A Pied Piper Called Pikachu

By combining cuteness, nostalgia and Augmented Reality, Pokémon GO has taken over the world
A Pied Piper Called Pikachu
Pikachu
This cute yellow character is the face of the franchise. The little ­‘electrocutioner’ is star trainer, Ash Ketchum’s best friend in the Anime.
A Pied Piper Called Pikachu
outlookindia.com
2016-07-29T10:39:47+0530

Finally, it’s a pleasant evening in Delhi after a summer that didn’t look like it would end. The rain has slowed to an agreeable drizzle; there is a cool breeze in the July air—India Gate hasn’t seen so many smiles in months. Anupriya Mathur, 26, saunters down Rajpath towards Rashtrapati Bhavan, with headphones on, peering into her smartphone. Dusk is creeping in and the crowd has thinned. Suddenly she tenses; she feels a presence near her.

The young graphic designer aims her phone camera at a bush under the jamun tree and spots her “stalker” sitting inn­ocently on a bench next to a young couple. She flicks a ball on her phone’s screen in one clean swipe towards the “monster”, pumps her fist triumphantly. “Yay!”—Rattata is in her “pocket” as far as Anupriya is concerned. The couple, not surprisingly, can’t make head or tail of her pursuit.

Charmander

A dragon type, the orange Charmander evolves into the very moody ­Charmaleon. Its tail is always ablaze, a sign of its health and mood, and is also its most powerful weapon.

Anupriya is playing Pokémon GO, an Augmented Reality (AR) game, developed by American software company Niantic, that has dragged geeks and freaks out of their dens and pyjamas. At last count, these were some 26 million users, from Minnesota to Melbourne, within two weeks of its launch in the US, Europe and Australia. The game has beaten Twitter and Tinder in app downloads. Its Japanese parent Nintendo’s market capital has doubled to $42 billion (approximately Rs 2,823,552,900,000) in seven days, making it more valuable than Sony. Apple alone is slated to make three billion dollars this year through downloads.

Pokémon GO is not just a money-minting phenomenon. It’s become a shared talking point in schools, offices, homes and “PokéGyms”, getting adults as animated as children. Most of these adults are the ones who, at some point in time, played the Pokémon card game, owned the Game Boy or watched the TV series before Nintendo boldly took its characters into the player’s actual surroundings using GPS. It is taking aficionados like Anurpiya into parks, temples and markets. It is also sending them in directions the game’s inventors did not quite foresee:

  • In Bosnia, players are being advised to be careful as they may venture into areas where there are hidden landmines.
  • In Guatemala, an 18-year-old boy was shot dead while breaking into a house looking for a Pokémon character.
  • In Baltimore, a driver slammed into a police car while playing the game and now, “Do not Pokémon and drive” is a traffic sign.

Even though it has not yet officially launched in India, the game is already a craze here. Like Anupriya who ‘raided’ India Gate to capture Rattata last Sunday, the green, dew-covered, freshly pruned Cubbon Park in the heart of Bangalore city was taken over by a galaxy of zombies one morning.

Bulbasaur

This four-legged blue-green reptilian, known for drawing energy from the sun, is a portmanteau of ‘Bulb’ and ‘Dinosaur’

Hunched, devices in hand, a population of 400 stomped purposefully in every direction, jumping over hedges, suddenly coming to a halt and then running in the opposite direction in what seemed like a hunt for something rare and precious—the coveted Pokémon Charmander, which was on the loose.

“I spend an hour daily and four hours on the weekend playing Pokémon GO,” says Utkarsh, 13.

What’s going on? What the devil is this Pokémon GO?

If you are in your 40s, you may remember the Pokémon Game Boy. If in your 30s, you may rec­all the Pokémon TV show or the card game, like Monopoly, which you traded with your friends. If in your 20s, the Pokémon Anime and video games may have been your pastime. And now it is the smashing new Pokémon GO, the AR game which is a heady mix of the virtual and the real.

Its concept is simple enough—staying true to the tagline ‘Gotta catch em’ all’, the aim is to capture the whole gamut of 151 first generation Pokémon, like Rattata and Charmander, by flicking the PokéBall at them. If you do, you are the stuff of legend, the Pokémon Master, a badge you flaunt proudly in your gang. The gaming experience is expected to get better when Nintendo officially launches it in India. Right now it is still a problem to download it onto an iPhone but on Android devices you just have to go to Google, type Pokémon and download it through what is called a .apk file.

