Long-awaited augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go has finally been released in the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and I am livid.
Living in the UK, and using an iPhone, I'm currently still unable to download the game from the App Store, and it's got me hot under the collar like a Charizard mid-Dragon Rage attack.
It's not just because other people get to play the game first and I'm an impatient child (OK, that is a large part of it), but because getting access to the game earlier could feasibly offer an advantage over players who are still waiting for it to be officially released in their area.
The thing is, while the game isn't officially released in UK app stores yet, some people—particularly Android users—are finding ways to play it in the UK already. And, unless the game is somehow reset before the official release, that gives them at least a bit of an edge in catching 'em all before the game is even released.
The good thing about Pokemon Go not being out in the UK yet is that I can get one hell of an advantage! All the Gyms!
— Naruhan (@Naruhan90) July 7, 2016
A workaround for UK Android users to access the game via sideloading is being passed around so brazenly that even the Guardian published a step-by-step guide. They report that, despite no news on the UK release date, there are pokémon, pokéstops, and gyms (three AR features in the game) scattered around Britain.
Some UK players have already realised that getting early access via this workaround means it's easier to level up and take over gyms—giving them an advantage in the game—and have reported their efforts on Twitter.
I spoke over direct message with a few of these players, all of whom said they were playing on Android and agreed that accessing the game before it launches in the UK could offer an advantage, if only a small one, particularly when it comes to gyms.
In Pokémon Go, players join one of three teams and can "claim" gyms for their team to train their pokémon at. Training improves the gym's level, making it harder for other teams to attack and take it over.
The advantage for early players: The gyms start off unclaimed, so they're easy to take over and to build up, while there are few attackers to wrest them away.
Hoping Pokemon Go is back within a few hours. I need to claim as many local gyms as possible before it's officially released in the UK ;)
— Ozma Tantarian (@Chaos_Atavus) July 6, 2016
"I've been able to level up quite a bit and have also managed to take some local gyms easily. I was also able to put some powerful pokémon on them as well, so it could be a hard time for new people to take the gym from me," one UK player told me.
Another said getting to the gyms early was a "Definite advantage, but gyms are easy enough to claim back. Much like the portal system on Ingress."
Ingress is an AR game previously made by Niantic Labs—the same company that developed Pokémon Go. The general idea is similar, except for you capture "portals" for your team rather than gyms, and no cute characters are involved.
It's my own experience with Ingress that makes me concerned about early players getting an advantage in Pokémon Go: I joined Ingress quite late and found it hard to make headway as a beginner.
My problem was that, starting out on a low level, I found it difficult to attack portals operated by opponents at higher levels, while it was easy for them to attack my lower-level portals. As I'm based in a major city, most of the portals around me were very established and many were controlled by the opposing team. Every day I'd set up my own portals before work, only to find them destroyed when I came back. I could definitely have still advanced in the game with more patience, but frankly it soon got very boring. Forums show other newbies reporting the same problem.
Could the same happen with gyms in Pokémon Go?
The players I spoke to suggested that getting the gyms early, while a small benefit, isn't a game-changing advantage. For a start, gyms don't appear to be as large a part of the gameplay as portals are in Ingress, and players suggested that one individual would find it hard to keep control of a gym even if they captured it first.
"The game seems to be heavily reliant on team play as far as the gyms are concerned," one player wrote. "The pokémon on their own can only be so strong. It's not the same as the traditional pokémon format where level 100 will beat everything and everyone. I could play for a month, max my pokémon and three people with newly caught pokémon could wipe me off the gym without support or healing."
He added that he expects all of the gyms to be taken within a day of the game going live officially.
Another said he didn't think getting early access was cheating and that any advantage was small. "Sure I can take over gyms, but that's something people can take back after some time," he said. "The only advantage that I have that can be seen as cheating is that I get a daily defenders bonus which increases with the more gyms I have. It gives me coins to use in the store (though it's a very small amount) and some extra stardust to make my Pokemon stronger if I have the right candy, but still I wouldn't class that as cheating, just an extra small advantage."
A third player wrote that he thinks the developers could "reset" the game on its official release to delete any early bird perks. "I didn't necessarily start playing because I wanted any competitive edge, but because I've just been waiting so damned long with no real news of a release date lol," he said.
If there is a reset, he added, the only real advantage to early access is having a greater knowledge of the game mechanics.
Rumours have also spread that accounts using the Android workaround to get early UK access may be banned, though there's no real evidence of this.
Niantic Labs has still not given a UK release date for Pokémon Go. I reached out to ask if the company was aware of any potential advantages for people accessing the game before its release but haven't heard back; I'll update if I get a response.
Meanwhile, it's still damn annoying to know that there are pokémon out there just waiting to be caught when the UK hasn't yet received its pokéball delivery.