Hello everyone. Did everyone have a good summer? Hope you all did because summer comes only once a year. An interesting thing happened over the summer. No, I’m not talking about the Rio Olympics (although that was exciting), nor was I talking about the Euro 2016 football tournament (England fans, let’s forget that ever happened). Over the summer, a new ‘fad’ took the world by storm in the form of a mobile app. Millions of people were, and still are, playing it, across the globe. In this post, we will look at what is Pokémon GO and how it became so popular.
What is Pokémon?
Formed in Japan, Pokémon is originally an anime series about ‘pocket monsters’, which gave the series its name. These pokémon come in various shapes and sizes, although one could tell of their inspiration from real-life animals. In the anime series, people and pokémon exist together. People ‘capture’ and train these pokémon in order to battle other pokémon trainers.
The main plot of the series focuses on the character Ash, following his trials and tribulations as he goes on his way, meeting friends, dealing with problems and onto becoming one of the greats. His most recognisable (and arguably the ‘face’ of Pokémon itself) pokémon is Pikachu; a sort of yellow mouse-like creature with red spots on its cheeks. Even people not into Pokémon may have seen images or features of Pikachu in everyday life, such was the popularity. For anyone who grew up in the early-2000s, like me, Pokémon was a mainstay during this period growing up. Although I hardly remember what happened, I certainly remember watching the series, which is still continuing.
The success of the anime series led to a number of different merchandise. It was no surprise; given the increasing popularity, it was too irresistible for the creators to not start making more money opportunities considering it was glaring at them in the face. As a result, a series of trading cards came out which were all the range. I look back and think, ‘they were just cards’, but they meant a great deal back then. Building on the success of the anime series were also several videogames, particularly the ones for the old GameBoy. The Pokémon trading cards became such a feature that some schools started banning them because people got into fights over them (true story, that). Looking back, I think the appeal was that people got into the idea that they were pokémon trainers themselves. As people were collecting cards or playing the games, they were following in Ash’s footsteps in the anime. I burned through so many batteries playing Pokémon Gold as I lived out my own pokémon journey. I can see why the cards and games were so successful. They just appealed to kids and young people. Although the cards have died down, the games have not. We have newer titles released on the latest generation of consoles like Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (remasters of the original Gold and Silver).
What is Pokémon GO?
Living off the Pokémon trademark, Pokémon GO is a mobile app released this summer which plays out very similarity to the Pokémon Gameboy games. Admittedly, I have never played it myself, although I’ve seen plenty of people who have. As a sign of the technological age we now live in, instead of a clunky GameBoy, you now use your lighter and flashy smartphone.
Players play the game by creating an in-game avatar. This part isn’t new; many games have a feature for players to create their character. Once done, the next thing is to allow the game to access their GPS information. The neat feature of this app is that it presents the real-world environment as the actual playing environment. It’s a kind of augmented reality (which we will talk about later). In other words, the street you are currently in is used as your playing area until you move somewhere else. Now it’s all about catching pokémon!
Pokémon ‘appear’ at nearby locations that are reflected in the real-world. For example, a pokémon may appear at a street corner near you and you need to go to that corner to get it. The idea of the game, just as it was in the old Gameboy games, is to catch available pokémon using PokéBalls. Once captured, they are added to the player’s inventory. A nice feature included is, depending on the current location, players may find more of one particular pokémon. If a player is in woodland or a forest, they will encounter more plant-based pokémon such as an Oddish. Conversely, should they be near places with water such as a lake or the beach, they would find more water-based pokémon instead to reflect the environment.
Additional features include PokéStops, which are nothing more than virtual shops where players can get supplies such as potions or more PokéBalls. Another feature is Gyms. Not the ones where you pump iron but gyms where players can team up and battle together. If you must know, the gyms in the anime series were places where characters could train their pokémon. It was also where Ash went to battle the gym leader in order to earn their badge. These PokéStops and Gyms are generally located in points-of-interest. These can range from public places like parks, town squares or specific buildings, so often you’d see a mass gathering of players at these places.
