After the release of Pokémon Go last July, it was everywhere. News story after news story described hoards of players filling the streets looking to fill up their ‘dexes. You couldn’t help but read about how they were getting out and about, learning new parts of their local geography and causing stampedes in pursuit of rare Pokémon. Then, just a few weeks later came the stories about how the game was over. Many viewed it as a fleeting craze – a short month or two of excitement followed by a rapid dwindling. However, though the game’s popularity certainly had peaked, millions still log in every single day.
Even during the cold winter months, it was impossible to walk between nearby gyms without them flipping colours as teams fought for position. Statues and signposts became unpopular as Pokéstops, but cafes and pubs became the perfect places to drop lures and let the Pokémon come to you while you escaped the weather. The secret to Pokémon Go’s continued success is how well it integrates with people’s lives. In those first few weeks, much digital ink was spilled about how good the game was at getting people out of the house and walking around, but this works both ways – if people are out of the house and walking around anyway, they want Pokémon Go to keep them occupied. We all have to travel, whether it be commuting or running errands or walking the dog, and we always take our phones with us. Pokémon Go remains the perfect game for these moments.
Most mobile games require sustained attention. Something like Threes is great for a train journey, but not so much for walking around. Some apps, like the appropriately titled The Walk, reward moving around, but not in the same way that Pokémon Go does. Unlocking all of the story in The Walk requires a dedicated effort – it’s specifically designed to get people exercising. Playing Pokémon Go for as long or as little as you like feels equally rewarding. Stops and Pokémon are only ever a short ways away (in urban areas, anyway), and you’re never rushed to hatch eggs.
Of course, Pokémon Go has another major advantage: the Pokémon themselves. Other location-based augmented reality games existed before and have cropped up since, but Pokémon Go has remained unchallenged in its field. There’s a reason people (including me) cried at the announcement trailer – Pokémon has been a huge part of the lives of most people in their twenties or below, and that carries weight. No matter how simplified the game is, owning and battling the creatures will always be exciting.
Cultural memory isn’t the only draw of Pokémon, though. They’re specifically designed to be collectible – you want to own them even if you don’t know their names. My mother, who loved the first couple of seasons of the anime as much as I did when I was a child, thought that she’d be alienated by the unfamiliar Generation Two Pokémon when they were released, but you can’t say no to a Teddiursa. She exceeded her data cap last month, almost entirely because of her Go addiction. Now that summer’s rolling around again, at least in the northern hemisphere, people have more and more reason to be outside, and with it comes a Pokémon Go renaissance.
While the game continued to tick over during the winter, summer events cause a burst of activity. For example, a few weeks ago there was a boat race where I live. It was one of the first nice days of the summer, hundreds of people turned up to watch, and Pokémon Go was a deeply entrenched part of it. A huge proportion of attendees were playing, there were lures on every nearby stop, families chatted about what was nearby and what was in their collections; it wasn’t, strictly, why they were there, but it was a perfectly natural addition to an event that has otherwise run unchanged for years.
Niantic is paying attention – they’re taking advantage of the game’s popularity at public events by throwing their own dedicated celebration in Chicago. Tickets sold out in less than a day (helped by the fact that rumours abound that the first legendary Pokémon will be seen there). They’ve also recently overhauled gyms and co-op play right when everyone is going to want to spend some time in the sun. These changes court more intense players; co-op raid battles, in particular, require coordination between groups of fans. Keeping these users engaged is important, though the new gyms themselves tell the story of how they have continued to play. Battling will now show how many battles each Pokémon has won, and many have numbers well into the hundreds. In other words, Niantic pre-empted the old system from becoming stale before most dedicated players had any concerns, and by trying out these new additions, as well as continuing timed events that bring out specific types of Pokémon and bonuses like extra XP, they’ll keep up frequent use among those who have continued to play.
On the other hand, they aren’t the kind of radical changes that might win back those who have left. Perhaps the release of Generation Three could coax some people to return, however. Improving the game for rural players, who are often far from both Pokéstops and Pokémon, almost certainly would do so – it’s impossible to look into why people quit without finding these players wishing that the game was worth their while where they live.
In the meantime, Niantic remains in a strong place. They will be for as long as people have reason to walk around, and no better game comes along to fill that niche. For now, it’s hard to imagine any app that will have the killer combination of idle gameplay, rewarding progression, and cute, recognizable friends that Pokémon Go has. We’re in the middle of a heatwave here, so people are subdued, sticking to the shade, but as soon as things cool off a little, the park will be full. Kids will play in the playground, adults will sunbathe on the grass, and all kinds of people will be out hunting for Charizard all over again.
- Jay Castello