Will Pokémon Go make you want to catch ’em all, all over again?

The first Pokémon game for smartphones is coming this year, two decades after the RPG first came to the Game Boy. And its new incarnation all came about because of an April Fools’ Day joke.

Called Pokémon Go, the game is an unprecedented co-production between the Pokémon Company, and a former Google division called Niantic Labs. The first seed of it was sown in April 2014, when Google teamed up with the Pokémon Company to hide Pokémon throughout Google Maps.

Google has a long history of taking April Fool’s Day seriously (sometimes to a fault), and that fun easter egg sparked enough of a reaction that it prompted more serious discussions between the tech giant and the Pokémon Company.

John Hanke was at Google at the time as the vice president of all things maps: “Pokémon started appearing on Google Maps on April Fools’ Day, and people seemed to really love that combination of Maps and Pokemon,” he said. “Just, everything about the brands and the experience seemed like a good fit.”

Hanke was focused on launching the iOS version of Ingress – an augmented-reality game that pits players assigned to one of two sci-fi teams against each other in a worldwide battle to “control” various real-world landmarks – but didn’t forget the reception the April Fool stunt received. Ingress was made by Niantic Labs, a startup-within-a-company at Google, and had gained a cult following, but had failed to cross over to a wider audience in the two years since it was launched on Android.

“So once we launched Ingress, we got back in contact with the Pokémon Company,” Hanke says.

“Mr Ishihara, the CEO, started playing Ingress, and I think he quickly saw the opportunity to bring the concept of going out and exploring and looking for things in the real world with Pokémon, because that’s what Pokémon’s all about: it’s the search for Pokémon in all corners of the world.

“It felt like a very natural combination on both sides.”

The success of the Pokémon April Fool pranks showed that the underlying mechanics of Ingress could be repurposed, to build something that could bring in millions of players who would never usually look twice at the sci-fi trappings of the original game. And for the Pokémon Company, which unknown to many is a separate company from Nintendo (although the latter has a stake), it offered a prospect to expand the Pokémon brand beyond the core of its handheld console players, and finally enter the world of free-to-play mobile games.

Pokémon Go

Two years on from the first suggestions that there could be success in combining the real world with Pokémon, and Pokémon Go is in a roughly finished state: it’s been in a closed beta for a month now. I played it in Chiswick House and Gardens, just round the corner from the Pokémon Company International’s European headquarters, on a wet summer’s day, and had a chance to see if it was the game that could bring Pokémon to a whole new group of players.

The main view of the game is an angled map of the local area, on which three types of location are marked. Most common are “long grass” markers. In the classic Pokémon games, these represent areas where wild Pokémon congregate, and are to be avoided or welcomed depending on the state of the player’s team. In Pokémon Go, the long grass serves a similar purpose, showing the locations where a wild Pokémon might appear, but there’s no forced battles in this game (as befits something which is fairly passively played). Instead, your phone vibrates, and if you tap on the newly discovered Pokémon, you’re taken to a battle screen where you simply throw pokeballs at it until it’s caught.

The main view of the game is an angled map of the local area, on which three types of location are marked Photograph: Niantic Labs

While long grass is more common in areas like parks (and completely removed from areas around main roads – a safety feature, so players don’t wander in to traffic), it’s fairly randomly placed within them, and most long grass won’t contain Pokémon. That’s not true for the other two features of the real-world maps, Pokestops and Pokémon gyms. Both are located over real-world points of interest, such as statues, signs and buildings, and there will always be something to do with each.

Pokestops provide the resources of the game: find one, tap it, and you get items like pokeballs, potions and revives. That’s important, because catching Pokémon will require multiple pokeballs, and the only other way of getting them is through real-money transactions in the game’s store.

Catch multiple versions of the same Pokémon and you’ll be able to evolve one of them into a higher stage, increasing its strength and healing it in the process. That’s important, because only with strong Pokémon will you be able to seize and staff the main outposts for player v player combat in the game: the Pokémon gyms. These are placed at the most notable real-world points of interest in any given area, and can be held by one of the three colour-coded teams (red, blue and yellow, obviously) duking it out for control of the Pokémon world. Pop one of your own Pokémon in the gym, and it will stay there, generating points for your own team. Defeat the enemy Pokémon already in a gym, and your own Pokémon will get stronger, leaving you able to seize the gym for yourself.

This simple loop – get items, get pokemon, get gyms – is the core of the gameplay. Put it in a normal mobile game and it would feel fairly thin, but as with Ingress before it, the fun of the game comes from it existing as a background layer to your everyday life. Do you take a detour on the way home to hit an extra pokestop? If you’re on holiday on a remote island, will there be unclaimed gyms lying around for you to seize for your team? If you need one more Magikarp before you can evolve a Gyarados, is it worth walking to work along the canal, where water-type Pokémon are more common?

Unfortunately, Pokémon Go does lose one feature that Ingress had before it: the game can’t (yet) run in the background and notify you when you’re near a point of interest, meaning you won’t be able to walk around using your phone for other things.

But there’s a save for that around the corner: Pokémon Go Plus, a small wearable device that pairs with your phone, and lets you do much of the game passively. It vibrates if you’re near something interesting, and some actions, such as grabbing items from a Pokéstop, can be done just by hitting the centre button on the hardware.

But neither company could give pricing or a release date for the Plus device, which can be worn on as a bracelet or clipped to your belt. So for the time being, Pokémon Go will have to exist on its own.

For Niantic Labs, it’s sink or swim

There’s a lot riding on its success.

For Niantic Labs, which has developed the augmented-reality game from its offices in Berlin and San Francisco, it’s the company’s first major release since it spun off from Google to become an independent developer. In August 2015, shortly after Google reorganised itself into Alphabet, Niantic went its own way.

Both Google and Nintendo have investments in the new firm, but for the first time in its life, Niantic has to sink or swim on its own terms. In the long-run, founder Hanke says, that could mean not making games itself, but licensing the technology behind Ingress and Pokemon Go for other companies to do what they will with.

“The core technology that powers Ingress and Pokemon Go, we’ll continue to work on, improve and extend through the development of those two products,” he says. For an idea of how that could progress, he points to an unlikely inspiration: Magic Leap, the Google-backed augmented reality company that claims to have developed a world-changing new form of the technology. We’re interested in AR generally, and I’m really interested in charting the course between the phones that we have today, and what AR will look like in the future.

The Pokémon brand alone will probably be able to get many to give Pokémon Go a try Photograph: Niantic Labs

“You know what the mobile gaming experience is like in a phone today, and we’ve all seen the videos from Magic Leap, at the far end of the spectrum, where we put on these magic glasses and our world is transformed. But the path between here and there, I think, is a really interesting one.”

Pokémon Go also means a lot to the Pokémon Company, its publisher. The core of the series, from 1996’s Pokémon Red and Blue to this year’s Sun and Moon, has always been exclusive to Nintendo’s handheld consoles, but as casual mobile gaming has grown into a billion-pound industry, it was clear Pokémon would need to have its own answer to the domination of games such as Candy Crush and Clash of Clans.

The Pokémon brand alone will probably be able to get many to give Pokémon Go a try. I’m not alone in having a fond memory of earlier Pokémon games but no 3DS to play the latest entries in the series, and while Pokémon Go is emphatically its own game, it can evoke enough nostalgic charm to be worth picking up. Whether it will be a long-lasting success depends on the extent to which Niantic can support the live game with new features, and a reason to come back after the initial rush has worn off. Catching your first Pokemon is fun, but catching your 120th Abra to evolve into your 15th Kadabra to finally create your first Alakazam could see some of the charm wear thin.

But first, Pokémon Go has to be a success.

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