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:

P1

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. By some metrics, it has even overtaken porn.

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.

P2

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.)

P3

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?

P4
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…

P5

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