Pokémon Go: A Teardown
Many fans, such as myself, grew up with the Pokémon series — watching Ash and Pikachu on TV, choosing a starter Pokémon on Red or Blue Version, and opening booster packs with hopes that we could build a deck with the elusive Charizard. Hell, I even played the Pokémon Trading Card Game for Gameboy Color because playing Pokémon Red and the trading card game separately wasn’t enough. We wanted to channel our inner Pokémon trainers in real life and Niantic Labs has succeeded in delivering that experience with Pokémon Go. The use of augmented reality and geolocation allows gamers, or trainers, to capture, train, and battle Pokémon in the real world. It’s no wonder the game has continued to see unprecedented success.
Pokémon Go’s success is attributed to Niantic Labs’ use of a strong gaming IP and an easy-to-understand, addictive core loop to catch casual and hardcore gamers, or trainers, alike. However, its lack of elder game content and in-game social features may lead to its DAUs being released into the wild if updates aren’t pushed out soon. Throughout the article, I’ll explore how the core loop retains users, how the game monetizes, the game’s social aspects, and then offer thoughts on how the game can keep its users around for the long haul.
In a tribute to one of its roots, Pokémon Go is a CCG-style mobile game that revolves around catching, training, and battling Pokémon. After a quick intro and tutorial, trainers are introduced to the core gameplay by catching one of the three original starting Pokémon. From there, trainers embark on catching, training, and battling Pokémon in the real world.
The core gameplay in Pokémon Go is catching and collecting Pokémon. This differs from other CCG mobile titles in that the collection phase occurs outside of the core gameplay in other titles while collection is the core gameplay in Pokémon Go. Core gameplay in titles such as Brave Frontier Clash Royale is battling, and new characters are obtained as a result of battling in the core gameplay.
Trainers search for Pokémon on their GPS-based map home screen while travelling. At the bottom right corner of the screen is a Pokémon tracker, which alerts trainers to what Pokémon are nearby. Once Pokémon are spotted, trainers tap on the Pokémon on the map to enter the catching phase and use a finger-flicking motion to throw Pokéballs, which requires both timing and accuracy, in order to catch Pokémon. Items such as Great Balls, Ultra Balls, and Razz Berries can be used to increase the chances that Pokémon are caught. Trainers also have the option to turn on AR, which uses the phone’s camera and places the Pokémon directly into the shot.
After a successful catch, Pokémon are added to the trainers’ storage and trainers earn Stardust, Candy, and experience. More experience can be earned with curved or accurate Pokéballs.
As trainers expend Pokéballs and other items while catching Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops becomes necessary to continue the quest to catch ’em all. These are landmarks that provide trainers with essential items such as Pokéballs, Razz Berries, Potions, and Revives. Pokéstops can also be equipped with lure modules, which increases the chances that Pokémon appear close by and is available to all nearby trainers. When in proximity, trainers tap the Pokéstop on their map and spin it in order to obtain items and experience.
For a number of reasons, catching Pokémon and visiting Pokéstops represent the most powerful, addictive piece of the core loop. First, trainers can play Pokémon Go on their own schedule and aren’t bound to in-game session checks such as energy or timers. This makes the formation of daily habits and routines more seamless and natural. Second, the abundance of Pokémon and Pokéstops allows trainers to play almost anywhere they go, rewarding players with items or opportunities to catch Pokémon when they open the app. Third, the use of AR and geolocation make the game extremely relatable for trainers, as they can relate in-game achievements to real-world locations, forming powerful game-to-world associations (i.e. “I can visit two Pokéstops at work,” or “I can catch a Paras at Dolores Park”). These features are what make the catching portion of the core loop addictive and habit-forming.
Trainers upgrade their Pokémon’s combat power, or CP, and hit points, or HP, by using Stardust and Candy to power up and evolve them. Having strong Pokémon is essential to tackling gym battles, which will be discussed later. Stardust can be used on any Pokémon and is obtained from catching Pokémon and assigning Pokémon to gyms. Candy is specific to a type of Pokémon and its evolution tree and is obtained through hatching eggs, catching Pokémon, and transferring duplicate Pokémon.
Powering up Pokémon provides an incremental boost to a Pokémon’s CP and HP and. Trainers use a small amount of Candy and Stardust to boost the Pokémon’s stats. As the Pokémon gets stronger, more Candy and Stardust are required in order to power up. Trainers can power up Pokémon a finite number of times, which is tracked by the white semicircle above the Pokémon in the individual details screen.
The other method trainers user to power up Pokémon is evolving. Trainers use more Candy compared to powering up for evolution but Pokémon gain a significant boost in CP and HP. Trainers also gain experience when evolving Pokémon, making this a crucial part of the core loop for progression.
As trainers level up, Pokémon with higher base CP and HP become available for catching. Thus, Pokémon caught later in the game will likely surpass their upgraded Pokémon in CP and HP caught earlier. It’s still beneficial to trainers to evolve their Pokémon early on for the experience gained and the Candy requirement for evolution pushes trainers to catch and transfer more Pokémon, thus repeating the core loop.
