Do you still spot people staring intently at their phones, spinning their finger across the illuminated screen, and think, 'I wonder if they're playing Pokémon Go?' Maybe you played the game yourself at launch or, maybe, you're one of those still playing. This past week has shown millions of people still are.
I am still playing this silly game, this bizarre, battery-gobbling app, and over the past seven days it really has never felt more enjoyable. A week ago, developer Niantic threw down the gauntlet and issued players with an eye-opening Global Catch Challenge: to collectively capture an astonishing 3bn Pokémon in under seven days. And players did it - a day ahead of schedule - to unlock the usually East Asia-exclusive creature Farfetch'd worldwide.
It was the most high profile Pokémon Go event since the summer, when the first legendary-rank Pokémon - the most powerful creatures in the game - were released. This event was to unlock something far more humble - a duck - but its format brought the game's community together, both online and in real-life, in a far better way.
Pokémon Go players have frequently grumbled at developer Niantic for its lack of communication with fans, but with this event it feels like things have truly turned a page. Never mind the first real insight from the studio on in-game balance changes, Niantic also offered daily updates on community progress towards the 3bn goal, along with notifications whenever the playerbase passed a particular milestone. On reddit's fabulously nerdy Pokémon Go subreddit The Silph Road, mathematicians then crunched the latest numbers within minutes of an update being released. Fans used formulas to determine how fast the community was progressing, and speculated if and when the challenge would succeed.
And, to start with, it didn't look great. Word of the event took a day or so to spread, and at first the community's pace was too slow. But as the days rolled on and the game's various reward tiers were opened up, you could see the impact of more players joining in. All you needed to do was log-in and catch something to get involved, but with the eventual unlock of double XP and other bonuses, Niantic also made it extremely rewarding to log-in and stay there - to catch and play even more. With a 3bn goal, Niantic hit a sweet spot - a target which sounded insurmountable but after some steady acceleration soon felt within reach.
Pokémon Go has never had a global goal-based challenge like this before - the only thing like it was the aforementioned summer event in Chicago, which ended up being ruined by network issues. But even if that event had been a success, there would still have been calls from the community for a challenge which engaged everybody playing around the world - something last week provided. By setting a global activity and keeping track of progress, you could see when different regions were logging on and playing. When Niantic announced the total at the end of the US day, you knew Asia and then Europe would be picking up the challenge baton next - and could see how much further the collective total had grown by the following US morning.
Games struggle all the time to create and maintain a sense of community, but it's made even harder in Pokémon Go by the app's lack of in-game communication (in order to remain family-friendly). Niantic has left the game's players to figure out ways to chat and organise themselves outside of the game - on reddit, Facebook and Discord - which has been successful. But as far as communication from Niantic goes, it has always needed to be more of a two-way street. Finally, the developer appears to have learned this - and finally, Niantic can put that summer event behind it.
That 3bn figure? It's another canny move. Pretty much the first question I hear when someone sees me playing is "do people still play that?" After the cultural saturation of the game's first summer, it was obvious Pokémon Go's record-breaking player levels would eventually dip. But to hit 3bn catches in six days (by the end of the week, with Farfetch'd released, it was 3.3bn) is a total anyone can point to as evidence of how many are still logging on. 3bn equates to 50m players logging in every day to catch 10 Pokémon - all this nearly a-year-and-half after launch.
This is a really cool Pokémon Go medal to me, and here's why.— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsEG) November 26, 2017
All 100 of those raids have been with groups of other people, most met while playing the game. Many now meet regularly to hang out as friends.
It's a ridiculous, bizarre, welcoming game and I love it. pic.twitter.com/KwXsWdKzxK
Last summer, Pokémon Go was the biggest game in the world, but it wasn't half the experience it is now. This year's introduction of raids and the lure of legendary Pokémon transformed the game, and it was a risk - it required players to meet and work together for collective gain. Where, at launch, Pokémon Go pushed players out into the world by themselves, raids pulled those still playing back to meet each other, reinforcing the feeling there were plenty of people around still tapping away - just like you. This event took this feeling and multiplied it.
Whenever the community hit another milestone, my Pokémon Go-playing friends would celebrate. We would argue back and forth about when the overall goal might or might not be reached. And then, just after midnight last Saturday, when the first Farfetch'd popped up a few streets away, a few of us dashed out into the cold to make sure we snagged it.
There's still nothing else like Pokémon Go - this past week has shown that. While playing I've met countless others doing the same, some of whom I now call friends. And whenever I see someone pass by, twirling their finger on their smartphone's screen to curve a Pokéball, firing it off with a flick, I can't help but smile.
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