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Beware the Pokemon Go Bandwagon

The phenomenal success of Niantic's game is driving developers, IP holders and venture capitalists towards mobile AR, but most of those bets won't pay off

Pokemon Go is the only thing anyone wants to talk about. Even people who don't want to talk about Pokemon Go end up talking about it all the time, if only to tell everyone how sick they are of people talking about Pokemon Go. Social networks are full of Pokemon Go, going out for a drink is now impossible without occasional interruptions as a buzzing phone signals the possible arrival of a rare beast, and comparisons of recent prized acquisitions have replaced complaints about the weather as smalltalk.

It's not just your social group that's talking about Pokemon Go, though. Damned near every conversation I've had within the industry in recent days has turned to Pokemon Go at some point. The games industry has produced some remarkable social phenomena in recent decades - Grand Theft Auto 3, Halo and Angry Birds all spring to mind as games that leapt across the boundaries to ignite the mainstream imagination, at least for a time - but none has been as fast, as widespread or as visible as Pokemon Go. It's inevitable, then, that businesspeople across the industry find themselves wondering how to help themselves to a slice of this pie.

Behind the headlines about the game itself, there's another story building steam. Some investors and venture capitalists are hunting for the "next Pokemon Go", or a "Pokemon Go killer"; developers are frantically preparing pitches and demos to that effect; IP holders are looking at their own franchises and trying to figure out which ones they could "do a Pokemon Go" with. I know of several investor meetings in the past week alone in which developers of quite different games were needled to push their titles towards mobile AR in an effort to replicate the success of Pokemon Go.

"Pokemon Go has just managed to attract the largest audience of any mobile game within weeks of its launch - and it could just as readily find itself losing that audience almost in its entirety within a few weeks"

This is an ill-advised direction, to say the very least. From a creative standpoint, it's hard not to roll one's eyes, of course; this bandwagon-hopping occurs after every major hit game earns its success. For a couple of years after any truly huge game captures the industry's imagination, it seems that the only words investors want to hear are "it's like that hit game you think you understand, but with something extra". Sometimes that's not a bad thing; "it's like Grand Theft Auto but with superpowers" was probably the pitch line for the excellent Crackdown, while "it's like Grand Theft Auto but we drink more heavily in our design meetings" was probably not the pitch line for Saints Row, but should have been. This approach does also yield more than its fair share of anaemic clones of great games, but it has its merits, not least in being a clear way of communicating an idea to people who may not be experts in game design.

In the instance of Pokemon Go, however, there's a really fundamental problem with the bandwagon jumping. Even as third parties fall over themselves to figure out how to hop aboard the Pokemon Go bandwagon, the fact is that we don't even know if this bandwagon is rolling yet. Pokemon Go is a free-to-play mobile game, which means that its phenomenal launch is only the first step. In F2P, a great launch is not a sign of success, it's a sign of potential; the hard work, and the real measure of a game's success, is what comes next.

To put this in blunt terms, Pokemon Go has just managed to attract the largest audience of any mobile game within weeks of its launch - and it could just as readily find itself losing that audience almost in its entirety within a few weeks. If that happens, those enormous download numbers and the social phenomenon that has built up around the game will be almost meaningless. Mobile games make their money over long periods of time and rely upon engaging players for months; a mobile game that's downloaded by millions, but is only being played by thousands within a few weeks, is not a success, it's a catastrophic case study in squandered potential.

I'm not necessarily saying that this will happen to Pokemon Go - though there are warning signs there already, which I'll get to in a moment - I'm saying, rather, that it could happen to Pokemon Go, and that it's therefore vastly premature for anyone to be labelling this as a model for success or chasing after it with their own mobile AR titles. There are shades of what happened with VR, where Facebook's acquisition of Oculus drove ludicrous amounts of capital into some very questionable VR startups and projects, inflating a valuation bubble which many investors are now feeling deeply uncomfortable about. Here, the initial buzz for Pokemon Go has sent capital seeking out similar projects long before we actually get any proper feedback on whether the model is sustainable or worthwhile.