Jigglypuff

The very cuddly but extremely irritable Jigglypuff can put everyone to sleep with a song.

There is a big difference between earlier video and TV games and this smartphone version. Incredibly, Pokémon GO is an outdoor game. It can change the typical image of a gaming addict—a couch potato with a dirty tee bursting at its seams, sitting amidst tons of junk food and cola, gaping at a screen. Using the GPS and the camera in the smartphone, the game makes the players go to real locations, like India Gate and Cubbon Park, where the virtual Pokémon are scattered.

“I am so addicted to it that I find myself taking ­Uber pools just for the sake of ­finding Pokemon. It’s the ­fastest way to catch em’ all”
Ishaan Arya, Founder, Just Another Gaming Site, Bangalore

“There is no time limit, no complex calculations, but the Pokémon are now­here close to you. So you, the Pokémon hunter and trainer, have to get up, get out of your house and go exploring to find some, smartphones in tow,” says Ishaan Arya, 25, a gaming addict and founder and editor of ‘Just Another Gaming Site’. Arya was one of the first to organise a Pokémon GO meet, the one at Cubbon Park in Bangalore that saw so many Pokémon ‘add­icts’ crawl out of bed at six in the morning. He was expecting around 50, but over 400 turned up.

The ground captured by the smartphone camera is the gaming field and the GPS enables the locations of the players and that of the Pokémon and PokéStops (places the player goes to get more boosters). So, a happy side-effect of the game is that people are discovering new, real world things around areas they live.

Meowth

This cat Pokémon, known as the Scratch cat, generates money in most Pokémon games, sleeps through the day and prowls at night.

“Ever since I started, I have found places I never knew of around my locality and the city. I have always been a lazy, overweight boy and Pokémon Go gave me a reason to go out. I would run and simultaneously play,” says Shashank Angiras, a gaming freak from Mumbai. Even 13-year-old Utkarsh Negi in Delhi points at how healthy the game can be. “I spend an hour daily, and four hours on weekends, all the time walking or cycling at least five to six kilometers,” he says.

“I have always been a lazy boy, but now I have a reason to step out” says Shashank.

Phone games are churned out a dime a dozen, but nothing in recent memory has caught the imagination of the whole world like this one. What makes Pokémon GO so attractive?

“The instant connect with Pokémon GO is because it has the original 151 characters, so most players are already familiar with them,” says Vidur Conrad Moitra, a user experience designer for apps with Litehouse by Harman. “What the new game offers is fantastic AR where the 3D graphics are very real. One game can take between two to three months to complete, when you become the Pokémon master. It’s got great shareability—you can talk to your friends about where you’ve reached and the obstacles you face.”

On The Prowl

Hunting for pocket monsters in India Gate, New Delhi

Photograph by Sanjay Rawat

Agrees Samyak Chakrabarty of the for-profit charity organisation Social Quotient: “The game makers have cashed in on the nostalgia attached to the Pokémon cartoon,” he says. Although games like Ghost Busters and Zombies Run are close cousins of the Pokémon GO both in concept and use of augmented reality, none managed to draw this kind of response. “Pokémon lovers have not had a good game for a long time, and that has helped the market for Pokémon GO,” says Karthik Balakrishnan, a developer at HasGeek in Bangalore.

“The game makers have cashed in on the nostalgia ­attached to the Pokémon ­cartoon. Plus, we are already addicted to smartphones.”
Samyak Chakrabarty, MD Social Quotient

After the first Pokémon game, which released in 1996 and the cartoon, which released in the following year, there has been little significant activity in the “Pikachu” world, leading to the Pokémon fever dying down greatly. Although every year sees multiple game releases, they have neither been able to match the fervour of the TV series, nor done anything interesting to win the enthusiasm of the general gamer. Pokémon GO has managed to do that with its AR set-up, simplicity of function and real-time user engagement, which makes it a must-play for all kinds of gamers.

“A Pokémon lover like me would be in on all the new releases, but this kind of interaction is what makes the game a winner with everyone,” says Jonathan Martin, a Pokémon fan in Mumbai who is looking forward to the release of the seventh generation Pokémon scheduled for November. Sachin Kumar, content manager at HeadOut, says he is not much of a gamer, but enjoys this because it does not have a “make-believe world”. “Messing around with the real world is what makes it fun,” he says.

