“Are you familiar with Pokémon? It’s a game based on capturing and collecting pets from around the world. Now, imagine if these animals were mapped onto our actual surroundings — playing on the beach, you could find a sea dragon; exploring the arctic tundra, you’d find a snow wolf. My friends and I are basically re-creating Pokémon… but in real life!”
I pitched this premise thousands of times in 2010 for a Pokémon-inspired, location-based, iOS game - Geomon. We raised venture capital money, launched the game, and built out a strong global community discovering and capturing virtual monsters in our everyday surroundings.
It also happens to be the premise for Pokémon Go, a viral game that has taken the world by storm, reaching #1 in both App Stores in the first 24 hours. My co-founders and I spent years deliberating on how to bring Pokémon to the real world. We faced hard decisions on how to balance the players’ immersion in such a reality with the mechanics and storytelling genius of the original games. Ever since Niantic announced the development of Pokémon Go, I’ve been curious how they would tackle some of these same challenges we faced; they also had to live up to the expectations set by bringing forth a new chapter to one of the world’s most beloved set of characters. Having spent the past few days capturing over 100 Pidgeys, a dozen Eevees, and an extra-large Arcanine, I wanted to share initial reactions, upcoming obstacles, and how I think the game could evolve from here.
Walking down the streets of downtown, it’s impossible to miss the newly empowered Pokémon trainers huddled together, tracking a nearby Slowpoke or walking with purpose at the nearest enemy Gym. The world’s alight once more with Pika-craze, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s an unmatched mobile game phenomenon, at least partially because Niantic chose to require users to venture out to points of interest in our real world. Prior mega-hit mobile games — Temple Run, Draw Something, etc. — often had users playing from the comforts of their home, cuddled up on the couch. Pokémon Go is, for players like me, unplayable at home; there are no nearby points of interest and Pokémon don’t seem to be interested in stopping by. So lots of playtime is out of the home and highly visible. This feeds into the social pressure to join in and see what all the hype is about.
I applaud Niantic for having created something that gets gamers up and out. I’ve observed Trainers stopping to help one another out, pointing fellow enthusiasts to a rare Pokémon location. On the technical side, I believe it to be no small feat to gather a database of all the subtle points of interest around us. There is a sense of wonder when I find myself at the pair of stone lion statues I passed every day on the way to work and never before observed.
On the other hand, there are significant ramifications for this major gameplay decision. Early on in Geomon, we noticed that users spend 90% of their time at home and work/school. Inland players rarely see water monsters and many younger players don’t have data plans to play at the park. Nobody wants to wait 6 months for the snow (and corresponding ice monsters) to arrive. With Geomon, it was important to our core values to keep using your environment to determine the monsters that show up. Water monsters should only show up by bodies of water and in the rain. Other monsters would show up only at amusement parks or museums. We chose to “fix” the limited selection issue by introducing trading. This boosted our engagement significantly, as users began actively reaching out to one another to trade monsters.
Pokémon Go has a couple of different choices to make, with different tradeoffs. They could make more monsters generally available, allowing for ice monsters to show up in the summer. This could disappoint some players who excitedly visit a state park, only to find the same Spearows and Caterpies they see at home. They could also introduce trading, but balancing the ensuing behavioral changes could get very tricky. Some players may choose to become expert “farmers”, who can turn around and sell rare monsters to those who prefer to stay at home. The in-game economy and sense of communal discovery can go haywire. If you still doubt that players would trade time and effort for financial compensation, note that entrepreneurs are already offering to drive avid trainers around for $25 an hour. Whatever the decision, the subtlest of Pokémon Go decisions will influence how society acts.
Battling was a core mechanic to the original Pokémon games. One could argue it was the core game mechanic — we spent over 80% of our time battling against wild monsters and other trainers. The battling was strategically engaging and arguably quite well-balanced. As a young child, I had many empowering decisions to make about the elements I wanted to optimize for, what monsters I’m seeking to round out my team, and what skills to teach them.
