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Niantic Labs | Official Site
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Columns: The Social Beauty of Pokemon Go

By William Murphy on July 09, 2016

The Social Beauty of Pokemon Go

Like so many of you, we’ve been playing Pokémon Go a lot since it launched this week. And we’ve noticed something pretty amazing happening around the game… it’s got millions people playing together, in real life, as strangers. Pokémon Go has essentially become the world’s biggest MMO in a matter of days.

Pokémon Go itself is nothing that extraordinary. It uses the Google Maps data filled out by players of the popular but cult hit Ingress, so every Gym or Pokestop you hit is tied to places that have been filled out by Ingress players for years. It’s almost as though Niantic knew one day Nintendo would come calling to give players the Pokémon game they’ve been wanting for a decade.

But as for gameplay? It’s nothing special, inherently. You walk around your neighborhood, your local park, your city, or wherever and you keep an eye on your map for landmarks, gyms, and wild Pokémon to pop out of nowhere for you to capture. It’s all displayed in AR, so when you lift your phone to toss a Pokeball at a Pidgey, the backdrop is your real surroundings. This can be opted out of and you can use hand-drawn art too. And the act of catching Pokémon isn’t anything new – it’s basically the old standby mobile game Paper Toss with a Pokémon as the basket and a ball as the paper wad.

You’ll catch tons of duplicate Pokémon, you’ll trade them into the Professor to get resources which let you power up and evolve your chosen little guys, and then you take them to rival gyms and fight the owners in a battle for supremacy and territory control. Gone though are the turn-based battles we’re used to seeing, which is a shame because each fight now is a test of who has the highest Combat Power (CP) and who can tap the screen the fastest to attack. You can dodge by swiping left or right, and it can help, but really there’s little nuance to the combat. Certain types of Pokémon are still strong or weak against others though, and there’s a rumor that turn-based battles are in the works, perhaps even for person to person fights as opposed to just fighting the AI controlled Pokémon.

Pokémon Go is quite simply a reskinned Ingress. But it’s the IP of one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises in the past 20 years that’s turned the game into a worldwide overnight gaming sensation. It quickly rose to the top of the Apple Store in terms of downloads and revenue, a feat that’s not simple in a world dominated by Supercell and Game of War. If Nintendo and Niantic can continually add to Pokémon Go and adjust the game based on feedback, it will be one of the kings of mobile gaming for years.

And there’s the kicker… it’s a truly mobile game. You can’t really get the most of Pokémon Go unless you get your butt off the couch and go for a stroll. I’ve seen entire families walk by my house, phones at the ready, talking about where to go or what they see, or what they want to catch. My wife and I went through the Park on a 5 mile walk today, and we saw no less than 10 people all playing, chatting, and acknowledging a sudden connection in life they never expected to share. Pokémon Go is becoming a geek’s version of CrossFit. You can’t go anywhere without seeing it, hearing about it, or reading about it. And the reason why is that it’s bringing people together like few other games or media ever have. I’ve had a mom tell me she’s able to get her normally “meh” son to go on family walks every night since getting the game because now, as he sees it, there’s a reason to. And while they walk, they talk – quality family time created by little digital monsters that need collecting.

Is it a great game from a gameplay perspective? Nah, not even close. But Pokémon Go’s ability to get people out, talking together, and interacting is nothing short of extraordinary. There’s probably no better way to see that this game is bringing people together than by visiting its sub on Reddit, which is filled with stories about how unexpected friendships are popping up because of the game.

Could you imagine what a World of Warcraft Go could be like? What a fantasy MMORPG could do with AR and better combat? Sure there would probably also be very real fights if they added direct PVP, but hey… let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, it’s clear that with its millions of worldwide downloads and players (and the crazy server woes to go with it) Pokémon Go is now officially the world’s biggest MMO and no one really saw it coming.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all of his pointless rambling.