Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a  focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at david@tubefilter.com, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.

This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE. RISE

It’s Friday night, about 10:30, on an undistinguished stretch of Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood. Across the street is a Greyhound bus station. Next door is one of the many small live theaters that dot the NoHo Arts District. And out front, about 25 people mill around, alternating between furious upswipes on their smartphones, crowing in triumph and chatting about the object of their attention: Nintendo’s just-released mobile game Pokémon Go.

It’s the first Nintendo game that isn’t exclusive to its own hardware, a massive shift in thinking for the 126-year-old company. It’s also the first Nintendo title to use augmented reality, built on the Google roots of co-creator Niantic Inc. (And also the first Nintendo game to be based on a YouTube April Fools joke.)

Go launched July 6 on iOS and Android mobile platforms, and if my Friday-night adventures with my 24-year-old son are any indication, it’s already a gamer sensation, and fast becoming a full-fledged social phenomenon. Amidst one of the more emotionally wrenching weeks in recent American history, the game was bringing strangers together in a positive way. As we walked through the district’s commercial area (where a high density of the game’s virtual assets await discovery), we repeatedly ran into, and connected with, others looking for Pokémon.

That’s because, to win Pokémon Go, you can’t just camp out on your couch. You have to walk, and walk a lot, navigating by way of the game’s digital map of your surroundings to discover and capture more of the 250 “wild” Pokémon types. The game also creates persistent sites around the map, such as gyms, where three teams use high-level Pokémon to fight for control, and PokéStops, where you can stock up on basic game assets.

“It’s the greatest thing ever,” said a 20-something Latina as she walked by the group.

The group we found was clumped at two side-by-side PokéStops. The real attraction, however, were the “lures,” which someone had bought using the game’s virtual currency and unleashed here. The lures set off a profusion of Pokémon propagation. The prospects of happy hunting created an emergent community of strangers, of both genders and every race, swapping stories and gameplay tips while celebrating captures of particularly prized creatures.

Twenty years ago, before Pokémon first came to the United States, Nintendo representatives briefed me on the original pair of games, then played on Nintendo’s handheld GameBoy. Regardless of the games’ rudimentary, dot-matrix-style graphics back then, I was struck by how they brilliantly leveraged several powerful play patterns, including exploration, competition, caretaking and collection.

I called it “crack for kids,” but that joke wasn’t far from the truth. The franchise went on to generate $46 billion in revenues, including movies, TV shows, books, merchandise and much else (and it also launched the careers of two of YouTube’s biggest personalities of all-time).

The original games required players to trade some Pokemon with others if they wanted to “Catch “Em All.” That social aspect was novel then, but remains powerful, if Friday night was any indication. Now, Nintendo, the Pokémon Company and Niantic are trying to create a compelling new experience by combining that beloved franchise with augmented-reality technologies to layer the fanciful and the actual on a smartphone screen.

The game caches PokéSpots and gyms by real local landmarks such as businesses, street murals and public art. Sometimes the choices are surprising. I was amused that the two gyms closest to my home are outside a marijuana dispensary and a former Scientology church. The sprawling grounds of the Getty Museum have FOUR gyms and at least a dozen PokéSpots. And is it just a coincidence that the gym outside the CAA talent agency’s headquarters is guarded by an Arbok, a ferocious Pokemon that resembles a cobra snake?

Connecting game assets to the real world through Google Street View data provides a local specificity that is frankly cool and completely absorbing. What’s different from most mobile games is the way it rewards people for physically exploring their world, and encourages social interaction to boot.

Indeed, the ad hoc group outside the theater was plotting how to connect again. One person said, “Hey, dudes, could we start a Facebook group and do this every weekend?” Within 12 hours there was indeed a public group, NoHo Pokemon Trainers. It’s only one of many Pokémon Go sites, groups, rooms, conversations, memes, tips and more that have suddenly festooned Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and beyond.

NoHo Pokémon trainers in action.
NoHo Pokémon trainers in action.

Another young woman, a recruiter for a big game company, said colleagues had used Google API tools to determine that Malibu, with its mountains-meet-the-sea topography, would be the best place to find a wide array of Pokémon (different types are common to specific geographies). The group of about 50 was planning an expedition the next day, she said.

“This is the world’s greatest social experiment,” said a burly African-American guy who’s about 30. A  tall, bearded man in his early 30s said he particularly loved that almost no one in the group was younger than 25. He’s right. These were all adults, many who clearly started with the franchise in its GameBoy days and now seemingly delighted to connect with the game and each other in such an unlikely way.

And already, possibly apocryphal stories about the game’s social impacts have surfaced, like the woman with crippling social anxiety who ended up in conversation with a man behind her at the grocery store checkout line as she tried to catch a Pokémon. Further talk, and a date for a hike resulted.

There’s a dark side too. Robbers in the St. Louis area reportedly used the game to find groups of victims to target over the weekend. And distracted drivers have a new source of potential accidents, which also have led to some coverage.

At another lure-fueled gathering several blocks and an hour later, outside a coffee shop, a skinny guy on a bike said he was already at Level 17, ridiculously high for a game that debuted two days earlier (he later told me he had been part of the beta testing group and was given one-day early access, but still). He claimed to have taken over a gym previously conquered by Philip DeFranco, the social-media influencer who now tweets a LOT about Pokémon Go. Regardless, the guy acknowledged he levelled up in part by buying “lucky eggs,” assets that speed your character’s development.

“I use the lucky egg all the time,” he said. “I buy them. I put money in.” He shrugged, “I’m level 17.”

Game creators are depending on gotta-win, gonna-pay types like him for Pokémon Go’s long-term financial success. As with most free-to-play mobile games, the real money is in the “whales” who buy huge amounts of in-game assets to improve their standing. I’m also guessing canny business owners will start buying lures, even pay to have a PokéStop outside their door, to draw foot traffic. How long will it take McDonald’s or Starbucks to cut a deal for PokeStops at every store, and a supply of lures to boot? Apparently only about 5 days.

The bigger issue may be whether Google and Niantic can keep the game stable and functioning amid its runaway initial success. Though the exploding craze has added $12 billion to Nintendo’s sagging share prices, the game’s global rollout was delayed as the companies dealt with server-capacity issues. Everybody I talked with had a story about a game freeze that hit in mid-capture of some particularly prized specimen. Sometimes the capture went through, sometimes it became a fishing tale about the one that got away.

I also had plenty of freezes and other issues over the weekend that forced a quick restart. At least three times in the first 24 hours, I received a message that the game was unavailable because of server issues. The game also devours battery life. My four-month-old iPhone 6s chewed through 80 percent of its battery life in two hours of steady play.

But the game is clearly taking off. Nintendo’s stock price has soared as the game shot to the top of the charts for free apps on both iOS and Android and investors salivated over the possibilities of Super Mario, Donkey Kong and other of the company’s beloved franchises coming to mobile. Personally, I was more than a bit jazzed to have spent a couple of hours on a lovely summer night walking around town with my son, meeting charming people and, not incidentally, getting all the way to level 6 after downloading the game right before we set out. It was fun, though by midnight and a few miles of perambulations, I was ready to head home.

As a lure faded and the second group broke up, one player said by way of goodbye, “Happy training, guys.” Now to see if Niantic and Nintendo can train and sustain this social experiment in the months to come (especially when cold and snow discourage people to get out and about). In the meantime, catch Pokémon Go and see what’s possible in AR and mobile gaming.

RISEThis installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.

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