You know Pokemon GO is big when criminals start luring victims using the game in order to rob them. We've all heard about Pokemon GO at this point. You may have played it yourself, seen friends talk about it on social media, read about it in the news, or even seen strangers play it in the street. I think it's safe to say that Pokemon GO is a cultural phenomenon and perhaps the most explosive mobile title ever. But for the uninitiated, what is Pokemon and why is this game so wildly popular?
It All Starts With Nintendo
Nintendo made a horrible decision years ago to not develop mobile games, and it's been biting them in the butt. Their console strategy has been not panned out, and so their business has been struggling. One look at their stock chart confirms this. The stock was up 35% yesterday on the Pokemon hype but is still just at 1/3 of it's peak value in 2008.
Enter Niantic Labs. Niantic was a skunkworks project within Google focused on augmented reality mobile games. Their first game, Ingress, was published back in 2012 and was a reasonably successful augmented reality MMO game focused on two opposing factions. Players basically join a side and attempt to control various real world locations to benefit their team. In September 2015, Niantic announced that they were co-developing Pokemon GO with Nintendo and The Pokemon Company, and they also announced a $30M round from both companies in addition to Google. They then launched Pokemon GO just last week on July 6th in Australia, New Zealand and the US. They even announced a small (and hideous) wearable bluetooth bracelet that vibrates when Pokemon are nearby. Despite technical issues, the game launch was a massive success hitting the #1 free and #1 grossing spots in the US immediately. In order to understand the game's popularity, however, we need to delve into the history of Pokemon.
Pokemon was created in Japan in 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri. The idea came from the fact that Satoshi was an avid insect collector in his childhood and so he came up with the concept of "Pocket Monsters", which then became Pokemon. The franchise began as a pair of video games for the original Game Boy, developed by Satoshi's company Game Freak and published by Nintendo. The turn-based RPG was fairly straightforward - players become Pokemon trainers who go around collecting and battling Pokemon to progress through the story, with an end goal of collecting every single Pokemon. The two games were almost identical except for the fact that there were slightly different Pokemon in each game, forcing players to link up and trade with each other. The games were massively successful in Japan and quickly saw release in the US as well. MANY other sequels soon followed. The second generation was Pokemon Gold and Silver which also added a bunch more Pokemon to the universe, then Pokemon Crystal. The third generation was Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire on the Game Boy Advance, and the list goes on - FireRed and LeafGreen, Diamond and Pearl, Black and White, HeartGold and SoulSilver, Pokemon X and Y, etc.
Shockingly, it didn't stop there. They had a seemingly endless run of spin-off games on other platforms like Pokemon Stadium and Pokemon Snap, a popular 19-season anime, 18 feature films, a long running trading card game, and endless toys and other merchandise. Even today, 20 years after its founding, the franchise has unbridled popularity and Pokemon GO is yet another example of that. Pokemon is a globally popular franchise and has left a significant mark on today's pop culture. Cumulative sales of their video games are estimated at over 200 million copies, and as of September 2015 The Pokemon media franchise had grossed over $40 billion in cumulative revenue.
Here's Why Pokemon GO Is Working So Well
Sure, the Pokemon franchise is huge, but that alone doesn't account for Pokemon GO's overnight success. Here are the three main factors that I believe have given the game such broad-based explosiveness.
Nostalgia - Not only is Pokemon a big thing, it's also a multi-generational property. The franchise has stayed true to its roots and still resonates quite a bit with their original audience who are now adults, while continuing to cater to the current younger generation. Over the past two decades, Pokemon has expanded their universe and broadened out to many other countries and demographics without ever alienating their original fans. Basically, there's something in it for everyone and so it was a lot easier for Pokemon GO to hit a tipping point and become a cultural phenomenon.
Truly Mobile-Only Game - Augmented reality that leverage the phone's GPS is as pure a mobile experience as you can get. This type of game cannot be replicated on a console or PC, so there is a certain originality to it. People are definitely getting more exercise which was one of the goals of the game, and there is definitely a novelty in interacting with real-world points of interest and familiar places. Also, the fact that you have to hold your phone up and flick pokeballs means that it's very obvious when other people around you are playing the game, which seems to incite a lot of FOMO and herd mentality. Additionally, Pokemon seems like it was built 20 years ago for this very experience and Niantic hasn't strayed far at all from the original concept. I can't think of another franchise/IP that would work in a mobile augmented format as seamlessly as Pokemon GO does.
Virality / Meme-worthiness - The game just lends itself so well to sharing on social media. Since it's an augmented reality game that uses the phone's camera, it inevitably leads to so many organic, hilarious moments. This US vet took a break fighting ISIS to catch a Squirtle, and here is every other weird place that people find Pokemon. How about this crazy "colorblind-friendly" chart created by a Reddit user to help visually impaired people in battle. Or maybe these hilarious "missed connections" found on Craigslist and Twitter. And we can't forget about the grown man cheating with drones, the variety of Pokemon bar crawls popping up, and these ridiculous congregations of people who are all obviously catching Pokemon. Every aspect of the game is conducive for social sharing and to get people talking, and as it turns out a lot of the game's bugs and glitches actually contribute to the hilarity.
Despite Its Popularity, There Are A Ton Of Issues That Need To Be Fixed
The list of issues with the game is long. Most notably the company is struggling with capacity and having all sorts of server issues that they are working through. They have really only launched a few countries so there is a lot of work to be done here in order to get the game running globally. There are also a bevy of other issues relating to privacy, GPS tracking, battery life, logins, and various other game mechanics.
Longer term, the question becomes whether Niantic will be able to keep up engagement and efficiently monetize. This will ultimately be decided by how they handle live operations in the coming months and what type of content updates and fixes they push over time.
Pokemon GO is looking good as Nintendo's first real foray into mobile. The power of Nintendo's franchises is staggering and continues to surprise even after so many years. The next few months will be interesting to see if Pokemon GO can become as valuable as games like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and Game of War.