The most popular thing in the world right now, raging with the force of a million prom queens, is Pokémon Go. The augmented reality smartphone version of the beloved Nintendo role-playing game is more popular, by various measures, than Twitter, Brexit, or porn. Everyone is playing it, or will soon be playing it. It is easy to assume it will be with us forever.
And yet the nature of popular things, such as Walkmen, waterbeds, and American democracy, is to lose their popularity. Pokémon Go may not have even yet reached the zenith of its hype cycle. It hasn't launched in Japan, its ancestral homeland, yet. It will eventually unveil new features like trading, battling, and in-game events. And it will certainly live on in memes for some time to come. But Pokémon Go has eight serious problems that may make the game lose its place on top of the cultural Aggro Crag.
It’s so, so glitchy
Pokémon Go is broken. The game crashes at a rate that would doom any other new mobile title. And these aren’t random occurrences. The basic act of the game, catching a Pokémon, frequently causes it to crash, a hard freeze that requires restarting the app, itself a long load that often freezes. Add in a constellation of glitches and you have a product that feels unfinished.
That people play this game despite the glitches testifies to the ingenuity of the Pokémon Go concept and the fanaticism of the Pokémon fanbase. They give Niantic a runway to make the game more playable. But for how long? Hardcore fans may persist for weeks or months, but it’s hard to imagine players drawn in by the hype sticking with a game that doesn’t work.
Gameplay is repetitive
Like its predecessor, Ingress, Pokémon Go incentivizes you to explore your physical world. It's an ingenious conceit. But for all the excitement of traipsing around your neighborhood/town/city, the gameplay is constrained and deeply repetitive. Walk around. Find Pokéstops. Gather items. Catch (mostly the same frequently appearing Pokémon). Level them up. Maybe fight in a gym. Repeat.
This isn't a new critique — one of the earlier, still-glowing reviews of the game from The Verge called it "bland and repetitive" — but it's a reality that could pose a problem as millions of early downloaders reach the two- and three-week marks of playing time. It’s initially thrilling to walk around, spot a Pokémon, and try to catch it, but after a few hours the experience starts to feel rote. “Capturing wild pocket monsters has become a game of virtual ring toss, often with horrible physics,” one early reviewer wrote. Unlike the original games, in which catching Pokémon required battling the beast, Go feels bit more like random chance.
And while heartier souls can venture to gyms to fulfill their thirst for combat, battle requires significant time and relocation efforts, meaning casual users might not have the time or desire to head to a gym, which even in densely populated places be a 15- or 20-minute walk. One of the biggest complaints from obsessive players seems to be that there’s no way to harness the enormous roving body of humans playing Go for impromptu battles rather than meeting at a gym. Will this feature come before the current iteration runs its course with casual fans?
Game crazes come and go
In early 2014, word of mouth and social media hype turned a charming, unpolished game called Flappy Bird by a then-unknown Vietnamese programmer into a sensation. The frenzy around the game grew so intense that Dong Nguyen, its creator, removed the game from the App Store and Google Play because he was afraid people were playing it too much. But when he brought it back later that year for the Amazon Fire, no one noticed. A glut of imitators had taken the original game’s place and drained the goodwill it had created. Two years later, Flappy Bird is simply another game craze — like FarmVille, like Angry Birds — come and gone.
However, Pokémon Go is the product of major corporate interests on two continents; its creators won’t have a crisis of conscience like Nguyen did. And unlike FarmVille and Angry Birds, Pokémon has a 20-year cultural legacy to fall back on if and when the excitement about Go abates. But it’s simply true that game crazes, even huge ones like Angry Birds, typically don’t last. Imitators siphon off new players. Monetization strategies change. People get fatigued and move onto the next thing.
Niantic is still rolling out to new markets and introducing new features. But history says mobile games that burn this bright often don’t burn that long.
