To understand why Pokémon GO has done so well we have to dig into some history on the mobile app games market.
While Nintendo only has partial ownership of Pokémon, Pokémon GO is something Nintendo didn’t want to make. With less than ideal returns on the Wii U, investors demands that Nintendo enter the mobile app market grew ever louder. As a games company that forges its own success rather than playing by the same rules as everyone else, pressure to enter the highly unstable mobile app market was not something the Kyoto based gaming brand would likely do.
Investors became so raucous that they were even calling for the then CEO, Satoru Iwata to step down in light of the perceived failure with the Wii U. It is not publicly known what change, if any, Iwata’s passing brought on as there were already announcements that Nintendo had relented and was planning to enter the market.
Just as Nintendo adopted the toys to life model, with their Amiibos and even a greater use of DLC in games like the Fire Emblem series, it seemed they were begrudgingly accepting modern game conventions despite the fact these would be an obstacle to their players.
The mobile app market has irreversibly damaged the gaming industry. With the popularity of Apple’s iPhone and those new consumers lacking a background in console and PC games new expectations began to develop. Rather than a 40 to 60 dollar price point with a title they might get on a handheld like the Nintendo DS or Playstation Vita people were becoming accustomed to cheaply made apps that were a few dollars or even free. A parent looking to pacify a crying child or someone who was boredly waiting found playing Angry Birds for free on their phone was a more convenient alternative to the investment of spending a couple hundred dollars for a handheld from one of the big console producers. It’s the difference between a sit down restaurant and a fast food dollar menu.
Games became even more consumable. They became disposable.
With ambitious console titles pushing for photo realism and larger development teams and cycles, budgets inflated where in comparison a mobile app can be developed be a few people in a relatively short time for a lot less money. Mobile app games with micro-transactions would not need to even sell their titles, as this entire marketing plan relied on the idea of “whales”. Some people might try an app and not spend any money, but there are those who would not only try it but spend hundreds of dollars. This cynical approach defines the consumer as a resource. Why cast a net for thousands of fish when you can just catch a few whales who will produce plenty to live off of?
This is the gaming market that Apple has cultivated.
In a rush to cash in on people’s ignorance and eagerness to find cheap alternatives the mobile app markets are flooded with low quality games that are unfinished, blatant copies of other games, and sometimes even a danger to the user’s privacy. This market mentality has even spread to the PC with Valve’s Steam, where Steam’s Early Access sells unfinished games, with no guarantees and sale price points can become so low, people buy titles they may never even play.
Despite all of this. Despite how bad the mobile app market is, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company has not only ventured in but helped create the most successful app game ever.
So why did Pokémon GO succeed? Nintendo and Pokémon have enormous brand recognition that immediately help it stand out. This is recognition mobile app developers would kill for. With a marketplace that’s cluttered and the only useful metric that users have to find apps are search terms and user reviews, a term that can be easily remembered and return accurate searches will give a good app made by a talented team of developers a chance to stand out. If it was not bad enough, a good app title can not only get lost because of search terms, but with overseas services that sell positive app reviews and some games tricking players into rating a game high like EA’s Dungeon Keeper it can all seem hopeless.
Standards are criminally low in the app market. Pokémon GO is far from perfect and at the time of this video, it’s currently on version 0.33.0 so it’s seems it’s not even done. CEO John Hanke has even said that Niantic plans to add more feature to the game. For mobile app standards, Pokémon GO has more gameplay than most apps in the market. Angry Birds, which was not an original game but a reskin of the 2009 flash game Crush the Castle, was little more than a slingshot toy.
While Nintendo’s first app, Miitomo was a success, Pokémon GO was destined for greatness as long as it could even halfway promise on what it set out to do. It did. If Niantic, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company continue to develop Pokémon GO the three will probably create a standard of success that surpasses even what they’ve current achieved.
Pokémon GO conforms to the idea that a game should be free and has a cash shop for micro-transactions but players are not forced to use these for enjoyment.
When the game developer does not treat the user like a resource to consume, the consumer does not see the game as something disposable. The two entities give each other value and grow from the collaborative experience.
This is why Pokémon GO has has become wildly profitable. It’s not a product anymore, it’s something meaningful and personal. It’s begun to change how people live their lives. They are going outside, visiting places, talking to strangers, finding a new sense of wonder that was previously lost and even businesses that embrace this are seeing a return of good will. Regardless of race, gender, age or background; people are sharing the same goal and experience camaraderie where there might never have been.
This is what video games are meant to be.
I would have liked to end the video here but the recent updates to Pokémon GO has colored the situation in a new light. CEO of Niantic, John Hanke, has publicly stated that he didn’t like third party trackers and that they would take steps to restrict or shut them down. Combine that with the fact that the shaking grass has been removed and the Nearby Radar is still mostly useless, where there was previously an overwhelming well of goodwill for what, let’s be honest, is an incomplete game, the player has now lost any meaningful way to affect their progress with an app has grossed an estimated 10 million dollars a day.
All of this discourages people from what was an incredible gaming experience.
If Mr Hanke and anyone from Niantic is watching this video, please stick with me, as I’m not going to be needlessly critical. I believe a lot of these issues are a result of miscommunication.
The most recent update fixed a number of issues that the update before had introduced but to the common player, who is woefully under informed by the games media, this all sends a very distinct message.
