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Collecting critters, and friendships: The enduring appeal of Pokemon GO

Collecting critters, and friendships: The enduring appeal of Pokemon GO

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay. (Photo: Pokemon Go blog)

SINGAPORE: At its peak, 232 million players were catching em’ all. 

In 2016, the year Pokemon GO was released, cities around the world experienced hordes of people - staring their phones - rushing streets, parks and landmarks to engage in silent online battle in what seemed like a never-ending quest for critters.

Six years on, the crowds have thinned. According to app analysis website Business Of Apps, the number of active players has fallen by more than half. 

But with more than 100 million players still and a fortune that continues to be spent on the game, Pokemon GO is very much alive.

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

Data monitoring platform Sensor Tower reported in June that US$6 billion has been spent by players on the game since its launch in 2016.

Even in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown, the tills kept ringing.

A slight adjustment in gameplay that allowed stuck-at-home players to continue getting their Pokemon fix resulted in record revenue of US$1.3 billion that year alone.

Despite the eye-watering numbers, fans of the game say people are often surprised to find out Pokemon GO is not only still a thing, but that the game - and the community - is thriving.

And it is the latter - that sense of togetherness, the commonalities - that drives these players on. 

THE SCENE IN SINGAPORE

Pokemon GO YouTube personality Brandon Tan is one such player.

Regarded by many as a community leader, the 31-year-old Singaporean has the distinction of being the first player in the world to chalk up a billion experience points in the game.

Previously a prominent player in another mobile game, Clash of Clans, Brandon pivoted to Pokemon GO after its launch in 2016. 

When he began uploading Pokemon GO-related content on his YouTube channel in 2019, he faced the usual questions: “Isn't Pokemon dead? People still play Pokemon GO? I thought only old people are playing?”

Brandon Tan speaking to fans of his content at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

He pointed the sceptics to the live events regularly held worldwide, attended by thousands of people of all ages. 

An event known as Safari Zone, which enables players to catch Pokemon normally found exclusively in other regions, was most recently held in Singapore from Nov 18 to Nov 20 at Gardens by the Bay.

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay. (Photo: Courtesy of Vera Ang)

In a post-event report on Monday (Nov 21), developer Niantic said more than 18,000 players attended the three-day event. 

Brandon estimates that there are currently between 40,000 to 60,000 active Pokemon GO players here.

“The number of players here is crazy compared to a lot of countries,” he said, comparing the player density in Singapore to the country’s total population.

Some PokeStops - geotagged real-life locations within the game - are designated as gyms, which are a way for players to lay claim to prominent landmarks and earn in-game currency through what is effectively a turf war, but cuter.

Brandon Tan and his partner Princess at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

According to Brandon, there are about 2,800 such gyms in Singapore, not including sponsored ones. The maximum number of players these gyms can accommodate at any one time total about 16,800, which he says is nowhere near enough to fulfil demand.

“TRULY SPECIAL”

Players that CNA spoke to unanimously agreed that a major draw of the game - critter collecting aside - is the relationships that are forged, both in-game and in real life.

Brandon calls Pokemon GO “a very special game”.

“I’ve played other games since I was 10, but I can’t find any game that brings the same feeling and sentimental value that I get out of Pokemon GO,” he said.

“The community and the friendships that you build from playing this game is truly special.”

Some of his best memories of the game are the ones with friends he made along the way - from taking part in local events to post-game meals, and even trips abroad to attend Pokemon GO events.
 

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Vera Ang)

In his adventures around his neighbourhood and the rest of Singapore, Pokemon GO enthusiast Benjamin Tan regularly sees familiar faces.

“Every time someone asks me: ‘People still play Pokemon GO?’ My answer is ‘Yes. More than you think,’" he said.

He remembers playing when a new Pokemon made its debut following a community event at Tampines Central Park in 2018. 

“Everyone was so excited and hyped when it first appeared - you could hear and feel the energy surging through the crowd!”

Benjamin Tan with Pokemon Go personalities Nicholas Oyzon (@trnrtips), Zoë (@Zoetwodots) and Billy (@thetrainerclubb) during the Safari Zone event. (Photos: Courtesy of Benjamin Tan)

Even Benjamin’s mother is on it. In 2019, she successfully balloted for a limited ticket to the first Safari Zone event held in Singapore - the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.

