Pokemon Go: The phenomenon unwrapped


17 minute read
Calvium Team

Calvium Team

Digital Insights

Within five days of its launch, Nintendo’s market value had increased by $9billion. It has users in over 26 countries and, for an app that crashed with alarming regularity, it was one of the stickiest downloads on the market: 7 out of 10 people who download the app returned the next day.

We’re talking, of course, about the global phenomenon that is Pokémon Go.

Stats aside, the game has proved something of a watershed moment for location based AR, a tech that we’ve been shouting about for years (15 to be exact). With that in mind, we put a few questions to the office about the whys, the hows and the what nexts, for Pokémon Go.

Why do you think Pokémon Go is so successful?

Charlie Harman:

Well, first of all, it’s the success of Pokémon as a whole that’s provided the basis of its popularity: it’s a well established brand unto itself. Not only young people who always play app games are getting involved, it’s reached the 20-30 age bracket thanks to nostalgia. On a deeper level, there’s a basic human instinct that connects us to place which the game taps into brilliantly.

Kieron Gurner:

I’d think it’s a mix of:

  • Nostalgia – The original game was released in 1996 and ‘Go’ uses mostly the characters from the original game. This taps into people’s memories much more than characters from the 2nd generation or newer.
  • Pokémon as a franchise – This ties in with nostalgia but explains the scale of the phenomenon, too. Pokémon is a hugely popular franchise that spawned games, trading cards, cartoons, films, and more, pretty continuously for the last 20 years. The audience already existed.
  • Light / passive gameplay – The game doesn’t take up so much concentration, so you can continue playing while doing other things.
  • Free to play – Never underestimate the power of freebies and the herd mentality of humans. Even if you weren’t a huge Pokémon fan, you could still get involved. With no monetary barrier to entry, anyone can get hooked
  • Low-skill level needed to get started – You can level up without really understanding the game or trying too hard so people already spent time with the app before they realised.
  • Collectable mechanic – Everybody likes to collect things.
  • Subtly increasing difficulty – The game seems to get every so slightly harder the further you get, so it keeps players challenged and stimulated. By introducing new techniques players of any level don’t get bored.
  • Social – The lack of game explanation encourages people to talk instead (when there’s a large enough volume of users). Also, families and friends can go walking together, sharing tips. It’s brought people together like nothing else.
  • Relieving anxiety –I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of people with depression and/or anxiety who feel better when they’re distracting themselves with the game while outside – as they’re not focused on the real world but are still getting things done when they’re out
  • Escapism – There’s been so much bad news recently, people want to escape into fantasy. It’s definitely been a change to the world falling apart for the last few days, haha

Ben Clayton:

  • It’s really complicated – People who have played the original versions going back 20 years will have a big advantage over those who like me, find the whole thing a little bewildering. Candy? Stardust? CP? HP? Who is this Professor person?  However, this means it’s possible to get deep into the game, powering up and evolving your Pokémon over a period of days or weeks.
  • Outdoors – The game gets you out in the real world. Real-world important places are (usually) key points in the game (gyms, Pokéstops). You can combine getting out and seeing the interesting local places with playing the game.
  • Visible – If thousands of people are playing a traditional mobile game (Angry Birds or Candy Crush, for instance) you’ve probably not going to notice as they’re sat indoors doing it. You can’t help but see people playing Pokémon if you venture into the city centre, which leads us directly to…
  • Hype –Partially because it’s so visible, there’s a huge amount of press about the game. Every day the mainstream newspapers print several articles about it.

Tony Briscoe:

  • It has a broad reach in terms of demographics, particularly age range.
  • You can give as much or as little time to play the game and still have a good experience.
  • You can share your experiences with others in a very social way.

Pablo Carrillo:

  • It’s popularity is down to the recognisable characters and the nostalgia for the old cartoons. People between 20-30 can connect with the game as well as younger kids. The franchise is huge so the audience already existed.

Tom Melamed:

  • There isn’t a single “winning” goal. You can set your own version of winning, it could be collecting lots of Pokémon or collecting rare ones, it could be evolving them or fighting in gyms, etc. This rather loose definition of winning coupled with a very clear and defined definition of progress along all of the above dimensions makes it appeal to a wider audience than some more traditional games.
  • It has a very gentle ‘on’ ramp, people who “aren’t good at games” or young children who might find some games quite challenging can simply walk around throwing balls and strange creatures and feel a sense of achievement and progress.
  • You need to turn the app on to find out if there is something to do or not. This means that you keep on checking the app because you keep on thinking that there might be something really cool around the corner.
  • Rewarding you for walking makes you much more likely to have the app running while you are out and about which in turn makes it far more likely for you to encounter something rewarding that makes you feel better for playing and want to play more.

