Having played Ingress for a few years, people were kind of surprised that I held out until the official launch of Pokémon Go in the Netherlands to try it. Yet, it’s pretty logical in my opinion: the games are mostly the same and my own generation is just a couple of years out of the Goldilocks zone of being completely infatuated with Pokémon.
In other words, I’m getting too old for this.
GenX vs. Millennials
About every generation that came after me was exposed to Pokémon – in a fashion that during my own school years was kind of reserved for something like shooting marbles and collecting football stickers – it’s pretty easy to see why Pokémon Go exploded. Of course hindsight always makes it easy, but it’s a stark reminder that nostalgia is important.
The generation that came after me – the Millennials – is hitting its nostalgia wave the hardest by entering their ‘family phase’ and having kids of their own. The younger group behind it either understands the concept behind the game, is clamouring for the next instalment, or is even young enough to be introduced to the world of Pokémon right now.
Primed and ready
So association is high, but there’s another factor in play: everybody is primed to perform the most basic actions in the game. “You play Pokémon in the real world” is not only its premise, it’s also an instantly recognisable challenge and a huge daydream of many Pokémon-players. The rules and UI are initially redundant; players already know what to do instinctively, regardless of how those commands work. Better yet, because they are primed, additional rules and control quirks are regarded as deeper mechanics, adding to the dynamics of the game. Rather than such quirks being roadblocks to play the game, they form this version’s dialect which you need to master to become its best player.
This effect of embracing quirks is something odd within game design: it’s a frustration threshold. As long as a game is not fun, any problem will become a negative, a roadblock. As soon as the game itself is fun enough, any perceived difficulty or problem within the game has the potential to become a challenge. Unless this presents a long-term issue, in which case it just becomes frustration. If the frustration take over in lieu of the actual game fun, the game’s fun will disappear instantly.
The entirety of the Souls-series seems based on this dance of difficulty, constantly teasing your frustration. Its dance was so strong that even Sony’s own executive dismissed Demon’s Souls as being a ‘crap’ game. Despite it partially being developed in-house, they ultimately skipped publishing rights outside of Japan. Bandai Namco picked it up and cashed in on the game’s challenge and heritage to-be.
Still, Pokémon Go does have issues that are mostly related with its servers, turning issues into showstoppers that render the game unplayable. Those are unfortunately not part of the game’s dialect.
Like Ingress before it, Pokémon Go’s most important part is its community. Already there have been heartwarming tales of “random strangers” meeting up, even though these are the same people who live in your neighbourhood, or city, or country. There already is a connection with these people and the game functions as an amplifier to find an additional, more acceptable link as to why you would want to connect with that person.
There are some subtle difference with regards to Ingress though, and they change a lot about the game itself in my opinion.
Despite the similarities, Ingress was and is foremost a team-game. The only way to ‘win’ Ingress is to capture Portals (the same location spots used for Pokéstops and Gyms) with Resonators and connect them to each other with Portal Keys. Connect three and you create a Control Field that nets you points (MU). The bigger the Control Field the more MU it’s worth, so it makes sense to work together and create large Control Fields that can even span nations. You can’t easily do that on your own. Never mind capturing three Portals within your town and connecting them; you need the crowd to cooperate.
This creates a great dynamic in that Ingress (like what’s also happening in Pokémon Go) spawned a lot of groups rallying around the game’s two opposing sides, creating events, real-life “raids” on towns and cities and generally, smack-talking to any opposing groups. This worked, but also highlighted a Jock-like culture. It was football for geeks (meant in the most endearing of ways) and the result was that solo play became almost irrelevant. Like World of Warcraft and other MMOs, it didn’t make sense to hack and link Portals all by yourself, when the real points were to be made by cooperation.
