Persona

The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Why is Pokemon Go such a hit?

Pokemon Go 2One more, and hopefully last, Pokemon Go post…

One of my favourite researchers Katherine Isbister recently wrote a great blog post  on the design features of Pokemon Go, explaining what makes it such a fun game to play. To briefly summarise, she notices that the game is simple to pick up and play, that it gets us moving, and that it lets us connect with other people in the real world, rather than just online. These are all great points, but she calls her summary ’Why Pokemon Go Became an Instant Phenomenon’ – and I don’t think her article answers that question.

Pokemon Go is not the first location-based game out there, nor is it the first mobile phone pervasive game or the first Augmented Reality game. (I even hesitate to call it an Alternate Reality game, more on that below.) Although Botfighter was too early and launched while the technology was not ready for it, GeoCaching was successful already from its launch (in the year of 2000) and has around 3 million users worldwide, and since the IPhone came out we have seen games and entertainment apps like Foursquare, Zombies, Run!, Shadow Cities, Turf, SpecTrek, AgentX come – and very often also go. Most of these were fun to use, had stable user bases, and some of them have been very good games. (Others not so much – despite the fact that there always is at least one or two on the market, the genre of location-based MMORPG seems to be doomed to fail.)

The success of Pokemon Go is similar of that of World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2004. Neither of these games was the first of their kind, but somehow they manage to take an established genre to the mass-market and do it fast – they are blockbuster games. So let’s see if there are some commonalities.

A known IP

The fact that Pokemon Go is based on Pokemon – a very well-known brand and game concept – is the most important reason for its success. It has often been argued that WoW was so immediately successful because it capitalised on the Warcraft brand. While this definitely mattered to attract a first player base, it can’t be the full explanation since the game so very quickly attracted more players than ever had played the previous Warcraft games. However, with Pokemon Go the importance of the IP cannot be understated. Firstly, there is a large number of people out there who have grown up playing Pokemon. Secondly, what you did in the virtual Pokemon games is essentially the exact same thing as you do in Pokemon Go: you walk around in the world searching for Pokemon, and you let Pokemon fight other Pokemon. Now you get to be a Pokemon trainer for real – something some people have dreamed about their whole life

Just as for blockbuster larp, a known IP doesn’t only help with attracting attention and hype, it helps players to know what to do in the game.

A Good Game

A blockbuster game is typically not all that innovative, but it must be reasonably bug-free, well designed, and accessible to players that haven’t played this particular genre of games before. This is true for Pokemon Go and it was true for WoW – although if I was to write a review (which I am not doing) I would say that this was truer for WoW than it is for Pokemon Go. Go back to Katherine’s blog post for the reasons why Pokemon Go is fun to play.

Rich content

One thing that sets Pokemon Go apart from its predecessors is that it is rich in content, and this was also a major ‘wow’ factor when WoW first came out. In Pokemon Go, there are two sources of content: the Pokemon themselves but also all the places – the Pokestops and Gyms – in the physical world that are meaningful to visit.

This is a very interesting aspect of Pokemon Go, since almost all previous games in this genre have been developed by startups and very small companies. No matter how good the games have been, the content has often been minimal at launch, often expected to be crowdsourced through play. In Pokemon Go, the Pokestops and Gyms have indeed been crowdsourced (they are geo-tagged locations of notable places and artwork), but this was done through Ingress, the previous game from the same company. While Ingress slowly and steadily has built up a large player base, it was not all that fun to play in the beginning when there were few players and even less content. If it had not been for Google funding the game, I doubt it would have lasted for three years.

Genre awareness

A blockbuster game can’t be the first of its kind. While a new and innovative game genre can attract a very dedicated and skilled player collective, it is bound to grow only slowly.

It is only when these games have been around for a while that a genre starts to exist in people’s minds. By now most people know of somebody who has played a location-based game. You know somebody who has been out GeoCaching, you may yourself have been an avid Foursquare-user once, you have friends who play Ingress. You sort of know what kind of experiences they offer, and while it seems fun there hasn’t been a game out there that were in your precise taste – until now. This is what Mattias Svahn calls category knowledge. You know what kind of product it is that you are buying and you are selecting this game in competition with other games you also could have been playing.

