Unlike virtually all other video games, viral sensation Pokémon Go requires its players to get outside and walk around. It has encouraged masses of players to gather in places like the National Mall and Central Park in search of adorable little monsters. Depending on who you ask, it’s either leading to hoards of smartphone zombies walking into traffic and portends the failure of Western civilization, or it's creating spontaneous public happenings that are all part of our optimistic digitally-connected future.
Pokémon Go is such a sensation that it’s easy to forget it was only released a week ago. And as popular as it is, it feels like a somewhat clunky first draft. Its developers have promised frequent updates with gameplay tweaks and new features. We had two ideas that could make it much more fun and encourage players to get even more active and go farther off the beaten path.
Wait, What the Hell Is Pokémon Go?
Some background, in case you’ve been living under an exceptionally large rock the last few days: in the original Game Boy Pokémon games, players would direct a human character around a fictional world, collecting Pokémon and battling other players. The new mobile game takes that concept and mixes it into the real world—what techies are calling augmented reality. Players navigate around a cartoonish (but accurate) version of Google maps on their smartphones by physically walking through the world. The map is automatically populated with points of interest: Pokestops, which can dispense valuable items, and gyms, where players can battle one another.
There are two ways to acquire Pokémon: when the app is open, players will periodically encounter the virtual monsters and can capture them with a skillful swipe of their phone’s screen. Pokémon can also be “hatched” from eggs, which players obtain at Pokestops and hatch once the player has walked a predetermined distance—between two and ten kilometers.
#1: Add Better Fitness Features
The app already tracks players’ steps and distance covered to hatch eggs, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that it is encouraging formerly sedentary players to get some exercise, which we can all get behind. But right now, the game only gives you credit if it’s running in the foreground. So while it’s theoretically possible to use hiking or running to progress, even an accidental button push in your pocket means no credit for all the hard work.
A Strava-like option to start an activity could allow the app to run in the background while players get their steps in. It could even allow more interesting metrics like flights of stairs climbed or total feet of vertical gain to advance different aspects of the game. But the feature wouldn’t have to be that explicit. Unless you’ve disabled it, your phone is likely already keeping tabs on your steps at all times through programs like Google Fit and Apple Health. Simply using that data could let active Pokémasters progress without needing to keep the game running at all times.
It wouldn’t be the first time the franchise has rolled out a feature like this: a version of the GameBoy game came with a pedometer that allowed users to passively train their Pokémon.
#2: Place Pokémon in Far-Flung Outdoor Locations
While it’s true that the the game has encouraged people to get out of the house, its current structure doesn’t reward venturing very far. Points of interest have been crowd-sourced by players of an older game made by the same developers, and they tend to be clustered in city centers and near roads.
Smart players are currently walking short loops in crowded areas, so while they’re covering miles, the effect is less like actual exploration and more akin to wandering around trying to find free Wi-Fi. The game is aware of your location—players see more water types by rivers and oceans, for instance. But finding rare, powerful Pokémon has more to do with a player's progression in the game than any particular location, so there’s little incentive to truly explore.
A pair of enterprising New Zealanders went viral last week when they ventured out in a kayak to claim an offshore gym, but so far, that seems like more of a fluke than a typical occurrence in the game. We’d like to see the developers putting rare Pokémon and gyms in adventurous locations, like at the end of trails or on top of mountains.
In order for this to happen, the game would need to change its mostly random format. Perhaps the app could alert you with a push notification to a limited window where you’d find a particularly desirable Pokémon at the end of a long hike. However, this tweak would also involve some technical challenges. Right now the app won’t work correctly without a strong data connection, which isn’t guaranteed at many off-the-beaten-path locations. It would also require the manpower to create custom locations—points of interest and Pokémon appear to be almost totally auto-generated at the moment. But surely the app is making enough money to hire some developers to build an offline mode and some custom content?
A change to focus on far-flung outdoor locations would be in keeping with the treasure-hunt spirit of the original games, in which rare Pokémon like Mewtwo could only be found in remote places after a difficult search. It would also move players from boring loops near roads to more interesting places. It might even act as a gateway drug for analog outdoor adventuring. Trust us: we know some people might recoil against the idea of smartphone gamers crowding trails. But smart tweaks to the way the game works could mean less face-down plodding through suburbia and more outdoor adventure with a side of augmented reality fun.
Personally, I just want to catch an Articuno on a craggy peak after a long day of climbing. Is that really too much to ask?