The brilliant mechanics of Pokémon Go – TechCrunch
If you havenât seen it already, you will soon walking down the street. Every person you pass who is fervently looking at their phone is likely playing the number one game in the country right now: PokÃ©mon Go.
You might think itâs popular because of the brand. Nintendo, which refused to make a PokÃ©mon game for the longest time on a smartphone, has finally caved and brought its beloved franchise to the small screen. But what may be overlooked amid all that is that the game, on its own, is phenomenally well designed, despite myriad bugs and endless server outages. If you look at all aspects of the game loop âÂ the engagement, retention, virality and monetization âÂ it nails pretty much everything on the head. Niantic managed to hit a very rare, exceptional home run on every textbook point of the gameâs development.
Thatâs not an easy feat. Only a few games in the history of the iPhone have managed similar success. The closest analogues are probably Minecraft and Candy Crush Saga, which also rocketed to not only the top of the App Store download charts, but also the top grossing charts. PokÃ©mon âÂ much like Minecraft before it âÂ launched immediately at the top of the charts. So its immediate success, based on the App Store rankings, isnât necessarily unprecedented.
So, what makes this game so engaging and, from what weâve seen so far, potentially very addictive? Letâs break it down into its core pieces.
Some of the best popular games have bite-time playing sessions. But the session time in PokÃ©mon go can essentially be as long as the player wants, because there is a constant way to increase the length of the session time by walking to more pit-stops. Thatâs a really hard thing to do in a game. Most session times are restricted to levels or gated with lives or energy. For PokÃ©mon Go, thereâs just enough friction to inspire players to potentially pay to extend the length of their play session with less work, but also offer them the ability to go out of their way to extend that session time without having to pay.
When I think about the structure of the play sessions in PokÃ©mon Go, I often think of a role-playing game called Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita. The overall unit of time in the game is a day in the life of your character. The sessions are built into bite-size chunks based on the time of the day âÂ morning, afternoon, and eveningÂ â and save points are littered through most parts of the game. And the combat sections of the game are also segmented into levels, with the option of leaving a dungeon at any point to save your game and end the playing session. In the same way as PokÃ©mon Go, the gameâs session time can basically be extended to as long as the player wants while still keeping the basic mechanics of the game intact. In the case of Persona 4 Golden, that friction isnât necessary because the player has already bought the game, but for PokÃ©mon Go itâs incredibly well executed.
PokÃ©mon Go, like other well-designed popular mobile games,Â offers a quick ramp up that teases a lot of front-loaded rewards to get the player to come through the door and shut it behind them. Thatâs important to grab their attention, but thereâs also multiple layers of rewards that keep players wanting to stay in the game. You can collect items in order to power up your PokÃ©mon and evolve them, but itâs also important to level up your own character. There are different layers of currency built into the game that progress along different time curves, giving each layer of progression its own speed and flavor. In that way, players can hit rewards at different increments of the game without feeling trapped in a grind for everything to level up at the same time.
Amid the entire play session, the game has to stay open. That keeps you from getting distracted and flipping out to other apps. I find myself walking with my phone in my pocket, but with the game open often enough while wearing headphones. Whenever thereâs a chime, I take the phone out of my pocket and start playing âÂ whether thatâs collecting PokÃ©balls or trying to capture something new (or some crappy junk PokÃ©mon for the sake of experience). The game world is vibrant and beautiful, making it something easy and fun to see. Itâs filled with flair and flashes that are visually stimulating and signal new elementsÂ of the game. All this makes the player want to keep their eyes âÂ or ears â glued to their phone, ready to engage with it the moment something new happens.
All of this is great design, and doesnât even mention the brand equity PokÃ©mon has built up. Nintendo has sold nearly 60 million 3DS units. PokÃ©mon X & Y alone have totaled nearly 15 million in sales. Thatâs an incredible nearly 25% penetration rate for all PokÃ©mon enabled devices. If Nintendo were to barely scratch that with the nearly 2.5 billion smartphones in the world (according to Statista) that alone represents a staggering install base.
PokÃ©mon already is a worldwide phenomenon, and that alone is probably enough to get the player in the door beyond simply encountering other players and hearing about it organically.Â PokÃ©mon Go currently only supports the original 150 PokÃ©mon as well, tapping into the an untapped nostalgia that players have been waiting nearly a decade for.
An array of user-generated gameplay experiences is critical to building strong retention, andÂ all the pieces are already built into the PokÃ©mon Go experience.Â Each capture session is unique âÂ the angle of the PokÃ©ball is different, the placement of the PokÃ©mon is different, and thereâs also an opportunity to have a unique experience also tied with the real world. You have probably seen on your Facebook feed screenshots of PokÃ©mon sitting on other peoplesâÂ heads or in their laps. Each capture moment offers a unique player session, and while many will be similar, thereâs the tantalizing opportunity to have something truly unique thatâs really exciting.
Thereâs also an incredibly sticky part of user-generated content that exists alongside the game: the actual walk. Each walk a player goes for, in theory, is unique. The environment in the real world is different.Â the people who you run into may be different, the weather may be different, or the time of day. The environment in the game is also different, with Gyms constantly in flux and new PokÃ©mon appearing at different intervals and in different places. Each walk also actively engages the player physically âÂ and exercise naturally triggers a positive feel for your body, adding an additional layer of delight to the gameplay experience.
This is such a new mechanic for a popular game thatâs unprecedented. For most games, the user-generated gameplay is restricted to an imaginary universe. Itâs a level on Candy Crush Saga that you get that lucky explosive cookie. Itâs a player-versus-player round in World of Warcraft where you get that lucky critical hit. Itâs a round of Destiny where you are just on fire and keep getting headshots. But all of these take place inside a screen, interfaced by a controller âÂ whether thatâs a real controller or a touchscreen.
