On Sunday night, small groups of people wandered along Douglas with their cellphones held out in front of them, pulling them forward.
At Emerson Biggins, customers randomly stood up and walked to the patio because, they said, they had left some coins at the gym out back. But there is no gym on the Biggins patio, the manager said, and there were no coins to collect.
Hundreds more wandered along the river near the “Keeper of the Plains,” the white lights of their phones gently illuminating their faces. They hardly noticed the giant flames that had been lit under Wichita’s iconic statue, they said, because they were engaged in secret battles.
“Everybody on this bridge is pretty much playing Pokemon,” explained Taylor Belden, who was out with three friends. “Everybody who has their phone out is playing Pokemon.”
Belden was referring to PokemonGo, which was released Wednesday. The game has added a radical new spin to the way people play video games. Instead of sitting by themselves, confined to a room, imagining themselves in the pretend world of a video game, PokemonGo has turned the whole world into a giant video game. It forces them to walk around and explore the real world in order to collect coins, capture creatures and fight other players.
In just a few short days, the game has become so popular that it raised the value of Nintendo stock, which owns the game’s developer, by billions of dollars. Early reports by Bloomberg show that more than 1 in 20 Android phones had already downloaded the application, and it had more active users than Twitter and more time spent on it than on SnapChat.
The game works like this: Players walk with their phones in front of them, and the app tells them how close a treasure or Pokemon creature is. As they get closer, the app shows players a picture of the place they need to go, like a sign or a statue. As they get close to the real place, an animated object appears on top of the real-world site through a phone’s camera.
The developers of PokemonGo said they didn’t put their creatures or treasures in dangerous places or on private property. But there have been reports of bruised shins and broken ankles. There have also been reports of thieves waiting at Pokestops and then robbing players of their phones or money.
“Somebody caused a car accident trying to catch a Pikachu,” said Michael Montgomery, who was out playing with Belden, his girlfriend and two friends Sunday near the “Keeper of the Plains.”
This isn’t the first game to try to overlay the real world. The company that made PokemonGo created a game five years ago that did the same thing, called Ingress, which developed a passionate cult following. So the company already had years of experience learning where and how to make a video game on top of the real world.
But Montgomery said he thinks PokemonGo has taken off like no other because it has drawn on the nostalgia for Pokemon games.
“These are the years of the grown-up millennial,” Montgomery said. “They are making games catered to people growing up in the ’90s. ... It’s the most interactive Pokemon has ever been.”
Montgomery said he’s been hearing about the game on video game websites for nearly a year and downloaded it at work as soon as his girlfriend texted him that it had finally been released.
Pokemon, which came out as a video game in 1996 but has expanded into many interactive card and video games over the years, has built up a catalog of more than 700 characters.
But this game is special, Montgomery said, because it’s limited to the original 151 players. Longtime fans like him know all the original characters, he said, but not all of the hundreds of new Pokemon characters. So the game gives him a sense of nostalgia for his childhood.
But it’s not just millennials. Paul Grimes, 50, was out playing with a colleague in Old Town during his lunch break on Monday afternoon because he loves how the technology is interfacing with the real world, and he doesn’t want to become one of those “old people” that doesn’t know how things work.
Sometimes an animated Pokemon animal appears in the game as if in the real world through players’ cameras, and players fight the animals by throwing balls at them.
Once the Pokemon is defeated, players can carry the animal around to fight other players at “gyms.” Gyms are special spots, usually located in high-traffic areas, where players can fight each other and, if they win, take control.
Montgomery won control of a gym by Riverside Cafe on Sunday night, he said, and named it “Fang.” But by the time he woke up on Monday morning, his Pokemon had been defeated by another player, and the gym renamed.
The game forces players to exercise. Brothers Zachary and Gavin Hall and their friend Christian Thomas traveled from Derby to the “Keeper of the Plains” on Monday afternoon because they had heard from players in Derby that it was a good spot to collect Pokemon characters. They had walked more than 20 kilometers – or nearly 12.5 miles – each around Derby and Wichita playing the game. The game keeps track of how far they walk, and they earn more points the farther they walk while playing the game.
Although players can pay $35 for a special clip that allows them to collect Pokemon items without having to take out their phones, most players are playing with the free version, phones extended.
The game may be good for business. Emerson Biggins had posted a Pokemon promotion outside its bar on Monday, and Jim Mattingly said he sold twice as many ice cream servings as normal from his van near the “Keeper of the Plains” on Sunday night. The Wichita Eagle, which has a Pokestop on the corner of its building at Douglas and Rock Island, gave away T-shirts and other prizes to those who stopped by after work Monday and will do so from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
Montgomery said he has seen introverted friends meet new people through the game. Nearly all of the players Sunday night were walking around in groups or at least pairs.
“You don’t want to go to parts of town by yourself, especially like downtown,” Montgomery added. “There’s a lot of Pokespots behind buildings and alleyways.”
Many players Monday had reached as high as Level 13. But one player had reached Level 19, Montgomery said. In the past, he would have thought such a player was a nerd for spending so much time playing a video game. But now he isn’t sure.
“I want to say, ‘Oh, what a nerd, playing nonstop,’ ” Montgomery said. “But he’s being healthy, too.”
Contributing: Washington Post