Pokémon Go – the story so far with Joe Merrick & community members

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It’s hard to believe this is Pokémon Go’s sixth anniversary. I don’t just remember the launch vividly, I remember the April Fool’s joke that led to its creation. For a laugh on that auspicious day of pranks, Google decided to make a version of Google Maps in which Pokémon fans could explore and find monsters out in the wild, and it was unironically a hit. While we’re not privy to discussions behind closed doors, we all know what happened next.

Nintendo soon announced a partnership with Niantic, which at the time was known for their other augmented reality-exploration game Ingress, and then in late 2015, we got a glimpse at the first Pokémon Go trailer and frankly, it still gives me chills. Seeing people exploring the real world, interacting with Pokémon, playing with friends, and even defeating a Mewtwo? It was an image of a Pokémon game that many fans had been waiting for decades to play.

So today, in honour of Pokémon Go’s 6th birthday, we’re going to look over the story so far, what it means to different people and some of the stories that Pokémon Go has helped to create. We’ve chatted to several big Pokémon GO fans, and have also received some words from Joe Merrick, the person behind one of the biggest Pokémon fan sites in the world, Serebii. Hopefully, you enjoy hearing their stories, and have some amazing memories of your own associated with Pokémon Go.

The summer of 2016 and the weeks that followed the launch of Pokémon Go may be the closest we’ll ever be to world peace. Enraptured by this new game, whole streets stood still as players wandered (stupidly) into roads, chasing down Dragonites and the odd Snorlax, as PoGo fever gripped the entire world. Seriously, it was a cultural phenomenon on the scale of Tetris on the Game Boy, Super Mario Bros on the NES, and Wii Sports. Perhaps even bigger, as downloads passed one billion, and it remains consistently one of the world’s top-grossing games, six years after launch.

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview:a hand is held out, with Pokemon Go clearly visible on a screen

For this piece, I reached out to several people still playing Pokémon Go, and unsurprisingly, almost all of them have played since the very beginning. For Joe Merrick of Serebii, it was literally as soon as possible, as Joe “started playing Pokémon GO the morning of July 6th 2016, shortly after it was released in Australia”. After that initial reveal trailer, the hype was slightly mad, and personally, I remember changing my phone to Australian for the first time in my life, just so I could download the app the second it launched.

Needless to say, the launch quickly gave way to a true phenomenon. As Joe Merrick details, “The launch was a bit surreal. Even on the launch day when it wasn’t technically out in the UK, you could see people playing and taking out gyms. You could see people everywhere playing, rushing when a Lapras or Snorlax spawned. It was truly a sight to see.”

Importantly, Pokémon GO also had a clear aim, to get people out of the house and to encourage people to be more active. It certainly achieved this, though, of course, this many people in the streets with their faces buried in their phones was also likely a hazard. Niantic swiftly put some disclaimers on the loading screen of the app, and with any luck, it saved a few people’s skins. Still, encouraging people to get outside is an admirable goal, and it worked. Facebook groups quickly popped up, letting people in town centres (or at least in Bristol where I’m based) know when rare Pokémon were available. I’ve never seen collective community action like it, and it was all in the name of fun.

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: a photo shows several people playing Pokemon GO while wearing Pikachu hats

Long-time Pokémon Go player Jason Baigent explains his experience with the early days of Pokémon GO, saying “I remember I started going out for walks more often just so I could find more Pokémon, often jumping off the sofa at nine/ten at night (often driving to the spot) as one had appeared that I needed for the Pokédex. I was quite obsessed with the game and the addicting nature of finding and catching. I would often take detours when I was out on errands too (which landed me in it more than once!) just to find and catch more Pokémon.”

Pocket Tactics editor Ruby Spiers-Unwin explains how she enjoyed the early and active days of Pokémon GO, saying “All of my friends and colleagues were playing, even the non-gamers in my life. It made us all a lot more active, as we’d walk to work rather than bus, go out on evening strolls to catch rare Pokémon, and rush out of the house at all hours to expand our collection.”