The main goal of Pokémon GO is to complete the entire collection of the original 151 pokémon by filling out the ‘Pokédex’ (think of that as an encyclopaedia or catalogue of the 151 pokémon). At the moment, this is almost impossible. To capture all 151 would involve a lot of travel and luck. Rare pokémon like Mew-Two have a tiny chance of appearing. In fact, I’m not even sure all 151 have been released yet given that the game has been around for over a month.
Upon capture of a pokémon, players are given two in-game currencies: candies and stardust. Both can be used to increase a pokémon’s ‘combat power’. The combat power roughly equates to ‘hit points’ in first-person shooters (i.e. the player’s health in the game). Candies are used mainly to ‘evolve’ a pokémon along its evolutionary tree. If that sounded confusing, the majority of pokémon can be evolved into their next stage which is generally more powerful upon reaching certain parameters. Some pokémon have two or three stages. For example, if we talk the plant-based pokémon, Bulbasaur is the base stage. Upon evolution, it becomes Ivysaur, and finally, Venusaur at the top.
Players gain experience points (or xp) for various activities. The more xp they have, they higher in levels they go. At level five, players are able to enter the aforementioned gyms as one of three colour-coded teams. Team Valour (Valor in the game) is red, Team Mystic is blue, and Team Instinct is yellow. The choice of red, blue and yellow could be seen as homage to the original Gameboy games, which were those colours. If players enter a gym that is controlled by a player not part of their team, they can challenge the leader to lower the gym’s ‘prestige’. Once the prestige of a gym is lowered to zero, the player will take control of the gym and is able to deposit one pokémon to defend it.
As the player moved about, so did their character in the game in accordance to the GPS. So you could be viewing the street you were in right on your phone. It’s an interesting mechanic that allows people to use their real-world locales as the playing area in which play is continuous so long as you had valid GPS and internet connection.
How Did It Become The Success It Was?
So we are in the meat of the post. How did this seemingly simple app become such a phenomenal success? Well, there are several reasons. Girman (2016) gives five of those reasons comprising brand affiliation, augmented reality, low barrier of entry, compulsion loops, and endorphins.
1) Brand Affiliation
What he means by this is the nostalgia that Pokémon has. ‘Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri’s work spawned a behemoth in gaming, and included card games and television shows – all starting from a simple game for GameBoy. Up until Pokémon, handheld experiences were isolated. Pokémon broke down those barriers by allowing players to face off against or trade with their friends. You could also fully customize the 151 characters, which was brand new at that time. The personal touch enhanced the connection to the brand and established the deep nostalgia we’re seeing in millennials today. Younger kids – true digital natives – are discovering the franchise for the first time on their medium of choice: smartphones. Parents who played the Game Boy version as kids are even playing the new app version with their kids’ (Girdman, 2016).
Pokémon carried such a mark that people of that generation, like me, will remember it fondly. The trading cards and the GameBoy games were such a big deal that I’m not surprised old memories of playing them resurfaced. If you were really into Pokémon back then, Pokémon Go was right up your street. Think of it this way: The Force Awakens was released over ten years since the last Star Wars film, yet the nostalgia and the sheer anticipation/expectation of it was immense. This was because of what Star Wars meant to a lot of people; it still had a lot of fans. The same thing could be applied to Pokémon GO.
2) Augmented Reality
We talked about augmented reality (AR) well over a year ago when discussing the Oculus Rift headset. Pokémon GO is essentially part-AR in the sense that is manipulated real-world surroundings. When capturing a pokémon, the screen switches to an augmented reality setting. This means that the pokémon is actually shown within the current location on-screen. Imagine you were in your living room when a pokémon appears; if you were looking at your sofa, the pokémon would be ‘superimposed’ within your vicinity. Girdman (2016) explains, ‘for years we have been taking things from outside the computer and placing them inside the interface so that we can understand the function. We make a ‘trash can’ look like a trash can in our digital interfaces because that is a metaphor that we can understand. As people spend more time in front of a computer, the reverse is happening. Fantasy, meet reality.’
