This post contains my current thoughts about the success of Pokémon GO. It should not be interpreted as a conclusive work, but rather as a conversation piece. You are invited to reply in the comments with your thoughts.
Everyone has heard about the Pokémon GO hype, and most of you have probably played the game. If it’s so popular, it must be an extremely fun game, right? Let’s analyze what exactly is so appealing inside the game:
- Collection. Perhaps the most obvious type of fun in the game. The catchphrase of Pokémon is even “Gotta catch ’em all”. There is something inherently appealing about collecting stuff, consider how some people collect post stamps.
- Small tasks. I’m not sure what an appropriate name is here, but I’m referring to the apparent pleasures of completing small tasks. Pokémon GO is full of them, there is always a new pokéstop nearby, there are regularly new pokémon to catch, you can walk to hatch eggs, and more.
Every time you complete such a task, a bit of dopamine is released in the brain (see for example this article, although I’m not convinced we fully understand the role of dopamine in games yet). This type of attraction is dominant in many casual (free-to-play) games.
- Competition. Players compete to become gym leaders of the gyms in their neighborhood. Gym leaders are publicly displayed on the game map with their avatar and nickname, which shows a certain dominance of the leader players. This is especially appealing to players below 30 years old (see for example this post, which aligns with other research).
- Exploring. Pokéstops are tied to interesting places in the real world. Players are frequently cited that they see things they didn’t knew existed in their neighborhood.
There are of course more appealing aspects of the game itself (e.g., customizing your character, figuring out the optimal strategy, the dexterity challenges in gym fights). My impression is that the aspects above are the strongest, let me know if you disagree.
So are these four things in the game extremely fun? Are they so compelling that they explain the game’s success? I think there is more. To analyze that, we need to move our focus away from the game and onto the player. How is the player using the game? Do past experiences of the player have an influence? Let’s specifically analyze the player:
- Nostalgia. This factor has also been mentioned by others as important. Many people have watched the Pokémon television series during their childhood, played Pokémon games, and possibly collected Pokémon cards. But that alone is not enough. Most current GO players haven’t played any of the other recently released Pokémon games. I think the answer can be found in the nostalgic Pokémon fantasy of really being a Pokémon trainer. The premise of the game is that you can walk around and catch Pokémon in the real world, something that was not possible before. The Pokémon fantasy can now be lived, as opposed to just being imagined. Side-note: even though this was the premise of the game, I don’t think the game has fully delivered on it. Important in the fantasy is not only to catch Pokémon, but also to train them and to form a bond with your Pokémon. GO does not facilitate this bonding well. An enormous amount of Pokémon have to be caught to make progress, making your Pokémon replaceable instead of valuable.
- Companionship. Many players play the game together, walking with a friend to catch Pokémon and conquer gyms. The game does not enforce this. It is convenient to cooperate when attacking gyms, but not necessary. But more importantly, the game deliberately does not restrict playing together. It would make sense if a Pokémon can only be caught by one player. But in GO, Pokémon can be caught by all players in the neighborhood, resulting in cooperation instead of competition.
- Togetherness. Since GO is so ubiquitous, other players are frequently encountered on the streets. Players sometimes talk to each other, even though they haven’t met before. Even just seeing that someone else is playing the same game frequently results in a smile. Everyone is playing the same game, this forms a sense of community.
It should be noted that the clear separation made between analyzing the game and the player is just a way to structure the analysis. Both parts are always in interplay.
Pokemon GO is just insane right now. This is in Central Park. It's basically been HQ for Pokemon GO. pic.twitter.com/3v2VfEHzNA
— Jonathan Perez (@IGIhosT) July 11, 2016
So are we now able to explain the success of Pokémon GO? There is one factor we should not forget to consider; the context in which the game and the player reside. Does the context play a role in the success of the game? Let’s analyze the context:
- Media attention. The game has been making headlines for over a week now. People are constantly made curious what this Pokémon phenomenon is. Also, if so many people are playing it, people are inclined to be part of the group. It’s almost impossible not to be interested in the game. The pervasive nature of the game encouraged the media attention. The game is blended into the real world and thus becomes visible to the general public.
- Accessibility. Everyone has a smartphone, everyone can try it. The game facilitates this further by being free, and by being relatively simple to play.
- Summer vacation. The release is well-timed. Many people have plenty of spare time, and the weather invites people to go outside.
There are more contextual factors which have an influence, but I think these are the most prominent. Interestingly, there was barely any marketing done by the publisher. Other (mobile) games usually spend an enormous amount of money and effort on marketing which aids significantly in a success.
With the analysis of the game, the player, and the context, I think we have enough information to explain Pokémon GO’s success. My explanation is that there are two main factors. Initially, the nostalgic fantasy appealed to a large group of people giving the game a large initial momentum. The next main factor was the huge amount of media attention, accelerating the influx of new players.
What about the game itself then? How does it contribute to the success? I think the game is ‘fun enough’ to facilitate the success. Considering the mechanics of the game, I don’t see elements which are extremely fun. All of the elements have been executed better in other games*! Note that I don’t think it’s a bad game. On the contrary, it does its job very well. The appealing factors of the game are varied to make it fun for a wide variety of people. GO contains all three categories of appealing factors found consistently (in different forms) in the scientific literature: Challenging aspects, Social aspects, and Exploration aspects.
To answer the question from the title, I would say: No, Pokémon GO is a fun game but not as extremely fun that the game itself (the first part of the analysis) explains the success of the game.
If you have thoughts, additions or corrections on my analysis, please let me know in the comments. If you want to read more cool posts in the future, subscribe via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or RSS. The ideas behind this article have also appeared on the Dutch websites De Kennis Van Nu and NPO Radio 1.