Sam Roberts: Pokemon Go could be a sign of a new direction for media
It now only serves players who can invest a great deal of time in game, he says
Editor’s Note: Sam Roberts is a creative director who has developed experiential stories and events, including the mobile game FREEQ and the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. He is the assistant director of the Interactive Media & Games Division at the University of Southern California and manages the school’s publishing initiative, which publishes games on a variety of platforms, including Nintendo. He can be found @ashtonesq on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
A woman walks down the street, pausing and backtracking erratically. She clutches her phone in front of her, furiously jabbing at the screen. Suddenly, to her right, another person appears, enacting the same strange dance of connection between his legs, his eyes and his phone.
Across the street, three individuals converge, each holding their phones in front of them. The woman overhears them say, “Charmander.” She immediately stops and prepares her Poke Ball for attack. Such is the life of a Pokemon Go player, a new alternate reality experience from Niantic Inc. and the Pokemon Co., a division of Nintendo. The game allows players to hunt for strange hidden creatures, capture them and compete for territory in a digital version of the real world.
Alternate reality games augment and enhance the world around us, allowing players to leverage real world environments to interact with a digital experience. They have existed for years, in a variety of formats, often advertising large intellectual properties such as Halo. And more recently, an expansion in wearable devices, such as the Apple Watch, means we supplement our daily lives with computer-driven data and feedback around where we walk, whom we engage with and what we look at.
But this most recent alternate reality game has inspired a new wave of social commentary. One outlet claims that Pokemon Go is the future of social networking, a success that will revolutionize the world in a mere matter of time. Others decry it as crass commercialization, as a failure of the form to be anything more than a way to merchandise humanity’s love of Pokemon.
However, Pokemon Go is neither the crystallized, final form of an alternate reality game, nor is it a harbinger of the apocalypse. Instead, it is a significant, be it flawed, step forward in an emerging medium that will eventually infiltrate the way we all engage with, discover and consume media.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect. It has several show-stopping bugs, and its human interface is under-designed, making actual play difficult and frustrating for many potential users. It is not a repeatable design, as it leverages a vast amount of information gathered by Niantic with its first product. All of the physical locations the game uses existed in a database before they built the game. And despite that massive database, those real world locations are minimally employed. Most player time is spent in-app, not in a mixed reality provided by the app enhancing the world around them.
But it is also a glorious success – proof that a large percentage of the smartphone-wielding audience is interested in an experience that lets them game in the world around them, that integrates with their daily lives and that drives social interactions with fellow travelers across cultural identifiers. It proves that these products can be self-sustaining, not purely marketing spends but actual cultural products that people will use and spend time and money with.
To maintain this audience, to grow it, to keep players returning to the game, Pokemon Go will need to create a method for different types of players to engage with the game. Currently it serves one type of player – a player who can invest large amounts of time and attention to the game.
Players with more limited time and attention to invest do not have a way to engage lightly and generate in game value that drives them to socialize and engage with other players. Likewise, the hard-core gamer has no deep game to invest strategy, time and social organization. Serving these cultural groups and others will build an audience, keep players engaged and strengthen connections from one person to another.
This pyramid of players and networks between many different cultural groups are the future of alternate reality games and the future of digitized entertainment. In the emerging field of experience design education, we prepare students to tell stories in a world where technology and mediums are important tools, but are just that – tools that provide a palette, a platform or a unique twist for crafting new experiences for new players
When Pokemon Go finishes maturing, when the creators learn how to serve not just an audience with an abundant amount of free time, but the parents of those players, a community in an old-age home and a group of commuters on a bus, then it will have revolutionized the way we consume media. When developers determine how to leverage properly our world, the digital world and different player motivations across societies, they will change the way we experience and tell stories.
Until then, though, catching Rattata on your walk to work is surprisingly and gratifyingly fun.
Sam Roberts is a creative director who has developed experiential stories and events, including the mobile game FREEQ and the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. He is the assistant director of the Interactive Media & Games Division at the University of Southern California and manages the school’s publishing initiative, which publishes games on a variety of platforms, including Nintendo. He can be found @ashtonesq on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.