Focus on the individual
Enter Pokémon Go. Pokémon is a solo game by premise, you are to become “the best there ever was” as the marketing cheerfully announces. Yet, friendship, cooperation and group mentality are enforced as well; you serve your cohort by transforming yourself into your own best version. (Totally unrelated to stereotypical Japanese culture, of course.) Applied to the game this is instantly recognisable: instead of finding and deploying Resonators to claim Portals, you find and challenge Pokémon to claim Gyms. But where claimed Portals in Ingress provided more resources for the team that claimed it, Pokémon Go’s Gyms hold primarily a in-game credit bonus for the person that claimed it.
It’s a subtle difference but it puts the individual before the team. Instead of becoming a cog in the machine, you become a guiding light for others. Also, your Pokémon are yours. You have a direct connection to Professor Willow (despite everyone having that same connection) and when and which Pokémon you transfer to him or level up, is at your own discretion. In Ingress you only had Resonators to build Portals and XMP Bursters to destroy Portals. (Even in writing this previous sentence down, you can already see how ‘hardcore’ Ingress was, it creates an entirely different setting, while Pokémon simply borrows from reality.) Apart from various degrees of effectiveness XMP Bursters were the same for everyone. Match-ups were limited and pre-calculated, whereas the breadth and scope of match-ups possible in Pokémon Go are numerous and allow for more possibilities towards the player.
This in turn helps the player to make individual choices and personalise their arsenal of pocket monsters. Add to that the semi-random nature of finding Pokémon and everybody has their own unique story to tell about getting the team they have now. Ingress, didn’t allow for this to happen on the same level. The only possible personalisation was to level more quickly, and once you got some help from team-members to be boosted in creating high-level Control Fields, you were almost immediately catapulted into the endgame, with no room for personal adventures. You were simply assimilated.
Make no mistake, Pokémon assimilates as well, but on the player’s own terms. It’s a method that is more readily accepted, rather than having an older more experienced player making making you part of the team in a player-boosting ritual.
Of course, teamwork hasn’t been completely removed from Pokémon Go. You have three teams available: Team Instinct, Team Mystic and Team Valour. Based on the images of the pocket monsters Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres, these teams are already embedded into the Pokémon dialect. Again, compare with Ingress: the green Enlightened supported weird alien energies to change and evolve the human race, while the blue Resistance was opposed to change and wanted to fight the alien energies. While the Pokémon teams seem to genuinely be chosen by players based on affinity with the associated Pokémon, the Ingress teams were more abstract and suffered from having one team being called “the resistance”, which in a post-Star Wars world will draw all attention towards it.
As a result, the world of Ingress has mostly been under control of the Resistance team, with the Enlightened intermittently gaining control through large-scale operations, only to fall back to the status quo within 24 hours. I suspect Pokémon Go will have less issues here, if only for the fact that there are three teams (introducing a third team has been a long-held wish of the Ingress community), while the individual player reigns over the needs of the team. The buzz on social media also seems to be evenly divided, though red and blue being associated the classic colours of the western Pokémon games, might make Team Instinct lose out in the long run.
Regardless, the focus on the individual makes meeting up with other players a completely different story. Instead of being panicked in finding something else in Ingress and hoping the person was on your team, the individual progression is more important.
“Have you seen that Psyduck over there?”
“Did you know about spinning pokéballs?”
“What’s your pokémon with the highest CP (combat power)?”
Everybody has the same goal and by being undefined (especially during the first five levels of play when you cannot choose a team yet), the game encourages information exchange. Oddly enough this is similar to what the Souls-series did: in creating a high difficulty (in Pokémon Go’s case: catching rare and high-CP Pokémon), there was an artificial need for exchanging information. The Souls-games facilitated this by being able to leave messages on the ground that would pop-up in other people’s games. Pokémon Go uses the same tactic, but instead of leaving messages for each other, you just directly communicate with people present. Where in the Souls-games you never felt truly alone because the messages implied there were others playing as well; Pokémon Go always makes you feel part of a greater community because you can talk to other players. Also note that Pokémon Go does not have a chat function, whereas Ingress has one.