Once trainers reach level 5, they can access the game’s only current “elder game” content — gym battles. Trainers join one of three teams and can set out to either defend gyms controlled by teammates or take over gyms occupied by opponents. Gym battles drive goal setting and give trainers purpose for grinding through the core loop until they’re strong enough to take over or defend gyms. Battling also provides trainers with a source of experience, with more experience gained for successful battles.
First, trainers select the Pokémon they want to take into battle. If attacking, trainers can select up to six Pokémon. If defending, one Pokémon can be selected at a time. Here, trainers must account for Pokémon and attack types, as the strengths and weaknesses from the original Gameboy game apply. This adds a nice element of strategy to the gym battles.
The actual battling is real time and offers three actions: tap for a basic attack, swipe left or right to dodge the opponent’s attacks, and hold down for a strong attack once the attack gauge fills up. Once a Pokémon’s HP reaches zero, that Pokémon is defeated and, if available, the next Pokémon enters battle. Battles conclude when all of the attacker or defender’s Pokémon are defeated. After battles, trainers can use potions and revives to restore their Pokémon’s health.
Defending and taking over gyms depends on that gym’s Prestige. Prestige determines the gym level, which determines how many gym members can occupy a gym at once. Gyms can have a maximum of six Pokémon assigned to it from different trainers, with the trainer of the strongest Pokémon becoming the gym leader.
Successfully attacking a hostile gym and defeating opponents’ Pokémon lowers that gym’s Prestige, reducing the number of opponents in the gym. Once a gym’s Prestige reaches zero, all opponents are expelled and the gym becomes neutral. The trainer can then assign a Pokémon to gym and claim it for their team. Conversely, training against friendly gyms by battling teammates raises a gym’s Prestige and once a threshold is met, another teammate can assign a Pokémon to defend that gym.
Trainers who assign Pokémon to gyms earn Stardust and Pokécoins — Pokémon Go’s premium currency. Pokécoins are collected from the shop and are used to buy valuable items that can’t be obtained from Pokéstops, including lure modules, incense, and lucky eggs. More Pokécoins can be earned by assigning more Pokémon to multiple gyms and holding those gyms for the duration of a timer.
Catch. Train. Battle. Pokémon Go’s core loop pays homage to the original Gameboy games, evoking a sense of nostalgia among its loyal fans. It hooks trainers in, keeps trainers playing, and even gets some of them paying.
Currently, Pokémon Go monetizes through IAPs with an in-game shop, with advertising revenue in the form of sponsored locations on the horizon. Trainers use the game’s premium currency, Pokécoins, to purchase Pokéballs, Pokémon storage and inventory upgrades, and what I call “premium items” that aid trainers’ progression. While useful, Pokéballs can be obtained through visiting Pokéstops and the upgrades aren’t as necessary to progress.
The aforementioned premiums items that are valuable to progression are egg incubators, lucky eggs, incense, and lure modules. A small quantity of these items are granted to trainers when they reach certain levels.
Hatching eggs, catching Pokémon, and evolving Pokémon all grant trainers with experience. Premium items are geared towards these actions, thus boosting the rate at which trainers level up.
As trainers progress, more and more experience is required to level up. By giving away a limited quantity of premium items for free, Niantic Labs rewards trainers for progressing and allows trainers to try them out and discover their value. However, premium items are scarce enough that trainers can’t maintain their rate of progression on handouts alone, thus nudging trainers towards making a purchase (and another one, and another one).
Pokémon Go monetizes well because it has a great balance of rewarding players with a limited quantity of premium items and allows trainers to find the value attached to those items when it comes to earning experience and progressing. Then, it exponentially increases the experience required to level up, making the purchase of premium items necessary to maintain rate of progression in a game with an addictive core loop.
Compared to other mobile games, Pokémon Go doesn’t come with many in- game social features. Well-designed, in-game social features like chat, guilds, and player interaction (e.g. resource requests and donations) can increase engagement, build communities, and improve retention.
Currently, the only trainer-to-trainer interaction occurs in gym battles. When selecting a gym, trainers can see who is occupying the gym and the stats of the assigned Pokémon. This feature serves as a motivator for trainers and encourages them to set measurable, achievable goals and go through the core loop (ex. I want to take over that Blue Trainer’s gym and need Pokémon with CP over 1500, so I’ll get stronger by leveling up my character to catch stronger Pokémon and evolving/powering up my Pokémon).
Another social feature in Pokémon Go promotes sharing outside of the app — the camera. Trainers can use the camera while catching Pokémon to take pictures, which are then saved to the phone under its own gallery and can be easily shared to external social media sites. The camera feature proved to be a viral marketing tool as pictures of Jigglypuffs flooded social media sites while Pokémon Go soared to the top of the download charts.
Lure modules also have a social aspect, as they are available to all nearby trainers. Lure modules can be shared with friends, coworkers, or even complete strangers.
