22nd July 2016
by Ben Stark, Senior Strategist
Unless you’ve been sedated, phone-less and living under a rock for the past few weeks, you can’t fail to have heard the big global technology story of the year so far: Pokémon GO from Niantic (part-owned by Nintendo), which launched in the UK last Thursday. The statistics around this free app have been well-shared but are still frankly staggering: it’s been downloaded on 11% of all Android devices in the US, and its 26m daily players are generating $1.6m a day from in-app purchases. Nintendo’s share price has literally doubled in the last 10 days, adding over $15bn to its market value.
Just as widespread have been the raft of news stories that are helping drive the craze: there’s the New Zealander who has given up his job to become a professional Pokémon hunter, the four intrepid teenagers in Wiltshire who had to be rescued by mine rescue experts and firefighters after getting lost in a network of underground caves, and of course, the Wyoming girl who found a real-life dead body in a river while playing.
Pokémon GO is a phenomenon, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just for kids or twenty-somethings. 40% of adults who have downloaded the game are 25 or over, and 8% are over 35 - meaning they missed out on the original Pokémon boom of the late 90s. So what is it about the game that is so compelling and making it such a hit?
Design-wise, there is nothing hugely new: the graphics are by no means outstanding, and the gameplay is rather basic as well, with the majority of the time spent wandering around on a map of your local area chasing the rustling leaves that indicate where to find Pokémon. In terms of technology, the game is hardly revolutionary either. It uses the ordinary functions found on pretty much any smartphone: GPS mapping, a camera with basic augmented reality interface to super-impose the Pokémon creatures onto the ground in front of you, and your touchscreen to fire ‘Pokeballs’ at them with a finger swipe. In fact, the game was actually initially conceived as a Google April Fool’s Day joke, before Nintendo realised the mechanics and data already existed in a previous Niantic game called Ingress from 2012 and could be relatively easily developed for real. So far, so underwhelming.
You could argue that Nintendo has just taken some quite basic technology and ideas, and knitted it together around a blockbuster brand. Yet this is exactly what Apple did so brilliantly in 2007, taking existing technologies like a capacitive touchscreen, music database and camera and combining it into a compelling solution with a great user interface to produce the iPhone. Successful products don’t always need to be at the bleeding edge of technology: what they do generally need to do is respond to our innate human desires, and deliver a captivating experience. Pokémon GO has achieved this in spades.
Pokémon GO plays into some very universal human desires and motivations which help explain its incredible success:
Pokémon GO is also of course about escapism, and possibly even regression to childhood. 2016 has been marked by such turbulent news that perhaps for many in the UK and US, a game that allows people to re-discover their inner child and re-embrace a sense of fun and discovery is just what people want. Niantic and Nintendo have brought these natural human inclinations to find, collect, nurture and compete together into a concept that is simple enough to be understood by all, hopelessly addictive... and free to play (at least until you get sucked in!!).
What makes the new kid on the block so markedly different from other gaming sensations like Candy Crush, Clash of Clans or Farmville is that gameplay takes place exclusively outside: if you’re a dedicated couch potato, you won’t even reach level 3. Players may look like they are staring at their screen as they walk around, but part of the pleasure is surely the statues, parks and landmarks they are drawn to rather than just the combat power of the Pokémon they are hunting.
Winning at the game requires some physical effort too - it’s refreshing to see a digital craze that encourages gamers not to stay indoors being sedentary, but to want to be active and expend some energy. The Pokémon are found in places that correspond to their type: water monsters are found near lakes and rivers, grass-loving ones are found in parks and commons, and ghoulish creatures are found around graveyards and churches. In a way, Pokémon GO is gamifying the ‘back to nature’ trend we’ve been following at Seymourpowell for the past few years. Pokémon GO is also textbook example of ‘analogue-digital reality blur’ trend we’ve been tracking, and the most high profile use of augmented reality to date.
The game can even be said to be helping with the obesity crisis. Pet owners are delighting their dogs by taking them for longer walks than normal. Dog shelters are encouraging Pokémon GO players to take one of their rescue dogs out with them when they go walking. Rather than trying to get people active through Change4Life, perhaps the NHS’ next move should be to develop the next generation of Pokémon GO?
The other key benefit of gameplay occurring outside is that Pokémon GO involves different types of interaction between gamers. Compared to online games like Call of Duty (which have live chat features that often descend into harassment as gamers hide behind their headsets and screens), Pokémon GO allows players to actually meet each other in the real world. There is a lovely moment of realisation when you cross paths with a group of four people all excitedly moving in the same direction with their phones in their out-stretched hands, or you spy someone across the road who appears to be walking straight into a bush and frantically flicking at their screen. People who see you doing this will occasionally share tips and help you find a nearby Pokémon they have themselves already captured. And scenes like this amazing convergence of hundreds of gamers in New York this week when a rare Vaporeon spawned in Central Park, sparking a mass midnight hunt, show the power of the game to bring a community together in shared activity.
