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NYT Syndicate
There are video games that go viral overnight, causing people to coop themselves up in their homes for days to play.
But the opposite has happened with 'Pok`mon Go', a free smartphone game that has soared to the top of the download charts: It has sent people into streets and parks, onto beaches and even out to sea in a kayak in the week since it was released. The game ” in which players try to capture exotic monsters from Pok`mon, the Japanese cartoon franchise ” uses a combination of ordinary technologies built into smartphones, including location tracking and cameras, to encourage people to visit public landmarks, seeking virtual loot and collectible characters that they try to nab.
Boon Sheridan, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, has seen the activity firsthand. His home, a converted gable-roofed church that once attracted worshippers, had without his knowledge been designated a Pok`mon"gym," a place where players who reach Level 5 in the game must go to train their Pok`mon characters. In the last week, as the game became the most downloaded and top-grossing app, he has been wondering how to explain to neighbours all the people who congregated on the sidewalk and pulled up at odd hours.
"I want to make sure I tell them, 'Hey, I'm not a drug dealer,'" Sheridan said."I know there are people pulling up in front of the house all the time, but trust me I have no say in this."
On Sunday, San Francisco's parks and downtown were crawling with Pok`mon Go players, while in Washington, the White House and the Pentagon have been designated official Pok`mon gyms. A bar in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was offering a 10 percent discount to Pok`mon Go players on a specific team, while a tea shop in Japantown in San Francisco offered a"buy one tea, get one free" deal to Pok`mon Go players. The number of daily active users on Android devices in the United States alone was closing in on the usage of Twitter, the data analytics firm SimilarWeb estimated.
Pok`mon Go represents one of those moments when a new technology ” in this case, augmented reality or AR, which fuses digital technology with the physical world ” breaks through from a niche toy for early adopters to something much bigger. The idea behind the technology is to overlay digital imagery on a person's view of the real world, using a smartphone screen or a headset.
Many technology companies thought AR might first take off through specialised business applications that, for example, allow architects to visualise finished building projects in situ. Instead, it took a game based on a beloved entertainment franchise from the mid-1990s in Japan to help the technology go mainstream.
Pok`mon, a hybrid of the words"pocket" and"monsters," belongs to the Pok`mon Co, which is partly owned by Nintendo, the Japanese game pioneer, which has struggled to adapt to the era of gaming on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. In the cartoon, Pok`mon trainers use characters to battle each other for sport. The uptake of Pok`mon Go, which is so far available only in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, has been so furious that it sent Nintendo's market capitalisation soaring $9 billion in the last few days.
Pok`mon Go, though, is actually the work of a startup, Niantic Inc, which was created inside Google and spun out of the company last year. Niantic's first game, a science-fiction conspiracy thriller called 'Ingress', was made possible by Google's digital mapping service. About 15 million users have downloaded Ingress, and there are a little over 1 million active players a month, said John Hanke, Niantic's chief executive.
Niantic partnered with the Pok`mon Co to make Pok`mon Go. Hanke said he didn't have exact numbers of players, but that it was safe to say it will be"quite a bit beyond" the number of players Ingress has attracted. Downloads have been so frequent that Niantic's servers had trouble handling the traffic and the company is struggling to add additional capacity. Hanke said Niantic was delaying the game's introduction in additional countries for a few days so it could handle the demand.
"We expected it to be popular, but we didn't expect it to be like this," he said."We're just getting our feet underneath us."
Like the most successful mobile games, while Pok`mon Go is free to play, it gives players opportunities to buy virtual items for a few dollars to speed up their progress. The game's real-world nature also gives Niantic another intriguing moneymaking possibility, by charging fast-food restaurants, coffee shops and other retail establishments to become sponsored locations where people are motivated to go to pick up virtual loot.
Niantic has cut deals like that for Ingress, and Hanke said the company would announce sponsored locations for Pok`mon Go in the future.
Brad Ensworth, a San Francisco State University student who played the game over the weekend, said he had never been a fan of augmented-reality gaming before Pok`mon Go, but was drawn in by the game's surprisingly social aspect.
"You'll just run into people and spark up conversations immediately," he said while playing the game in Golden Gate Park."We met this one guy who drove up from San Jose to collect Pok`mon in the park, and he had more knowledge about this game than anyone else we've met so far. We called him the Guru."
Pok`mon Go mass gatherings are also on the horizon. Sara Witsch, a theatre studies major at San Francisco State University, organised a Facebook group for a 'Pok`mon Go crawl' that is tentatively scheduled for July 20. As of Monday evening, more than 18,000 people had indicated they were interested in attending, and more than 3,700 confirmed that they would be there.
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