What Pokémon Go taught us three months later


Much attention was made when Pokémon Go launched earlier this year. Complete with visuals of crowds of people abandoning cars in New York to chase a rare Pokémon through the streets, it was hard to deny that the title isn’t a hit. Pokémon Go quickly climbed to 100+ million downloads and 24 million active users (as of October, 2016) and undoubtedly has (and will) inspire countless simple AR-based knockoffs.

At the same time, the product has also inspired an almost equal number of negative comments, the most prevailing of which points out that the success of the title has certainly crested and the title is in a downward spiral. These comments point out the relative flood of people who have left the game for whatever reason; becoming bored and moving on the most common of them, frustration at developer Niantic a close second. But they also ignore a fairly consistent truth in the game industry: most games sell and perform best at launch time. The marketing is strongest, crowd-interest is at its peak, and it’s the newest thing for people to engage with. Until, a few weeks later, it isn’t.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how much money Pokémon Go has made; by August it had crossed the $200 million barrier in its first month, something that was unheard of in mobile gaming, and Niantic was being valued at around $3.65 billion. Nintendo seemed to be on board for the ride too until it was revealed that they are seeing “only a modest amount” of those profits. Undoubtedly revenue has slowed considerably from the first month, but again… this is hardly surprising given how the game industry functions. Dire warnings that the game has rapidly “lost steam” are undermined by the fact that it’s following the same trend of nearly every other title in the history of gaming. The fall is higher because the growth was higher… all of which points to normalcy more than failure.

Doom and gloom aside, it’s already projected that Pokémon Go will make more money than many of the other Pokémon products combined, and with additional features and functionality promised in upcoming updates the life of the title will continue, even if the massive stampede to catch a Vaporeon is likely a thing of the past.

But the question is, what does all tell us? Is there anything fundamentally new or different that Pokémon Go has brought to the market that others can learn from? The answer is perhaps not… Niantic proved what is mostly already known, just at a bigger and more public scale than we are used to seeing it.

The vast majority of game downloads happen at the start of its life

As mentioned above, this is hardly surprising. It’s when the marketing tends to come, and the value of being “the new title” brings with it attention and downloads. In this way, mobile and downloadable content is exactly the same as a traditional console title purchased in a brick and mortar store. It also underscores how critical it is to put your best foot forward… an initial misstep doesn’t necessarily doom the title’s acceptance, but it certainly digs a hole that is hard to recover from.

Updating regularly helps maintain the user base, but not grow it

As we are seeing with Pokémon Go, new features or functionality released later rarely grows the user base. This again has a lot to do with game psychology and how games consume new content, but it also signals the right strategy if you’re building a title based on micro-transactions or in-app purchases. Pushing aggressively to build the user base over profits in the first couple months is absolutely the right formula, where focusing on profitability out of the gate may limit user growth from which can never be recovered.

Android and iOS are no different, and in many ways similar to consoles

There are certainly differences to downloadable titles on any platform from their physical copy counterparts… but increasingly the trend is the same in any scenario. The biggest myth of course has been that one mobile platform would be fundamentally different from the other. Despite whatever core differences Android and iOS users may have, their downloading and purchasing habits are the same.

The climb to make money over time is incredibly difficult

Research from application analytics firm App Annie show that 10-15% of iOS and Android ‘top performing’ games reach $1m in revenue, but only 20% of those go on to reach $10m. There’s a reason behind this of course; most games have a limited architecture of play that allows for such growth. There are simply limits to plugging in new features for money before the title’s core play starts to fall in on itself.

AR may be the future of gaming, but Pokemon Go wasn’t an AR title

While much was made about Pokémon Go being an AR smash hit, the AR component was really very minimal to the core title itself. In fact, Niantic revealed that the vast majority of players shut off the AR component in battles as quickly as they could as they found it limiting and harmful to the game. There are still plenty of true AR experiences coming, but Pokémon Go was a very casual first attempt into that space. A hugely successful one, which perhaps points to casual titles being the right entry into the field, but still less of an AR title than a geo-location one.

When a title is successful it certainly prompts people to speculate on what will happen next, and in doing so many forget the fundamentals that have been in place in the industry for well over a decade. In the end, Pokémon Go was a brilliant first step in a direction that will be mimicked and copied many times in the months to come.

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