If you’ve been in a public space in the past three days, you might have noticed groups of people staring intently at their phones as they pace around. It’s not just Snapchat occupying their time. They are probably on their way to catching an Eevee or Oddish running through a public space.
Pokmon Go has captured the world’s attention. And while most people are concerned catching them (all while avoiding traffic), others are wondering why the hell is this game so popular.
If you haven’t played Pokmon Go, it’s important to know it combines two somewhat-buzzy technologies: geolocation and augmented reality. Accurate maps locate your character in a Pokmon-ized version of the world, and then once you encounter a wild Pokmon AR overlays them into your phone’s camera. Voila! You’re catching Pokmon only you can see.
Separately, and together, AR and geolocation have been used for a bunch of sometimes-successful-but-usually-gimmicky game concepts.
There have not really been any successful examples of games that use augmented reality well, but many have tried (here’s a Ghostbusters example from 2012). Usually, server issues and poor quality cameras kept them from taking off. Not to mention the fact that most people didn’t seem interested in waving their phones around in the air to view another layer of information.
Geolocation has had its time in the sun as well, but usually to complement actual services (not counting the wave of gamification geolocations apps from the late ’00s).
The special sauce for Ingress: a franchise people are crazy about.
Ingress is the most notable example probably why Nintendo and Google dumped money into it and it still didn’t make a dent into the popular sphere like Pokmon Go.
If you’ve played Ingress at all, you can see its fingerprints all over Pokmon Go. Both games sort their players into teams and ask them to capture points based on their location. Pokmon Go players capture gyms scattered across real cities and fight to control them.
Niantic Labs may have realized the special sauce to making Ingress really sticky: add a franchise people are crazy about.
Let’s get something straight right here: Pokmon Go is not a robust game. It’s got a lot of flaws, is incredibly buggy and isn’t really doing much new. With any other circumstances, this game would not have climbed nearly as high on any app store chart.
The power of Pokmon
Flash back 17-18 years, and think about your relationship with Pokmon at the time. The original games had just come to the U.S., the cartoon (and its catchy theme song) were all over TV and Pikachu was quickly becoming a household name. The franchise had well-designed characters with silly-yet-catchy names, and it begged you to catch them all.
If you weren’t a kid playing it on your Game Boy Color or collecting the cards, maybe you were a parent with young, passionate kids. Pokmon were everywhere.
The game features only the original 150 Pokmon.
Now those kids are adults with smartphones, and fond memories. They can probably still name a good chunk of the original 150 Pokmon (try the Pokrap, if you need a refresher.) And they’re ready to dive back into the feeling of collecting; it’s probably a lot more realistic to catch ’em all than it is to pay off all your student loan debt.
It’s also probably not a mistake that the game features only the original 150 Pokmon, and not the nearly 600 new ones that came later. Everyone can relate to those, and it brings back memories for people who maybe only played the first games. (I say this must be deliberate, otherwise they’d add the new Pokmon from November’s upcoming Sun and Moon games.)
But there’s more than just nostalgia at play. There’s a magical world being created by Pokmon Go’s secret layer of monster catching, and it’s simply fun to suspend disbelief just a little and feel like you’re living somewhere where Pokmon lurk in parks and on sidewalks.
And while it may seem like a solitary activity to stare at your phone screen while walking forward, it’s a very social activity. See someone else playing in a park? Even in a city like New York, you can probably strike up a conversation, ask what they’ve caught, find out about the local gym. While our work productivity may have suffered, spending a lunch break with my coworkers while hunting Pokmon is a wonderful diversion from the normal corporate malaise.
It may be part of why this app struck a chord. As the country sits divided on a vitriolic election year, and when social unrest seems ready to boil over, spending an hour in the park catching Rattatas may be exactly what many of us need. (Not to mention the exercise.)
A Jolteon in a bottle
Some tech evangelists are hailing Pokmon Go as the signifier that AR has arrived. I don’t think it’s that simple. It may be more like the perfect combination of the right elements, powered by the jet fuel that is a fan-favorite franchise. While the game’s success shows AR can work, it’s more likely that we have found the right social lubricant to get people to forget they look kind of ridiculous playing this game in public.
Don’t forget, two summers ago we were graced with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which many assumed, in its success, would bring millions of new players into the mobile gaming fold.
While Kardashian’s game was a major hit, plenty of celebrity-driven franchises have tried to follow in its wake and failed. (Sorry, Katy and Brittany.) Kardashian’s game was something new, presented at the right time and with elements to make it a hit.
It doesn’t mean plenty of people won’t try. Expect to see plenty of new AR titles trying to take up Pokmon Go‘s mantle even as its popularity wanes. That’s just how trends work. But I can’t expect we’ll see anything like this which may be gaming’s biggest crossover success in this decade in some time.
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