Will Pokémon GO Be Ready for July Release?
This was the news that everyone was hoping for as Nintendo Treehouse streamed live from E3. Thousands watched with fingers crossed, praying to hear some type of release date. The Pokémon GO demonstration was rolling by, pretty much as expected, when YouTube personality JWittz went off-script and asked for a specific release date for the Pokémon GO Plus wearable device.
The moderator responded to this event as seen in this image: absolutely shocked at the sharp turn that the conversation had taken. The crowd hushed, as everyone was aware of what could be approaching. Everyone was even more shocked when Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto laid down the law with his personal expectations for launch. As Nintendo translator Raymond Elliget interpreted, Miyamoto began “So we actually wanted to get it out towards the end of July,” and then continued, looking over towards the Niantic employee, “but listening to the conversation earlier, we’re gonna be okay, right?” At first, there was a stunned silence as people tried to understand what had just happened. The President and CEO of The Pokémon Company, Tsunekazu Ishihara, clarified, “That’s next month.” And JWittz shouted out to the crowd, “July!”, which resulted in a round of screams and cheers from the crowd.
Ishihara, Masuda, and Miyamoto, (from The Pokémon Company, Game Freak, and Nintendo, respectively,) all comfortably smiled and laughed, clearly pleased with the audience’s response. Meanwhile, right in the center of it all, Niantic employee Tatsuo Nomura was having a very different reaction: “Did he just say July?” He immediately threw the brakes on the hype train, laughing uncomfortably and clarifying, “So, we’re talking about Pokémon GO Plus right?” The cast of Nintendo all-stars laughed even harder at this, with Miyamoto holding his hand to the GO Plus on his lapel, half-agreeing and half-eye-rolling, “Yeah, we’ve gotta get this first.”
That Niantic employee, Nomura, is no scrub. He is a senior product manager who has been involved in this project since the very beginning, being a central part of the Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge that began back in 2013. He even personally makes an appearance in that April Fools video. He knows more about the current state of the app’s development than anyone else on that forum. And his clearly-uncomfortable reaction to an expectation for a July release is telling. At the very end of the Q&A, he reaffirmed, “We didn’t really announce the launch date yet, but right now, at this moment, the team is working to make the game. So please look forward to it. I’ve gotta start working right after this.” He certainly looked stressed over the pressure of constantly working to get a satisfactory game out on time. In response to Nomura’s slightly-panicked demeanor, Miyamoto held up his operational GO Plus device and reminded him, “We are ready now.”
Nintendo is ready now. Niantic isn’t. You can almost feel the slight tension between these two entities during the Q&A. The overseers of the Pokémon IP pointed out that they have commanded Niantic to take the catching system and “re-do it” three times already, and they anticipate potentially doing it again. Niantic expected to be able to develop the game largely on their own, but Nintendo had different ideas about the process. It seems that this has led to a little bit of an us-versus-them struggle. The Pokémon GO game started out with huge dreams and ambitions: it would include catching Pokémon in unique environments, social trading, huge events, connectivity with the main games, and the availability of every generation of Pokémon. Most of these haven’t been implemented in the game in any form. Even Pokémon localization is currently only complete in some specific big cities such as Niantic’s home in San Francisco, and has yet to be implemented in much of the world. Some of those features were surely intended to be included at launch, while for others the plan might have always been for a later update. In any case, as the expected time for release draws closer and reality is beginning to set in, the makers of Pokémon GO will be satisfied if they can get a working capture system out on time. That has been the core focus, and things like trading and extended multi-player experiences will have to come later. On the logic of releasing a game that focuses almost solely on catching Pokémon, Ishihara explains, “This goes back to my philosophy of developing smart-phone games, where you bring out the core experience when you first launch the application. Then, as people stick with it and they are wanting more depth of game-play, we add on more functionality and new features to keep people interested.”
Ishihara showed off the game a little bit, including his 3312 CP Arcanine. His super high-powered Pokémon reveals, as he admitted, that he has been playing this game every day for months. Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda also gave us a demonstration of Pokémon encounters. He approached the game demo very gingerly. He decided not to throw a Pokéball at an Abra with incense surrounding it, likely because he was aware of a known bug where that incense cloud deflects any Pokéball thrown. He probably did not want this gameplay bug to be exposed in front of thousands of live viewers. So he ran away from the battle and entered one with a Paras. In this battle, the app froze entirely, which is an extremely typical experience with the app in its current state. As such, they were well prepared for this, and they had another phone running and on the ready, where they were able to encounter a Rattata. The crowd, oblivious to the intense amount of bug-dodging that had just occurred in order to avoid embarrassment, made the appropriate “ooh” and “ahh” sounds when the Rattata burst out of the Pokéball, and you could hear their applause when it was captured. The demo was successful, as far as anyone could tell.
The basic game is there, and it works in a lot of ways. But on a non-superficial level, the game is still riddled with crashes and bugs. Frustration with this is inevitable while playing for any length of time. Some of the beta testers have even refused to update, or have abandoned beta testing out of frustration. This, of course, does nothing but compound the problem. Niantic has been in full-on flop-sweat mode trying to get the app operational. People already had super-high expectations, and they’re probably freaking out now that Miyamoto threw lighter fluid on that fire.
Niantic released update 0.27.0 on the day after the Q&A, which resolved one of the most prominent bugs where a Pokémon defending a Gym would not faint upon reaching 0hp, making them impossible to defeat. But in their attempt to resolve this and other issues, the update was widely believed to have even more crashes than before. Niantic didn’t take any time off for the weekend, and quickly updated to 0.27.1 on Saturday, which successfully sought to resolve some issues with crashing but once again caused additional issues. This time, there was a bug where, when you click on a Pokémon in the Pokédex, sometimes it would go to a different Pokémon of the same type, leading some Trainers to accidentally release some of their favorite Pokémon. This bug was patched in another release over the weekend, without increasing the version number. On Monday the app received another quick update to bring it to 0.27.2. This most recent hotfix is warmly received, and has apparently stopped many of the crashing issues, and also addressed some annoying bugs. However, the app no longer prevents the screen from going to sleep on many phones, making the game more difficult to play.
Last we heard, there were only about four-dozen employees at Niantic trying to get this ball rolling, and if one thing is clear, there is certainly no lack of effort. Recently, there has been an update almost every day. Some of them have just been trading bugs for other bugs, and it has been a struggle, but progress is being made. They have already put in a lot of sleepless nights, and probably won’t see any rest until the app is publicly released. Will Pokémon GO actually be released by July? Meeting that deadline is going to be an absolute battle, but the heroes at Niantic are bringing a brutal warfare to the front lines of that battle. We are cheering them on, and I personally want to believe in them. And if they don’t make it, it certainly won’t be because they didn’t try.