it might have its declining moments as well.
Josh says the breaking point for Go would be how the developers find the balance between the dedicated, even professional gamers and game culture that form the foundation for Go’s popularity, and the increasingly social, casual player culture that propelled the app from the niche to the mainstream.
“If it goes too gamer-specific (it could break),” Josh said.
“It will have to appeal to everyone.”
But Ridge said the breaking point could be transforming the game into a more pay-to-win focus.
“A lot of games have fallen into the trap,” he said.
Sophie agreed, saying she would quit the game if she had to pay.
For both groups, balancing the books between developers succeeding financially and the increasing demand for an all-for-nothing gaming experience for players was the tipping point between the elusive billion-dollar app and the app that almost was.
It is only early days in July. The game is only weeks old. And it feels like it has already tipped the scales, providing a widely accessible other-reality experience for next to nothing.
Few are thinking about how to keep players in the game. The endless play feature is still high on the novelty – the world is the game. And it feels like the borders of the map have been scrubbed out.
In the coming months, Go popularity will start plummeting from its heights almost as quickly as it rose.
Level up: What makes the ‘other’ in other-reality
“(Virtual reality) is a different market,” Josh says. “AR is probably -- it is more accessible because it is on your phone. VR will be for the diehard. It will be for the 10 percenters, and then in a few years time it might leak down to the 20 and 30 percent of gamers and be more accessible, but this (augmented reality) is now. This is on your phone without a big video card or a big unit.”
Ridge agrees: “(Virtual reality) will take off to a point where people want to leave the world. That is what games have always done. People want to leave the world and experience a world through someone else’s eyes.”
Harry Jorgensen and Jack Staader explain the high cost of building computer systems that could handle virtual reality programs meant a wider community of casual players were more attracted to augmented reality, but Ridge said the more developed of the two was virtual.
“A basic entry level VR kit, you’re looking at about $1500 for your computer and then another $800, or whatever it is, for the Vive system,” he estimates.
Whether virtual or augmented, it is the “other” in other-reality spaces that are so appealing – it’s the x-factor
In a New Yorker Radio Hour podcast published on May 13, comedian and virtual reality connoisseur, Reggie Watts describes virtual reality as something that must be “weird and colourful, emotional and demoralising. Not distracting”.
“Virtual reality seeks to allow us to interact with the computational world as a seamless thought sphere,” he said. “Virtual reality should be fun. Something really strong and sincere -- a candy bar that really satisfies.”
Watts described a thought sphere as a representation of consciousness, either synthetic or organic.
For Ridge Wilkins, the ‘candy bar’ of virtual reality comes from a dimension of virtual spaces that only exists in VR -- an X-dimension. He described it as the “dimension of thought” He said it was the space where all physical restrictions of the real world are removed and replaced with a kind of rampant creativity.
“If you take away ‘what comes up must come down’, that is your extra dimension,” he says. “You cannot fathom it unless you are in it.
“Playing certain games will give you a little bit, but when you get into virtual reality where everything around you is completely different -- and isn’t the world you were taught -- it is that extra dimension.”