Pokémon GO: Ruled by hyper-competent, cashed-up manchildren
Pokémon's latest mobile craze isn't a game of skill but rather a game where winning or losing depends on how much spare time (and spare change) you have.
I lost my freewill playing the original Pokémon in 1996. I was 17 years old at the time, working my very first job in video game retail when I became hopelessly addicted. I have a vivid memory of sneering at my manager while saying: “what's this Pokécrap all about then?” Then I scooped up a spare Gameboy Pocket and a cartridge. Was the game I put in Pokémon Blue? No. It was Pokémon Blue Crystal Meth: 96 Percent Purity Edition.
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Fast forward twenty years, and I'm recognising those old symptoms as I dip a toe in the new Pokémon GO craze. I'm getting the itch to play it. Right now, as I type this. My filthy junkie brain is whispering sweet excuses to me, the chief of which being: hey, it's a great excuse for exercise! (For those of you outside of the habit, Pokémon GO uses a GPS signal to track your movements around what is, essentially, a dumbed-down version of Google Maps.)
To be fair, that internal voice was right for the first day or so. Rather than sit indoors and play a crapload of games, I got up and took a crapload of extra steps outside for... not much of a game at all.
Pokémon GO is a glorified easter egg hunt that has more in common with its awful spin-off, the “take photos of them!” title that was Pokémon Snap. Here, there's not much of the deep RPG/cock-fighting experience that the main entries in the franchise are known for. You're literally just walking around to trigger an extremely simple catch mini-game – if it could even be called that.
A lot of the time you can brute force your way into victory
Pokémon GO is at its most complex when you reach level 5, which occurs after much walking about, collecting Pokémon, and checking in at Pokéstops (a seemingly random selection of real-life landmarks, council parks, scout halls, and so on). Upon reaching level 5 you can select a coloured faction (Blue, Yellow, Red) and vie for “gyms” which are set places in your neighbourhood that can be controlled by multiple locals who share the same faction. Trying to take one of these is a game of skill; it requires knowledge of the rock-scissors-paper Pokémon types, but a lot of the time you can brute force your way into victory by having six attacking Pokémon with higher CP than the Pokémon assigned to defend. Want higher CP Pokémon? Getting yourself to a higher level attracts beefier Pokémon to catch, naturally.
Why do controlling gyms matter? They earn you Pokécoins, a super powerful currency which, ordinarily, may only be acquired by laying down real Earth dollars in the app store. They can buy you a range of things to make hunting and winning at least twice as easy. If you can control multiple places of power in different suburbs – like some sort of mafia kingpin who earns respect from absolutely nobody – well, sir, you've got a rich-get-richer monopoly that'll make you very tough to beat in the long run.
And here's where things get sad and/or weird.
And here's where things get sad and/or weird.
I have the benefit of living near both a gym and a Pokéstop positioned very close to my house. Because I'm currently working from home to nurse a sick loved one, I've had a lot of time to sit, watch, and see who uses it. Basically, I've got an Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window thing going on here. I'm like Bart Simpson with a broken foot, suspiciously gauging all of the outside things (while also writing a play involving Saint Swithen's day, but it's a draft at best, and not worth posting). My perch here has given me a great insight to who's really playing this game, at least in my neck of the woods.
The harsh truth of Pokémon GO is: you're not playing against normal people. Normal people have things to do, jobs to go to, social contracts with loved ones to fulfil – and all these things take preference over Pokémon. Normal people, in the case of the Pokémon games, should really be pre-teens to late teens (at least in a majority sense). The bulk of who I'm seeing should be younglings who only have a small amount of Internet data plan for their mobile devices (a requirement to play), or maybe they've managed to arrange a borrow-the-device scenario with their parents which must surely be a limited arrangement. Following on from that, they probably don't have much in the way of disposable income – which means they're not laying down cash for many of the “pay to make things ridiculously easier” options in the app store.
What you are playing against are whales. Yes, whales...
Judging from what I've seen, what you are playing against are whales. Yes, whales – technically, that's an industry term bandied about by free-to-play developers (think: high-roller users who drop hundreds of dollars). With regards to this particular game, “whales” is pretty close to a physical description, because these lazy bastards I'm seeing are older gamers who are rorting the exercise section of this game. Pro tip: If you drive slow enough, you can trick the game into thinking you're out for a leisurely sprint for Pokémon.
I've been watching these Pokémotorists all damn day. Middle-aged men in SUVs with kids strapped in the back, right down to early 20-somethings in crappy third-hand Nissan Pulsars that would ordinarily go “chisssssh” if they changed gear. There's no gear changing here, though. They're doing 10km/h along a very long, fairly busy 60 km/h street. You can tell when they've found a Pokémon, too, as their phone will come up, and they'll make an awkward, indicator-less park to the curb that leaves the arse of their car hanging out too much. This occurs every 200 metres or so, because the guy playing is mainlining Incense, a rare buff that the draws Pokémon to you like milkshakes do boys from the yard.
Which is our next big problem: money. Incense doesn't come about freely very often and only lasts 30 minutes. I've seen the same cars chug through my street, and perform the same shitty parks at a frequency one simply couldn't get if they were just drive-playing the game normally. I'm absolutely certain of it: these guys are chugging multiple incenses in very short timeframes. Power-levelling by spending a lot of Earth money in the store to buy more.
They're goddamn extras in my own personal Truman Show
How much money, time, and fuel are these manchildren squandering to become super Pokémon hunters? Judging from the fact that I now know the make, model and licence numbers of at least a dozen stranger's cars off by heart now – and can roughly tell what time they'll appear in my street, like they're goddamn extras in my own personal Truman Show – says that a lot.
I could probably tell you their Pokémon GO user names, too, because they're dominating every gym in a 6 kilometre radius. Their personal user levels are treble anything I've seen in my twitter feed (and I mix almost exclusively with very hardcore gamers who have been all over this since launch). As for their Pokémon, they look like what would happen if you threw mutagen and horse steroids into a pet store – the CP ratings are off the charts.
So, know before you commit, folks. You might be getting into Pokémon GO for a bit of fun, and if you're playing it right, a few more steps for your Fitbit, but the reality is this game is over already. Don't be fooled. Don't lay any cash down. Because while you think you've wandered into a playful Fight Club at your local pub, it's actually frequented by a bunch of off-season MMA fighters. The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play.