Though I’m not positive all of you will remember it, there was a strange fever that swept away the world during the second part of the 90s. The phenomenon was born in Japan and was created in Bandai, the legendary toy company that has been responsible for massive worldwide hits such as the Power Rangers. The idea was to provide kids with a new pal, a small creature they could become friends with and that they could take anywhere they went just to play with it.
I’m talking about the Tamagotchis, egg-shaped toys that served as home to digital pets. “Who would want a digital pet?” someone might ask. And while that’s a legitimate question, apparently the answer is “a lot of people”. In just a few months, Tamagotchis flew off the shelves from international stores, with parents rushing to buy their children the toy everyone was talking about.
In no time, people everywhere were attending the needs of a whiny and selfish creature made out of bits and bytes. The Tamagotchis required to be fed, put to sleep, entertained and disciplined in their entire lifespan. Of course, they grew from babies to adults, their needs changed and they in fact died at the end of the cycle. Sure, the reset button would always bring them back, but the idea of your digital pet dying because you neglected it for a moment in favor of a more important thing was pretty shocking for someone in his or her early years.
The reason I’m remembering all this is that in spite of how crazy the premise might sound, it’s worth pointing out that Tamagotchis are still being sold. Perhaps the number of sales has slowed down considerably, yet there’s still a market for people of wanting to become digital pet owners. You might be wondering what does this have to do with anything, but don’t worry, I’m getting there. Because, you surely know that when an idea work is highly likely that someone will be inspired by it to come up with an alternative.
That’s exactly the best way to define Pou: an alternative to the Tamagotchi. Basically, under such an ugly name hides a digital pet that instead of living in your keychain is now housed in your Android device. Thus, this sort of entertainment found its way into the 21st century in the most obvious of ways: by migrating into the machines we bring everywhere with us.
The needs remain the same
I’m not discussing why this phenomenon is still alive and well in a theoretical level (I’m guessing that it has something to do with the mechanics of deep psychology and the cycles of needs and gratifications). Rather, I’d like to share what’s like to play Pou in Android, because I’m convinced that one might hint the reasons by experience the game in person.
As I’ve said before, the “game” consists of taking care of (according to the developers) alien creature that looks like a pick and behaves like any normal pet most of the time. Thus, the mechanics are pretty simple: the player has to feed it, pet it, clean it and take care of it in a handful of more ways. But there’s more to Pou than this.
First of all, the “objective” of the game is to watch the pet grow and develop in a number of ways and we’ll need more than just petting and feeding it to achieve that. First of all, gathering coins is a huge deal for the game, since they will allow us to buy new clothes and accessories as well as unblock new backgrounds, achievements and special objects.
Additionally, the laboratory included in Pou has some sort of playful spirit of its own. There, we’ll have to mix potions and prepare all kinds of combinations to see how our pet reacts to our recipes. This process has some kind of logic to it, so we’ll definitely have to try and retry over and over in order to check the beneficial and the negative aspects of all the potions.
The Android app also includes several minigames that doesn’t necessarily correlate with Pou’s basic premise. I mean, tile-matching and platforming games don’t feel like part of anything and they only are useful to collect coins (which, in turn, seems like a lame excuse for adding variety to a formula that already feels dated and limited).
Finally, there’s one more crucial aspect to understand Pou’s success (and I’m thinking this might be the key to understand the whole altogether): the social community. The app allows players to visit their friends to play with them in some of the games I’ve described above. This means that Pou acts as a social bridge between our devices and a community of devoted digital pet owners
The latter is probably the thing that keeps players coming back for more. Things are usually better when shared with others and given that the digital pet thing would wear out pretty soon, developers had the amazing idea of making such creatures take part in something bigger, in a community. Thus, people feel like they are part of something and, unlike Tamagotchis, feel like they get something in return for all of the time they spend playing with the game.
I’m not saying that Pou will last as long as Bandai’s toy (it probably won’t) but the app certainly found a niche by reinventing an old premise, one more example of how a little tweak on a traditional formula can go a long way.