3) Low Barrier of Entry
Another important point of the app’s appeal is how simple it actually is. It is easy to understand even for people not familiar with Pokémon. ‘This game is simple to play, learn and understand, meaning the audience can be wide and varied. Creating an effective game – one that brings in new players, keeps old ones, and makes money off of some of those who stay – is becoming more difficult. It’s also super accessible: partly because of the brand affiliation, and partly because it doesn’t require a separate console’ (Girdman, 2016). You do not want to create a game that is frustrating or difficult to play as that turns people away. As we’ve mentioned previous in the blog, that’s bad game design. For the most part, Pokémon GO is simple and clean.
4) Compulsion Loop
Pokémon GO follows a certain pattern when playing the game, which Girdman calls the ‘compulsion loop’ (i.e. the main goals of the game). ‘The loop comprises three stages, each enhancing the next, so players keep improving. Pokémon GO’s compulsion loop is simple: collect stuff to catch pokémon, collect pokémon and level pokémon’ (Girdman, 2016). Some would call this player advancement; others would call it a grind. Either way, the compulsion loop is what it is. Essentially, players are catching pokémon and training them to become better. It’s like a series of stages of progression in that players have to do one thing before moving to the next stage. This isn’t a new mechanic by any means, but it helps explain the compulsive appeal of the game for engagement as players strive to the next level. Basically, the longer you go at it, the better your experience will be.
Girdman (2016) states, ‘Video games are known for producing mood boosting chemicals (called endorphins) as a reward for a mainly motionless task. You sit down and complete a level, your brain recognizes your achievement, and you get hit with an endorphin rush. Pokémon GO does exactly this with every pokémon catch. But you know what else is good at producing endorphins? Exercise. And when you get gamers off the couch and out chasing pokémon, the brain gets a double hit of the good stuff. There is one more addition to the brain chemical mix that plays into the popularity of Pokémon GO: social interaction. The social interactions from Pokémon GO produce a large rush of endorphins, creating a triple whammy of feel-good chemicals.’
On a chemical level, whenever you achieve something positive or as an accomplishment, you feel good about yourself as the natural reaction. I know I do. So when players successfully capture pokémon, endorphins are released. I’m no biological specialist, but you know what I mean. You just get this feeling that you’re amazing without being arrogant.
One of the interesting perks about its success is that Pokémon GO required players to actually get out and be on the move. In order to get pokémon, players needed to go to them. By using their current GPS locations, players used their smartphones almost like a map. As Girdman (2016) points out, players actively moving and engaging with others increases endorphins for a morale-boost.
As a result of this mechanic, Pokémon GO is very good at encouraging community learning of how to play the game. Even though the premise is simple, there are things that are not immediately obvious and need explanation. What better way in understanding these issues than to engage in communication with others? How we improve ourselves owes much to the efforts of others. For example, if you were unsure of how to evolve a pokémon, numerous information outlets can provide the answer. People have created online guides so there’s always a place to go for information.
Furniss (2016) explains, ‘Sharing tribal knowledge about games makes the experience of playing a game better. When you are ‘in the know’ you’re in the cool kids’ club. You then get to initiate other players into the cool kids’ club, and you feel smart for it…what Pokémon GO is benefitting from right now is an emergent mentorship that almost completely replaces a traditional tutorial. I would argue that this emergent mentorship is even more powerful than an actual tutorial. Mentorship increases engagement through social bonds. You’ve probably experienced this already with Pokémon GO: teaching a confused player something about the game that you’ve figured out already not only makes you feel smart and altruistic, it assuages confusion for the person you’ve mentored in a way that is highly personalised, and therefore more impactful. An in-game tutorial or series of tooltips will never top being able to ask questions of an expert when it comes to learning a game. I’m not convinced that Niantic intentionally obfuscated their UI, but I think it’s actually integral to the experience.’
With so many people playing, it is easy for this to happen. We’ve discussed it time and again about the social interactions aspects between people to facilitate collaboration with each other. Pokémon GO is very good at this in its ability to gather large groups of people. There have been various media documenting large pokémon gatherings across the world. It was safe to assume anyone looking at their smartphone intently as they walked about was playing Pokémon GO.
What Was The Social Impact It Caused?
