The Explosion of Pokémon Go: A Product Designer’s Perspective

BY JENNY WANGER ON JULY 07 2016

The internet and Wall Street are buzzing about the success of Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s first high-profile foray into mobile gaming. Nintendo’s market cap has grown by over $10 billion, as its shares surged 50% since its launch July 7th.  It took five hours from launch to reach the top downloaded spot in the iPhone app store and now has more active Android users than Twitter.

So far, analyses of its success have focused on the popularity of the Pokémon brand, but that’s really only one piece of the puzzle. As a product manager and design researcher, I went out into the streets to better understand people’s behaviour – both physical and digital – to find out what caused millions of people to start training Pokémon. I picked up a CP 187 Magnemite (and now know what that means), as well as a few lessons that can apply to anyone designing digital experiences.

Many people I talked to mentioned nostalgia and excitement about revisiting a childhood pleasure. But looking out into the neighborhood, it was clear this wasn’t the only thing causing people to try and catch them all. Nintendo’s deep expertise in game design shines through. The game is well balanced, with an endorphin-stimulating combination of randomness, delayed gratification, and scarcity. You don’t need to spend money to enjoy it, though the premium items add enough value that you spend the game itching to spend your Poké-coins at the store.

There are many other games that have capitalised on strong game mechanics and a good brand. But Pokémon Go ventures beyond that, capitalising on the mobile platform, making game play physically apparent, and creating a way for people to socialise while playing. These three design choices are important lessons for all of us navigating the digital world:

A Mobile Game Designed to Be Mobile

The game only works when you move around and go places, a feature totally unique to the mobile platform. You explore the physical area around you to find Pokémon and items as well as hatch eggs. One of the most interesting elements is Poké-stops, which are local landmarks that give you items and potions. As one gamer explained to me: “It’s TripAdvisor meets Fitbit with a game attached — what’s not to like?” Another player mentioned that his brother had no idea he lived in a neighborhood that played a significant part in the history of the gay rights movement – until he went to a Poké-Stop and read the plaque. You can’t play from your living room, and unlike the majority of mobile games out there (Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, etc), the experience could never be replicated on your TV or computer.

This walking-oriented experience incentivises people to change their behaviour quite quickly. One gamer told me that he was playing the game and realised that he had walked about six miles by the end of the day. Usually he watches TV to relax, but instead went out of the house after work. A sales clerk at AT&T told me that he’s started taking the bus because he loses GPS signal on the train, and gets off a stop or two early in order to get a few more steps to help him hatch his next egg. By using the unique elements of a mobile device, Nintendo is truly changing people’s behaviour and adding to the experience.

Visible Use

Walking through the park on Sunday, it was blindingly clear who was searching for Pikachu, who was scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, and who was texting. The mechanics of gameplay are such that yourbody language changes when you play, which has both pros and cons. There have been reports of robbers targeting players,  injuries, and one second-hand account of a person who had pulled her car to the side of the road to catch a rare creature – only to be dinged by a passing car. Google Glass brought on the ”Glassholes” phenomenon and a whole host of stereotypes; ”Pokemorons“ are almost as easy to identify, despite not wearing any hardware to signal their participation.

The visible use contrasts sharply with my train ride into work where everyone has their heads down, each existing in their own little worlds on small screens. From an engagement standpoint, it also helps to see others playing – it’s a good visual cue that you should check your phone and see if there’s anything of interest in the neighborhood. This visibility allows real-world players to identify each other– which leads into the third key difference

Easily and Naturally Social

I saw two men sitting on a bench playing by a fountain and watched as a woman approached them to ask if they had been able to catch the Ghastly that had just popped up in the area. One pair of friends told me that they looked up and made eye contact with others who were playing in the same area, and the entire group broke out in grins and laughter to think they could all tell what the others were doing. The majority of people I saw playing in the park on Sunday were in groups of two or three – hunting together. I talked to one person who had never played a Pokémon game before, but wanted to know what all his friends were talking about. He ended up playing with his girlfriend as an activity, and he explained, “It was like going on a walk. A great date activity.” I came across a group of friends out playing together, who said that they usually socialise on the weekends anyway, but normally would be at home drinking in the garden. This week, they stopped by the fountain in the park for a few minutes, and then wandered to the next stop to see what they might catch next.

It’s an interesting manifestation of what Sherry Turkle termed “Alone Together” in her book of the same name. Technology can allow us to have individual existences while simultaneously helping bring communities more together. The Facebook event “Boston Poke-Walk” has nearly 10,000 people interested in attending, and 2,500 confirmed – the organiser had to change the plans for the event in order to avoid police having to shut the event down as an organised, unregistered gathering. People want to play this game together, despite the fact that they haven’t (yet) developed any real-time player-to-player interactions.

What about Augmented Reality?

I deliberately didn’t mention the augmented reality (AR) experience as one of the three main lessons from Pokémon Go. When you try to capture a Pokémon, it appears on your screen superimposed on a video from your camera, with the real-time world going by. The result has been a number of great photos of Pokémon “hanging out” in the real world and a lot of discussion about how AR will continue to be an important part of future games. My research indicates that the AR component draws people to try the game out if they aren’t familiar with the Pokémon franchise—it is very effective for attracting new users. But talk to people who have been playing the game for a few hours and the novelty of the AR fades away, while the other elements of gameplay step into focus. In order for AR to be a critical element of gameplay rather than a flashy feature, it needs to be developed further.

Dystopias such as Ready Player One and WALL-E portray technology as leading us to a life of indolence, obesity, and isolation. Pokémon Go presents us with a plausible alternative future, where technology enables us to better explore the world around us, increasing our interaction with familiar faces as well as strangers. Whether the game itself is just a passing fad or if it will have staying power is still to be determined, but whatever the case, this game will go down in history as moving the genre of mobile applications forward into a new era.

Jenny Wanger

About JENNY WANGER

Jenny Wanger is a product manager for the Arity platform at Arity, a startup founded by Allstate Insurance Company and the owner of Avenir Design, a customer experience consulting firm. She has worked with everything from startups raising their first round of funding to GE and Steelcase. Formally trained in design thinking, she only feels properly dressed when there’s a pack of post-it notes in her pocket.

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  • Julia Berzoy

    Wow, finally there is a thoughtful article on the topic. Enjoyed the read!

  • Great article! I’ve avoided the craze (since I’m sure I would’ve become addicted), but I appreciate the fact that this is one of the few mobile games to bring people together in a fun way.

  • Muhammad Saad Khan

    Very thoughtful article. I believe that the most important thing is that the generation that has seen Pokemon 20 years back is now a grown up/highly connected people. All the memories of a 5 to 10 year old back then is now getting them into the new game at 20, 25, 30.

    • Jenny Wanger

      That’s definitely a big chunk of what caused it to emerge so quickly. One of the big questions to examine over the next few weeks is who continues to play. Will it just be the “nostalgia players” or will some of those new adoptees to Pokemon continue to hunt?

      • Muhammad Saad Khan

        Yup. You are absolutely right. And that is indeed a big question.

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