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.

Who hasn’t wanted to catch Pokémon in the real world?

Core Loop

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.

Trainers start off catching and training their Pokémon until they are strong enough to battle.


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.

In Clash Royale, the rewards and character collection occurs outside of the battle.
I came. I saw. I caught a Pidgey.
Catching Pokémon uses items, while visiting Pokéstops replenishes them. It’s a loop within a loop!


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.

Transferring duplicate Pokémon is a great way to earn more Candy.
If only eating candy made us stronger in real life.


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.

Team Mystic’s up to their usual, no-good shenanigans.
Selecting the right Pokémon can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
A recently defeated gym — to the victor go the spoils.
Once a Pokémon is assigned, trainers can collect their rewards at the shop.


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.

$1 roughly equals a half hour of lost productivity at work.
Certain levels reward trainers with items that help them level up faster.
Source: https://m.reddit.com/r/pokemongo/comments/4u2rvu/i_broke_down_leveling_into_small_intervals_to/


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.

Seeing the opposing Pokémon’s CP suggests to attackers how strong their own Pokémon need to be.
Remember Pokémon Snap?
The kids who grew up playing are all grown up.


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.

Gotta go through the core loop!


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

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.

Squad Arena in SWGoH is available at level 8 and has a tiered rewards structure built into its leaderboard.

Friends Lists

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.

Already rocking that “Schoolkid” gold badge look.

Final Thoughts

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.

Interested in all things tech | SF Bay Area

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