If you were not keen on pokémon in general, then Pokémon GO will mean little to you. However, one could appreciate the sheer reactions it caused in a very short time. Approximately over 1.1 billion interactions between 231 million people mentioned Pokémon GO on Facebook and Instagram in July. Those figures are staggering in what is described as a ‘social media phenomenon’ further dubbed ‘Pokémania’. It really is a phenomenon at how quickly it took off.
Financially, the game has been a massive success for the parent company, The Pokémon Company (owned partly by Nintendo), and the actual developers of the app, Niantic Labs. ‘Within three days of trading after Pokémon GO burst onto the scene, Nintendo’s shares skyrocketed 53 percent. The viral game is a collaboration between Niantic Labs and The Pokémon Company – the latter of which Nintendo only owns 32 percent of. Accordingly, Niantic Labs’ valuation has now also risen to $3.65 million dollars. But is the game just gathering users or can it actually make money? In short: yes, it can’ (Willis, 2016). The game has been calculated to have more users than Twitter, as well as being the top grossing app on Apple Store. Fortunately for Apple, it stands to make a sizeable profit from Pokémania. From purchases on its Apple Store, Apple takes roughly 30% of the revenue.
The game itself may be free to download, but in-game purchases with real money help drive global sales. Again, not the first time we’ve mentioned in-game purchases as they are vital for survivability of the game, particularly among free-to-play titles. If players wanted more supplies, it will come at a price. These prices may seem innocuous at first, but if you multiply that by everyone playing, then the figures go up and up. As Morrow (2016) says, ‘Pokémon GO has generated approximately $35 million in revenue within its first two weeks. The game brings in approximately $1.6 million each day from iPhone users alone. Indeed, a significant number of players who download the app end up paying for items. The ratio of users spending money on the game to the total number of users is about 10 times that of Candy Crush, another free-to-play game that has in-app purchases.’
To put some of that into perspective, Pokémon GO has, by itself, earned more money than several films of 2016 such as Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, Angry Birds Movie (based on the successful game) and Star Trek: Beyond, all the while being considerably cheaper to produce and without the benefit of large-scale advertising. Nelson (2016) comments, ‘In less than two months after its July 6 launch in the United States, Pokémon GO has brought in more than $440 million in gross worldwide revenue on the App Store and Google Play. This puts publisher Niantic’s net revenue from the app at more than $308 million so far- a figure that has grown by more than $100 million since we last looked at the game’s earnings back on August 5.’ You do not get figures like that without doing something right. Pokémon GO would appear to be the summer’s blockbuster.
Nelson (2016) further states, ‘As is common with most mobile game launches driven by viral popularity and early adopters, global installs of Pokémon GO have decreased over time, but it has nevertheless managed to surpass 180 million worldwide downloads in its first two months on the App Store and Google Play. To look at this feat from another perspective, we estimate that Pokémon GO has been installed on more than 12 percent of all active US smartphones at some point. It remains the highest grossing mobile game in the US, and it still occupies a top five spot for mobile game downloads on the App Store and Google Play.’
On an economical level, Pokémon GO has provided lucrative opportunities for revenue and growth. In other words, businesses large and small are taking advantage of Pokémania. The increased numbers of people on the prowl for pokémon brings traffic to places and areas, possible far more than usual. As an example, I read how a pizzeria in the US was riding the wave of Pokémania to great success. Recently, it turns out, L’inizio Pizza Bar in Long Island City, New York had a sudden change in menu; not only are they serving pizza and drinks, but also PokéBalls. The owner, Thomas Blaze Lattanzio, brought one of the in-game items called a ‘lure’ for $10. This lure, as the name suggests, ‘attracts’ pokémon to the vicinity, although it’s probably more accurate to say the frequency of pokémon increases rather than all congregating to a specific area. Players would soon find a multitude of pokémon in the pizzeria. It was not guaranteed that every person visiting would turn out to be paying customers, but L’inizio suddenly saw traffic soar by a significant margin nonetheless. You can be sure they aren’t the only ones cashing in.
Massive gatherings of people were documented across the world, such was the social media phenomenon it was. Across the US, national parks have seen an increase of people visiting the area, as well as other public spaces like museums, shopping malls, town square, etc (presumably where PokéStops and Gyms are located). Some places actively encourage and welcomed players, seeing the potential positive public relations the game brought.
