If, like most people in the U.S., you’ve got a smartphone, you may have noticed a suspicious uptick in the number of zubats, pidgeys, weedles, and rattatas popping up all over your city in the past few days.
These monsters—which look like cartoony bats, pigeons, worms, and rats, respectively—are all Pokémon creatures, and they’re part of a new free augmented-reality game called Pokémon Go in which you use your smartphone to spot them in the urban wild and toss little virtual red-and-white Poké balls to capture them. You can also visit virtual “gyms” where you battle your Pokémon against others’.
Though Pokémon Go was only released last week for the iPhone and Android smartphones and is available in just a few countries (the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand for now) it has become wildly popular: as of Monday, it was the top free and top grossing app for both iOS and Android, with five million to 10 million Android users alone having downloaded it.
On its face, the game isn’t that complicated, nor that visually compelling. You pick and customize an avatar, and, thanks to its usage of your phone’s GPS, as you walk around in real life you can also see your avatar navigate a world populated by lots of virtual locations tied to real-world landmarks at which you can gather Poké balls and other items. When you come across a Pokémon, the phone will use its rear camera to let you see it on the screen as though it’s hanging out in the real world in front of you.
So what’s driving so much interest in Pokémon Go so quickly? Augmented-reality apps and games have been around for years now, after all. In fact, Niantic, a Google spinout which developed Pokémon Go with the Pokémon Company and Nintendo (Nintendo is an investor in both companies), released two of its own back in 2012 and 2013: an urban exploration app called Field Trip followed by a sci-fi game called Ingress.
A lot has changed since then, however. Besides a big uptick in smartphone ownership, consumers have gotten a lot more familiar with augmented and virtual reality.
So while it’s been possible in the past for an AR game to pull in a sizeable audience (when announcing it was spinning out from Google last August, Niantic said Ingress had been downloaded over 12 million times), Pokémon Go may simply be entering the fray at a time when more people are more likely to want to try it out. The fact that the Pokémon characters, which emerged in the 1990s, are familiar to many of us surely helps, too.
Beyond that is something else important: Pokémon Go may not be the most amazing looking game, but it is easy and fast to get going with. It’s so appealing, in fact, that even at nine months pregnant I was happy to wander the streets of San Francisco for hours, stopping at different landmarks to grab Poké balls and throw them at the Pokémon I found on my travels.
I caught the first creature in my bedroom, standing at the foot of my bed. I found several others—there are over 100 of them out there—while walking by the train station, ballpark, and down the street from my office. Even just sitting at my desk in my office I’ve snagged half a dozen of them, including a tiny caterpie, which looks like a stunted caterpillar and was just sitting innocently atop a couple of old issues of MIT Technology Review.
After a couple hours of playing, I made it to level five, which meant I was finally able to enter a local Pokémon gym, join one of the three Pokémon teams (I linked up with Team Valor), and engage my Pokémon in fights against others’ monsters. My first fight, at a gym located at the site of an empty liquor store in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood, didn’t go so well; I quickly lost, and decided I was better off spending my time looking for more monsters to add to my collection.
As with many new apps, there are a bunch of issues with Pokémon Go that will have to be sorted out in order to keep players entranced. When I was playing, it shut down and froze several times. It’s also a huge battery hog: in 30 minutes of using it with my display mostly on, it depleted about a quarter of my iPhone’s battery (once my phone was nearly dead, I realized there is a “battery saver” option in the settings, which, presumably, would help).
I also got a little concerned for my safety while using the app, since its use of augmented reality and a map-like layout means you’re constantly tempted to look down at your phone. As I wandered around the neighborhood near my office, I had to keep reminding myself to look up occasionally—especially while crossing streets.
Annoyances and potential real-life dangers aside, though, Pokémon Go is off to a good start. It’s fun and shows how augmented reality can be compelling, even on a small smartphone screen. And it could help push others to develop more games and apps that use AR in other smart ways, leading to more interest in blending the real and the digital, on handheld displays and headsets, too.