I was recently asked by my friends at the Coburn Ventures group to share some thoughts on digital and cultural trends for their weekly call. I decided to focus on the phenomenon of the month- Pokémon Go, a game app for iPhone and Android. Many adult friends have wondered “What’s all the fuss about” or have derided “Those kids looking down at their phones” without a clear understanding of what’s actually going on. I have taken the time to gather some thoughts to help give some context for Pokémon go to the skeptical, the uniformed and the “haters.”
What is the history of the Pokémon game?
Pokémon started as two Nintendo Gameboy games- Red and Blue, in 1996. The franchise has included additional games for Gameboy and its more advanced models, Nintendo 64, trading card games, animated series and animated movies. There are Pokémon characters as balloons in the Macy’s parade, and painted on airplanes and trains in Japan, and a feature film is planned for 2017.
In the world of Pokémon, these small animal-like creatures exist as we do, and the goal is to capture, care for, train and battle the Pokémon. Players start as “trainers” and seek mastery with a goal of capturing all Pokémon – hence the tag line, “Gotta Catch ’em All!” The name comes from “pocket monster,” because when Pokémon are captured, they are kept in small balls that are pocket sized.
Kids identify with the idea of these mythic creatures being companions, fighting on their behalf. Many existing fans of Pokémon grew up with the francise and their game boys, and Pokémon go has given them a chance to rekindle their passion for the fantasy world.
How does the current game work?
The current Pokémon Go game brings the fantasy world to life using streets and city blocks as the game’s play board. The app uses a phone’s GPS to track player movement. From app-tracking and metrics company App Annie’s blog post on Pokémon:
Your avatar… explores set points of interest, or PokéStops, that provide Poké Balls and other items helpful to leveling up in the game. The game also harnesses AR to superimpose Pokémon into the real world, which has been key in prompting sharing of Pokémon-related photos online. Special features like Lures Modules, which are placed on PokéStops and attract additional Pokémon and entice users to make in-app purchases.
“Gyms” provide a place for Pokémon trainers to compete with other trainers by pitting their characters against each other in “battles.” No Pokémon is ever killed, but they may be knocked out, losing the battle. There are combat tactics – tapping quickly to attack and building up points for “special attacks.” One critique of the game is that there is little in-game help, so players have had to uncover the way to battle and level-up on their own – similar to the Pokémon trainers of the animated series. Pokémon gain points and evolve into stronger and more capable forms over time.
While my kids, who grew up as fans of the game and gameboy owners, grabbed the app early, I dove into the world of Pokémon, during my vacation. My quick take – it is easy to start and has many qualitites that bring you back to the game often, but the combat is not as easy or well-done.
Where did all these Pokéstops come from?
In 2014 Google released a game called “Ingress,” created by same team which is now Niantic – makers of Pokémon Go. In Ingress, Earth has hidden “exotic matter” that will either enslave humanity or drive us to evolve to higher consciousness – and players find it by venturing into your communities, parks, churches, libraries, posts offices and more. There are land-capture aspects, and collaboratively getting teams to take territory by visiting places is a key to the game. In Ingress, users submitted portal sites – including historical plaques and markers – and these are now part of the Pokemon game as well as the Pokéstops and Gyms.
The Google+ social network was used to coordinate networks of players in Ingress, something I think Pokemon is sorely lacking. I acknowledge that this kind of networking has its own challenges, especially relating to communication between kids and adults.
What’s Made Pokémon Go So Uniquely Captivating?
According to App Annie, 1 in 10 smart-phone owning Americans are playing the game daily, with 1 in 5 in the 13-24 year old demo having the app. What’s got them all hooked?
Augmented Reality: Part of the allure is that Pokémon Go’s game takes place in our world. With augmented reality mode, you can walk down the street and see Pokémon appear as part of the surroundings. It makes the game seem almost real. Bringing a fictional narrative into everyday life gives players a feeling of an enhanced reality, according to Newsweek.
The Get Up and Walk Aspect: One give-away from the Pokéstop is an egg. The only way the egg will hatch is if a player walks a distance, from 2km to 10km, with the game active. The longer the distance, the more possible it is to hatch a rare character. This bonus is optional but gives incentive for players to leave their homes to grow new companions. Additionally, players can earn healing potions, rasberry treats to attract new Pokémon, and Lures to attract Pokémon by visiting Pokéstops – which are located in the real world. Newsweek notes that Pokémon Go players walk 43 minutes per day. On a weekly basis that could be up to 1500 calories for women, 1800 for men or 6-7 donuts per week.
Variable Reinforcement: Like most addictive games, Pokémon Go uses variable reinforcement to encourage players to continue. Each visit to a Pokéstop can generate from 3 to 5 items, some common like Pokéballs, but some more rare, like eggs or “great Pokéballs” which are used to capture higher-level Pokémon. Additionally, humans like ‘treasure hunting’ – it exists in some of our oldest cultural stories and myths. Pokémon Go taps into the desire to find treasure, and maps it onto the real world.
What Are Some Challenges for Pokémon Go?
The game’s launch has not been without challenges. Early in the roll-out, there were frequent server crashes, leading to player frustration. The app itself, at least in my experience on iOS, has been buggy, freezing up if you switch to another app, and “fighting” with other apps which use GPS or Google Maps as part of their feature sets.
Additionally, it is hard to find an empty Gym after a month. The Gyms are dominated by high level players, some who have grown Pokémon with fights and experience and some who have paid for powerups. But a new or lower-level player encountering a 1000+ level oponent may give up rather than compete in a local gym battle. Giving the game the ability to encourage friend-to-friend battles, or practice rounds, will enable this aspect of the Pokémon world to retain its attraction.
