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Pokémon Go: When Imagination Trumps Performance

Being contractually obligated to write about Pokémon Go (not really, but man has this thing hit like a tsunami), I'm opining about technical performance considerations sometimes being trumped by imagination and engagement.

In a development world where software engineers spend hours tweaking bits and bytes to eke out every last microsecond of performance in a function call or ensure rock-solid stability, Pokémon Go seems to break the mold -- to the tune of billions of dollars of increased company stock valuation.

Yes, it's only a game -- and it might not directly correlate to enterprise mobile app development -- but it certainly reinforces the notion of an app's fun factor -- or, in the corporate world, functionality -- being job No. 1. In other words: it's the idea, stupid. Technical chops pale in comparison to engagement.

Why else would (seemingly) half the world's population suddenly go nuts over an app plagued by performance glitches? Not even knowing there was such a thing a week ago, I'm blindsided by the barrage of hype surrounding this game. My kids are out there right now hunting down Pokémons, and others in the neighborhood are interacting with them: "Hey, you playing Pokémon? There's a bunch right down there!" One was just captured in my living room. How it got there, I haven't a clue.

Just Captured
Just Captured (source: Justin Ramel)

Yet I also see a steady stream of complaints about overloaded servers, app freezes, frozen Pokéballs (used to capture the elusive little creatures with a quick swipe) and other glitches, like forgetting someone has logged in.

A post on Hacker News documented some of these troubles:

The server issues are one thing, but the game doesn't even get lots of basic things right. If the server goes away, or sometimes if I'm just out of the app too long, I have to log back in. It seems to forget my settings for weather I want sound and music on, or to use the AR functions. I've run into numerous crashes and graphical glitches. Input getting confused requiring app restarts. Poor handling of the (common) network/server issues.
But a comment by "georgeecollins" in particular capsulized the whole issue:

Speaking as someone who has helped develop two extremely successful mobile games "objective" goodness is pretty meaningless. People have more patience than you expect for a game that captures their imagination and will put up with buggyness. In the long run, if a game isn't polished it will lose because of retention. But pure technical polish is often overrated.

Well, then, put away all those time-consuming technical books and forget those online courses. It's the idea, stupid.

Two days ago, I saw this Facebook post from a friend:

first weekend day of ‪#‎Pokémongo‬ and the servers are already overloaded at 8am, hopefully that means the damn red team kid that keeps retaking Jones field with his cp320 Raticate has been stymied

I had no idea what he was talking about (first I'd heard of it), but in light of all the subsequent reported performance problems, I reached out for his take on the issue of how such popularity still persists. Here's the comment from Brendan Fitzmaurice, a 26-year-old IT support technician in Acton, Mass.:

It seems to me that the server issue is more just overloading than anything else; the ongoing problems with server disconnects and general lag are much worse after 5pm and on weekend days, though it has gotten incrementally better every day since launch. I personally haven't experienced many other glitches. The step counter is notably buggy, but I suspect it has more to do with my phone's pedometer than anything else. The gameplay itself is very satisfying and, overall, the game easily lives up to expectations.

Admittedly, my daughter raised a fuss when her Pokéball froze just as she was about to sling it at a "rare one," but she was soon back at it. My son noted the glitches and freezes, but deemed them "minor." More important: "It's revolutionary."

They both gave Pokémon Go the highest of praise in today's pop vernacular: "It's lit!"

In other words, it's the idea, stupid.

Posted by David Ramel on July 11, 2016