However, it must be noted that there have been some negative effects that have sprung up because of this. For one thing, having a mass gathering of people didn’t sit well with certain groups. Pokémon were also appearing at places such as religious sites, memorials, cemeteries, or even quiet residential areas. This has understandably caused some tension among different communities who did not appreciate large groups of people descending. Problems and issues would occur such as littering, excessive noise, rowdy/inappropriate behaviour and safety concerns. Some concerns were raised that the game could be used for illegal data gathering by foreign bodies; others described the game as ‘demonic’ and ‘corrupting’. Niantic would remove pokémon from these sites and reduce the number of PokéStops and Gyms in an effort to relax the numbers. Law enforcement services in different countries have issued warnings for players about being safe while playing the game. However, there are reports of people having a very lax attitude around dangerous places like rail tracks and roads. Sadly, there have been some casualties mainly through distractions and carelessness, although there was a case where a player was murdered in Guatemala.
One of the lasting impressions it made was to bring the idea of augmented reality to a wider audience. While not the first game to incorporate this feature, Pokémon GO has decidedly popularised augmented reality. Up until the game’s release, most people did not know of the company Unity Technologies. The company created the game engine (Unity Engine) on which Pokémon GO used and is also common in a lot of mobile games as well as being prevalent in augmented/virtual reality. Like Niantic, Unity also saw a boost in its profits from new investors in the wake of Pokémon GO, totalling approximately $181 million. Unity also estimates that its software is used predominantly in the upcoming Gear VR, a virtual technology by Samsung, and the Oculus Rift, which uses smartphones as a screen.
In a post back in October 2014, we discussed augmented reality (which I called at the time virtual reality) and how the idea of the Oculus Rift took off. What was presumed to be a niche idea turned out to be a very mainstream one. To re-use an old quote, Martin (2013) said, ‘The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium.’ This has no doubt brought about much of its success and enduring popularity. By blending both real and digital worlds, Pokémon GO has struck a fine balance in bringing people together using a digital interface.
We are at that technological stage where we are bringing the virtual into reality in interesting fashion. Almost two years down the line, people are able to experience this on affordable levels. The augmented reality in Pokémon GO may not be as sophisticated as say the Oculus Rift, but having people interact with something which is, by extension, not even there physically is still effective, and still without being overly nauseating. A simple game, with some augmented reality trickery, has become a global success.
Will There Be Lasting Impressions?
The best measure for these things is time. What is has done is raise some very good points about a multitude of things. For such a simple idea, Pokémon GO took the world by storm, probably surpassing all expectations by Niantic. I would end this by arguing that one of the biggest points it raised is the idea of augmented reality is no longer a niche one. The first sets of augmented reality technology are already on sale in fact.
Has Pokémon GO changed the way we play? I would say not fundamentally, but it has another door, one where fantasy merges with reality. Wait, no, that’s not strictly correct. That door was already open to begin with. Pokémon GO simply drew a long chain of people through it.
The game has been described as being ‘flavour of the month’; the next new fad that will last a few weeks or months. That is definitely a possibility; playing figures have seen a drop since release day. Yet I’ve no doubt that, as of September, I believe it is still going strong. There’s still a big enough community to keep it going; certainly enough for Niantic to keep updating it. Besides, people have to catch ‘em all.
Chris Furniss’ article, ‘Pokémon GO and the good things that can come from a bad UI’: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ChrisFurniss/20160722/277631/Pokemon_GO_and_the_good_things_that_can_come_from_a_bad_UI.php
Jordan Girdam’s article, ‘5 Reasons Pokémon GO’Is So Popular’: https://www.mobify.com/insights/pokemon-go-popular/
Tim Martin’s article ‘The Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality Is No Longer A Joke’
Brendan Morrow’s article, ‘Pokémon Go Revenue: How Much Money Has the Game Made?’:
Randy Nelson’s article, ‘Pokémon GO Has Grossed More Than $440 Million, Out-Earning Some of 2016’s Biggest Films’:
Chris Willis’ article, ‘Pokénomics: The Secret to the Success of Pokémon GO’: