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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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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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