In the previous games, and in the trading card world, players trade Pokémon. There’s no aspect of trading in the current game, except to trade “extra” characters you have back to the in-game guide, the Professor, who gives a meager reward to help you level up your existing characters.
Who is Playing Pokémon Go?
The game was originally dominated by the 13-24 year olds who grew up with the Pokémon series. But data from MediaPost indicates the demographics have shifted. “The core fan base shifted older…from nearly 70% being 24 and younger to now being spread across the age groups. The data points to about 10% of individuals ages 45 to 54, and 8% age 65+.”
Third party App Controversy
When first released, the game had an indicator that told players how close a particular pokemon was – just “One, Two or Three Steps away”- indicating how far you would walk to obtain the pokemon. But a glitch in late July was showing all creatures as “3 steps” away. The company “fixed” the glitch by removing the steps indicators, leaving no way to judge how far away a target Pokémon is located.
A 3rd party released “Poke VIsion,” an app that would tell players where to find the creatures nearby. The app was shut down 7/31, as Niantic claimed it was a form of cheating. They also said 3rd party apps were hitting their servers hard and affecting game play. At the same time, 3rd party maps did fix a problem, namely that it’s really, really hard to “Find ’em All.” One way around this is peer-to-peer sharing. 3rd party apps like “Poke Map” that let you share locations of creatures with other players. My son Harris informs me the creatures can spawn and disappear in less than 15 minutes, making quick updates of public information crucial.
One good aspect of the game is that, if there’s a rare Pokémon by you, other players will see a rare one as well. One player capturing that monster will not affect the second player’s chance of also making a capture.
Clever Marketing and Money-Making Potential
On July 29th, Venture Beat reported Pokemon Go is making $10M per day without taking away revenue from other games like Clash of Clans or Boom Beach [emphasis added]. On August 7th it was reported that the game has earned over $200MM in it’s first month, four times as much as Candy Crush Soda Saga in its first month.
It is making the pie bigger and increasing the size of the market for mobile games. People are taking advantage of the excitement to try to bring in business.
The owner of a Long Island City pizza place bought “Lures” to bring in pokemon – and his business went up 75%. People bought beer, soda, and Pizza and played the game. When I was in Cape Cod, I noticed a smoothie place that was also a Pokéstop. The owner said the game has brought foot traffic, but not much business. I suggested she try the same trick as the pizza place owner.
One bar in Brooklyn ran a Pokémon Go party, encouraging playing and of course drinking and eating. The game may even affect the elections. The Denver Post reported that the Colorado Democratic party is using Pokéstop locations to sign up voters:
Because Pokémon Go forces its players to visit real-world locations to capture digital creatures and advance in the game, state Democratic staff and volunteers have staked out certain hotspots — known as Pokéstops or Pokémon training gyms — to find unregistered voters…. Organizers figured out that just going to these locations and starting conversations with players is a great way for to potentially find a lot of unregistered Coloradans and get them registered to vote,” wrote Meredith Thatcher, a spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign in Colorado, in response to questions.
Niantic, Nintendo and McDonalds in Japan partnered so that restaurant locations are all Gyms for Pokémon battles. Soon to come in the game will be “Sponsored locations” where other business owners will be able to add their locations to the game as a stop or a gym.
Danger or Overhype?
It wouldn’t be a cultural phenomenon without someone bringing up the down side of Pokémon Go. News stories have included criminals stealing phones and money from players late at night to someone discovering a dead body while playing the game. Police are getting in on the act to encourage safety. Players have broken legs while paying attention to their phones, and have trespassed looking for rare Pokémon characters on private property. In fact, CBS gathered a story of “All the Terrible Things That Have Happened To Pokémon Players.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. So far, no reports of kids being kidnapped, but NY State has banned the use of Pokémon Go among sex offenders.
While any activity that takes you to a secluded playground at 2am is going to be of questionable safety, and any activity (including texting) that keeps you focused on your phone and not your surroundings is going to have consequences, the game is not inherintly dangerous. Game updates have added messages like ” “Do Not Trespass While Playing Pokemon Go,” and players have to press “OK” before continuing.
What’s the Future of Mobile Games Based on Pokémon Go?
Its almost impossible to leap from “People playing Pokémon go do this” to “Here’s the next Unicorn game app.” But we can see some trends.
Augemented reality in games is a hit. Pokémon Go wasn’t the first, but it was a break out hit and this opens the door for more real-world/game-world crossovers.
Franchises are ripe for harvesting. Collecting small, animated monsters isn’t your thing? How about running away from zombies like the Walking Dead? Chasing clues with Sherlock Holmes (geo-caching plus mystery plus augmented reality – elementary, my dear Watson.) Whatabout overlaying distance markers on the ground for runners or sports fans (but make sure you look up before you run into traffic, ok?)
What about taking out the character aspect, and giving people incentive to visit places and “collect” rewards for doing so? Or rewarding the movement aspect of the game? The team at Charity Miles already provides an incentive for runners and cyclists to earn real money for every mile they run or ride.
Using real-world locations for games has already proven lucretive as a money-making way to involve businesses. I’m certain that businesses will want more opportunities to bring in new foot traffic using fun rather than ads.
We’ve yet to see the full…evolution of the Pokémon Go phenomenon, and where the learning from this month-old game will take us. I could share more, but there’s a high-level Pokémon just up the road, and if I don’t leave now, I won’t catch him.
Brooke Greenstein and Harris Greenstein contributed to this article.