It is the complete opposite of what was being said previously. This is not so much a collaborative experience now, but a product whose focus is a global release rather than design choices that benefit existing and future players. Players have become passionate over this game, passion that Niantic has profited off of, and while it isn’t their responsibility, people now feel betrayed by this perceived slight and lack of communication. Some people have tried to get refunds for their in game purchases where others are so dissatisfied they began to report Pokémon Go for breaching Google Play’s Terms and Conditions.
Niantic has rapidly lost control of the situation and are likely to lose the incredible momentum it’s garnered. I’ve seen regular accounts of people saying that the recent updates has curbed their interest in the game and I’ve observed it first hand. Where I used to see lures on Pokéstops into the middle of the night, I now see them intermittently during the day.
Having worked in Quality Assurance testing games, I immediately took the removal of the tracks as a possible removal of a broken feature until it could be corrected. Where third party trackers filled the void of the bugged nearby radar, communities grew and formed around those as well. The crackdown was another negative move that reflects poorly on Niantic that comes off critical of its own community.
What people did not understand was that for trackers to work, they had to queue the already over taxed Pokémon GO servers. So this was an unfortunate necessity. As for a design choice, I can understand how trackers might be seen as cheating, but I personally feel they bring a greater level of user involvement with the software. Respectfully, Mr. Hanke, you have the wrong idea of how trackers affected your user base. It was no small thing to ask that your player base get up and go out to catch Pokémon. It’s asking for too much to expect them to do that but now with limited information and tools.
The trackers didn’t hurt players. Especially with how tight the spawn timers are in terms of practicality and just how many Pokémon have to be caught and transferred to level up and evolve.
At that point, it just boils down to players who are willing to devote the time to excel at a game. Even if someone lacked a third party tracker, they could still record with a paper map, a notebook and the game what they’re seeing and where. Trackers or not I found people on Reddit are doing this manually. In the world of Pokémon tracking migration and ecology, or mechanically, where they spawn, is part of being a trainer! Why not reward this?
As I understand it, there have have been third party trackers since Ingress, so rather than see this demand as an ever looming obstacle, take control of it and offer a design solution that satisfies the player and renders those other services useless. It sounds like the PokéStop nearby tracker is an attempt at this. While this might help, this introduces some pitfalls I’ll get into later.
Why not create an in game alternative tracking methods? Maybe there’s a function for listening to Pokémon cries, so trainers will be encouraged to learn their calls and track them that way. You can increase the encounter ring for Pokémon or make it so that they spawn closer to streets in residential and private areas so users don’t trespass.
I noticed the map that showed where Pokémon were caught eventually broke and was removed. What if Pokémon GO could work like the Pokémon games and built off that removed feature? In the previous games Pokémon the player hadn’t caught yet but did encounter was then added to the Pokédex with encounter locations.
This would need fine tuning, but I’m sure just having general zones and approximate time, where people can find Pokémon in their Pokédex map wouldn’t tax the servers as bad as a tracker pinging it every second for pinpoint accurate spawns.
In any competitive game, success favors the individual who devotes the most time and effort. I understand if fairness is an issue but, even in it’s current form Pokémon GO subverts the effort players make with the real currency shop. Is it fair for a lower income player when someone who’s loaded can drop incense, lure modules and lucky eggs to bank ridiculous experience?
I get it, game development is a business. There’s a cost to all this and I won’t say any developer must sacrifice for their player. That’s a choice only the developer gets to make. While I may not agree with what’s happening, I can only give you my earnest feedback.
I could go into my thoughts on how battling currently works but I feel like I’ve said plenty.
I want Pokémon GO to succeed and like Mr. Hanke, I even hold the very unpopular view that Augmented Reality is a favorable technology to Virtual Reality. I wrote a snarky article about it for Gameranx. With how things have gone now, and the fact that you guys are looking to roll out sponsored Poké Stops while STILL maintaining in app-purchases, this could give off another bad impression. As I understand it the current tracker, which is being tested on a limited amount of your user base (I can only guess to avoid backlash if it breaks) seems to put a greater emphasis on Pokéstops for tracking Pokémon.
This puts players in rural areas at a disadvantage, while overtly changing how the game is played to likely push people to visit PokéStops. No doubt this design choice would be profitable once Sponsored Pokéstops start paying Niantic. Would Sponsored Pokéstops with deeper pockets get rarer Pokémon to encourage greater turn outs?
What Niantic does now determines if Pokémon GO has a strong global release that eventually fizzles when its hype wears thin or it becomes something that not only lasts years but changes how we see games and technology can work.
Gamers are used to being treated poorly and some of the press around Niantic is now echoing behaviors they are familiar with and resent. Unfortunately, the people now testing the app and tripping over its bugs aren’t a QA team that can be so easily fired if Development takes issue with them. It’s sort of the other way around and you, Niantic, have to let them know you care just like they do. Let them know that they’re your partners in this.
I encourage you to take a softer stance on any design choices that might alienate your players. Even if you feel it’s wrong. Once you’ve given someone something, you can’t really take it back.
…or maybe I’m wrong. With this many players, maybe there is enough that the majority of your user base won’t mind and it will be a slow bleed out of interest.
Good luck Niantic. I hope this works out.
Until next time.