Is Pokémon GO an extremely fun game?

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 a task, it feels a bit rewarding. This type of attraction is dominant in many casual (free-to-play) games.
Gym leaders are publicly visible
Gym leaders are publicly visible
  • 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.

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:

Pokémon GO on BBC news
Pokémon GO on BBC news
  • 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.


PhD project: Why do we play games?

Why do we play games exactly? Are we playing Candy Crush for the same reason as Call of Duty? And what about The Sims? An answer such as “because it’s fun” is too simple. What is “fun” exactly, and are we playing all games for the same type of “fun”? Understanding the different appealing aspects of videogames is the main topic of the PhD research I’ve started. The project originates from a research proposal I wrote in 2015 which was selected in the Graduate Program Game Research at Utrecht University.

In four years I will investigate what makes games appealing to play. Much research has already been done to answer this question, but I see some large knowledge gaps. My hope is that the knowledge I generate will be useful in many areas. I will focus on making it useful for game designers. I started by making a detailed plan, and figuring out what I am going to do exactly. Here’s roughly what I will do:

What do we actually know?

There is a lot of research investigating why games are appealing. This question is usually not addressed directly, but disguised as research into player motivation, different types of fun, or emotions generated by games, for example. All these different perspectives have produced similar results, but also striking differences. It is my hypothesis that all this research is addressing the same underlying question: what makes games appealing? However, these different perspectives can each highlight some aspects while other aspects are missed. (And some approaches may include an additional focus.)

So this generates the current situation: there are a lot of theories about sort of the same topic, but with a different perspective. This makes it very difficult to compare and combine the knowledge. Figuring out what the combined existing knowledge is on this topic is my first research goal.

How can we use that knowledge?

I see a lot of potential to use the combined knowledge on why games are appealing. It can be used in game design to understand better what the appealing parts are of the game and how to improve those appeals in that specific game. It can be used to find for which specific appealing factors it is relatively unknown how they work. And subsequently, it can be used to better study a specific appeal in isolation because the other factors can be ruled out with more certainty. And there are many more applications for the knowledge on why games are appealing! Applying the knowledge is the second part of my PhD project.

Wow! This can be really interesting, don’t you think? I will be posting regular updates on this blog with results, food for thought, and other progress. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, via RSS, or subscribe to receive updates via email.

Pitching my research project at DiGRA NL
Pitching my research project at DiGRA NL