Last week, on July 6th, Niantic released a free app for iOS and Android: Pokémon GO. Its been less than a week and it’s pretty much the most popular game ever. Even though Nintendo only gets 30% of the profits from the game, on the 11th their stock rose $7.5 BILLION. But what IS it? Well, if you haven’t already downloaded it, or you’re just curious about its background, we’ll explain.
At its most fundamental level, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality (AR) game. It utilizes your phone’s GPS, clock and camera to allow you to search for and capture Pokémon. Just like the original Game Boy games released 20 years ago in 1996, you walk around and find wild monsters and capture them in “pokeballs”, add them to your “pokedex” and can evolve them into more powerful forms and battle them against other trainers. The game allows you to mildly customize an avatar and then you walk around and find Pokémon! But instead of using controls to move a character, your GPS shows you moving down streets. Sometimes the Pokémon pop out and you toss your pokeballs at them until you catch ’em!
Arguably one of the most fun parts is that it then uses your camera to place an animated Pokémon in front of you, laid over whatever the camera sees. You can snap a picture before you catch the little creatures. Once you hit level 5, you can visit virtual gyms and battle your Pokémon against other real people.
The Pokémon you find correspond to the environment you’re in. If you’re in the woods, you’ll find pigeons and rats and bug-based Pokémon. Go by the water and you’ll find fish and eel-based Pokémon. As you continue, you’ll come across more exotic and rare creatures.
Also in the world are Pokestops. These are sprinkled throughout the world at landmarks like parks, businesses and natural formations. If you go up to them, you can collect extra pokeballs and other items that can help you catch and evolve your collection. When you catch a pokemon, you also collect stardust and candies. These can be used to increase your Pokémon’s combat potential (CP) for battles. Candy can also be used to evolve them into new forms.
The concept for the game began as a joke. Satoru Iwata of Nintendo, Tsunekazu Ishihara of The Pokemon Company and Tatsuo Nomura of Google Maps got together in 2013 and created a joke for April Fool’s Day where supposedly you could use Google Maps and find Pokemon. Nomura went on to found Niantic, a game company and the idea continued to evolve. Niantic released an AR game in late 2013 called Ingress, which was also a location based collection/battle type of game.
Pokémon GO is very, very popular. Two days after release, it was installed on over 5% of all Android users’ phones (as a baseline, Tinder has been holding steady at 2% and they’re doing well). It just surpassed Twitter for daily active users. And so far, it’s only available in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
It is worth noting that the current version is very new and it is buggy. Sometimes the servers can’t handle all the use and sometimes it can glitch and freeze. I will note that personally I have had one instance of the servers being down and one time where it froze and I had to restart my phone. But some of my friends have said that’s happened more often to them.
Pokémon GO is popular but Pokémon has remained popular for 20 years. It’s not really a fad. It’s just that people know the property and enjoy this new version of AR gaming. What will be interesting now is to see how Nintendo and other companies capitalize on similar games. Right now Pokémon GO offers in-app purchases that allow you to evolve your Pokémon faster but that’s about it. But with people everywhere using the game, people are already reporting that they’re exercising more and getting out of the house more often. It’s exciting to think about the potential social good that could come from a game like this – what if Niantic placed rare Pokémon in libraries, museums, homeless shelters? What if they put one near voting booths on Election Day? People are already getting out and exploring so it’s not hard to imagine they could be driven towards such locations in the future.