There was also a great deal of discovery. Hidden stats behind individual Pokémon allowed the most dedicated of trainers to find the strongest in the wild and train them to their full potential. Other hypotheses were less valid (pressing B does not actually help with Pokémon capturing), but equally fun to theorize.
Battling so far in Pokémon Go has been… confusing. Many of my friends have attempted to challenge a local Gym, give up and go back to just catching the cutest/coolest Pokémon. The tapping gets tedious; the rewards or benefits of fighting are unclear and not immediately gratifying; and there are few decisions one can make to improve your chances at winning. Moves are locked in with each Pokémon when captured — old monsters can’t be taught new tricks. Furthermore, what happens to “latecomers” to the game? How do newly minted level 5s compete at gyms where early adopters have parked their 1000+ CP Snorlaxes? There’s little incentive to try and catch up. With the level of effort put in by aficionados, it may not even be possible.
There are many examples of successful mobile games that have implemented satisfying core gameplay loops. Some have argued that Pokémon Go already has brilliant mechanics; while there are strong, indisputable points surrounding the game’s virality and early-stage engagement, I do not believe the game has long-term retention ability as it currently stands. As time goes on, players will begin filling up their collections and looking for something to do with their Pokémon. It’s no easy task — with this level of success, the user base is remarkably diverse. A successful gameplay mechanic must appeal to highly strategic players as well as a more casual broad base. Niantic can add more Pokémon from later generations, but this will only extend the interest in the game for a finite time. Content addition by the developer is not a scalable longterm strategy. A good game lays out a broad set of tools and allows for the player base to find ways to use them. Without adding significant layers of depth to the game, I fear for Pokémon Go’s longevity.
I want to briefly touch on the use of *Augmented Reality*. Articles have been flying left and right about the role of AR in Pokémon Go’s success. Many have heralded this as the pinnacle of what the tech industry has long prophesied. It’s a strong feature the emphasizes the ties between the Pokémon world and our own. Perhaps more importantly, it is a fantastically successful feature for social media sharing. But let’s not oversell the relatively simple tech at play here. For now, this is a digital sticker on your camera… tons of fun! But this is a fun supporting feature, not the key ingredient to success.
I also wanted to mention the strong business potential. In addition to already having reached the top grossing spot on the app stores and raking in a reported $1.6m in daily revenue from in-app purchases, there are obvious other ways to monetize. Many have leaped on the potential of localized gaming hotspots. Savvy business owners have started offering discounts to those who place lures at their shop, attracting nearby Pokémon and therefore nearby trainers. Local businesses will be thrilled to sponsor a Pokestop or Gym (I noticed my neighborhood Target is conspicuously lacking a Pokestop). If the game continues to thrive, the path to monetization is a given.
Finally, as a PM nitpick, let’s please fix the tutorial. I excitedly downloaded this app on the first day it came out. I spent time customizing my in-game avatar and carefully chose out my name. I caught my first starter! (Squirtle, of course.) And then… *nothing*. No Pokestops were nearby, and no Pokémon showed up on my radar. I kept the game open another 15 minutes, then gave up for the night. The game’s virality proves that plenty of people have persisted despite this, but it shouldn’t be hard to add several learning steps to ease a new Trainer into the game.
Pokémon Go is a revolutionary game. Niantic did a great job capturing the visceral sense that Pokémon surround us. The weekly grocery run becomes a lot more exciting when there’s a chance that a Jigglypuff awaits you at the neighborhood Target. The graphics are great, and the nostalgia is intense. I’ve never seen another game change society this abruptly.
But I want more. As a society we have spent our time flinging countless Angry Birds. We have Crushed so many Candies. No mobile game lasts forever. But without deeper layers to the game, I fear this will pass us by as another Flappy Bird or Draw Something, rather than the everlasting alternative world this has the potential to become. Once trainers have filled their bags and evolved their Gyrados, I hope to find more to do on the other side. I’d personally love to see peer-to-peer battling and collaborative breeding. There are so many areas left to flesh out, so many more places to explore. I can’t wait to see what comes next. In the meantime, you’ll still find me strolling through my local park, catching them all.
PS #teamsquirtle #mystic