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Pokémon Go Is An Incredible Phenomenon (And A Janky Mess)

by Jeff Cork on Jul 19, 2016 at 02:30 PM

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This feature was originally published on July 15, 2016.

They seem to be everywhere: People, young and old, hunched over their smartphones, mumbling about gyms and balls and Snorlaxes. As impossible as it sounds, we’re in an era of peak Pokémon, where the collectable creatures are hotter than they were even when they debuted a few decades ago. Pokémon Go has captured our imaginations, but it’s increasingly clear that the technical framework underneath it all simply can’t handle the traffic.

Let me be clear: I think that Pokémon Go’s success has been amazing to watch, and I love hearing about how strangers are bonding over the game. People are exploring their neighborhoods (and getting exercise), and also learning new things about the places around them. Business are using the app’s popularity to draw in new customers, putting Pokémon-baiting lures on nearby points of interest and grabbing foot traffic. It’s great, as long as you aren’t getting robbed or too distracted to notice your proximity to the edge of a cliff. What’s not great? How Pokémon Go has become an unstable, janky mess.

I played in the beta, and I was impressed with how smooth the experience was. I went on walks with my kids and we took turns adding to my phone’s Pokedex. Catching the creatures was as simple as flicking a finger and waiting for the animation to trigger. Now that it’s out in the wild, the experience is different – and far less satisfying. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve missed out on a rare catch because the game stuttered to a stop in the middle of a capture. That’s if I’m even able to get the map to refresh in the first place. Thanks to the game’s popularity, the game’s servers have been bombarded with players from around the globe, turning it into an unreliable disappointment. 

Yesterday, Reiner dropped a lure into a Pokestop that’s right outside our offices. For the next 30 minutes, Pokémon should have flocked to our area putting us up to our elbows in the critters – but that’s not how it worked out. The next half-hour was filled with annoyed groans and sighs as six players’ phones froze, stalled, and crapped out. Fortunately for me, I was merely trailing off someone else’s lure; I can only imagine how annoyed I would have been if I’d personally bought the lure from the store using real cash.

Niantic has released several updates for the game, and it’s likely these issues will eventually be addressed. Meanwhile, we’re stuck playing something that is, at best, unreliable. The joy that I might feel seeing a new creature doesn’t come near to eclipsing the frustration that accompanies having to reboot my phone – again – just to get the app working. 

I understand that the app’s success probably took the development staff by surprise, but ultimately that’s not the player base’s responsibility. If you’re going to hold your hand out and ask for money, it’s only fair that the game can be reliably played – frequent freezes or gym-battle glitches shouldn’t be accepted. 

We asked Niantic founder John Hanke about the server issues a few days ago, and he said that, as far as the short term goes, “[T]he plan is to keep the servers up and to launch in the rest of the countries that we're not in yet.” That’s great news for people who live in countries that don’t have it yet, but let’s be clear for a moment: It’s not working reliably here. 

Nobody knows how long people will continue checking their phones for Pokémon, but I am certain that my own interest is sapping with every bug. There’s a lot of potential with Pokémon Go, and I absolutely love the idea, but it doesn’t feel like it’s anywhere close to being ready for release right now. If anything, I wish I could roll back to the beta. At least I could temper my expectations there.