Revolutionary new mobile game gives fans in China extra difficulties

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/24 18:13:05

A player uses the App 'Pokémon Go'. Photo: IC

Pokémon GO was first officially released on android platforms and App Stores in Australia, New Zealand and the US in early July.

The unique location-based mobile game has taken the world by storm as it involves real locations, where the Pokémon characters can be found by players who can then capture and train them. 

Within the first 24 hours of its release, Pokémon GO topped the "top grossing" and "free" mobile app charts on Apple's App Store. However, the company locked IPs outside the currently released regions. Although Chinese users are not able to download the game or play it, there has been a blizzard of discussions about the game on social media, especially among groups of Chinese overseas students.

Huang Kunlun is a Chinese university student in Melbourne. "I am not someone who is fond of mobile phone games, but I downloaded the game because everyone was talking about it. And I have to say that this game is amazing!

Staring and walking

"Now I can't help myself and constantly run to streets to play. Because a car moves too fast and mileage doesn't count toward hatching eggs for the game, I now have to walk. It's now normal for me to walk 10 kilometers a day. It's not just Chinese either. Lots of other people in Melbourne are playing. The minute I saw a group of people on the street staring at their phones and walking in the same direction, I knew for certain they were playing Pokémon."

Pokémon GO was developed by Nintendo and Niantic. In fact, it is not Niantic's first attempt at an augmented reality (AR) game. In 2013, Niantic released its first AR game, Ingress, which basically has the same game model as Pokémon GO, but was not as successful at that time.

So what makes Pokémon GO such a success? Zhi Huan, an android application development engineer in Jingdong, an e-commerce website, as well as an Ingress and Pokémon GO gamer, told the Global Times: "The background story of Ingress is an invasion of the earth, which is hard to understand and the theme is kind of dark.

"On the other hand, the Pokémon GO theme is well known by most people. Because it goes back 20 years and has featured in games and animation videos, it already has a huge number of fans all over the world. The combination of Pokémon and AR technology is just like a fan's childhood dream coming true."

"The interface is simple and comfortable, and players can design the characters according to their own personalities. It actually makes me want to go out and explore my surroundings," Huang said. "By playing the game I get to meet a lot of new friends. We have WeChat groups for Pokémon GO players, most of whom are from the same university and live nearby. We often exchange information and sometimes go to catch Pokémon together. I feel like this game has become a way of life."

Players in the UK gather at Parliament Square, London, to catch Pokémon characters. Photo: IC

But not in China

At present Pokémon GO is unavailable in China, though many fans in China are looking forward to joining the armies of poke trainers (players). Fans can only view how the game is progressing through players' posts on social media overseas.

Li Yichen, a student at Shanghai Normal University, is a dedicated Pokémon GO fan. "I have played almost all the Pokémon series on Game Boy and NDS. These days, my WeChat Moments are full of Pokémon GO discussions from friends studying aboard. I am really jealous and can't stop thinking about when it will come to China. The only thing I can do is read other people's posts about the game," Li said.

However there are some players in China who have found ways round the current difficulties in accessing the game - like Ji Liang, a postgraduate student in Liaoning Province. "I was desperate to play Pokémon GO and because I am majoring in software engineering, I know a lot about computers. So I searched online for a way to play this game in China. The game cannot be found in China's App Store, so I bought a New Zealand App Store account on Taobao and downloaded the game successfully.

"After that, I needed a Google account and proxy software to log in. Luckily, I had registered a Google account before and I found free proxy software on the Internet. That's how I accessed the game.

"However, the Poké Stops and Pokémon gyms in the game can't be seen on the map of China, so I opened a GPS simulator to locate GPS in New Zealand and finally I was able to play," Ji said. "I know that there is a risk of my account being frozen but that won't stop my passion for Pokémon. Pokémon formed an important part of my childhood. It would be great if this game could be released in China, because using virtual GPS only shows maps of other countries, which makes it more difficult to find Pokémon."

Zhi Huan said there was only a slight possibility that Pokémon GO would be made available in China. "The company hasn't said anything about the Chinese market. Even if they wanted to target the Chinese market, the new State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) regulations for mobile phone games don't make it easy. Because it's a mobile game developed in a foreign country, Pokémon GO must get a formal approval from a Chinese authority.

"Then the local agency handling the game will need to localize the game by reforming the map because Google Maps is blocked in China and they will also need to enhance some social elements. The final checkpoint would be a SARFT inspection," Zhi said. "But it's quite possible that they will release a version for China, which means Chinese players will be able to find Pokémon in China using proxy software with Google Maps."

Streets can become game playgrounds. Photo: IC

Technical issues

Although Pokémon GO has become a hot topic on social networks, discussions have revealed a number of problems for players including technical issues like log-in difficulties, heavy battery usage and unexplained crashes.

"The server crushes frequently and I have to input my email address to log in again and again after that, which drives me crazy. And the game is really power-consuming. Because you have to make sure all of the GPS, the network and the camera are available when you play the game and without backup the battery only lasts three hours," Huang said.

Player safety is another concern. "When people are concentrating on finding Pokémon, they are likely to forget about the traffic around them. And if it might be dangerous to catch Pokémon at a certain place, will they try anyway?"

As well as the technical issues, some industry insiders have expressed concerns about the future of Pokémon GO.

"At present the game has only been released for a few days and the players will feel it's fresh, all the functions haven't been uncovered and Pokémons haven't all been caught. However, new elements will be needed to stimulate players. The renewal speed of the mobile phone game market is getting faster. If they fail to add new elements, this might lead to lessened enthusiasm.

A small group

"Maybe there will only be a small group of people - the very loyal fans - who will stick with this game," Zhi said.

In an interview with the Shanghai Observer, Shanghai Pudong Internet police warned that cyber criminals have already focused on the game.

Some Pokémon GO setup programs have been embedded with malicious software which allows hackers to access vital personal information in phones and even to bypass security to take control of the applications on the mobile or the whole system.

Police reminded people not to install unidentified Pokémon GO installation packages, to ensure security on their mobile phones.

The article was written by Sun Jingyan
Newspaper headline: The Pokémon problems

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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