“She took so many pictures with several Pokemon GO YouTubers and was so happy, she keeps talking about it even till this day!” said Benjamin, adding that she enjoys watching content by players who document their gameplay in videos that double as travel vlogs.

Similarly, for Danial, 30, his closest Pokemon GO buddy is his mother, Lana.

Danial told CNA he played the game when it launched, but then stopped for two years, citing a lack of initial content. At the time, Lana’s other friends and family members who had previously played the game with her had stopped, but the 58-year-old was undeterred, never once halting her adventures.

Danial and Lana at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

In 2019, Lana asked Danial to be in-game friends with her and the mother-son pair have been fighting Pokemon GO battles together ever since.

“Whenever there's a raid, I always call him - ‘There’s a raid here, there’s a raid there!” she laughed. 

Raid battles in Pokemon GO allow players to team up against powerful Pokemon in battle, netting them special items and a chance at catching them if they manage to defeat it

Jeremiah George, 28, attended Safari Zone alone. Fresh off a night shift as a chemical technician and sorely lacking sleep, the atmosphere there lifted his spirits.

“The moment I arrived, and I saw the sound, the music and all this … ,” he said, gesturing to the crowd, “It just blessed my heart.”

Jeremiah George at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

Until today, his friends still express surprise at the longevity of the game and ask him why he plays: “You’re 28 already. Why are you still playing the game?”

Jeremiah laughed, quipping: “It doesn’t break my heart … but you do.”

He fondly remembers the early days of Pokemon GO in 2016. 
 

“Whenever a rare Pokemon like a Dragonite or Blastoise would appear, people would all run together from one end to the other,” he said.

“The community - and love for the game - keeps me playing.”

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

Scott Standish-Parkin, a school psychologist from New York, flew in to attend the Safari Zone event.

He told CNA that the international Pokemon GO community is “huge”, comprising “thousands upon thousands” of players.

“We coordinate and talk to our friends in various countries and tell them we’re coming their way, and we help each other out by finding accommodation, food spots and where to go.”

Scott Standish-Parkin at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Ian Cheng)

For Scott, the best thing about the game is to be able to catch Pokemon “in the real world” and meet people he otherwise would have passed on the street.

“The biggest part about the game that I love is meeting people, seeing others at these events - this makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

“Because in any other circumstance, I wouldn't know you and what you do, and I wouldn't have amazing countries to travel to and get to know more about.”

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Vera Ang)

During the lead-up to Safari Zone, he caught up with friends he made in Singapore and those from other countries who, like him, made the trip just for the event.

“There's a lot of people in New York, when they see me playing Pokemon GO, they ask: ‘That's still a thing? People still play it?’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah, you have no idea,’” he said. “Hundreds and thousands of people still play it.”

The prevalence of elderly players isn’t limited to Singapore. Scott has older friends in New York who play the game and he spoke fondly of a Japanese pair, aged 79 and 82, who are ardent fans.

“I’m surprised too … I’m happy about that - it actually gets them moving and keeps them engaged,” he said.

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Vera Ang)

Representatives from Niantic said the interest in November’s Safari Zone event exceeded expectations - tickets were sold out three days in advance.

“This is a pattern that we've seen throughout the world,” said Humberto Kam, director of global live events for Pokemon GO.

“There’s a lot of demand to attend the events, so it’s been really great. We’re happy to see the players get back together again in real life.”

Mr Kam said he knows people who stopped playing the game but restarted to help deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a way for them to get out of the house safely because they could just go out for a walk … it was a good thing for them.”
 

Pokemon Go players at the Safari Zone event at Gardens By The Bay on Nov 20, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Vera Ang)

Go Nagano, Pokemon GO’s Live Event Manager for the Asia Pacific region, said that live events help players worldwide connect with each other.

“A lot of [players] outside of Singapore came to this event, communicating with each other to try to make trades they cannot usually get. They become friends, and even after the event they still keep playing together. I think that’s a really nice story, and that’s something we will try to keep focusing on.”

Mr Kam said that developing additional aspects of the game such as Elite Raids - a more challenging variety of raid battles - helped players remember what they loved about Pokemon GO and rekindle their passion for the game.

“When I went to the ones around my city, it feels like it’s 2019 again. So (we’re) just getting people to remember what it was like, and try to get them back,” he said.

"Hopefully as we do more and more of these, more of those players will come back, because there'll be the Pokemon GO experience they remember, that they were excited about.”
 

Source: CNA/ic(ac)

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