 

Pitstop

A “PokéCrawl” ­offering discounts in Bangalore for every Pokémon caught

Pokémon GO celebrates the first series developed by the Japanese video game designer Satoshi Tajiri, who in 1996 bought out the first Pokémon game on Game Boy; a concept that combined his childhood hobby of insect collecting with his love for video games. It was his concern that kids have forgotten the joy of catching insects because of increasing urbanisation. Pokémon are literally ‘Pocket Monsters’, and trainers like Ash Ketchum, the hero of the game, are the ‘monster’ collectors. Each Pokémon has a distinct character which is part of the fun.

In Bangalore’s Lal Bagh, another Pokémon meet is on and 100 Pokémon hunters, as they call themselves, have found Jigglypuff, the little cute cotton-candyesque monster which has the power to put people to sleep with its singing. They are now resting at PokéStops and collecting free candies and other gifts to up their game. PokéStops can be found anywhere; many a times in odd places, though the game makers have tried putting them at spots of historic, religious or cultural value to cultivate the habit of exploration among youngsters. “And what exploration! I have visited countless PokéStops, one on the water tank on top of a girl’s hostel!” laughs Martin. And PokéStops can have quite an effect on places:  

  • In London, the City Road Methodist Church hopes that it will get more people for Mass after it becomes a PokéStop.
  • In Washington D.C., the Holocaust Memorial Museum doesn’t want its premises to be used by gamers in keeping with the sobriety of the institution.

Every Pokémon has a grading as well; the thrill is to catch the rare ones. For instance, the Rattata that Anupriya captured in India Gate, is an easy one and is graded last on the list. Other Pokémon like Staryus are rarer. “I was sick for three days and couldn’t go out to play, so my hunt for more Staryus, which I need to upgrade to Starmies, was paused, and it was very ­upsetting,” says Martin. All this may be gobbledygook to outsiders but Pokémon fans perfectly understand his anguish.

“Messing around with the real world is what makes it fun,” says Sachin Kumar of HeadOut.

It’s not youngsters alone who are fans of the fad. C.B. Velayuthan, 46, the vice president of Global Sales Nokia Networks, who was introduced to Pokémon by his 13-year-old son, is excited about the game and its ability to use multiple phone features at once. “We have been all over Noida, and my drive back from my office in Gurgaon has also become a hunt,” he laughs. Velayuthan soon plans to go with his son and nephew to Humayun’s Tomb, which is a Pokémon hotspot.

Prashanth Mohanachandran, 45, CEO at AgencyDigi, has 26 Pokémon in his bag, but continues to walk back from his office hoping to find some more. Balakrishnan recently organised a “Pokémon crawl” and offered everyone who caught a Pokémon a discount coupon of 10 per cent in a friend’s pub nearby.

Joint Effort

The Velayuthan family looks for Pokéstops in their locality

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

“I was sick for three days and couldn’t go out, so my hunt for more Staryus for ­upgrading my Pokémon was paused. It was very upsetting.”
Jonathan Martin, Pokémon fan, Mumbai

Walking around peering at your smartphone does have its perils, and can lead to nasty finds. Two boys reportedly fell off a 100 feet wall while playing the game in North Santiago, California. There is Shayla Wiggins of Riverton, Wyoming, who, while walking on the beach to find water Pokémon, discovered a floating dead body instead. But even without Pokémon, is there a single youngster in any city today who is not on the phone while walking?

“You really don’t need to be walking with your phone in your hand all the time. That is stupidity. You only need the app on. The phone will buzz when there is a Pokémon nearby and beep if you’ve found a PokéStop. It’s only then that you need to take the device out,” says Angiras.

Iconic games of the past

“You really don’t need to be walking with your phone in your hand all the time. That is stupidity. It is enough to have the app on.”
Shashank Angiras, Gamer, Mumbai

Tushar Kanwar, technology columnist, does believe in the “Don’t Pokémon and Drive” billboard that has showed up on many roads, and considers walking into things a real obstacle. There are other dangers too, warn gaming geeks. “There is also the concern of being mugged if you are playing in the middle of the night in a city like Delhi,” chuckles science writer and stock analyst Devangshu Datta who boasts of catching two Pokémon in three days.

Presently, Pokémon GO is on a roll. It has beaten the Candy Crush record of 20 million downloads in just two weeks. With its launch in its home country Japan to come soon, industry watchers say it is likely to beat even Snapchat. Nintendo looks at India as a big market too and is said to be launching the game in a few weeks. If the enthusiasm at Cubbon Park is anything to go by, there is going to be no stopping these pocket monsters.


By Stuti Agarwal and Siddhartha Mishra

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