Pokémon GO – One Year On

About this time last year, as part of a staff profile on myself, I was asked to comment on the new phenomenon known as Pokémon GO, which saw hordes of young (and old) players roaming the streets, staring intently at their mobile phones (more so than usual) catching elusive digital creatures in a new augmented reality game. I joined them for a couple of weeks, and the knowing nod of a fellow player across a road became almost a common rite of friendship born out of the often solitary pursuit of gaming.

Stories on the craze filled column inches in newspapers, and even made serious news headlines, often, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. And then, almost as soon as it started, the craze, like many others before it, seemed to die down. The prediction that Pokémon GO would be just the vanguard in a wave of similar augmented reality games proved to be wrong. Niantic, the developer of the game, seemed to fumble the ball at a crucial time – people started to moan that there was little to do in the game once the initial honeymoon period wore off, and the hype died down.

One year later, it became suddenly clear that the many, many people were still playing the game. To mark this anniversary, Niantic arranged a festival to celebrate this milestone in Chicago, at which attendees would be able to, amongst other activities, unlock 'Legendary Pokémon' for the rest of the world. Those following the gaming press will no doubt know that things didn’t go exactly to plan – connection issues, caused by the huge number of active players in one place, caused the event to wobble somewhat, and Niantic was left with a rather large PR problem to handle.

However, if you had been in Chester on the same weekend, you could have had a much more successful Pokémon festival experience. Forming part of the Chester Heritage Festival, the weekend saw thousands of players come together and tour 120 PokéStops (locations the game uses in the real world) created at local historic sites. Scenes of hundreds of players chasing rare Pokémon across the city must have bewildered those who had no idea what was going on. The whole occasion went without a hitch, and was so successful that fans of the game who didn’t attend are buying up memorabilia from the event on eBay.

For a short time, some of the 'craze magic' which the game sparked last year was rekindled in Chester. It was incredible to see a city with over two thousand years of heritage host an event which could only happen with today’s technology. It can be common to decry modern life, including mobile phones and gaming, as a bad thing – but times change, and that's why the University of Chester delivers courses that couldn’t have existed only a few years ago.

Our students on the Games Development course learn to develop games across a range of platforms, including looking at both mobile and multiplayer games. They look at case studies such as Pokémon GO, and learn about how not only to deliver the code and art that makes up the games themselves, but consider the design, longevity, promotion and support of games both before and after their releases. We can learn a lot from how Niantic and other developers handle the games they create for us, and to have events like this on our doorstep at the University to experience first-hand is an opportunity not to be missed. The best part was that it all happened after exams and assignments were completed for the year, so students could enjoy the whole thing guilt free. Who knows what next year will bring?

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Ralph Ferneyhough
Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for BSc Games Development