Pokémon GO: Lessons in Product Experience
Released on Wednesday, July 6th, Pokémon GO has been out for about six weeks and has experienced the most rapid rise to cultural relevance seen by a technology product since Twitter; in fact, it managed to overtake Twitter in daily active users. It outpaced Candy Crush, Tinder and Snapchat too. Indeed, in terms of time spent on the app by users, Pokémon GO is doing better than Facebook. One week out of the gate, SurveyMonkey Intelligence claimed that Pokémon GO is the “biggest mobile game in U.S. history.”
In terms of business success, in the first two days following its release, an analyst from Morgan Stanley estimated that Nintendo’s market value went up $7.5 billion dollars. Although Nintendo and Niantic clearly have a big hit on their hands, even they think the initial Wall Street reaction was overblown. Still, with a reported $30 million investment in Niantic by Nintendo, The Pokémon Company and Google, and analysts estimating that the game is bringing in $1.6 million per day on Apple devices alone, business executives should be smiling.
A Behavior Changer
What’s most interesting about the game is the effect Pokémon GO is having on people’s behavior. We haven’t witnessed anything this behavior-changing since the heyday of Foursquare, but where Foursquare encouraged rigid behavior — visiting the same haunts in order to “check-in” — Pokémon GO does the opposite. To play the game, people have to get out of their houses and explore the world, visiting new and different places in order to catch rare and elusive Pokémon. To earn in-game items, players must visit virtual “PokéStops” tied to real-life landmarks. To catch Pokémon, players are spending time at parks; discovering art, architecture, museums, and other landmarks; interacting with other players face-to-face; joining up to play in groups; and competing on teams. Incidentally, they are getting a lot of physical exercise. There have even been reports of the game helping people who struggle with depression and anxiety.
It has had a positive impact on businesses as well, from local establishments and nonprofits that have hosted events and put “lures” on their PokéStops, to the sponsorship deal McDonald’s negotiated with Niantic for the release of Pokémon GO in Japan, which will turn 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the region into Pokémon Gyms for teams to battle each other…while also being able to order food.
Of course, there have also been negative reactions to the game. The local news and social media have been quick to report mishaps of inattentive Pokémon GO players, and there have been a slew of complaints about the game drawing people to loiter or trespass on private property. Some PokéStops have been placed in locations where it may be dangerous or disrespectful to play, such as inside zoo enclosures, or at the Auschwitz Memorial. Two teens accidentally crossed the U.S.-Canadian border while playing Pokémon GO, triggering U.S. Border Patrol intervention. Pokémon GO has also been associated with at least one mugging and probably more than a few car accidents (unless you can do it hands free, you should never use your phone while driving). And people who engage in more traditional forms of outdoor exercise have expressed disgruntlement at the flood of players overtaking parks and trails while staring at their phones.
Regardless, Pokémon GO is a phenomenon, and whether you love the game or loathe it, its meteoric rise can teach us something. Technologists in particular should be interested in the game as a product. This is an app that is causing people to make different decisions about what to do with their day. The implications of that are exciting. And although Pokémon GO has some advantages that not everyone can duplicate — such as a very large previously existing fan base — there are some things the mobile app is getting right as a technology product that can be applied to almost any other app.
1. Wait until you can release a good experience
Nintendo tends to take a long-term view in its product development, much to the frustration of some of its biggest fans. Before 2016, Nintendo was notoriously absent from the mobile gaming market due to long-held desire to control all aspects of the brand experience, including hardware and software. Instead of rushing something to market back when mobile hardware was iffy, Nintendo waited until it could back an experience it was confident would be a good one. It has proved that it’s not too late to start in on mobile.
2. Launch on iPhone and Android simultaneously
To have the kind of cultural impact Nintendo and Niantic are riding now, you have to be on both platforms. Yes, “both” — iOS and Android are the only mobile platforms that matter; all others are also-rans. The other thing they are getting right is that the experience is identical. Nobody needed to write a tutorial about differences between the iOS and Android experience. Screenshots shared on social media are all the same, so everyone in the world is playing the same game on the same playing field.
3. Be responsive to feedback
Pokémon GO stumbled a bit out of the gate with some overly aggressive permission requests, which were quickly fixed. This showed responsiveness to feedback. You can do one better by thinking carefully about what permissions you actually need and making sure there is a customer benefit attached to each one.
Niantic also impressed with its alacrity in solving server-capacity issues after the unprecedented demand for the game left it unprepared to handle the load. Organizations that aren’t prepared for “hot fix” updates shortly after launch risk losing the initial wave of enthusiasm, bending their growth curve down at the most crucial time.
4. Make it easy to get into it
Pokémon GO does what all apps should aspire to: It gives users the experience of “winning” in their first session. It forces you to catch your first Pokémon, teaching you both the basic mechanics of playing the game and rewarding you with a catch. Then you’re off to the races, and without any additional complexity for at least the first few hours of gameplay. This makes the app accessible for a greater number of people than just fans of the franchise. Everyone from tiny toddlers to grandparents can get into it. This kind of experience is not limited to games. When building an app, even when it’s not a game, it’s important to ask: does your app demonstrate to users exactly what it’s about right away? Does it make it easy for them to do what they downloaded it for, and in a way that feels like winning?