You can’t really play to kill time
Look around on an airplane or in a waiting room today and you’re still likely to see the odd smartphone-wielding teen or adult thumbing around on some Candy Crush level. The game, which came out four years ago, has peaked in popularity but still remains on the home screens of millions of fans. The reason: It’s a marvelous way to while away idle time. You can play it on signal-less commutes, in the bathroom, while watching NCIS, during a glacially paced religious sermon — anytime, really! It’s less a phenomenon now than it is a deeply ingrained habit.
This ability to provide quick endorphin hits and/or distractions during downtime is crucial to the success of smartphone-bound games. Pokémon Go flips this principle on its head. The game rewards movement and is virtually impossible to play as a static, couch-bound gamer. As a result, you can’t really play on the subway without a signal. And people's homes, where they spend the bulk of their downtime, aren't typically Pokémon hotspots, meaning that the app is unopened during crucial free moments.
The great initial success of Pokémon Go has depended on its ability to get millions of people to interact with unfamiliar people and environments. But how long does that last? To become a habit, Go must be accessible and rewarding every time a user reaches for it. At least for now, it doesn’t offer you that.
The game ignores and underserves key communities
Pokémon Go derives much of its infrastructure — the Pokéstops and gyms — from data crowdsourced by Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. That architecture has given the game the amazing granularity that’s helped make it so popular. But in the neighborhoods and areas where Ingress’s small, tech-savvy audience didn’t play, maps are barren. And as the Miami Herald noted, those areas tend to be poor and black. That’s doubly unfair to residents of those areas: Not only do they not get to play an ideal version of the game, they have to pay within the app for items to catch and heal Pokémon that players in more developed areas can get for free.
Obviously, there are much more alarming disparities between wealthy, white America and poor communities of color than the ability to catch a Bulbasaur without having to pay for it. But serving communities of color isn’t simply a matter of morality — it’s good for business.
Winter is coming
Pokémon Go's release came at the perfect time. It rolled out in the middle of summer, taking advantage of a horde of children free on vacation and the warm, sunny weather (or at least no snow!). In Union Square park last week, a number of roving Go players told BuzzFeed News that they felt lucky they had time off to hunt around the city — a handful said they’d been able to play thanks to summer jobs that had flexible hours and were less demanding than school.
But what happens when the kids go back to school and the weather turns? Can Pokémon Go survive the first frost? Sarah, one avid Pokémon hunter (who was so focused on the game that she insisted on catching while being interviewed) told BuzzFeed News that she and her peers probably won’t be playing the game in the fall and winter. “My friends and I think it’s going to be dead in the winter — who is going to want to sit outside and do this in the middle of the cold?” she said. She’s got a point.
Augmented-reality sharing is going to get old
Pokémon Go owes much of its unprecedented success to how it went viral on social media. Thanks to its AR overlay, screenshots of the game immediately started popping up on every social media platform. People were posing with Pokémon on the street, sharing news of a rare spotting, even sending nudes. The photos quickly attained meme status, both serving as a way to share progress in the game but, perhaps more importantly, acting as an in-joke.
But the internet burns fast. Pokémon Go screenshots are already starting to feel a bit labored. That’s not to say it’s dead — a Twitter search for Pokémon is still replete with screenshots. But just try for a moment to imagine your feeds littered with non-ironic Pokémon sightings in a month...it feels...unlikely.
Something really, really bad could happen
The tide of Pokémon Go’s popularity rides a morbid undertow. Players keep finding dead bodies. Armed robbers in Missouri used the game to find victims. Ohioans climbed a fence at the Toledo Zoo near the tiger enclosure to try to catch a Pokémon.
Pokémon Go is an addictive game that encourages millions of players to run around busy areas staring at their smartphones. Someone is probably going to be killed because of it. When and how that happens — though odds are it’ll involve a car — will have an enormous effect on the game. State and national legislators already have the game on their radar. And if someone dies playing, it could lead to regulations that will change not only the future of the game but the future of this kind of augmented reality.
When BuzzFeed News reached out to Niantic to see if it is working to address any of these questions, a rep said the company is slammed. “We're not offering any forward-looking thoughts on game content, as the team is entirely focused on bringing the game to the rest of the globe."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at email@example.com.
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