Pokemon Go: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

As a long time gamer and fan of the Pokemon series, I (like countless others) have been awaiting the release of the next installment of the series: Pokemon Go.

Yesterday was launch day, and I am already absolutely blown away by how incredibly addicting and fun this game is. Below is a little background info, and my quick takes on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Pokemon Go experience less than 48 hours in.

Background Info

Pokemon Go, produced by Niantic, is a freemium location based massively multiplayer online (MMO) mobile game that leverages “Augmented Reality” (AR) features. Although Pokemon Go is my personal first exposure to a location based MMO, it is not the first of its kind. It’s predecessors include games such as Ingress (another Niantic property) and another “game” called Geocaching. To be fair, I’m not sure how to properly classify geocaching which is essentially a real life based scavenger hunt.

The Good: Great Game, Fantastic Technology, Incredible Attention to Detail

  • The Gaming Experience:

    First of all, WOW. This is exactly the pokemon game that I always dreamed about as a kid growing up. Open up an app, walk around IRL (in real life), randomly encounter Pokemon, and catch them. The fact that this game is fun while encouraging physical activity proves that not all video games will rot your brain. I would love to see the usage statistics in a few months.

    *Update* After four days of playing, I have travelled 35 km (21.7 mi) by foot and by bike. Yes, my legs are a bit sore.

  • The Technology:Since it’s a location based game, the GPS technology is leveraged heavily. It’s as if you’re looking at a slightly cartoonish version of Google Maps, complete with landmarks you never knew existed. Not only that, the AR functionality using the camera is extremely clever and adds a new dynamic that I didn’t know I wanted until I saw it in action – being able to “see” a pokemon in your living room through the lens of your camera is a fun and quirky experience. Not only that, it’s led to some great screenshots of pokemon showing up in the most ridiculous places.
  • The Detail:

    Speaking of landmarks, one aspect of the game revolves around walking to “Pokestops” which are located at various landmarks and points of interest in the world. Initially, I couldn’t believe how detailed this aspect was. At the large park by my house, there are approximately 50 pokestops scattered around the park. It turns out, nearly every bench in the park is a memorial to someone (a fact unbeknownst to me after nearly 100 trips around the park over the past 6-9 months).

    After doing some reading about Niantic, this is fact is now less surprising. Essentially, Niantic crowdsource all of the location information through their game Ingress – finding landmarks is a core gameplay component of the Ingress experience. In hindsight, this is a brilliant use of crowdsourced data already owned by the company.

The Bad: Lack of True Multiplayer, Battery Hog

  • Lack of Multiplayer:

    It is a little bit disappointing to see the lack of multiplayer support in the first iteration of the game. After all, the entire Pokemon lore revolves around trainers capturing pokemon to ultimately battle with each other. Yes, there are gyms, but they don’t provide the same true player vs player experience that I want. I’m confident this is coming in a future update however, so I will refrain from judging too harshly here.

  • Battery Hog:

    This game is a battery killer unlike any I’ve experienced to date. Considering the constant use of GPS and the graphical rendering of the pokemon in the AR view, I am really unsurprised by this development. There are the typical hacks to conserve battery (enabled battery saving mode, turn down brightness, turn off the AR functionality, stop roaming for wifi, etc.) which do help significantly. However, if you’re wanting to hunt pokemon for an extended period of time, bring a battery charger or be prepared to charge up somewhere.

The Ugly: “Our Servers Are Down, Please Come Back Later”

For a company that has experience in the location based MMO world, I am absolutely shocked at what I (and everyone else around the United States) are experiencing in regards to the servers.

In case you don’t know, since the game is an online game, you need to be connected to an online server to play. This is common place for all online multiplayer games, regardless of platform.

As of this writing, the Pokemon Go server situation is a disaster. The game is nearly unplayable during the day since the servers are constantly crashing and disconnecting. Servers crashing at launch of new games is not a new phenomenon – the launch of Grand Theft Auto Online was mired by similar issues. And, this is an issue gamers are used to dealing with. However, our patience only lasts so long (and I can guarantee you the ‘average person’ has significantly less patience for server related issues).

In addition to the servers, the game tends to crash – a lot, which can be extremely frustrating. Thankfully, this should be a fairly easy problem to remedy.

Niantic needs to make sorting the server situation out a priority, else it risks turning off a significant number of users. A loss in users ultimately results in much lower revenue, given the games freemium business model.

*Update* The server situation has largely been addressed. Kudos to Niantic for effectively fixing this problem within a few days, the game still crashes a lot though.

Final Thoughts: How Does This Relate to Other Businesses

Let’s be clear here: I love this game, and I love its potential. I probably won’t “Catch them all”, but I’m going to try.

However, I find it hard to believe that Niantic couldn’t foresee the server issues before launch. Did they really think this game wouldn’t be as popular as it clearly is? Not only are you going to get every person currently playing a Pokemon game to download the app, you’re going to attract damn near everyone who grew up with Pokemon to try it out. Pokemon has to be one of the world’s largest brands.

Yes, these issues should dissipate with time. From my perspective though, it appears as if Niantic significantly underestimated the amount of servers required to launch this game. Additionally, they clearly have no scalable server solution in place as a fall back – which I find baffling. Couldn’t they have leveraged Amazon AWS and paid for scalable bandwidth during the launch phase? It might not be perfect but it’s a start.

So here’s the deal: If you’re a multi national billion dollar brand launching a mobile gaming app reliant upon servers, estimate the number of servers you might need, then quadruple that number as a starting point. Then, have a scalable backup solution in place in case you still underestimated what you needed.

If you’re not that big, but are still launching an app dependent upon the cloud, think carefully about your servers – it’s worth over investing a little bit in the beginning to ensure a fantastic user experience.