Niantic founder John Hanke knew Pokémon had a massive, loyal fanbase, built over two decades. He’d tested the potential for location-based gameplay via sci-fi spectacle Ingress. Then he discovered that Tsunekazu Ishihara, CEO of the Pokémon Company, played his game. The Pokémon brand and Ingress’ technology combined, and the rest is history.
Pokémon Go launched in the US, Australia and New Zealand on 6th July and was rapidly rolled out in other territories. Within a week, Pokémon Go had more users than Twitter; within a fortnight, it had become the biggest mobile game yet. The user numbers peaked on 14th July at 25.5 million, and have since declined to around the 23 million mark, but revenue remains strong – the game made $200 million in its first month.
The game itself is simple enough – you take your smartphone out into the world, use a simple AR interface to capture creatures from the locations where they appear, and level them up as you’re walking, or by doing battle against other creatures in the wild. Why has it worked so well?
The Pokémon brand
Pokémon is a well-established media franchise, and it’s been a popular phenomenon before. Many Go players are in their twenties and thirties – the older millennials who played Pokémon Red and Blue or the trading card game during the first Pokémon boom. Pokémon Go uses characters from the first generation of the franchise, tapping into the oldest collective memories of an already-established fanbase.
Despite some early technical difficulties, Pokémon Go’s design team have done a lot of things right. The game elicits an array of emotional responses in simple, direct and accessible ways. Its gentle difficulty curve, user-defined ‘win’ condition and passive gameplay make it attractive to casual players; meanwhile, the implied story, subtle complications and offer of a completionist collection experience appeal to more hardcore gamers. You can play Pokémon Go with no real idea of what you’re doing because it doesn’t need much explanation to get started – but because it doesn’t offer much explanation of its subtleties and story, you’re encouraged to connect with the game’s community if you want to find things out.
The social factor
The lack of in-game explanation stimulates social interaction between confused newbies and franchise veterans, but there’s more to the social appeal of Pokémon Go than that. It’s highly visible: if you’re playing Pokémon Go, chances are someone else nearby is playing it too. Because gyms and Pokéstops are tied to landmarks and businesses, playing the game draws people to interesting places where there’s something else to interact with and bond over.
The reverse is also true – when life is a little too interesting, Pokémon offers a safe social outlet. It’s easier to talk about AR monster hunting than the ramifications of Brexit. For people with anxiety and depression, Pokémon offers a reason to leave the house that isn’t tied to the usual set of obligations and responsibilities, but can be woven around them as a reward for doing the laundry run and weekly shop.
Making the most of mobile
Not only is Pokémon Go a well-designed game, it’s also a well-designed app. It offers value, but not passively – you need to turn it on and engage with it to find out if there’s something to do, and there might be something to do around any corner. Hatching and levelling your Pokémon by walking means you’re going to have the app on as you turn those corners. The AR component is just enough to create more overlap between the technology and reality. Seeing a Pokémon next to the squirrel on your bin is a great visual hook and an instant shareable image: perfect timing, with visual social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest rising in popularity.
The game also handles its locations well. Associating creature types with the location in which they appear creates a sense of synchronicity between physical and augmented reality – the kind of ‘magic moment’ that makes for a great AR experience. Every location in the game has something to offer, so it’s worth going forward and checking one more stop – and that ‘just one more’ factor is what makes for an addictive game or app. No wonder Niantic have a hit on their hands. The question is, where will Pokémon Go from here?
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…
Get your free paper on Pokemon Go and Placemaking
Calvium are a mobile app development agency based in Bristol, UK. We provide award-winning app development for those looking to engage people with place. By combining the digital and physical worlds, we work with our clients to tell stories and create enchanting experiences.
Image via Pixabay, Creative Commons CC0.