The community experience was also something Jason experienced, and one that led to a touching connection with his own sons over the years. “I remember hearing about these large groups of people all running to certain parts of the area as a Charizard or Blastoise had appeared there on the game map, but being in a smallish town these encounters never happened for me which I found frustrating. But it also created this group of people I would eventually raid with and for a long period of time that was the way I caught the legendaries. Plus, my sons started playing the game so we would go out and play together, times I really enjoyed.”

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: several phones are hgeld together in a photograph, all with Pokemon Go on the screen

It’s fair to say, however, that the early days of Pokémon GO didn’t quite reach the potential many had hoped, or the lofty expectations set by that first reveal trailer. Key features like trading, legendaries, and even battling other players, didn’t make it in until major updates several months or years down the line. Pokémon GO launched as an app in progress, and while it certainly hasn’t stopped being successful, it feels like some of the initial hysteria died down, with many labelling Pokémon GO as a fad that had lost its hooks in the nation.

But its initial success meant that it was too big to fail, and the hard work of Niantic also steered the ship in the right direction, and gave essential updates that gave longtime Pokémon fans and players new to the franchise the entertainment they needed, and crucially, something to do with all of those Pokémon.

Joe Merrick explains his initial concerns, saying “Prior to the game launch, I was sceptical and all the information that came didn’t allay my fears but when it came out, it really seemed like a lot of fun to try and hunt down the Pokémon. With the updates it has become more fun and more a part of the routine… There’s always something happening in the game.” Similarly for long-time player Jack “Gawny” Gawn, the game evolved (sorry) over time, as Gawny explains “for me, it’s turned into a social experience with the inclusion of trading, battling, gym raids, and events. The game really developed into what it should have been at the start. Raiding also turned huge early on for me and even raid hours now have got me going back out with a group of 10-15 people raiding gyms together. A lot of the tips and tricks from the game I learnt from these get-togethers have been really useful.”

Of course, these changes came with teething problems. Managing a game with such a preposterous install base and so many fervent fans asking for features can’t be easy. Meanwhile, not every change has been for the best either. As the game has dipped in users over the years, it still steadily increases in profits, showing that Niantic is learning how to squeeze more out of their players, with Pokémon locked behind eggs, raid invites, and research tickets, and Pokémon GO’s various festivals. The aim of the game is to catch them all, but with so many Pokémon in the Pokedex, that initial box size of 250 is seeming smaller and smaller with every year.

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: Key art from Pokemon Go shows several trainers and Pokemon

Pokémon GO player Max Wright explains his frustrations with the game, saying “Events have become increasingly around hatching new Pokémon, but only in the higher tier eggs and with a very slim chance of hatching. This means you have to buy incubators to try and hatch as many eggs as possible, but first, you have to actually get the right egg, with the game often giving you nothing but 2K eggs, and 7K eggs being useless after a short while.”

Meanwhile, Joe Merrick explains a similar grievance with the game, particularly the changes to monetisation over the years. “The increasingly aggressive monetisation has been a bit of a grievance. Seeing Pokémon getting locked behind rare eggs or in raids is always disconcerting, especially when they’re promoting the shiny variants which have such a low chance of appearing. The inability to boost IVs can be frustrating, especially when you factor in GO Battle League and the GO Championship series.”

Jason Baigent also brings up another issue and one that has never been addressed properly. For a game with such a strong focus on community, the social features were, and still remain, extremely lacking. Players depend on Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, and just the sheer dumb luck of bumping into people to both meet and organise playing Pokémon GO with others. As Jason explains “The game never included a way to communicate with other people in-game and considering the way the game has evolved to encourage you to meet new people this is a big mishap by Niantic.”

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: a photo shows dozens of players gathered toegther, all playing Pokemon GO

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about Pokémon GO six years later if it didn’t contain enough gaming magic to bring players back. It perhaps bit off more than it could chew initially, but after six years of updates and a lot of liaising with the community, Niantic has created a game that is still sustaining players over half a decade after its launch. The community also has incredible stories from those years, of amazing Pokémon they’ve caught, exciting raid battles, and even some people who have fallen in love, as you can read in our Pokémon GO couples article.