"Looked at from the standpoint of mobile and F2P game design, the game is severely lacking in the crucial area of player retention"

There's actually only one way in which Pokemon Go has been an unqualified success thus far, and that's in its incredibly powerful validation of the Pokemon brand. Nintendo walks away from this whole affair a winner, no matter what; the extraordinary launch of the game is, as I've argued previously, a testament to the huge appeal of Pokemon, the golden age of nostalgia it's going through, and the clever recognition of its perfect fit to the outdoor, AR-based gameplay of Niantic's games. The thing is that thus far, we simply can't tell to what extent Pokemon Go is riding the wave of that brand, and to what extent it's actually bedding in as a sustainable game with a huge playing (and paying) audience.

I have my own suspicions that Pokemon Go is actually quite troubled on the latter count. Looked at from the standpoint of mobile and F2P game design, the game is severely lacking in the crucial area of player retention. At first, it does a great job; it trickle-feeds new Pokemon to you and filling out the first 100 or so entries in the Pokedex is a fun challenge that keeps players coming back each day. It's then that things become more problematic. As players reach higher levels, the game applies significantly more friction (not necessarily in fun ways, with Niantic making some very dubious guesses as to the tolerance for frustration of their players) even as the actual reasons for playing start to fade away.

At high levels, finding or evolving new creatures is incredibly rare, and the only other thing for players to do is battling at Pokemon Gyms - which some players find entertaining, but which is a completely disconnected experience from the thing people have been enjoying up to that point, namely exploring and collecting new Pokemon. The idea that players who love exploring and collecting will be motivated by combat at Gyms seems naive, and misunderstands the different motivations different people have for playing games. My suspicion is that on the contrary, lots of players, perhaps a significant majority, will complete as much of their Pokedex as they reasonably can before churning out of the game - a high churn rate that will be exacerbated by the dying down of the "halo" of social media around the game, which inexplicably lacks any social features of its own.

"Absent some dramatic updates and changes from Niantic in the coming weeks...it's likely to end up being a fun summer fad that never converts into being a sustainable, long-term business"

I could be wrong - I'd be very happy to be wrong, in fact - but my sense of where Pokemon Go is headed is that, absent some dramatic updates and changes from Niantic in the coming weeks, the game is destined to be a fad. It will achieve its objective for Nintendo in some regards, establishing the value of the firm's IP on mobile and probably igniting interest in this year's upcoming 3DS Pokemon titles, but in the broad scheme of things it's likely to end up being a fun summer fad that never converts into being a sustainable, long-term business.

In that case, those companies and investors chasing the Pokemon Go dollar with ideas for Pokemon Go killers or Pokemon Go-alikes are running down a blind alley. Crucially, they're misunderstanding the game's appeal and value; at the moment, Pokemon Go's appeal is firmly rooted in its IP, and no other IP is ever going to replicate that in the same way. Digimon might have some appeal within a certain age group; Yokai Watch is largely unknown in the west and its players in Japan skew too young for an outdoor AR game to make much sense; I can think of no other franchise that would fit the "Pokemon Go model" well enough to make for an appealing game. If Pokemon Go turns out to be sustainable, then there's potential for other companies to start thinking about what to do with this new audience of people who have fallen for mobile AR experiences; but until that happens, every VC dollar or man-hour of design time spent on a "Pokemon Go killer" is most likely being wasted entirely.

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Latest comments (9)

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments11 months ago
"As players reach higher levels, the game applies significantly more friction (not necessarily in fun ways, with Niantic making some very dubious guesses as to the tolerance for frustration of their players) even as the actual reasons for playing start to fade away."

This might not be a deliberate design decision:

http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-08-05-you-didnt-imagine-it-pokemon-gos-recent-patch-did-nerf-capture-rate

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Neil Young on 5th August 2016 10:53am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 11 months ago
If you are already out there, why only play one AR game at a time? it does not make sense. Do not apply retro-logic from ten years ago, when MMO players could barely play one MMO and had to bot the others on virtual machines. No, the dark cyber future is now; go optimize!