The hype helps, because it creates a need for the product. Now suddenly, you realise that not just are there games of this type out there – you also must play this one, since everyone else seems to be doing it.

What kind of game is Pokemon Go?

Above, I have used several different terms for the ‘type of game’ that Pokemon Go is, and the same happens in other articles. So let’s go through some of these terms to see which ones fit, and which ones fit less well.

Augmented Reality Game

This is primarily a technology term, describing a set of techniques to locate virtual content in the physical world so that it can be seen or heard by the user when coming close to the right location. When you come close to a Pokemon in Pokemon Go, you see it through your phone as if it was located in the physical world. Other solutions for Augmented Reality use locative sound, and creating Augmented Reality glasses is a long-standing technology dream with more or less good products coming out now and then (such as Google glasses).

This is the term that I see used for Pokemon Go the most, and there are probably several reasons for this. Firstly, while this is by far not the first mobile game that uses AR (we experimented with two such games in IPergG, in 2005 and 2007) it is not the most common technology in use in mobile gaming. Secondly, there has been a lot of recent hype about VR helmets, so this appears as an alternative but a bit similar technology. Journalists (especially game journalists) are often keen to attribute the success of any game to technology innovation, and since the AR function is the most innovative technology in this game it looks like it makes sense to call it an AR game.

But, while Pokemon Go does use Augmented Reality, it does so in a very weak way. The location technology is imprecise (Layar does a much better job of locating virtual content in the world) and the augmentation has no real function in gameplay. The function still plays a very important role: it allows players to take cool pictures of Pokemon and post them in social media, adding to the viral hype of the game.

Location-based Game

This is another technical term, meaning that the game is tied to real-world locations, or at the very least to real-world movement. (Some location-based games use relative rather than absolute positions.) Ever since phones started to come with location services, there have been location-based games launched over and over again. Pokemon Go is definitely a location-based game.

Pervasive Game

The concept of ‘pervasive games’ is a design-oriented term, highlighting specific aspects of how the game is designed and played. Pokemon go is a game that you play in the real, physical world as part of your everyday life. It has no clear boundaries in time or in space, and while playing it you mix with people who are not themselves playing and may not know that you are. This makes Pokemon Go a pervasive game, which creates some spectacular forms of fun and a whole batch of safety issues, as I discussed in my previous post.

Alternate Reality Game

Alternate reality games is also a design-oriented term, this time highlighting the narrative of the game. Alternate reality games are games that offer an alternative narrative about our everyday world: players may for example be hunting a secret conspiracy or solving a murder mystery or stopping an alien invasion or – as in this case – hunting fictional animals that can be hiding anywhere in the world. Just as with the (more widely scoped) concept of pervasive games, alternate reality games can be played in the real world and online. In a limited sense, Pokemon Go is also an alternate reality game.

I would still be hesitant to use the term ‘Alternate Reality’ to describe Pokemon Go. Alternate Reality games tend to be much more rich in content, and have often been transmedia productions and included web content, real-world events, and sometimes a film or a TV series. Very often they play out over limited time and present a single, timed, mystery that players collaborate to solve. Most have been produced as marketing campaigns. Hence, the term doesn’t quite fit – if any players sign up for Pokemon Go thinking it will be an alternate reality game, they will be rather disappointed.

Other terms

Pokemon Go is (of course) also a mobile game and a massively multiplayer persistent world game. It is furthermore a real-time (rather than turn-based) game and a host of other things related to specific design choices in the game. My prediction is that this game will create a genre of its own, tightly constrained by a host of specific design choices just like how WoW set a standard for how MMORPG games must look and function.

But I also predict that in contrary to WoW, it will not be the last successful game of its genre. There are so many design opportunities untapped by this game, that there are bound to be successful successors – or at least, I hope so!

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