Despite these in-game social features, perhaps the most social interaction occurs outside of the app, in real life. Seeing groups of people playing and businesses dropping lure modules on their Pokéstops reinforces the notion that playing in public with others is socially acceptable (by now, it’s probably closer to a social norm). Seeing others playing Pokémon Go also serves as a strong trigger to open the app if one doesn’t currently have it open, for what I call FOMOCARP (Fear Of Missing Out on Catching A Rare Pokémon — ex. I caught serious FOMOCARP last week walking down Embarcadero, so I booted up the app to catch Magikarp). Friends meet up to catch Pokémon, businesses drop lure modules on nearby Pokéstops to attract more customers, and complete strangers organize public “Pokécrawl” Facebook events planned around bars with Pokéstops.
While the addictive core loop has succeeded in short term retention thus far, Pokémon Go hasn’t provided clarity to trainers on setting mid and long term goals around the game’s two largest current achievements: catching ’em all and becoming a gym leader. Trainers that have clear mid and long term goals have a better sense of progress and achievement and are willing to invest more of their time - time necessary for a game to have long term retention.
Goal setting around catching ’em all should be clear, as one would assume that achieving this would be a long term goal. However, there have been reports that the feat of catching all available Pokémon has been completed (with more reports of individuals completing regional Pokédexes). If trainers only need a few weeks (or even a few months) to catch all the Pokémon, they will have a hard time finding reasons to stick around.
Goal setting is even less clear around becoming gym leaders, as this can change from short to mid to long term depending on the gyms and the strength of the assigned Pokémon (Short term: the assigned Pokémon are weak enough — can battle right away. Long term: someone actually took the time to farm a Dratini nest and left a Dragonite at the gym — come back when stronger). The prospect of accessing gym battles and becoming a gym leader served as a great short term motivator for trainers under level 5, as it provided a concrete goal to work towards. Trainers at level 5 or above have no such goal.
In order to protect long term retention, Pokémon Go will need updates that allow for meaningful mid and long term goal setting. This can be done through more elder game content and in-game social features.
Niantic Labs knows updates are needed to keep its trainers engaged and committed to playing beyond the summer. Updates that have been discussed include leaderboards, trading, and additional Pokémon from later generations. My take has been that elder game content and in-game social features would help long term retention, and two suggestions for implementation are Pokémon Leagues and Friends Lists.
Pokémon Leagues (henceforth referred to as “Leagues”) would serve as the elder game content that trainers can form concrete, long term goals around. Leagues would be a gated game mode that only trainers who have achieved a higher level can access (no earlier than level 20… perhaps level 20 so I can play). With the leaderboard update in mind, Leagues would be timed events in which trainers complete challenges, earn points, and rise through the ranks. Challenges include catching Pokémon, earning experience, and winning gym battles (challenges where having premium items from the shop can grant an advantage). Similar to other mobile games, a higher rank mean being placed in a higher tier or league, which leads to greater rewards. Rewards provide the incentive for trainers to go through the core loop and progress until they are a high enough level to access and engage with the Leagues game mode.
The tiered rewards system in Leagues can be modeled after the Elite Four, with the top four trainers (or groups of trainers) earning the greatest rewards. Adding Leagues with an Elite Four style leaderboard as elder game content not only addresses the need for trainers to have long term goals, but also ties to the elder game content in the original Gameboy games as well (for that nostalgia effect).
Having a Friends List where trainers can view their friends in-game provides another way for trainers to engage with the game (which helps with the game’s retention). Trainers can view their friends and levels, compare their progress to their friends, and will be motivated to play the game to stay ahead of their friends.
The in-game achievements tracker, badges, is an existing feature with untapped potential that could make Friends Lists more exciting. When gold badges are earned, trainers unlock a special item that can be equipped in the character customization screen. Not only is this a great way to display one’s achievement, but showing off these hard-earned achievements when viewed through a Friends List can spur others to play and earn more badges (i.e. Keeping Up with the Ketchums).
Having Friends Lists promotes in-game community building and keep trainers engaged for a long period of time. Adding customization features around earning gold badges provides another avenue for goal setting, as these achievements for badges can be easily tracked, worked towards, and flaunted among jealous friends.
As I’m putting the finishing touches on this article, I’ve noticed that my daily Pokémon Go sessions have already shortened and are less frequent. I still play daily and make time to walk around catching Pokémon and battling gyms on weekends, but would no longer classify it as an unhealthy obsession (or healthy — I’m walking a bit less now). What’s more, I’ve noticed that our multiple Pokéstops at work, which used to reliably be covered in pink petals everyday in the morning, at lunch, and right before 5pm, now sometimes go an entire day without any lure modules. Pokémon Go attracted the attention of millions from day one and is still going strong, but won’t be able to keep the attention without further updates. However, I’m confident that Niantic Labs will find ways to maintain its momentum and keep trainers playing Pokémon Go for a very long time.