The Perfect Storm of Game Design: How Did Pokémon GO Become so Popular, So Quickly?

If you went back in time, even just by twenty years, and told the first person you met that one day millions of people would suddenly start running around their neighborhood looking for imaginary creatures with their mobile phones, they’d suspect you’d gone nuts.

And who could blame them? Who could have possibly predicted the future in which something like this would be a reality:


But here we are, and we’ve barely even begun. Pokémon GO is performing better than any game designer could ever dream of, and it’s not even been out a month. This phenomenon is borderline immeasurable in its scale – not only has it done the impossible by beating Candy Crush and Mobile Strike (by a huge margin), but its become more popular than Snapchat, Tinder and even Twitter.

Rightfully so, every game designer and developer on the planet is now staring, mouths agape, at the figures and wondering how to emulate this kind of viral insanity.

There’s no telling where the apex is yet, but it’s certainly not too soon to at least begin examining the ingredients of this recipe, because it’s undoubtedly one that will be discussed at game design school for quite some time to come.

1. Innovation and Accessibility

Augmented reality is a new thing, but it was a little slapshod in the early days of mobile gaming – usually added as an afterthought – and the technology instead got put to better use in the health and fitness niches of app development.

Pokémon GO, on the other hand, is the first to put AR at the center of the gaming experience in such a big way. Coupled with the fact that you go from download to chasing Pokémon in less than two minutes, it’s of no surprise that the sheer novelty has gotten players deliriously excited.

It’s almost like it had to happen sooner or later–it was just a question of who would be the first to make a viral AR masterpiece. That someone was Niantic.


2. Provenance… and even more accessibility

Building a strong franchise pays dividends for game designers further down the line, but it’s also a double-edged sword.

When the universally applauded Witcher 3 came out, many people who were unaware of the series prior to its release asked “Do I need to play the first two games to understand Witcher 3?”

Luckily the answer was ‘not really’, because otherwise it could have turned off thousands of potential players who didn’t want to wade through two lengthy predecessors just to get up to date. A fine balance was struck between furthering the lore for fans of the series and serving as an accessible point for new players to jump in and pick up the backstory as they go along.

While Pokémon may be less literary in its roots than The Witcher, its history is even more extensive – nearly a thousand episodes of the cartoon show, eighteen movies and seventeen games (if you include GO itself.)


That’s a hugely intimidating canon for anyone new to the series, but Pokémon GO reassures all newcomers that the slate is clean and the objective is as clear as it is singular: gotta catch ‘em all.

A game that is inviting – from the design to the branding – is a heck of a lot easier to market. And that brings us neatly on to another point…

3. Adults are Playing It

This sounds like a flippant point, but it’s an important one.

Historically, and without wanting to denigrate adult players who have enjoyed the series so far, Pokémon has always been seen (at least from the outside looking in) as a ‘game for kids’; that game your younger brother played while you pursued more ‘serious’ games like Magic: The Gathering.

That’s a hard misconception to overcome, but what better way to breach that perceived age divide than to have near countless numbers of adults suddenly join the craze?

It’s self-perpetuating marketing, and moreover…

4. The Marketing Does Itself

You see everyone reading 50 Shades of Grey on your daily commute, and you wonder what you’re missing. You see everyone playing the Dark Souls 3, and… well, nothing.

You don’t see them, because they’re behind closed doors.

On the other hand, one of the key stories of Pokémon GO is the sheer number of people giddily running around the streets in the search for rare Pokémon. Even from the NYFA offices we’ve been watching – with no small amount of amusement – people zipping past the windows with their phones outstretched, pausing only to talk to other trainers, and when lunchtime rolls round, we tend to go out and join them for an hour.

This kind of visibility is what has truly pushed Pokémon GO into a league of its own in terms of viral success, above and beyond even the likes of multi-million dollar enterprises such as Candy Crush and Mobile Strike [LINK TO OTHER ARTICLE HERE.] Indeed, the latter had to spend vast sums of money in advertising just to get where they are, while Pokémon GO has relied primarily on its own self-generating interest.

By proxy, people running around the streets playing a video game naturally leads to some interesting headlines in a way that sitting at home does not. A lot of it is positive: the mental and physical benefits of roaming outdoors, the uptick for businesses listed as Pokestops, and the increase in visitors to cultural attractions.

Admittedly not all of it great – reports of muggings have been frequent, as have accidents and even a couple of grisly discoveries – but it has helped the game completely saturate the media, nonetheless.

Some of the images people are encouraged to take using the in-game camera are very shareworthy, too…


Even the most reckless of gamblers wouldn’t put a bet on how far or how long this phenomenon with stretch, but it’s almost certainly changed the landscape of mobile gaming forever, despite its young age.

Over to you guys. Do you have any thoughts on the design of the game itself? Do you think the hype is justified? Let us know your experiences with Pokémon GO down in the comments…

… in the mean time, happy hunting!


The Top Ten Highest Grossing Mobile Games (And How They Got There)

At this point, you may have heard of a little mobile game called Pokémon GO. It’s doing rather well and is gaining a bit of popularity?