The mastery curve is also smooth âÂ over time you build a strong array of PokÃ©mon that help you advance further in the game. The end of the game, like the regular PokÃ©mon games, is a moving target, and thereâs basically always someone out there thatâs slightly better than you. That gives players a constant incentive to continue progressing along the mastery curve.
Whatâs also unprecedented is Nianticâs spin on the gameâs viral loop. In PokÃ©mon Go, thereâs no feature that allows you to extend the life of your playing session by inviting or reaching out to friends. In fact, the social graph is almost non-existent in PokÃ©mon Go. Instead, your in-game social graph is an extension of a supplemented version of your real-world social graph. A smartphone owner sees someone playing the game, becomes curious, downloads the game, and plays it â both interacting with other players and inspiring curiosity in other potential new players. And the rest of the time youâre looking at screenshots of whatâs happening in the game in your Facebook feed, or texting friends when you managed to catch that rare PokÃ©mon.
You can read stories in many places on the internet of people randomly interacting with each other related to PokÃ©mon Go. I experienced this already when walking around San Francisco, only to have a car drive by with one of the passengers yelling that there was a rare-ish PokÃ©mon down the street (it was an Ivysaur, for those keeping tabs). This is table stakes for the PokÃ©mon Go experience, and itâs what gets new players in the door. This kind of virality is especially powerful because it isnât limited to an existing social graph. The whole viral loop is augmented in such a way that a non-connected interaction in the real world can lead to a new player, a download, and then monetization of that player.
Thatâs why I think this interpretation of the viral loop mechanic is so fascinating and is going to be so successful. Never before has a game immediately achieved such popularity in such a way that it regularly intersects with the real world. A lot of people consider it to be an augmented-reality experience, and in many ways you could consider it to be that. But itâs not just an experience that uses your camera to play âÂ itâs an experience that crosses the boundary between an imaginary universe and the real world. I think the proper term that should be applied to this would be mixed-reality. The phrase augmented reality just doesnât give the game enough credit for being able to break that fourth wall and constantly move the player between an imaginary world and the real world.
And it also represents an enormous opportunity for the game if Niantic decides to implement other important aspects of PokÃ©mon like trading. Without an embedded social graph the game has already grown to immense popularity. Just imagine if it began to add an additional layer of player interaction â even if, again, it only takes place in the real world.
So itâs no wonder that the game has already hit the top of the App Storeâs top grossing charts.Â Thereâs a lot going on in the monetization component of PokÃ©mon Go, but again, it nails nearly every angle of attack to get players to make a payment.
You can extend the life of your play session with more PokÃ©balls. You can speed up your growth curve by getting Egg Incubators, further increasing your array of potential PokÃ©mon to further progress in the game. You can increase the rate of the engaging capture sessions by buying Incense.
The same can be said for Lure Modules, which not only represent accelerated progression in the game but yet another way to tap into PokÃ©mon Goâs viral loop. Players congregate around areas âÂ whether for catching PokÃ©mon or building up their PokÃ©ball stock âÂ and that increases the probability that new, curious players will come by and discover the game independent of the App Store or other methods like Facebook App Install ads. UsersÂ paying for this contribute to the entire community of players given the benefit it offers everyone else.
The most important aspect of this is that the gameplay, unlike most of the most-popular mobile and social games, is not gated. Paying Niantic and Nintendo money simply allows players to progress more quickly, but it doesnât impede their progress overall. Players have an opportunity to progress through the game at their own rate. As the saying goes, you still need the slow boat to China if youâre going to be successful.
Niantic here does such a good job of creating just enough friction that, at the exact moment, it can capture an opportunity for monetization. Players donât feel compelled to spend money, and instead theyâre offered a delightful experience when they elect to spend money. Those eye-popping visuals continue, they keep throwing PokÃ©balls, and they donât have to wait to see some of the most powerful PokÃ©mon game.
All this together creates a very powerful, sticky, and accelerating game loop that is helping the game grow at such an incredible rate. But thereâs another underlying thread amid all this: It bodes very well for holdout franchises to expand into mobile devices amid fear of cannibalizing devices or other parts of the market. Even Final Fantasy, in a way, has found its way onto mobile devices with Final Fantasy Record Keeper.Â A lot of these mechanics were pioneered in the companyâs previous game, Ingress. But itâs hard to deny that all of these at the scale of PokÃ©mon Go make it a completely different experience.
Nintendo, amid the runaway early success of the game, added $9 billion to its market cap. This is such a strong, powerful signal to holdout franchises that havenât quite entered the smartphone ecosystem. And thereâs a good reason to do so: if that 2.5 billion device number from Statista is accurate, it offers such an enormous opportunity that it may be well worth eating up some potential hardware sales.
This is a transition that the advertising market faced in the not too distant past. Google is constantly hounded by the need to shift its advertising revenue to mobile devices, in the hope that less valuable ads can be traded for a larger volume of ads on mobile devices. Facebook has built a business worth hundreds of billions of dollars off its mobile advertising products.
Video game stalwarts will face the same dilemma: do you trade hardware and console sales in favor of the incredible volume of smartphone users? Is it worth the risk to assume people will still buy your consoles when Mario is available on your phone? Can a company like Nintendo offer an array of experiences that span multiple devices? In this weekâs blowout success of PokÃ©mon Go, the answer for now appears to be rounded up to a Yes.
Alas, thereâs no way to mash down+A+B. Get on that, Niantic.