In that respect Pokémon Go is more akin to a social game like playing tag or hide and seek, using technology only as a tool to enforce the rules everybody agrees upon (or rather, accepts). This is what creates the basis for a strong community (whether or not Niantic manages to capitalise on it), in the same way that raiding in World of Warcraft demands a certain coordination between players. World of Warcraft emphasises group management skills, Pokémon Go emphasises communication skills.
Not that the management skills won’t pop-up. Taking down opposing Gyms requires some coordination, but this can be done with small teams, rather than getting the idea the entirety of, say, Team Mystic needs to be behind you. That feeling was more present in Ingress.
The AR-elephant in the room
Let’s be honest. Pokémon Go is a lousy augmented reality game. In fact, the AR part can be turned off and the game is still wholly functional. OK, it will detract from the presentation in that the Pokémon aren’t ‘present’ in the real world, but in terms of functionality the game is more a breakthrough in the field of location-based play, rather than augmented reality.
Ingress and Pokémon Go are a gamified solution to Foursquare‘s infamous check-in registration (an idea they tried to spin-off themselves as Swarm). Indeed, in the first years of Ingress it was speculated that Ingress could be used to calculate optimal walking distances for Google Maps and highlight publicly accessible space, for example.
Foursquare meanwhile, has advanced so much that it does not need the check-in anymore. It can now quite confidently pinpoint your location when you open the app, without you explicitly telling them. In other words, “location has been solved” and the time is right to make proper use of it beyond a method of letting your friends know you dined at that hip new restaurant in the east part of town.
Pokémon Go blows this wide open, but in its wake leaves an immediate vacuum. Ingress never gained initial critical mass to the extent of Pokémon Go (well, nothing did actually) and its enormity threatens other similar solutions. Kind of like how World of Warcraft claimed the majority of the MMO segment because everybody understood its premise and jumped in. While the low hanging fruit might now be for other toy and game IPs to jump in and create an app to get you running around town doing whatever, the smart money would be on leveraging the location aspect in a completely different way, but taking cues from the continuous goal-building of Pokémon Go.
Swarm is in that segment, but it never gained the audience it needed (and its “game” is frankly lacklustre; I still mourn Gowalla’s death and its equally dead item trading). Someone might now finally get the ideas needed to concoct something great from it.
On the other hand, augmented reality has now been pushed into the limelight, ready or not. Pokémon is so universally understood that it acts as a prism for people to imagine other augmented reality solutions of projecting/overlaying digital information onto the real world. This is great news for Microsoft HoloLens and Google’s Tango (and too late for Google’s Project Glass), which are more focused upon hybrid realities in which exact positional information is key to blend the virtual into the real.
AR game is not an ARG
As a side note, I’ve seen some people use augmented reality (AR) and alternate reality game (ARG) intermittently. Ingress and Pokémon Go can to a certain extent be seen as an alternate reality game, as there’s a “hidden layer” to reality which only includes a group of players, but over time alternate reality games have as a term become more associated with elaborate (online) scavenger hunts focused on storytelling.
I kind of understand how the two got mixed, but I would caution of using ARG too liberally around these two Niantic games although ultimately the public will decide on that).
Pokémon Go is firmly in hype territory at the moment. It’s difficult to predict whether or not it’ll be an enduring hit. In theory it should be possible with the brand power of Pokémon and the social aspect of congregating around specific locations. Yet, if Niantic can’t scale properly to multiple countries, while maintaining a consistent quality of service for those already playing, while at the same time also expanding the game with new content, things can get pretty dicey.
Regardless it does highlight that great ideas might be overlooked initially and are always in need of a cultural lens to translate it to the audience at large. However without Ingress and its predecessors, Pokémon Go would have never existed, augmented reality would have never been “validated”, and people around the world wouldn’t have discovered they could just talk to strangers without fear.