But while Pokémon GO is busy redefining everything we know about mobile gaming and the revenue potential thereof, it stands on the shoulders of giants. Over the past half decade, we’ve seen more than a few games go on to gross more money than stockbrokers would dream of earning in a lifetime.

Here’s the current top ten, and today we’ll be looking at them with a simple game design question in mind: how did they get so successful in the first place?

Highest Grossing Free-to-Play Games, Examined

Chart placements may vary if all platforms are considered, but for consistency we’ve stuck to the US App Store data as of 15 July 2016.

And bear in mind that the revenue isn’t the amount the app has earned over its life time, but per day.


1. Pokémon GO

Revenue: $1,635,048
Days on App Store: 9
Publisher: Niantic Inc.

How it Got There: Needless to say, even at this very early stage in Pokémon GO’s life it has become a global phenomenon the likes of which gaming – mobile or otherwise – has never seen before. Its insane performance is down to a perfect storm of factors, which we discuss in more detail here.

2. Mobile Strike

Revenue: $1,271,560
Days on App Store: 246
Publisher: Epic War Llc
How it Got There: Advertising as aggressive as a napalm firestorm. Mobile Strike was one of the first free-to-play app games to have gotten on board with TV advertising, coupled with an A-list endorsement by none other than Arnold Schwarznegger. If you haven’t seen Mobile Strike’s marketing campaign in action either on screens or across promoted social media ads, you’re probably on board the International Space Station.

3. Game of War – Fire Age

Revenue: $865,409
Days on App Store: 645
Publisher: Machine Zone Inc


How it Got There: Having never strayed far from the highest grossing game spot since its release in 2014, Game of War has maintained its throne in very much the same way as Mobile Strike: sheer advertising bucks and celebrity endorsement.

$40 million was thrown at the game in 2014 and included a campaign with a very scantily-clad Kate Upton (since replaced with Mariah Carey.) In terms of return on investment, the developers came good – players spend a whopping $550 on average in the game, compared to just $87 typically spent a year in other titles.

4. Candy Crush Saga

Revenue: $442,296
Days on App Store: 1338
Publisher: King


How it Got There: Before Pokémon GO came along, Candy Crush Saga was pretty much the first game anyone would name when you mentioned the phrase ‘addictive mobile game.’

While aggressive advertising is once again a big factor in Candy Crush’s app store dominance (particularly in the far East and with a clever spot in Psy’s then-to-go-superviral Gangnam Style), it’s the addictiveness that has really pushed the game to stratospheric heights.

And it’s literally addictive. By combining simple, accessible game mechanics with a perfectly sloped difficulty system as well as a reward system that physically releases neurochemical dopamine in the player’s brain, it’s a model of game design, which many developers are scrabbling to implement in their own apps.

5 and 6: Clash of Clans and Clash Royale

Revenue: $321,783 and $271,718
Days on App Store: 1043 / 136
Publisher: Supercell


How it Got There: Arguably, it got there because it got there first.

Supercell’s two Clash titles aren’t wholly dissimilar to Mobile Strike and Game of War and they all share the same winning formula, but Clash of Clans beat them to the punch by a good couple of years. The fact that the gameplay is generally lauded as a good game and that the developers have kept on top of updates has helped keep it near the top ever since.

7. DoubleDown Casino & Slots

Revenue: $238,166
Days on App Store: 669
Publisher: DoubleDown


How it Got There: Let’s face it, it’s a straight-forward gambling app – this essentially operates on an ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy.

Being installed nearly 20,000 times a day, most of the success here lies in the fact that DoubleDown have succeeded where similar apps have failed: making a real-money gambling app that abides by Apple’s strict policies while still delivering a slick user experience for the player.

Or perhaps we’re reading into it too much, and they may have simply been lucky with keyword searches. The app’s full name is DoubleDown Casino & Slots – Free Vegas Games, Win Big Jackpots, & Bonus Games!

8. Candy Crush Soda Saga

Revenue: $202,003
Days on App Store: 612
Publisher: King


How it Got There: See above.

9. CSR Racing 2

Revenue: $174,150
Days on App Store: 15
Publisher: NaturalMotion


How it Got There: While it may only stand at No. 9 on the highest grossing apps chart currently, this is exceptional given how recently it was released (rivaled only by Pokémon GO in growth) and it did peak at No. 1 in its first few days.

CSR Racing 2’s success can be largely attributed to the performance of its predecessor, which got healthy showcase promotion at the 2012 WWDC and went on to take a gigantic $12 million a month shortly afterwards.

10. MARVEL Contest of Champions

Revenue: $154,910
Days on App Store: 583
Publisher: Kabam


How it Got There: The developers can thank the Chinese.

While a game based around a brand as strong as Marvel is almost always guaranteed to do well, it was only when Kabam carefully redesigned the game to appeal to the Chinese market and released it there in late 2015 did the game really take off. The lesson for game designers here? Don’t neglect your potential foreign markets!


In conclusion, the take-home message for game designers looking to make a financial success from their work is this: there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but there are also proven tricks that seem to work every time, too.

Then again, Pokémon GO has completely changed the landscape of mobile gaming in less than a month.

 Whatever happens from here, it has certainly thrown the Meowth amongst the Pidgeys.