Just some of the moments from the community explain exactly why so many millions of players still play daily and are still intent on catching ‘em all. Joe Merrick explains one of his slightly surreal highlights, from the Pokémon World Championships in 2017. “While Pokémon GO only joined the championship circuit this year, since 2017 there have been special events around the World Championships each year. After the finals and when everyone was booted out of the event venue, the Anaheim Convention Center, the entire area was packed.”

He goes on to say “people were catching Unown and Kangaskhan, the special spawns, and there were raids of the legendary Birds, and people were just jumping into all the lobbies, they were filling up fast. It was just so surreal and amazing to have literally thousands of people, just filling the entire area. It didn’t matter who you were, even GAME FREAK staff were jumping into the raids, with some of them flexing their Mewtwo which was released exclusively through a Japanese event one week earlier.”

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: a hand is held outstretched, clearly playing Pokemon GO on a mobile device's screen

A standout for Max Wright included the initial round of EX Raids, and how that led to a fantastic friendship. As Max details, “when I got back into the game in 2018 I had somehow got a Mewtwo EX raid pass. However, I could not drive and had no way of getting to where it was being held. Luckily, someone in the local Whatsapp group for the game offered to pick me up and take me. She became an incredibly good friend, and through her, I also met a large number of local players, who also met my friends, and two years of solid Pokémon Go, drinking and playing other games followed!”

A key aspect of Pokémon GO is travelling, with regional versions of Pokémon stuck in certain countries on very rare occasions. This gives players a great excuse to pick up the game when on holiday and adds an extra wrinkle of fun to those days exploring somewhere unknown. As PT editor Ruby explains, “I’ve visited Japan three times since the release of Pokémon Go, and every time I’ve loved playing the game there. Crowds of people swarm for raids, I completed a Nidoking raid at a Pokémon Centre in Tokyo and the staff gave me a commemorative sticker. I just appreciate the good vibes.”

Jack Gawny relives a trip to London and the fun Pokémon Go added, saying that a highlight of playing Pokémon GO was “the moment we battled the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben gym for the first time in London and I put the lowest CP Abra in it for a laugh was a highlight for me. (It lasted only two minutes before it was knocked out)” Pokémon GO has also worked hard to offer in-person events over the years, offering true celebrations of the game with plenty of rewards, just recently bringing festivity to locations in Leeds, England, and Berlin. If you’re reading this Pokémon, do Bristol next, please?

Pokemon Go sixth anniversary interview: key art from Pokemon Go shows several trainers and Pokemon

The size and popularity of Pokémon GO surely aren’t lost on anyone, but perhaps the connection with the community, and the growth over the years may surprise some. Niantic remains committed to improving the title and has made drastic changes to accommodate players during the pandemic. Though, discussions around this will have to be saved for another article. For now, looking back at six years of arguably the biggest mobile game to ever exist, it’s astonishing to see its lasting appeal, and its effect not only on mobile gaming but the Pokémon series at large.

Pokémon never went away, but it’s essential to the history of the franchise to properly credit Pokémon GO with a resurgence in popularity, and one that led the way for titles like Pokémon Let’s Go: Pikachu and Pokémon Let’s Go: Eevee on the Nintendo Switch. Connectivity between Pokémon GO and the main games has also vastly improved, with the ability to send your mobile ‘mons to your box, and see them on the big screen with your Nintendo Switch pals.

Pokémon GO is no longer a side story for Pokémon, it’s a crucial part of the franchise, and one that continues to grow. In these past six years, it’s been a cultural powerhouse, moments like “Pokémon GO to the polls” will forever live in infamy, and the world will remember nations gripped in Pokémon fever. Teething issues aside, it continues to improve and influence the franchise at large, and one thing is for certain, we’ll be making fantastic new memories with Pokémon GO for a good few years yet…



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