5. Add complexity progressively and in a manner that is addicting
In Pokémon GO, casual players can be perfectly content with the loop of walk, find, catch, and that’s ok. A satisfying, simple experience may be all that many customers need. For people who want to go deeper, the game allows them to adopt advanced features and behaviors — such as egg hatching, evolving Pokémon, and participating in gym battles — at their own pace. Pokémon GO enforces this by restricting the competitive game features from players below a certain experience level. This has at least two benefits: It ensures people are used to the basics before it adds complexity, and it ensures that new players aren’t discouraged by losing to other players too soon. Once those levels are reached, the addictive nature leads the player to want to understand and adopt the game’s additional features.
There is, of course, a counter argument that the game is not complex enough, and that hardcore fans — the ones who truly “stick” with a game and create lasting profits for years — might dismiss it for not offering the features they expect all Pokémon games to have. What happens if players master the game sooner than anticipated and start to drop off because there is nothing else to do? This may already be happening, but as the game has only been out for a few weeks, and the planned features of future releases are unknown, it’s too early to say.
6. Deny no aspect of the game to players who don’t pay to play
Everyone who plays Pokémon GO has access to the full game. It genuinely is “free to play,” so there is no downside to downloading it and trying it out. Like many mobile games, in-app purchases are available to allow “serious” players to boost their performance. In-app purchases take the form of a virtual currency that can be exchanged for in-game items. However, all of these items can be earned in-game. Purchases merely accelerate leveling up and catching Pokémon; they are not necessary if you’re willing to put in the time.
Important to note is that making the game free to play has not restricted its earning potential; it is the fastest a game has ever reached the top of the “top grossing” charts in the Apple App Store and some are estimating that Apple’s cut from Pokémon GO might reach $3 billion in the next one to two years.
7. You can be “cutting edge” with technology that isn’t really
Pokémon GO utilizes GPS, Google Maps, and augmented reality (AR). Although new to a lot of players, Pokémon GO’s most sophisticated technology, real-time AR, has been available on smartphones since 2010, which is forever in Mobile Years. In fact, the location-based technology that identifies real landmarks to create PokéStops is borrowed from another game Niantic created called Ingress, in which players join one of two warring teams and battle over control of “portals”. The lesson here is that you can create something that feels new and vibrant out of existing technology. Remember — the success of this app is not about its tech; it’s about the experience.
8. Incorporate a social component that brings people together
Pokémon GO can be played alone, but the social nature of the game is part of its addiction and success. The game’s lack of a clear tutorial or navigation for where to find Pokémon has forced players to interact in order to learn from each other the nuances of the game, both on social media and in real life. In addition, the Augmented Reality (AR) view that puts Pokémon in the real world (using the phone’s camera) makes for entertaining screenshots to share, boosting the game’s reach and virality. At level five, players can join one of three teams, bringing people together through competition. But perhaps most importantly, Pokémon GO is accessible to everyone, with the result that families are being seen playing together, from the very young to the very old. Moreover, when lots of people are playing together in the same area, better Pokémon appear for catching, resulting in players meeting each other in the real world and forming a community around a game which heretofore would only have existed online.
This has a more far-reaching impact than the number of people hanging out in parks. With the surge of tens of millions of users actively engaging on a mobile app while moving around outdoors, people are transforming their tendencies and expectations for entertainment. The “basement dwelling” description of gaming is being obliterated. For the first time, a mobile game has brought millions of people outside and in person to play together as families, communities and teams.
In a short span of time, the Pokémon GO phenomenon has sparked — or reignited — major interest in how apps can affect behavior. The game can be seen as a culmination of long-term trends toward making digital experiences more aware of the user. By incorporating user status, location, and ambient information like weather and activity, we create custom digital experiences that are personal, addictive, and value-driven. Pokémon GO has created a visible and culturally relevant example of the engagement an app can drive, infusing the fun of immersive experiences into society’s collective understanding of what is possible. In other words, the market is now primed, and the stakes for mobile app development are higher.
Mobile app developers can already do some truly amazing things. The new Android Awareness API and Apple’s APIs make more information available for apps to use in real time, which in turn makes hundreds of new ideas possible. In the near future, we might see augmented reality and awareness features not only in games, but in personal apps, health apps, and business apps. In addition, measuring a mobile app’s success will be even more likely than it is already to hinge on stats like active users and session length, rather than downloads, encouraging new innovations to make app experiences addictive and keep audiences engaged.
The question is how will our expectations evolve from here? What problems can “experience apps” solve for individuals, businesses, and society? What will be next?
A note on the partnership structure: Nintendo doesn’t own Pokémon GO outright. Niantic, Inc., a spinoff from Google, is the developer and publisher of the game. Nintendo owns 32% of a joint venture responsible for the marketing and licensing of the Pokémon IP worldwide, called The Pokémon Company. Because The Pokémon Company will only receive a licensing fee and compensation for development and operations, Nintendo warned investors that its income from Pokémon GO will be limited.