What makes PokémonGo so Addictive?

- A Mobile Product Manager’s Perspective

Christopher Nheu
Jul 8, 2016 · 10 min read

I’m not gonna lie. I cannot stop thinking about this app. It’s not just about the deep nostalgia it evokes, the fact that it’s completely blown up or the fact that this is the first implementation of augmented reality in a game truly designed for the masses.

Check out the trailer!

It’s the fact that it’s so bloody addictive.

This post is about how I feel Pokemon Go’s game designers have perfectly executed on the “Hook Model” — a framework for gamification and getting users to come back again and again and again.

PokemonGo is absolutely nuts.

It was just two nights ago, my girlfriend had downloaded it earlier in the day and urged me to get on it so we could pick a team for gym battles (I know #relationshipgoals).

It was a cold, Winter’s night, the rain was smashing down and the wind was thrashing my umbrella. There was probably nothing else in the world (apart from PokemonGo and the threat of death) that could’ve got both of us outside at that time.

But we did. And we succeeded.

After catching my first Krabby, I was literally jumping up and down, squealing (yes, like a pre-pubescent boy) with joy. I was my 11 year-old self again. Holding a GameBoy Colour, with Pokemon Yellow. I remember reading Professor Oak’s pixelated words: “Now, Chris, which Pokémon do you want? — Go ahead, it’s yours!”.

In the days that followed, is something I’ve never seen before. A game, being adopted en masse by non-geeks. Everywhere across my social newsfeed. A shitload of user generated content, and all the social recognition it comes with.

Girls, guys, tech, non-tech. I’d be walking home at night, and in front of me I see a charging cable tucked into a pocket, phone in hand and the slightest green-tinge of light on the user’s face. When I walk past and sneak a peek it confirms my intuition. They were training up, hoping for that serendipitous Pokemon to come along.

Did you see me on the news mum?!

From a digital Product Manager’s perspective, this kind of viral acquisition is nothing short of miraculous. So I decided to do some investigation, and things started to click:

  • According to my own heuristic analysis (a fancy way of saying “my best guess is”), 4/5 young people walking on the street were playing PokemonGo this evening on the streets of Sydney.
  • National television is reporting it in prime-time news. In fact, they got me saying “I think it’s pretty addictive” on it too!
  • I found out PokemonGo’s game developer, Niantic Labs was actually a Google Company. That explains the amazing geolocation data and AR tech involved. I wonder how amazing PokémonGo will be using Magic Leap!
  • Then, I took a brief look at Niantic’s Ingress (PokemonGo’s predecessor), essentially the same game with a different storyline. By normal standards it was wildly popular with 12M users! With that amount of data, that would make it the perfect training ground before launching a game for the masses like PokemonGo.
  • All my suspicions were proven true when I read that it took PokemonGo less than 5 hours to get to the top spot of the US App Store. It took the addictive and insanely popular Clash Royale, 3x as long! Furthermore, people aren’t just downloading it and leaving it, they’re paying money for it too. Its outgrossing mega apps like: Game of War and Clash of Clans.

Needless to say, PokemonGo is absolutely nuts. And we, casual gamers are none the wiser! As app designers, we can’t all leverage the brand loyalty, cultural clout and nostalgia that Pokemon can. But we can still think about what it is that makes PokemonGo so addictive.

Removing Stranger Danger?

The Hook Model — Introduction

To explain how app designers create addictive experiences, I’m going to introduce Nir Eyal’s famous Hook Model. The model tells us how to methodically craft a repeatable set of actions that eventually create new behaviours.

The secret recipe to creating addiction

Step 1 — The Trigger

The first step to PokemonGo’s success is the internal trigger. Here we’re asking: what does the user really want? For PokémonGo the internal triggers are not foreign to technology users. We want to:

  • Relive Nostalgia: PokemonGo is a second-coming. The seed was planted more than a decade ago, in my formative years. Like many others, I spent countless hours capturing and training up Pokemon on our Gameboy’s and in the card game! Today, PokemonGo re-capture’s our imagination and invites us to experience that all again.
  • Cure Boredom and Feel Connected: the more obvious internal trigger is the same one that Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram all feed on. Something I’d noticed, long before PokemonGo came out, was the fact that I would see so many people staring at their phones as they walked around the city. The only difference here is that Augmented Reality actually creates a digital connection with someone in the physical world. I can’t help but smile at someone and start a conversation with the person in front of me playing Pokemon.
  • Be More Healthy: the game requires you to walk around outside to play. For the first time, since ever, I’m hearing parents talk about how it gets kids out of the house! For those who are concerned about sitting in the office all day, it actually makes you feel good about yourself, because we’re now embracing the great outdoors! Compare this to our dystopic fears of how virtual reality will consume us, and the difference becomes night and day.

For the first time, since ever, I’m hearing parents talk about how it gets kids out of the house!

The external triggers are powerful too!

  • FOMO or the fear of missing out is insanely potent here. This is what happened when my girlfriend told me to download the app! In fact, as I write this piece on a Friday night, there is this nagging feeling that my friends are levelling up past me.
  • Social Recognition: we want to show our friends how awesome we are. Social networks bring out the most narcissistic in us, and now we have a new medium through which we can display mastery in.
  • Sweet Marketing: check out the trailer above.

Step 2— The Action

From a user experience perspective, one question we always ask ourselves is how much effort is required to take an action.

