The Road to Pokemon Go

In the introduction to his somewhat pessimistic article titled The Tragedy of Pokémon Go (which I don’t completely agree with, btw), Ian Bogost provides a short timeline of earlier alternate reality and location-based games.

This reminded me that location-based games aren’t really new. Paul Baron was already collecting them in a list back in 2004 (his website has since moved, with a newer list from 2005 available here) and Justin Hall was reporting on a new location-based item hunt game named Mogi for TheFeature:

Mogi is a collecting game – “item hunt”. The game provides a data-layer over the city of Tokyo. As you move through the city, if you check a map on your mobile phone screen, you’ll see nearby items you can pick up and nearby players you can meet or trade with.

This is what it looked like (photo by Paul Baron):

Looking at Mogi, it’s not difficult to draw many parallels to Pokemon Go. The graphics aren’t as advanced and sophisticated, but the basic game mechanics are pretty much identical. I think it’s remarkable that all the technology to realize a game like Pokemon Go was already available 12 years ago (at least in Japan), just as it is remarkable that it took more than a decade for this kind of game concept to succeed. I’m reminded of William Gibson’s famous quote “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

It also once again shows that it can take many years, if not decades, to move from invention to mass market success, a phenomenon that Bill Buxton has called the Long Nose of Innovation [pdf].

I’m not really surprised that Pokemon finally brought this mass market success, not just because of the franchise’s popularity, but also because it’s such a perfect fit for this kind of game: The Pokemon Company and Niantic have taken the core game experience of earlier Pokemon titles and successfully transplanted it on top of the real world: Where in the past players roamed a virtual world collecting Pokemon, they now get to roam the real world collecting Pokemon. I can’t think of any other franchise that would be a better fit for this kind of game. That’s why I don’t see the game’s success as a tragedy (in contrast to the aforelinked article) but rather as well deserved.