Pokemon Go and the potential of seasonality
Major changes to Niantic's mobile AR game helped its popularity to surge over the summer, suggesting a new model developers could consider adopting
Over the past few months, something unusual has been happening at the street corner just down from my apartment, on the way to the station. Almost every evening, at least when the weather is fine, there's a little gathering; largely silent, but lit up with the ubiquitous glow of smartphone screens and the occasional flare of a lighting cigarette.
There's a slight air of the illicit about it - sometimes I wonder what the uninitiated make of the whole affair - but once you know what to look for, it's perfectly obvious what's happening. There's a Pokemon Gym on that corner (conveniently next to a cigarette machine, which I suspect contributes to the popularity of this specific spot), and over the summer months, in spite of the oppressive Tokyo heat, it's been attracting a cadre of die-hard fans again for the first time in quite a while.
"The great failing of Pokemon Go at launch was that it was outright terrible at player retention"
This is not a phenomenon confined to a single street corner. Pokemon Go hotspots in busy parts of the city seem more crowded in the evenings than they have been at any point since the slightly crazy weeks following the game's launch. On a more personal level, friends have been getting back into the game and encouraging others on social media to add them to its new friend link system. Within my own sphere, there's a level of interest around Pokemon Go that hasn't been apparent for quite some time - so it came as no surprise when developers Niantic announced this week that there has been a 35% uplift in active users of the game since May of this year. That's an especially dramatic number given that Pokemon Go has never actually been unpopular, as such; it's maintained its position as a mainstay of mobile gaming since launch, so a boost on that level represents a pretty huge number of players engaging, or re-engaging, with the game.
There are a number of different factors in play here, perhaps the most obvious being the work that Niantic has put into overhauling and extending the game. The great failing of Pokemon Go at launch was that it was outright terrible at player retention; it was fun and interesting for a fixed amount of time but then lacked sufficient compelling reasons for players to keep coming back. The addition of significant social features like gifts and Pokemon trading, along with raids and other features at gyms, has gone a long way to making Pokemon Go into a game people actually want to come back and try again.
There's something else at work here too, though; it's no coincidence that the uplift Niantic tracks is from May. The summer itself has played a role, because Pokemon Go is arguably a seasonal game; it's simply more appealing when the weather is warm and dry. This summer has been a bit too warm in many places, but the logic stands - kids are out of school, which is a major factor beyond the weather, and it's actually pretty pleasant to head outside on a hot summer night. Both of those things make Pokemon Go into a game that fundamentally works better in summer than at any other time of the year.
One could look at that as being a problem. Mobile games, after all, are meant to be evergreen in their appeal; you want to keep your retention rate as high as possible and keep players coming back every day. If your game is simply less fun (or even outright unpleasant) to play in some seasons of the year, it's going to result in a spiky revenue flow and a significant loss of users when the season changes. Getting those users back in future will be expensive and difficult - or so the conventional wisdom of mobile game publishing goes.
For something like Pokemon Go, however, this seasonality could actually be a saving grace. The thing is that Pokemon Go is a pretty major commitment as mobile games go. You can't just open it and tap a few things for a few minutes; it's not a game that you whip out on a toilet break or while you wait in line at Starbucks. For most people, playing the game is going to involve actually getting up and going for a walk.
That's a big part of the appeal, of course - it's what makes Pokemon Go into such a unique experience for most players - but apart from meaning the game is impacted by seasonal weather it also means that sustaining interest in playing on an ongoing, daily basis is pretty tough. People get busy, kids go back to school, interest wanes; every day you haven't logged into most mobile games is another day when you're less likely to do so, another day closer to looking at the icon for one final time and deciding to free up the space on your device. For Pokemon Go, slipping into that situation is even easier than for most games.
"We might arrange viewing parties, participate in Reddit threads and chat down the pub about Game of Thrones or Westworld for a couple of months a year, but if they aired every single week, we'd burn out pretty quickly"
In that context, seasonality could actually be a pretty major feature for Pokemon Go. Being a "summer game" is an interesting idea - allowing the developers and players to treat the game not as a conventional mobile title, where you have to get people to play every single day, but like a major TV show - let people enjoy it for a few weeks or months each year, then lapse, and come back excited and energised for the next "season" the following year. Matching well with the summer weather makes this easy to conceptualise, but the danger of burnout on a game that demands relatively high input is equally important here.
The comparison with a TV show is apt; we might arrange viewing parties, participate in daft fan-theory Reddit threads and chat down the pub about Game of Thrones or Westworld for a couple of months a year, but if they aired every single week, we'd burn out pretty quickly. Instead, their seasonal nature gets audiences excited and engaged for their return the following year. Could an approach based on the same logic help Pokemon Go to attain evergreen status?
To some extent it feels like Niantic is leaning into that idea; the company made a point of rolling out some very big new features right at the start of summer, and the release calendar is slacking off as we go into winter. Working development efforts around this kind of seasonality would make a lot of sense, both from the perspective of the game itself - giving a major new lease of life to it by bundling major changes into another big upgrade at the start of next summer - and from the perspective of the development process. The ongoing development process on mobile titles is a pretty serious slog and many developers talk about the risks of burnout from these never-ending projects and their ceaseless flow of deadlines. Being able to work to an annual calendar could let a team actually sit down and take stock of one "season," plan the next and work on major changes rather than constantly jumping from small task to small task.
The big question is whether this notion of a "seasonal" mobile game is Pokemon Go-specific, or whether it could apply to other titles as well. There are definitely some factors which make Pokemon Go into a more natural fit for this kind of model than other games - the outdoor element and the strong appeal to school-age consumers both need to be taken into account. This kind of seasonality could be applicable elsewhere, though, given the right combination of factors - and moreover, thinking of games in seasonal terms might open up new possibilities for what they can be.
Mobile games presently feel trapped in the "three-minute-long interaction, repeated indefinitely" model; a game which demands more time or commitment from its players is a tough sell. A seasonal game, however, could be more demanding - if it can justify those demands with rewards - both in terms of time and commitment. Perhaps what the next step in mobile gaming evolution really needs is to drop the idea of playing a little every day, and start thinking instead of what it'd take to get people to play a lot for a few weeks or months every year.