Not much it turns out. Because there are two primary actions required to play the game and we already do these things everyday!

  1. To find Pokemon all you have to do is walk around outside
  2. To catch Pokemon you simply flick the Pokeball at the Pokemon to catch it.

The best apps leverage existing behaviours first, because they’re the simplest and easiest to do. It’s frictionless, like gliding on ice.

If you combine the triggers above with the fact that the barrier to entry is so small, it’s easy to see why the app has taken off.

Step 3— The Variable Reward

In Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris’s amazing piece about how technology hijacks people’s minds, he tells us that “The #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards”

Then he makes an analogy about “slot machines” that is not to be understated. He notes that in the US, this particular form of gambling alone is more lucrative than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined!

Similarly, with our new mobile smartphones, the average person now checks their phone 150 times a day. Every time we “pull to refresh”, we secretly hope for a notification. A little red blip in our social radar. A sign that we’re needed. That we’re wanted. And we fall for it every time.

In the case of PokemonGo, the radar is no metaphor. As we walk around, open up the app for a second, we all hope for that serendipitous Pokemon to appear on our physical radar. The Pokemon is jumping around, sometimes they’ll run away. And all we have to do is “flick” that Pokeball and try to catch it. This whole process, the chase, the catch, the fear of missing out, these feelings are all giving us a little hit.

But the truly scary part, is what happens in the anticipation for the hit. In anticipation for the hit, we get a boost of dopamine, the exact same chemical in our brain that regulates the pleasure centres. It’s the same chemical that fires off when having sex and eating chocolate. The anticipation itself, forms an internal trigger that pulls you back in.

The anticipation itself, forms an internal trigger that pulls you back in.

The fact that the rewards are variable and intermittent, keeps our biological brains wired in, excited, revving to go. And so, so Harris, succinctly warns, it’s like we’ve “put a slot machine in a billion pockets”.

Taken from Tristan Harris piece here
Also taken from Tristan Harris’s piece here

Step 4 — Investment

Investment is the last and final step in the Hook Model. This is also the hardest.

App designers have to choose the right “thing” that will keep you coming back. For apps like Facebook, it’s your social network. I’ve seen countless friends (myself included), deactivate their accounts or delete the Facebook app. But it’s so hard because your entire social circle is living there.

The question about whether PokemonGo will be able to retain its users and “evolve” into a long-term cash cow, will be dependent on how its designers craft the investments we make.

But the investments we’ve made have already started:

  • Time Spent — I’ve already spent a few hours, walking around, catching Pokemon, levelling up, nurturing eggs, etc. The sunk cost fallacy is real, we tend to justify bad behaviour because of past decisions that can’t be undone. E.g. “I might as well finish that bag of chips, even though I’m full because it’s already been opened!”.
  • Social Network — perhaps the stronger investment is the one that I’m not making directly. The fact that my own friends are on it, that we’ll talk about it at lunch, or strategise a gym to take down with my girlfriend. All of these things act to bring me back to PokemonGo.

If PokemonGo can continue to build in investments that its users truly value (even if at a subconscious level), this will ultimately keep us coming back.

So how far will PokemonGo go?

In my opinion, friending capability is the only one thing that’s missing. But I also think there’s a bigger reason behind it.

Maybe they’re not focusing on building out their own social features because they don’t want you to just take a photo and share it with a few friends on PokemonGo.

Instead, they want users to post publicly and privately in existing social networks. It’s a Trojan Horse that helps them acquire users from your social graphs outside of PokemonGo!

Once the acquisition rate (new user downloads) slows down, then they can launch friending capabilities to keep people within the walled garden of PokemonGo.

PokemonGo is probably Google’s most viral app ever!

So here’s a summary of my thoughts:

  1. PokemonGo is probably Google’s most viral app ever! Sorry Allo and Duo! (I know, I know technically it’s not Google)
  2. Brand advertising based on engaged users that are geo-located in real time. This is some Minority Report kind of technology.
  3. This concept of real-time, real-space casual gaming, and avatars walking around on our mobile screens is here to stay. Well, at least until full AR comes around.
  4. PokemonGo’s brand has helped enabled the frictionless uptake of AR in public. Compare the reactions of the public to strangers pointing cameras at strangers when using GoogleGlass vs PokemonGo. PokemonGo has actually opened up conversations because the context is one of play and fun. By contrast, GoogleGlass feels like its Skynet’s deep learning, image recognition algorithms tracking my every move. The irony of course, is that Google is still likely taking our data either way!
  5. However, I’m still on the fence about whether PokemonGo as a brand will have the maturity to engage early and late majority users. Perhaps, something more like the feel of SecondLife could come along in a year or two and take users from PokemonGo that have been “warmed up” to this concept. Perhaps there will be multiple platforms for different demographics, after all not everyone hangs out in the same physical areas.
A new form of analytics anyone?

Anyways, that’s it! Hope you enjoyed the read.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Why not leave a comment below?

Also, if you liked what you read, I’d really appreciate a recommendation or better yet a share of this page to your friends :)

Update 1: This Forbes article used SimilarWeb to see that PokemonGo is about to topple Twitter’s daily active users! NUTS I TELL YOU!

Enjoyed that read? Click the ❤ below to recommend it to other interested readers!

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.

Christopher Nheu

Written by

Head of Product @MadPawsAU. Discovering the right solution, one question at a time. Tweeting @chrisnheu

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.

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