The other day, I had a familiar experience playing Pokémon GO. A shiny (well, not literally) new Pokémon had just appeared: Ho-Oh, the fiery phoenix of a Legendary Bird unlocked with the recent Global Catch Challenge. I found myself with an hour or so to spend on a surprisingly warm late Fall day, and I went out catching. I went to a third-party site to identify a Raid in my area, which is pretty much a necessity because the game makes it impossible to find Raids outside a stone’s throw. Buoyed by the fact that it was Ho-Oh’s first day of availability, I was confident some other people would be out.
The first Raid I went to had five minutes left in it, but the handful of players who had shown up were fighting the creature when I arrived, and it was too late for me. Still, they were nice guys, and we went off to Center City to try our luck: denser neighborhoods are always better bets, and office buildings in range help tremendously during the workday. The first Raid Egg we tried hatched as the wrong Pokémon, and nobody else was there. Undaunted, we waited around for half an hour or so for another Raid Egg to pop. We were lucky this time: it was Ho-Oh, and there were plenty of other trainers around. We split into teams to maximize our bonuses, attacked the creature and took it down without any trouble. The bird came up on screen with the opportunity to catch, I threw eight excellent curveballs and it ran away. That’s the magic of Pokémon GO: to ensure that even successful Raids end in failure around half of the time.
I had to be heading home, but there was a Raid Egg by my house. It hatched as Ho-Oh, but nobody showed up. I had had a nice time on my walk, mostly because I was hanging out with some perfectly amiable trainers on a nice day, but at every moment it felt like the game was there to stymie rather than encourage that experience. And yet, on my way to the grocery store yesterday, I found a group of people battling a Ho-Oh. I joined up and caught the damn thing, and I’ll probably be back out today. I would have kept going yesterday if my phone didn’t run out of battery. This is Pokémon GO: just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me back in — none of that frustration, strangeness or failure interfered with the fact that I had a fun time with the game. My external battery pack is charging as we speak.
Pokémon GO has maintained a remarkably powerful ability to draw me back in despite being soaked in design decisions both curious and frustrating. It’s a game with a ton of problems, but it’s also a game that makes it remarkably easy to ignore those problems and just go out and grab my Ho-Oh.
It’s all because this is fundamentally different from other long-term games. The joys of other MMO-style grinds have a way of evaporating once you take your brain out of a place where it was very important to spend a week chasing an Epic Helmet. Once you fall out of a game, it’s very hard to stick it back into your life. But the joys of Pokémon GO don’t really have anything to do with the game: for me, the experience is about getting out on a nice day and maybe seeing some people, either players I’ve Raided with before or just friendly sorts I haven’t met yet. I don’t need any addiction loops to gain joy from that, and it means that when I find myself with a few hours and maybe an errand to run, the thought wiggles its way back into my head. Maybe I should play some Pokémon GO! It means that when the game drops new content, however meager, I get myself excited about the prospect of going out and joining in the collective excitement.
I would love it if the game helped me play it a little more. I would love it I had daily quests to maintain that commitment, if the reward structure made a little more sense, if there were things to do with these people I meet aside from hope that we find a good Raid. I would love it if so many of my experiences with Raids did not end with frustration, and I would love it if the game did not require third-party apps to actually play. But I’ll take what I get, and maybe we’ll get some more features as things move on. Until then, I just can’t seem to quit this thing.
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