Strap five android phones to your arm, make one the hotspot for the others and not just catch them all, but play them all. Photoshop pictures do not just have one layer, so why would AR have but one?
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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop11 months ago
In the same way Clash saw hundreds of devs charging at build & battlers, and Candy Crush saw hundreds of devs charging at M3. There's always a herd following huge success, and it rarely pays off for those involved.
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Show all comments (9)
Anthony Chan11 months ago
To put this in blunt terms, Pokemon Go has just managed to attract the largest audience of any mobile game within weeks of its launch - and it could just as readily find itself losing that audience almost in its entirety within a few weeks.
I am playing Po-go and I do see its flaws and (so far) limited replayability. But what everybody is forgetting is that (from what I can see) 90% of the game is 'hunting' for new pokemon - and not any PvP aspect that normally keeps people hooked. The hunt is currently limited by the fact there are 'only' 150ish Pokemon in the game. If anybody has played a Pokemon game recently, they would understand there almost 700 Pokemon across all the released generations - with each generation adding a hundred more. The next generation comes out this year with the new 3DS additions Sun & Moon.

Point is, once Niantic catches up and adds the rest of the Pokemon, geo-diversity and geo-specific Pokemon can become a reality. Right now, it is boring enough that water pokemon can spawn in the middle of a concrete jungle, hopefully this changes. This will bring new life to the game as it forces people to actually think where can they hunt certain Pokemon.

One last thing, Niantic needs to implement countermeasures to cheating (i.e. GPS Spoofing) and the trade function. Then even without PvP, the game will be a strong staple on the top grossing lists of both major app stores. Once that is established, I can safely say copycats can begin confidently creating the knockoffs of every possible theme - ghost busters, treasure hunters, cops & robbers, demon slayers, super hackers - any childhood game that forced us to superimpose our imagination on the 'real world' and adventure beyond our boundaries.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions11 months ago
The other big issue s its not an AR game really in the slightest. Most people by now have turned the AR aspect off, its a nice gimmick for social sharing but adds nothing to the game. Po-Go is a fun GPS driven treasure hunt with a priceless IP attached.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Browne on 5th August 2016 5:14pm

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Bill Young Head of Strategic Partnerships & Sponsorships, esports, Twitch TV11 months ago
Richard - I would argue that it's more than a nice gimmick for social sharing...it was crucial - I don't know what your social feeds looked (and still look) like, but mine was about 25% Pokemon Go in the week or so after launch. That kind of promotion (the best kind...trusted word of mouth) had to be extremely influential in their ascent. I agree with your last line very much though - succinct summary, nail on the head.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bill Young on 5th August 2016 6:34pm

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I think some reality on where Pokemon GO fits into the Location-Based entertainment mix would be great:

http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103295952658&ca=5773637a-2291-4f4d-bcaa-df2158725bc5

You will also see that a lot of the issues that the developers are finding could be addressed through an out-of-home approach to the busyness - as we see with eSport!
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In the same way Clash saw hundreds of devs charging at build & battlers, and Candy Crush saw hundreds of devs charging at M3. There's always a herd following huge success, and it rarely pays off for those involved.
Clash was not location based game and so clones worked much better than they would on location based. There are dozens of companies that have made their fortunes from Clash clones. For example Space Ape (Samurai Siege).

Previous location based games, like Grey Area's Shadow Cities from 2011 and Niantic's own Ingress were not successess largely because people do not want to wonder around in order to play a game. The one and only difference here is of course the biggest gaming brand in the world. Pokemon has enough power to make people move.

As a game, it is crappy by all standards compared to other mobile games in general. And Niantic has, shall we say, struggled a lot since the launch. So the phenomenal success obviously was a complete surprise to them too. Unless they can come up with meaningful updates that add not just new pokemons but also new game mechanics, then Pokemon Go will very likely be just a fad.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions11 months ago
Oh absolutely Bill, the first week or two it was priceless, but my feed now has pretty much zero Polemon Go content. The novelty wore off PDQ.
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