Is Pokémon Go a Fad?

Pokémon Go is an overnight pop-culture hit that seems to be everywhere. I wanted to share a brief analysis given what we’ve seen previously with other fast growing mobile & social games.

Read a Pokémon Go mini-FAQ first for an overview on this app

Pokémon Go (Source: Nintendo/Niantic)

Why is it growing so fast?

Pokémon Go is likely growing quickly due to the popularity of the Pokémon IP combined with novel real world GPS-based gameplay. Basically:

  • Many people started playing due to the Pokémon IP.
  • Those that were not familiar with it saw their friends playing because the game requires users to walk around the real world and point their phones at random locations to catch Pokémon.
  • These distinctive visual actions cause others to ask what their friends are doing and results in word-of-mouth virality that has led to the app becoming as popular as Twitter and Tinder in less than a week.

This is different from the push notification & email virality most social networks use to grow. Uber had a similar phenomenon when it was launching as a result of people seeing their friends use the app or sharing rides with them.

The game’s developer Niantic has been developing this real-world interaction model for a while with their other app Ingress but the critical mass of initial users drawn by the Pokémon IP is what enabled the rapid word-of-mouth growth to occur for Pokémon Go.

Will it last?

To determine whether or not the game will last long-term we need to look at previous flash mobile hits and their trajectories. There have been multiple games that have rapidly become popular only to disappear just as fast. Notable examples include Draw Something and Flappy Bird on mobile and almost all of the games on Facebook.

Once the honeymoon period fades the game’s current core loop of walking outside collecting Pokémon is likely too shallow to retain the majority of its users long-term. Most mobile games that have high long-term retention, such as Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds, require constant content updates with new levels, gameplay modes, and challenges. Pokémon is based off of a well-established universe with a fixed number of creatures and rules which makes releasing new content difficult.

Additionally, the GPS-based elements of gameplay are fun when you are frequently discovering new Pokémon but will soon be a source of friction once users get closer to completing their collections and only rarely catch new Pokémon. If users have to wait a few days to make a trip to a special area in the real-world to continue progressing, it’s probable that they will forget about the game entirely.

Even if most players quit after a short period of time, the Pokémon IP and PvP mechanics (battling for gyms) will retain a hardcore set of paying users similar to other PvP based games like Game of War and Clash of Clans. As long as the developers continue to update and keep the game somewhat fresh, it should monetize very well for multiple years.

The developers can, of course, evolve the core gameplay to retain more users. The main challenge for them will be to do so before people get bored and leave. For everyone that does quit, though, it’ll always be that thing they were a part of for a few months in the summer of 2016.