But the social impact of the game goes even further than that. The Church of England’s head of digital (come on, now isn’t that just a fabulous job title?) has encouraged parishes to sign up as PokeStops in the game to attract people to the building and to take advantage by offering them a cup of tea and a chat. And some hospitals have even got involved, encouraging players with spare ‘lure’ potions to drop them near the children’s wards, so that kids who cannot explore outside at the moment can still catch some Pokémon. When was the last time an online craze let you help bed-bound kids to feel part of the action?
Whether you believe this is a fad that will burn out in a few weeks, or something that will last several years, every brand manager and ad agency worth their salt is currently scrabbling to develop their Pokémon GO strategy. Analysts believe that while the game could generate $584m a year in in-app purchase revenue, that figure is dwarfed by the potential ad revenue Nintendo can attract - one estimate puts it at nearly $18bn a year. How can a game possibly be worth so much? Well, brands will want to associate themselves with Pokémon GO not just because of regular brand-building, but because unlike every other digital experience, this one actually brings customers directly to their door.
If you are a McDonalds franchisee, inserting your outlet into the game as a PokeStop drives footfall of a key demographic right to your restaurant to help sell more McFlurries and Big Macs. Don’t believe me? One pizzeria in New York called L’inizio Pizza Bar, saw its sales rise 75% over the weekend after paying $10 to use the Lure Module. Not a bad little investment.
If you’re a fashion retailer like Nike, putting your stores in the game as PokeGyms means you can show off your latest designs and products in the shop window as people are lured in. We expect to see fashion, fast food and tourist attraction brands fighting to insert themselves into the game and thinking of innovative ways to grab gamers’ attention when they get there - everything from targeted window dressings to money off promotions aimed at capturing a slice of the action. Gotta catch ‘em all... by which I mean customers of course.
Perhaps the greater significance of Pokémon GO is the great example it sets brands of how to create a successful experience - and not just a digital one either. Pokémon has been a huge brand but its heyday was many years ago and most of its core audience had presumably grown up and left the brand behind. Yet this new reboot has re-connected many old gamers and attracted millions of new ones too, which is an amazing achievement. Pokémon GO has done this by understanding what motivates and interests people: we like engaging experiences, we like being physically active, and if an activity like collecting pocket monsters is compelling enough, we can easily get totally obsessed.
What Pokémon GO also points to is the inherent pleasure in exploring and stepping out into the great unknown. Technology for the last 15 years has done a great job of rationalising life and making tasks easy or non-existent for us. Google Maps and sat-nav have taken the burden of map-reading away; Tripadvisor and Open Table take the mystery out of booking a restaurant or hotel; Uber and bus countdown tracker apps take the uncertainty out of waiting for a cab or bus. Pokémon GO works because it is about serendipity and surprise, and it makes putting the effort in rewarding and fun. The monsters on the whole don’t come to you, you have to go out and find them. Being the one person in a crowd of hundreds to capture a rare Charizard monster will give a rush of pleasure that is amplified by the number of competing gamers.
Pokémon GO is also notable for giving very little away in terms of how to play the game. The introductory screens leave many confused about how to actually get started, and there is no ‘how to play’ tool within the app. This means gameplay is about discovery: finding out how to track and capture the Pokémon through trial and error. Stumbling around without much clue how to do things can be frustrating, but also serves to ramp up the satisfaction when you do eventually work out what’s going on - the success is all the sweeter because you discovered it yourself. YouTube tutorials and hints and tips pages online abound, and players are sharing experiences and location recommendations to help build up an online community.
The world of play is about finding solutions, building things, taking slight risks and making progress yourself - rather than being handed everything on a plate. Brands which offer ease and convenience are great, but do they offer the thrill of finding a great deal on Secret Hotels, or winning an eBay auction for a knockdown price? We believe brands should be building the ability for consumers to play games, to strategise and to explore into their user experiences, and finding ways for their audience to feel the soul-lifting glow of ‘winning’. Technology can rationalise the fun out of life: Pokémon GO shows that sometimes we need that chaos and surprise to truly engage us.
The PR around Pokémon GO is also a textbook lesson in how to drive appeal. Whether it’s scare stories of players getting mugged while playing (yes, walking around with your smartphone out is a great help to potential muggers), to entrepreneurial youngsters touting their services to catch Pokémon for you while you’re at work or school for the bargain price of $20 an hour, these media mentions are helping drive consumer interest and feed the phenomenon.
The hordes of gamers congregating in parks and staring at their phones may peter out in a few weeks as the initial excitement wears off, and the media saturation the game currently enjoys surely won’t last for very long either. Nintendo’s market capitalisation will soon stabilise too. [In truth the huge share value increase probably reflects more than just the success of this new game: investors are betting on the fact that Nintendo is seemingly finally embracing mobile gaming rather than sticking to console platforms, and that means huge new potential revenue streams as it unleashes well-known characters like Mario and Donkey Kong into iOS and Android games].
Pokémon GO may well prove to be little more than a passing fad, but its success can teach an awful lot of brands some salient lessons about how to truly engage with consumers. Here are Seymourpowell’s key takeouts: