To catch them is my real test, to hack them is my cause.
A horde of gamers young and old gathered at the base of the CN Tower, Toronto’s most notable landmark in and outside of Niantic’s smash hit game Pokémon Go. They compared Pokédexes, shared locations, and made new friends among crews. It’s not an unusual scene since the game hit smartphone app stores in Canada earlier this week, and players are on the hunt to catch ’em all.
But one clever Pokémon enthusiast has used his coding expertise to hunt for the rarest monsters in the game.
Tharshan Muthulingam is the developer behind @PokemonTrackrTO, a Twitter account that uses homebrew code to tell players the precise coordinates of some of the city’s most elusive Pokémon, and how long they have to catch it. He built the account by reverse-engineering application program interfaces (APIs) and building on the coding skills of other Reddit users.
Muthulingam first dreamed up the idea when he realized the Pokémon Go’s navigation system was not working properly. The game, which brings the Pokémon ecosystem into the real world, has a feature that allows players to find nearby Pokémon using GPS, and gives an approximation of distance by showing a number of footsteps: one step means the monster is close, two means it’s a short walk away, and three means it’s about a hike away. But players have noticed that it’s often inaccurate. “Whichever direction you go in the app always shows three steps, so it’s almost impossible to find anything,” Muthulingam says. He thinks the developers have temporarily disabled the feature, forcing the game to abandon the step metric, because it puts their servers under an unmanageable amount of stress.
Instead, by tweaking the game’s APIs, Muthulingam has found a workaround to this navigation problem, using latitude and longitude coordinates taken directly from his phone.
“It’s basically a replacement of [the game’s broken navigation system],” he says. The Twitter account is currently only for downtown Toronto, though he says he would consider expanding it throughout the GTA is there is demand for it.
Muthulingam said he sees his creation as a way to improve the player experience, not just to help people cheat the game’s methods of organic discovery.
“You’ll still have to watch for the tweets, go out, and find the Pokémon. You’ll have to be nearby too, because the rare Pokémon stay alive for a few minutes,” he says. “I think the Twitter account will keep the premise of the game active. I give a vague idea of where a Pokémon is, but it’s still up to you to go near that area and look for it.”
While the tracker is in its early days, Muthuligam plans to expand on the service’s functionality.
“I want to create a bot you can tweet at looking for a specific Pokémon, and have it tweet you back when it’s found one,” he says.
Who’s playing Pokémon?
At the CN Tower meetup earlier this week, several Pokémon enthusiasts came out to play and meet other fans of the game.
Jeffrey Li has been playing Pokémon since the release of Pokémon Ruby in 2002 on the Game Boy Advance.
“The other day I saw a Snorlax outside of my office, so I literally just left work (with my boss’s permission) to catch it,” he says. “I didn’t end up finding it later though, so that’s karma I guess.”
Li says the great thing about Pokémon Go is the lack of stigma surrounding this iteration of the game that existed on Nintendo platforms.
“People just know what you’re doing,” he says. “The person next to me just said ‘oh, you’re playing Pokémon Go? Cool.’ It’s incredible.”
Like many others, Li says the game has gotten him on his feet and onto transit. He commuted from Markham just to make the meetup downtown to engage with other players. He even made a sign for members of Team Instinct, the side he represents in the game, out of spare materials at work.
Lex Spratley has played the game since the 1998 release of Pokémon Yellow for the original Game Boy Pocket.
“I hope to catch the first 151 Pokémon by the end of the year, but it’ll take a few more years to catch the rest as they gradually get released,” Spratley says.
Spratley has managed to stay out of trouble playing the game so far. His better judgment almost left him, on the edge of crossing a busy street to catch a Rattata, a common critter.
“It was the first Pokémon I found in the game,” he explains. “I was excited.”
Nam Phi Dang was at the CN Tower meetup as a fly on the wall. He was photographing the meetup because of his interest in the social factors of playing Pokémon Go.
“It’s not like you’re coming together for a sporting event or anything like that. People are coming together for an app,” he says. “Introverts are playing with complete strangers. I see a lot of positivity to it, but there is an element of self satisfaction to it. My older sister picked me up at the GO station; it was 1 a.m, but she wanted to catch some Pokémon.”
Mike Rogers, 24, has a more laid-back approach to the game.
“I don’t really plan on being dedicated to it really,” he says. “And in order to catch them all I’d need to make time [and get a] bike or bus pass.”
He’s yet to explore unknown areas, but says his coworkers are certainly invested in the game. One showed up half an hour late to work. He wouldn’t answer his phone during his absence, and later confessed he’d been in a heated battle, not driving to work.
“[My coworker] is so headstrong he made it seem like my friend was in the wrong for messaging him while he was Go’ing and driving, despite being late for work,” he says. “The seriousness of his reaction made me look at him a little differently.”
Where else are they headed?
In addition to the CN Tower, several other Toronto landmarks are hotspots for Pokémon Go players.
Toronto Zoo spokesperson Jennifer Tracey saw visitors playing the game in between gazes at the zoo’s real-life attractions. With more than 30 Pokémon-related points of interest on site, the zoo’s adoption of the game marries real animals with those on screen, and with great results.
“Visitors were playing the game. Our priority was to ensure people were playing it safely,” Tracey says. “Staying on the pathways, obeying signage, staying behind barriers. We have confirmed that all stops and gyms are within public pathways.”
The idea is protect all life under the zoo’s care while promoting the fun of playing. The grounds have more plant species than animals to maintain.
“There are flowers, and there’s also poison ivy once you veer off our pathways,” she says. “If you’re gonna play, play safely and catch ‘em all.”