We all remember Pokémon Go – the mobile game app themed after the popular animated show that used augmented reality to allow us to hunt for our favorite Pokémon and sent us into a street-traversing frenzy. But how did Pokémon Go become so successful? Can its success ever be repeated? And where did all of it vanish to?
An Unexpected Success Story
Pokémon Go was the hit we hadn’t seen coming in 2016, and to say it took mobile gaming by storm would be an understatement. In the first 80 days of its release, the game that tapped into our collective nostalgia for the 1990s show already had more than 550 million installs (with a peak of approximately 27 million in a single day!) and $470 million in revenues to show for, and had almost one in four smartphone or tablet users worldwide downloading the app.
Almost a year ago from now, approximately a month into its launch, the daily time spent on the game by average iOS users surpassed their time on Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter. The world seemed completely taken over by the Pokémon chase – so much so that it almost forgot how to function properly. People went to extremes trying to get hold of their beloved Pokémon and improve their status in the game. A pair of US players were caught by the police trespassing in Toledo Zoo, trying to catch Pokémon they saw lurking around, and their excuse to the cops reportedly paid a humble tribute to the game’s famous catchphrase, as they simply stated “gotta catch ‘em all”.
Pokémon Go’s success may be attributed to several factors that came together as the stars aligned. The game was premised on technologically advanced features, using geolocation to identify where the user is and then augmented reality to allow interaction with virtual elements superimposed on images of the real world, playing heavily into the excitement of discovering and “hunting”. But even further than that, it was ideally paired with a very popular brand icon that was familiar to everybody growing up in the 1990s – it triggered nostalgia for the TV show and that kept people going. In fact, the game’s manufacturer, Niantic, had already launched a game in 2012, called Ingress, that also featured user geolocation, but it was not met with Pokémon Go’s insane success. However, it did make some huge fans and retained them for years.
Pokémon Gone: Lessons Learned
Yet, maybe unlike Ingress, the Pokemon Go enthusiasm quickly waned. Many users complained about the developer’s inability to introduce new features to keep players interested and for not fixing the countless glitches that regularly resulted in the app consuming too much battery, running sluggishly or crashing. Removing the Pokémon tracking system was the final blow for many, as it meant that instead of hunting them down, users had to wander around hoping to stumble upon a rare Pokémon by chance. It seems that the developers weren’t ready for this unprecedented success and could not rise up to expectations as quickly as they needed to – so the hype wore off and the game saw its users jumping ship and its daily download number dropping from 6 million to 1 million in a fortnight. While Pokémon Go’s success was perhaps the most surprising, it is hardly the most consistently popular game out there. Games like Angry Birds, Zombie Tsunami and Clash of Clans seem to have established a much stronger foothold with a loyal user base.
Yet Pokémon Go demonstrated how important a social experience is in gaming – especially in light of the fact that millennials, born and raised in an era of constant communication on social media, are becoming an increasingly important target demographic for the gaming industry. More than 85% of Generation Y own smartphones and gaming is one of their favorite things to do – and casino-style games seem to be dominating the scene, as almost half of millennials prefer them. That might not be as surprising as it sounds: for example, new features on online bingo sites include chat rooms and group playing, which plays well with the socializing dimension that this demographic is after in the context of their online activities, while the simple and user-friendly gameplay makes it easier to participate from the comfort of your bedroom rather than taking to the streets to catch the umpteenth Rattata. The lesson here for developers is that yes, exciting gameplay and easy-to-learn games are good, especially if we’re talking about casual games, but attention should definitely be paid to the social aspects of your new game – otherwise, it may go unnoticed.
Now that the Pokémon craze is over and the world is back to normal, it is easy to draw similar useful conclusions. While the game’s instant hit success might be hard to replicate, the aspects that made it so popular are not hard to pinpoint – and harnessing them in a more controlled way might make for more enduring popularity than Niantic’s one-hit wonder.