Pokémon Go is a subtly broken game, and here is why

but more importantly, it's fun, go outside and play it!

Honestly, it's rather easy to pick at this new game because of the horrible bugs and overloaded servers. I really hope that Niantic rewrites the game client from scratch without Unity (they should afford that after such success, right?), so that we get better battery life and, hey, maybe even we could run the app in the background and hatch eggs without awkwardly keeping an unlocked phone in the pocket. We'll get there. We've got to work with what we have: Niantic released what looks like a prototype and I think that's cool! All lean startups are supposed to do that, no? "If you're not embarassed by your release, you don't release early enough" and stuff.

But that's not why we're here! Complaining about bugs is not constructive. It's also tempting to rant about the game's approach to micropayments, but let me leave this for another day. (Should I still call them micropayments when a bag upgrade and two bunches of lure modules total up to half of Minecraft?)

Instead, let's talk about something more civilised: Game design!

I'm about to make a claim that Pokémon's metagame is particularly faulty and counter-intuitive. While this is arguably not a big deal and only takes a small part away from the overall fun experience, I still think an avoidable mistake has been made, and this mistake is my only real disappointment with this game. Let's analyze it.

Adventurer

Every Pokémon game I've seen had a wonderful beginning and Pokémon Go is no exception. Forget mobile game cliches - the first thing I saw was a beautiful homage to classic Pokémon titles, complete with gameboy sounds and a wooden Professor who introduces the new world to me and briefs me on the wonderful adventure I'm about to have. Then here's the magic moment - three Pokémon and a choice await me in the only moment than even resembles a tutorial. Enthusiastic, I throw consecutive Pokeballs at the Squirtle who just happened to chill on the stack of books on top my desk. The choice was straightforward: Squirtle is the coolest starter possible, with the cute yet sassy attitude, uncanny talent for showbusiness and the perspective of amazing evolution from an idealised interactive turtle, all the way towards an amphibian artillery unit ready to take on Godzilla while making fun of Charizards. But I digress...

My first walk around the part was rewarding and memorable. I learned that spinning things can be more fun than Pinata and that wiggling grass is enough to make me take the least optimal path towards my destination. I caught a few specimens, and most importantly, I caught a Grimer whom I immediately proceeded to nickname "Rick". Rick the Grimer. You got it right.

The following three days I spent basking in the light of my amazing pun and daydreaming how Rick is definitely going to become my rep Pokémon in the future, the one who comes to clean the battle if the rest is not up to the task, and that I'm going to personally introduce him to every allied Pokémon trainer.

That was the plan...

Stardust scavenger

Fast forward a few weeks. Rick has grown only a little, while I have filled a few industrial containers full of pigeons that happen to outclass him in combat power. The Squirtle is still with me as well, utterly outclassed by a small number of his comrades that I have met along my way. I'm successfully becoming richer and richer in raw Pokémon biomass, but I am given little to no resources that would enable me to bond with them more.

There is hope, though! There's always a way to make a Pokémon stronger and more capable of bragging rights. All I need to do is acquire more of his comrades, together with the trinkets that will instantly make the creature rejoice and develop in ability: candies and the mysterious Stardust, a resource as important to the Pokémon Go world as the Spice was to Dune.

Stardust is known to be the primary bottleneck, the biggest obstacle between you and your cute army's combat power. Every bit of Stardust I spend on a Pokémon is a bit that I shall never recover. Coincidentally, I'm also bound to regret spending it, sooner or later, because my progress of raising my pet Squirtle from combat power 25 to 75 will soon be thwarted by the experience of finding another that Squirtle that shall greet you with combat power of 200.

If I desire to be sentimental, I won't think about it much and I will just keep investing in my pet Squirtle who has been a part of my entourage from day one. However, if I wish to pursue power, my strategy should be as follows: no Stardust is to be spend on a CP 100 Squirtle, because the prospect of a CP 200 Squirtle rightfully deserves it more. This one, however, is not getting any Stardust either, since a CP 400 Squirtle is equally realistic in just a few weeks! Stardust is not considered rare, but positively tedious to collect in large amounts. If you want to make sure your decisions are strategically sound, you shall not spend a pinch of it on a Pokémon that you're going to replace anywhere between now and 6 months in future when you're already at the top of the world.

This puts you, dear power gamer, in a rather tight spot: What do I do with my Stardust? I'm a level 10 trainer, I'm earning jars of Stardust and hauling truckloads of Pocket Men, what shall I do? Do I, like, make use of all this richness and use up the Resource to make my pupils Stronger? No, dear friend. If you wish to be a rational adult and a responsible power gamer, you will spend nothing, not until the perspective of catching stronger Pokémon is put aside by you levelling up to a place when the next level isn't coming in foreseeable future. Only then, when the risk of being Potentially Wasteful is put aside, you're allowed to unseal the Stardust jar without wearing the Suboptimal Decision Maker hat.

This sums up the Stardust tragedy:

The fun thing to do with it is not optimal; the optimal thing to do is not fun.

Where do we go from here?

There's few problems that can't be solved with a sufficient amount of denial. A troublesome game mechanic needn't ruin your game. You can, just this once, put aside the powergamer hat, and set an alternate goal for yourself. Do you really have to be the most optimal Stardust user in the world? If this doesn't sound like you, maybe there is something else you'd rather pursue? How about you take the equally promising career of a proud owner of the most treasured Rick?

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