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Pokémon Go: Why Now?

Pokémon Go is a phenomenon that is both amazing and scary, and full of immense potential. My biggest question is why now? Why did Pokémon Go take off in a way that no location based game ever has. A few weeks ago I wandered around campus to find out.

This was originally posted on my personal blog Josh On Design.

Wandering through campus we saw them everywhere. In small groups of two or three they walked slowly. Looking around. Pausing every few seconds to check their phones, then moving on a few more steps. Walk, check, walk, check. The mild summer weather and warm evening brought them out in larger numbers, so I wondered how many would come out to play in the rainy winter six months from now. Of course, it might not even still be a thing then. After all, it wasn’t a thing two weeks ago.

Two guys stopped in a pickup truck next to us. “Hey, did you guys see that big Kakuna?!”. “Yes”, one of my companions replied. “Over that way”, she said, pointing to the quad. “Thanks”.   We speculated: why now? People have been trying to make this work for years but never got critical mass. Why now?   My friend replied, “One word: Pokémon”. 

Pokemon Players in their Natural Habitat

Being forty I’m too old to have played Pokémon. I was finishing my finals in college when the original Gameboy game came out. At the time I thought: Oh cute. It’s Final Fantasy for kids. I dismissed it as a kids' game, and later a kids card game, movie, tv show, and everything else that happens to hot intellectual property. And I was right. It was a kids’ game, if well made and marketed.  The Pokédex played on kids desire to collect things and always have new stuff. (as the now parent of a five year old, I understand this well). I know several people who said they learned to read from Pokémon. Catching ‘em all was their incentive to learn new words and go through the repetition required for good reading skills. So.. fine. It’s a game for kids.  But why now?

The Whale Hunters

Pokémon Go is pretty simple. Like most mobile games now it’s purpose built to get you to waste time and eventually dollars. You can buy items and upgrades. I think of them as little more than slot machines, psychologically designed to get you to tap a virtual lever for your virtual treat pellet. Most players get bored after a while (as I did with both FarmVille and Candy Crush), but some tiny percentage will spend real cash on virtual items. In the industry they call these people whales, as in the big game they are hunting with harpoons. Zynga and King have ridden this wave to billions of dollars of valuation (and subsequent crashes). I expect it’s only a matter of time before real casinos get in on the game.  

Pokémon Go, however, just feels different than the typical whale hunter slot machine games. While it has similar mechanics, it’s still something else. I don’t think you can actually pay to win, but there’s talk of inter-player trade that should shake things up. I’m more interested in the lures. Some businesses who happened to find themselves near Pokéstops have purchased lures, with real dollars, to bring people to their establishments. Posting on their Facebook pages: Come catch’em all, and have a drink too. (How long until stores start to do actual in-game location based advertising?) The real world component of the game clearly make it far more interesting than the Candy Crushes of the world.  People are walking around meeting people they wouldn’t otherwise meet, visiting locations they wouldn’t otherwise visit. That’s a very powerful thing. 

Change is Hard

As we started walking back to the car this was our topic of conversation. All three of my friends had come down from Portland to visit the Pokéstops here at the university. They are all younger and had played the games as kids but hadn’t really thought about it until a week ago. We noticed the power of the game. Here is something simple that has gotten lots of people to go outside. My friends know people who have changed their daily habits. They use different routes for morning runs and commutes. They walk outside for their lunch instead of staying in the break room. One of them has personally felt more positive and energized thanks to the extra walking and sunshine. Could Pokémon be the way to change national health? 

It’s hard to understand the importance of the fact that people have actually changed their daily habits. Changing behavior on a large scale is really, really hard.  Proctor and Gamble would pay billions for this power.  We jokingly discussed what would happen if this power fell into the wrong hands. Luring hordes of kids to a particular location? Getting people to walk through a back alley instead of the main street?  There’s a Stephen King horror novel waiting to be written: a murderous clown lures children to their death with virtual kittens.  Or a foreign government takes control and uses it to shape traffic to around their surveillance cameras. Clearly there’s a dystopian novel waiting to be written as well. 

But still, "why now?" I asked. The game is built around data assembled for their previous effort Ingress, which at its height never had a fraction of popularity of Pokémon Go. Nitanic, the company who built the game, clearly didn’t anticipate the popularity.  The app barely works, crashes constantly, and can’t connect to the server half the time. Reports are that the company is desperately trying to scale up the backend. (Hey guys, come talk to us about our globally replicated Data Stream Network).  Despite the troubles it’s a smash hit. And the hive mind is already at working around the bugs. 

Never Bet Against the Hive Mind

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from twenty years of internetting, it’s that you never bet against the hive mind. The collective brain of humanity has already identified how to work around the many bugs so that the fun never ends. How to Overcome Glitches, Bugs, and Freezes in Pokemon Go, is but one of many guides assembled from the Internet’s collective intelligence.

Another glaring missed opportunity is the lack of branded merchandise. No big game or summer blockbuster would launch without matching t-shirts, hats, and action figures. Yet there is no Pokémon Go swag to be found. Once again the internet has taken it upon itself to serve up 3d printed itemsEtsy Tshirts, and reports of Target employees setting up their own Pokémon related end-caps due to the lack of official merchandisingLife will find a way

Throughout the evening we touch on many topics while circling around buildings and taking over gyms for the Blue Team (Mystics?). Once person to person trading happens will it become a virtual currency with all the downsides? Will we have gold farmers? Item theft? Realworld virtual muggings?

Given that these games depend on critical mass, how many of of them can exist at once? Network effects suggest only two strong games, with the occasional also ran in third place. But will Pokémon Go be a fad or sustainable? Will the leader spot swap constantly as is common in mobile gaming, or will it follow The World of Warcraft model with a dedicated fanbase that continues to play after a decade, always improving their characters.  Will people even care about AR geolocation games in 6 months once the Christmas of VR hits? Perhaps all those kids will rush back inside to the screen-lit darkness after a brief summer of outdoor fun.  Whatever happens, it will certainly be fun to watch. 

The Geekification of Culture

So why now? Companies have tried to make location based gaming ‘happen’ for over a decade. Why now? Our best guess is that summer 2016 is the perfect storm of technology and culture. When Ingress launched fewer people had high end smartphones with large data plans. Battery life with constant GPS was poor. And certainly fewer kids had smart phones.  Now that the smartphone wars have reached a stalemate pretty much everyone can have one; and every smartphone is good enough to run these games. (Why do we still call them smartphones anyway? They’re just phones now). The technology is clearly more accessible.  There seems to be another factor though: the geekification of culture

I see children talk about getting +5 improvements for their characters.  When I was young this branded you as an outcast playing D&D in the basement.  Now it’s a part of pop culture. The biggest movies are based on sci-fi and superheros. Kids are learning to program at a mass scale. Minecraft is used in educational programs. Cos-play is a thing that’s talked about positively. Hell, Disney is building a Star Wars Land!  Somehow it happened: Geek is cool now.  

In retrospect it should have been obvious: combined with the nostalgia of Pokémon, the tech pieces falling together, and the enduring popularity of collecting things; it really was the perfect vehicle to make location games happen. And I must admit the Pokémon are cute. I’m far more interested in collecting a charmander than power-ups for the crushing of candy. My kid is all about Hot Wheels and Hex-a-bugs right now, but I suspect Pokémon is not far behind.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some catching to do.

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