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How did Pokemon Go conquer the planet in less than a week?

Gamasutra staff grapple with the question of how Pokemon Go became one of the most successful apps on Android and iOS practically overnight.

July 13, 2016

11 Min Read

The mobile location based game Pokemon Go got a bit of a rough start when it launched last week, but once the servers seemed to ease up on Friday it absolutely took off.

This collaboration with Niantic Labs, creator of Ingress, is Nintendo’s first stab at seriously deploying one of their major properties in the mobile space, and it’s taken off in a way that caught many completely off guard.
So what makes it so compelling?

What does it need to do better?

Why have no other location-driven games found this sort of success before?

These questions and more will be explored by the staff of Gamasutra in this thrill-packed opinion roundup. Please share your thoughts on the game in the comments!

CHRIS BAKER (@chrisbaker1337), assignment editor: My experience is probably the opposite of most people's--I have played far more of Niantic's previous location-based AR game Ingress than I ever played any Pokemon game.

I could never get past the cutesy trappings of Pokemon and the grind-y nature of the gameplay. (And I've immersed myself in many other kiddie/cutesy franchises and many other grind-heavy slogs in the past, so it's not that.) Maybe I felt like I was too cool and growed-up for Pokemon, or maybe I thought that the audience I was writing for was too cool and growed-up for Pokemon. I dunno. It's just always been a blind spot for me.

And I played Ingress for several hours, really appreciated how it changed my relationship with my environment and got me going several blocks out of my way to hit another point of interest and all that stuff that people are discovering now with Pokemon Go...but could never really get worked up about the veneer of story stretched over the cool GPS tech, the sci-fi battle between factions, etc. I forced myself to start playing for days at a time on several occasions, but never got deeply invested. I found Ingress was almost as interesting to read about as a phenomenon as it was to play.

Pokemon Go really does feel like Ingress with a Pokemon reskin on top of it, but I don't mean that to sound pejorative. The trappings of Pokemon seem to be exactly what Ingress was lacking. I found this instantly engaging.

I'm not sure that Niantic/Nintendo will be able to build this out into a robust and rewarding game, but I completely understand why this sketchy early version has already set the world on fire.

So cards on the table--do we think this will kinda peter out, like Miitomo seemed to do? Or will it prove to have powerful legs, like when a Whirlipede hits level 30 and evolves into a Scolipede?

BRYANT FRANCIS (@RBryant2012), contributing editor: I don’t know what it was like to be there at the start of Ingress, (it was Android-only at the time if I recall), but my brief experience with it felt like what the opposite of Pokemon Go has been. No opportunities to really do anything without a massive amount of players, the 2 team solution meant most territories in Los Angeles were well secured, and the items/interactions that drove gameplay were confusing and didn’t offer any visual feedback.
Every one of these complaints seems to have been addressed on Pokemon Go. Catching Pokemon (through the camera no less) is a regularly compelling activity. Upgrading the number of global teams from two to three provides more disruption at the competitive gyms, and items like Lures and eggs help ensure there’s generally SOMETHING to do when you go out for a walk.
The technical issues are still glaringly apparent, (I’d say 1/5 of my attempts at gym battles, which are probably the grindiest part of the game, crashed), and I think the game stands on a razor’s edge right now of either being doomed to being inaccessible like its predecessor, or wildly successful and consistently friendly for new players.
Already the Pokemon populating gyms (which are the only thing you can “do” with your Pokemon right now) are crazy powerful, and even a decent amount of play like what I did isn’t enough to compete with them. You’re essentially waiting for someone strong from your team to come along and shake up the gym before you can have any interaction. Then it’s just back to catching and evolving Pokemon. 

I hope the game grows ways you can care for/interact with your little creature army and doesn’t center its entire loop around pure numbers competition---that’d be a fast way to drop a decade’s worth of casual Pokemon fans, and drop the friendly social interactions that are helping drive the game. (More on that in another email.)

ALEX WAWRO (@awawro), news editor: Welp, the game just crashed again and the servers are down, so let's chat.

I think the answer to many of our questions lies in the license.

Why does Pokemon Go work so well? In large part, because lots of people are playing it. If you're playing in a densely-populated area right now you're highly likely to bump into other players as you wander around the real world hunting Pokemon, and when you do there's a good chance some genuine human-to-human interaction will take place. An exchange of furtive glances, polite waves, a shared laugh -- these are the unique fruits of augmented-reality game design. 

Why are lots of people playing it -- and why haven't other AR games achieved similar levels of hype? Because they're not Pokemon. I also tried Ingress back in the day and thought it was neat, but quickly stopped playing because nobody I knew was into it. Friends would catch me playing it, or I'd show it to them at a bar, and they would smile politely and maybe download it from the App Store and then never think about it again. Because it was simple and streamlined and utterly forgettable, devoid of any sharp details or striking features. 

Pokemon Go is, as far as I can tell, a reskinned version of Ingress. And it's huge. For game developers, I think a big obvious takeaway here is that sometimes the right licensing deal really pays off.  There's a massive swath of people out there who at some point enjoyed a Pokemon game and/or a Pokemon cartoon, and even if they aren't die-hard Pokemon fans they're happy to download and try out a free Pokemon-catching AR game. And then their friends hear about it and try it out, and then their friends hear about it, and then suddenly in the space of a few days you have an app that's topping the App Store charts without even being featured by Apple.

A park full of trainers

What does it need to do better? Not much, at least not in the short-term. Once the hype settles and Niantic irons out the game's server issues, I think the "core loop" of walking around to catch Pokemon/collect items, powering up those Pokemon and deploying them to control gyms is strong enough to keep a lot of people playing for some time. In the long term, the devs probably need to augment the game with more license-specific features -- Pokemon trading, player-vs-player Pokemon battling, etc.

BRYANT FRANCIS: Building off of Alex’s thing: the human-to-human interactions are RIDICULOUS in this game, and I think they’re something that's kind of unprecedented at this scale! I spent the weekend doing a lot of Pokewalks in some moderately congested areas around Los Angeles, (not even the hotspots like Downtown, Santa Monica Pier, or the USC area), and I still ran into player after player at every Pokestop. I taught two people how to catch Pokemon! I am now the old man in Viridian City.
In theory, this is what happens at every meetup group for a given game or hobby, but now that meetup is happening every 5 minutes at 10 different places down the street, and everyone speaks the same language because everyone has been playing this in some form since 1996 or just about now. The rules are almost universal, the creatures are familiar, the goals are similar. Ingress’s design additions are bringing it out into real locations and then dividing players into teams to drive competition.
Go’s biggest design innovation in this social space for me seems to be the lure, which is an item that attracts Pokemon (and therefore players) to Pokestops once a player installs them. Some can be acquired for free, but at the rate they’re being deployed I have to believe people are spending money to purchase them, and they’re one of the driving forces behind those images of crowds of players playing Pokemon Go that have popped up over the last few days.
When I tried one out for myself, at a nearby park at night, I was amused, then just a bit surprised by how many people showed up in the parking lot I’d left it in. It’s crazy how both small businesses are buying them to place over their Pokestop-aligned stores, and even a few people in Missouri used them to allegedly lure players into a mugging.

A few people have said that like Miitomo, this hype will no doubt rapidly drop off after a few days, but I think the loop of the lures will keep it around in some fashion.  

KRIS GRAFT (@krisgraft), editor in chief: Jumps into thread, panting

Hey everybody, I just got back from walking in the triple-digit Texas heat to look like an idiot wandering around a children’s playground in the ‘burbs of the Greater Austin Area. And then I hung out at another Pokestop next to some construction people doing Real Hard Work, as I restocked on freaking POKEBALLS as inconspicuously as possible. "Don’t mind me, fellas, just gathering some VIRTUAL EGGS."

Anyway, sorry I’m late. You all have gone over a few of the interesting aspects about what makes the game appealing or successful – it’s pretty straightforward in my view as well. Pokemon has always been about going out, finding stuff, and having little adventures. The goal has been to catch ‘em all, right? Now after a couple decades of building up the Pokemon brand, Nintendo has realized the tech exists to allow people to act out their catch-‘em-all Pokemon fantasy in real life. The combination of that Pokemon brand loyalty and the relatively robust capabilities of Ingress provides a—I can’t believe I’m gonna say this word in a real sentence—SYNERGY that an existing brand and platform rarely achieve, and that’s translating into success.

The future of the game is going to rely on much the same things that an MMO relies upon, namely keeping it fresh and giving a reason for players to come back (and keep paying). The Pokemon universe can serve a free-to-play MMO-style business model quite well. Niantic doesn’t have to create dungeons or environments—those already exist, physically, all around us. There’s not going to be a content burn-rate problem that MMOs like World of Warcraft have always had. Instead, the appeal is exploring, training, and most importantly, battling against other players. As long as the competitive loop in this game is appealing, people will want to come back continually to prove their worth as a Pokemon trainer.

All this said, the most fascinating aspect of Pokemon Go are the social and ethical implications of a "real-life" MMO that has such mass appeal and that uses real-world locations and interactions. Amid all the fun tweets and screencaps of a Pidgey in your beer glass, veteran MMO designer Raph Koster addressed what it means when you (actually you) are the avatar, and the world around you is the level. Pokemon Go is already making little changes to the economy, and to how people interact with one another.

I’ve seen a restaurant with a sign that said that Pokemon are for paying customers only, Arlington National Cemetery call for people to knock it off with the Pokemon capturing, and the Holocaust Museum request the same. [UPDATE: I just watched the Austin Police Department do a press conference solely about appropriate behavior when using Pokemon Go, after a man was robbed at gunpoint while playing the game.]

Koster’s caution is basically to acknowledge the power of a real-life MMO, and that AR MMO developers need to realize that like traditional MMOs, games like Pokemon Go require community curation and moderation. It’s a testament to how gamified GPS-enabled exploration and hot #BRANDS (sorry) can affect the way we behave, in both good ways and bad.

Ok that’s all. Keep your eyes up, and aware of your surroundings, btw. I kind of stepped in front of a car in a movie theater parking lot last night trying to track down a nearby Rattata. What an embarrassing way to end up in the hospital that would’ve been.

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