Jo Reid

  • Timing – 10 years ago there wasn’t the bandwidth, phone installation or power to get the mass adoption we are seeing. The game has drawn upon all of the developments and pulled together the essential ingredients to deliver on scale rather than high end to a niche
  • AR as a hook – The AR is just enough to enforce the connection to the real world, seeing a creature in your back garden, sitting on your chair or on your friend’s shoulder is fun and engaging the first few times. Once you get into the game you turn it off, but it’s an important factor in making the game appeal to the casual “give it a quick go” audience as well as the real gamers – this helps push it to a tipping point that VR games may never reach.
  • Using location intelligently – They have been smart about evolving the game to a location-aware platform. A few years ago I wrote a paper called Design for Coincidence – which said that if you incorporate elements that relate to where you are it will heighten the chance effect of a “magic moment” where people aren’t sure if what they’ve just witnessed was staged or just natural magic. So, by associating types with natural elements and the camera view, it is playing to that psychology and intriguing people.
  • Easy discovery – Clever use of algorithms so that EVERY place has something and popular places have more. The Achilles heel for many deep located experiences is that only a few people may ever get there, and yet meaningless use of location is less compelling. Here, they have enough use of location and mechanisms to make it worth walking—going to different places and being excited by the differences.
  • Global design – Pokémon was already designed to be visual and not rely on language, the game has hardly ANY instructions in it, to get going the interface is good enough to work it out. For more complex things people are using social networks, blog posts, etc. to find out how to play it. The users are doing the documentation for you in their language and encouraging social media hype.

What happens now? – Is it a flash in the pan, or will it progress? What do you think the next steps in evolving Pokémon go are?

KG: There’s so much that they could do with the game, it’s difficult to say where it could go: interacting with other players, bringing the battle mechanism into general gameplay (like the original game series), introducing more characters.

I think the popularity will wane after a short time, but, as Tom suggested, if you’ve got 10M users to start with (and from the speculative guesses I’ve seen, it’s a lot more than that), even if you dropped to 1%, you still have 100,000 users who are engaged that you could build from.

PC: They could also build communities around gyms and the like to people can interchange Pokémons and other things related to the game. That could reap a lot of revenue.


  • Possible monetisation next steps:
    • They are reportedly making over $1 million per day so it’s already monetising quite well
    • People are already talking about sponsored locations in game places being paid for.
    • If the game allows/encourages trading between players for real money then they could easy set up quite a vibrant economy and collect a few percentage off each transaction.
    • Pokémon merchandise has always been quite a big thing, we shouldn’t assume that all the money has to come from the app. Angry Birds was never this successful and they’ve now got a Hollywood film coming out.
    • Selling items to customise your Pokémon without actually changing them, like clothes and fancy hats. Selling stickers and the like has worked well for the social messaging app Line.
  • Possible game next steps:
    • More social interaction, probably not becoming a social networking platform or messaging platform,but it does seem strange that it’s all about being there in real life but who you are with in real life doesn’t effect the game at all.
    • Trading/exchanging. The game is largely about scarcity and collection so trading does feel like a natural place to go.
    • Polish. The game is still really buggy and not that well written I hope/expect that they will put the time into making it better and more reliable.

Do you think this has opened the floodgates for AR/ ‘In real life apps’?

KG: I think the huge popularity of it will expand people’s perceptions of what these kinds of games can be like, and hopefully encourage more interest in located experiences. There are already a number of games using similar game mechanics. Aside from the horror stories, there’s also discussion about how it’s helping people socially, getting people outside and walking – so I can imagine that idea will be persistent after the craze ends, and possibly inspire a new wave of located games.

BC: The AR mode is a gimmick, really. It’s much easier to catch Pokémon with the AR mode off, so I have it turned off like most other players. However, I fully expect there to be a number of location-based games launched within weeks using similar mapping technology. Apparently, China cloned Pokémon Go before it even launched

TM: I think before this there has always been the nagging doubt about whether people would ever really get up out of their chairs and go outside and explore just because an app told them to. That question has been answered emphatically. I think this will encourage more people to experiment with In Real Life apps. Many of them might lack a strong enough incentive or motivation to get people out and about but some of them will succeed. Now people know it’s possible I expect lots more attempts.

Can you think of some hypothetical examples of how similar technology could be used in more ‘serious’ apps?  How might businesses take advantage of this popularity to make other apps better?

KG: Hanna [Polanowska, Calvium’s Technical Project Manager] showed me “iButterfly” last week, which is a geo-located AR app in Japan from 2010 that used similar technology – and allowed businesses to create coupon “butterflies”, which users would have to catch to get a discount.


I’m not sure whether that approach of merging games with consumerism works, but it’s an interesting example of how business can attempt to broaden their horizons – especially as people become more comfortable with this kind of tech.

BC: The classic example of this idea we saw way back in our days at HP was an idea that companies would pay to have important parts of a location-based game occur outside their shop.

In a way, this is already happening with the ‘Lure’ modules.  I’m pretty certain the Café Gusto opposite us is regularly purchasing (with real money!) Lure modules to make Pokémon appear right outside their premises.  There was a story recently about how the Church of England was encouraging the use of Pokémon Go to get people into their churches (or at least outside, frantically tapping at their phones).

PC: Definitely. It has single-handedly made location based games mainstream and proved that companies willing to invest in new ideas can succeed. People, in general, will grow accustomed to something different.

JR: The game has established a successful model by which companies who already own media assets and a well known brand can re-use those assets in a new way, by laying them out on the real world. Calvium has the expertise to create the kind of platforms and experience design to help companies do this and so we hope that it can be repeatable and growing genre.

For the Enterprise space, those companies who have real world infrastructure—pipes, cables, buildings—can look to incorporating context-aware help, training and simulations to their staff.

TM: I’m sure 10 different companies are working on a Pokémon and Tinder type app! But more seriously, the style of causally interacting with content as you walk through the world could create some interesting opportunities but the motivation to keep the app open needs to be quite high. One of the things that Pokémon has shown is that the content doesn’t have to be closely tied to the locations just loosely associated.

So, you could imagine laying all kinds of things over the real world and getting people to interact with them. But it still feels like games and experiential applications like heritage, tourism and education are likely to be the easiest next steps for this wave.

What do you think the impact Pokémon Go will have on the type of geolocation apps we have built in the past?

CH: I certainly think it has aided in the understanding of AR/Geolocation, and I think that will have a tremendous effect on other AR apps’ popularity. Even just two years ago, finding the correct words and phrases to talk about the heritage apps we build was horses’ work. Now, I feel like I could write Augmented Reality or ‘In Real Life’ apps and a good proportion of the population would understand what that meant.

KG: I’d like to think people will start looking for located experiences more – but that may be optimistic. I agree that it’s made people aware that this kind of thing exists now, though, whereas before, people weren’t always convinced how immersive an experience on a phone could be – now there’s clear proof it can work.

PC: Hopefully it will create a demand for more immersive experiences, like bringing a historical character in an apptrail location app that can point you to things on-screen or show how something looked a while ago.

JR: Lost Palace is an interesting juxtaposition, there we have embedded location-aware technologies to deliver a more meaningful long form of bringing a place alive.


I think there will be demand for the ability to package together different capabilities for the companies that want to experiment in this space and create a distinctive offering.

What else about the Pokémon Go phenomenon interests or surprises you?

CH: It’s interesting the stark differences in reactions people have had. There’s always a sense of hesitancy in accepting tech like this. In one way, mixing technology and the real world is amazing, in another, it scares people. There’s something very eerie/Black Mirror-esque in being so involved/obsessed in a world that isn’t there. I think inevitably money will come into the question and make it feel sinister. Ergo:


HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

I’m also pretty astounded by people’s patience with it! You can barely get on the app, it drains your battery, but people persevere. No other app would have this kind of immediate loyalty. It’s like they have jumped from awareness to loyalty and skipped the rest. That further proves how just how powerfully popular it is.

KG: The patience issue is an interesting one. No-one would engage with another app that broke every 10 minutes and keep on playing regardless. That’s a sure way to get deleted. But people haven’t.

This is probably down to the mass appeal of the brand, novel game mechanics that people want to explore, the media hype making everyone want to experience it now, and you don’t lose very much if it does crash…so maybe it doesn’t seem critical. But still, most people would have deleted any other app by now.

The reactions have been interesting – especially from people deriding it for it either being for kids, or a bad way to get people outside…but to me, this reminds me of the fear people have when any new kind of technology is released.

JR: The speed of adoption. Twitter took 780 days to reach 10 million users; Facebook took 852 days to reach 10 million users I expect PG has surpassed this by a long way. In the US alone on 13th July they thought it was used by 10 million people, before it even came to the UK. I have never known something to take off this fast.

On the day of the UK launch I was in a restaurant and 4 out of 5 people were playing on the tables around me. The waiter noticed I was playing and said he hoped that I was catching good Pokémon as the kitchen had put up a lure especially. I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like it for a very long time.

So there you have it. Pokémon has surpassed all reasonable expectations of popularity and has blown the gates wide open for businesses on the fence about AI location apps. The question now for businesses is, how can we make this work for us. The demand is clearly there, but any evolution has to be done intelligently.

And while it’s interesting to see where Pokemon will go next, more interesting for us is the potential its popularity has afforded the rest of the world.

01/11/16 UPDATE: Following the release of this blog, the Calvium team have since published a paper discussing Pokemon Go & what it’s success means for those who seek to connect people with place via apps. You can download it for free below…

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