They’re in my house. They’re in my car. They’re following me to the store. Of course, I’m speaking of the Pokémon who inhabit the world of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has invaded the lives of smartphone owners all over the world since its general release July 6. Seemingly overnight — actually, faster than overnight — Pokémon Go has schooled the world on the power of augmented reality, a technology that is expected to support a $120 billion market by 2020. Thanks to Pokémon Go, it might be time to raise that dollar figure and speed up the adoption timeline.
With Pokémon Go, you use your smart phone to play a game of discovery and battle with Pokémon from the video and card game that Nintendo made popular in the late 1990s. Thanks to augmented reality, Pokémon can seemingly pop up anywhere as you view the real world through your phone screen, including your own bathroom or your backyard. Your job is to catch them, train them, and prepare them for battle with other teams (in designated spots called gyms, which correspond with public places in the real world that you can find by getting out of the house and exploring with your phone as your guide). At locations called Pokestops, you can collect supplies and goodies to assist in your quest to find and train the Pokémon on your own team. As you capture harder-to-find Pokémon and win battles, you level up.
Since the game’s release, I have spent some time playing the game with my daughter, Marion, and friends. I’ve wandered around the town I live, Downers Grove, Illinois, jumping up and down in excitement on public streets while I’ve experienced the thrill of capturing Pokémon. Here’s why I think Pokémon Go resonates:
The Game Rocks for Pokémon Fans and Nonfans
First off, Pokémon Go is flat-out fun for both fans of the legacy Pokémon game and people who know little about Pokémon. The experience has all the elements of an enjoyable game, such as questing, play, skill testing, winning points, challenging others, leveling up, and joining teams. Both single players and multiplayers can enjoy it, and you can keep a session going for as long as you have the app open, which is crucial to creating player engagement.
Marion and I are not really conversant in the ways of Pokémon, but we play games on occasion, and it was easy for us to get the appeal of Pokémon Go straight off. Learning the rules is pretty easy — which is essential for me, as I have zero patience for games with complicated instructions — and yet achieving points is challenging enough to keep your head in the game.
Plus, the Pokémon are fun and engaging. In a sense, the makers of the game, Niantic (a spinout from Google parent Alphabet), tapped into an inherent advantage by structuring the game around characters whose appeal has been time tested through the video and card games. It’s not as if Niantic were starting from scratch field-testing an unproven commodity.
In fact, Niantic risked turning off Pokemón followers either by being inauthentic or too populist for the loyal fans. But so far Pokemón lovers are into the game, too. My friend and fellow Bristol Renaissance Faire cast mate Cody Grindol (a longtime Pokemón fan and lover of Pokemón Go) explained why Pokemón Go is appealing to the Pokemón enthusiasts and newbies alike. Here’s what he said via a Facebook message:
For Pokémon fans, [Pokemón Go] fulfills the lifelong dream of being able to go and catch Pokémon. In the show & games, there are adventurers who walk around and basically catch wild animals to make them fight. Pokémon fans have always wished they were real because of all the fun adventures that could be had. So bringing Pokémon into the real world is perfect. For non-Pokemón fans, they just enjoy the game mechanics. They love walking around, trying to collect Pokemón and training them. It pulls people to new places and they get new experiences with everyone else playing.
The Game Turns the Mundane into the Magnificent
On a warm Friday morning, Marion and I needed to run to a local Michaels craft store, which is normally a routine errand. Because we were playing Pokémon Go, our visit to Michaels became an adventure. The Pokémon popped up in unexpected places. Bellsprout floated near a clutch of shopping carts, and Pidgey turned a cheesy display of plastic flowers into an exciting challenge, certainly to the bemusement of shoppers and employees who shared our space. That trip to Michaels was an opportunity to play — and an inspiration to find more Pokémon and Pokestops in the locations we normally encounter throughout the day.
As it turns out, Downers Grove is teeming with Pokémon, Pokestops, and gyms. Even the local cemetery beckons players. And we didn’t even scratch the surface as we played throughout the day. The hard-core gamers are going well beyond the level of casual visits to Michaels or strolls through their local downtowns. They’re kayaking into the ocean and milling in front of homes of complete strangers to win gyms, just to cite a few examples of how Pokémon Go is turning our world rapidly into an augmented reality experience.
The experience is not perfect, of course. For example, Niantic created Pokestops and gyms from ideas submitted by users, and not all of those locations have turned out to be ideal. I suspect some Pokestops are going to be reviewed and revised very soon in order to protect the integrity of locations where it’s just not cool or appropriate to be chasing after a Pokémon (especially for kids).
I have heard the arguments about the downside of too much Pokémon Go, and I agree that Pokémon Go should not take the place of an immersive experience you’ve set out to enjoy, such as movie, play, or concert. The mere existence of a Pokestop or a gym does not require you to ignore your surroundings (although I know many gamers who will nod their heads in agreement and ignore me).
But so far, Pokémon Go is working brilliantly as an augmented reality tool by enriching even those mundane moments.
You might wonder what’s so social about wandering around staring at your smart phone as you try to catch Pokemón. And you’d have a point. But Pokemón Go is inherently social in some important ways.
First comes the social experience of a player introducing another player and explaining the game, or an experienced player helping a novice get better. Marion introduced me to the mechanics of the game, and Cody has been deepening my knowledge. In a sense, the game connects Pokemón lovers with gamers, and gamers with the curious.
Although the game does require players to spend a lot of time glued to their screens, players are typically working in groups, talking with each other as they play, whether sharing tips or the excitement of catching Haunter. Such was the case with Marion and me. Pokémon Go was a way for us to explore the world albeit from a new perspective. We ran around the block. We hung out in two parks. We enjoyed shopping together. In short, we spent time together.
The social sharing extends well beyond the game. If you are a Pokémon Go enthusiast, you’ve probably joined a group of like-minded players in your office, on Facebook, or on many other platforms where shared passions flourish. Social groups give the passionate gamers a forum to really geek out, whether sharing player tips, fan art, or memes that only other players will appreciate.
It’s all good.
An Augmented Reality Future
Pokemón Go is the most popular app on the app store and is about to have more active users than Twitter on Android devices. The game has added $9 billion in market value to Nintendo and is inspiring brick-and-mortar businesses to figure out how to create commercial tie-ins based on their proximity to players, Pokestops, and gyms. It’s only a matter of time before businesses partner with Niantic to create more formally branded experiences. Some of those experiences will probably consist of lame attempts to be cool, while others — likely from a forward-thinking company such as Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, or Taco Bell — will work well by tapping into the natural fun of the game without being intrusive.
Inevitably, Pokemón Go will endure a cooling off period. But it has already accomplished something much bigger than one game: introduced the world to an augmented reality future. Augmented reality is the key to Pokemón Go’s rapid success. In games such as Candy Crush, your playing field consists of the world inside your screen. Pokémon Go connects your screen with your natural environment. Thus, augmented reality takes a game with already strong mechanics and makes your world the playing field. If the game itself sucked, augmented reality would not make much difference. But without augmented reality, the game would lack geographic reach and the surprise and delight of re-discovering places in a playful context.
Pokemón Go has done more for augmented reality than a boatload of blog posts and presentations will ever do. Any brand developing an augmented reality experience (such as Cedar Point Amusement Park) has received a major boost.
What have been your experiences with Pokemón Go?