When Google decided to go the extra mile with regard to their level of mischief for an April Fool’s Day joke back in 2014 by introducing Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge, it raised quite a fervor; indeed, so-called “Pokémon trainers” around the world searched meticulously on Google Maps to find Pokémon hidden across the world. Although the game itself (if it could be called a game) consisted of only discovering Pokémon placed in fixed locations, many were intrigued by this simple mechanism that encompassed one of the most interesting franchises of all time. It also inspired Niantic Labs (now Niantic, Inc.) to begin developing an augmented reality (AR) smartphone game that took the world by storm this summer, or at least for the many Pokémon trainers out there. This is the story of Pokémon GO.
So what is AR? The short version is that it is additional information or data that isn’t actually physically there about a real object or setting that is shown on a screen (or any kind of visual device) in an “augmented” form, hence the name. Although the technology might sound futuristic, the concept and realization of AR has been around for quite some time. Take the heads-up display, or more commonly known as HUD, for example. HUDs have been supporting aircraft pilots with valuable flight information since the 1960s.
But does that make Pokémon GO the first “game” to utilize AR? Actually, no. There have been a number of AR games released before the onset of GO, such as Start the Party! that used the Playstation Eye camera and Move controller. Then is it the first “mobile” game to use AR? Again, no; Ingress is an AR mobile game that was released by the aforementioned Niantic Labs before developing GO.
The game itself is simple. Log in, choose your starting Pokémon, and walk around to find a wild Pokémon to catch. Upon spotting a helpless prey, simply flick your finger to throw a Pokéball and voilà, you’ve captured your second Pokémon! Rinse and repeat and you’ll be on your way to finishing your Pokédex, an index of various Pokémon. There are other features, such as Pokémon Gyms, evolving Pokémon, etc. but I won’t go into too much detail and spoil it for you; as for the rest, if you are interested, you can personally try the app out.
But what made a staggering 100 million unique individuals download and play the game in the two months after it was released? Is it because of the simplicity of the game itself, where one flicks a finger to catch Pokémon? Or is it because more and more people are using smartphones than they did before, and Pokémon GO is a readily accessible app that focused on a franchise many adored in their younger years? One could easily feel nostalgic traveling across the land, searching far and wide in the real world with a Pokémon setting. Maybe it’s because many of the mobile game users were tired of the red ocean of free-to-play (F2P) games that could not be properly enjoyed without microtransactions. Though truth be told, one in five trainers spent money on Pokémon GO, and the app earned over 250 million USD within 60 days of release. Of course, it could simply be because it was the hype over the summer break, with friends and strangers alike posting on Facebook about their newest catch or watching a video of trainers massing in Central Park when a legendary Pokémon was spotted in the vicinity. Whatever the reasons, it was quite a hit for the summer of ‘16.