In July 2016, an incredible phenomenon swept across the mobile gaming industry. A relatively unknown game development company released the latest installation of a long-standing franchise, opting for the game’s initial release to be only in Australia and New Zealand, and using characters conceived almost twenty years ago. And yet, the game was downloaded 10 million times within the first week of release, and earned USD$160 million in revenues within a month. The shares of one of the world’s largest gaming company increased by USD$9 million in five days as a result, and 231 million people became active players in the first month of the game’s release. Not only did the game create an international sensation, it also created scandals in locales ranging from classified military bases in central USA to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland, and saw a huge spike in the amount of people attempting to change their mobile device’s geolocation data in order to be ‘in’ the countries where the game was first released.
It wouldn’t be hard to guess the identity of the game I am referring to. The phenomenon is none other than Pokémon GO, the mobile game that swept the world by storm.
Using a combination of augmented reality technology, geolocation services, updated Pokémon designs, and a decade-old franchise with a global fanbase, Pokémon GO revolutionised what people thought mobile games could achieve. Game developers were stunned, including Pokémon GO‘s own creators. Even though server instability was infamous during the first few days of launch, people throughout the industry – from YouTubers to researchers – hailed it as a social revolution. It was suddenly no longer embarrassing to be a gamer, and there was a huge incentive for outdoors exercise. Strangers met up en masse in public places to catch Pokémons together and to go on hour-long hundred-men Pokémon walks, and various people saw the profit to be made in related industries, such as a dating website specifically made for Pokémon GO players.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say such a success would be the ultimate dream for every game company, the stuff of miracles for mobile developers. Therefore, people started to ask why very soon. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon GO, only made one commercial game before, the obscure Ingress that experimented with geolocation tracking. It certainly was not one of the major players in mobile game development. The Pokémon franchise, while being one of the oldest video game series, was also not one of the top earners in the game industry in the past few years. There is something, something in the chemistry between the marriage of Niantic and the Pokémon Company that triggered the world into a frenzy. Was it the augmented reality (AR)? Was it the PokéStops? Was it all the sleeper Pokémon fans who rarely purchased Pokémon merchandise before Pokémon GO, but jumped on board this easily-accessible, free-to-play new iteration?
I would like to offer an alternative: it was because Pokémon GO fitted into the user experience of the Pokémon universe.
I believe that, at its core, the success of Pokémon GO was because ‘walking’ had always been a core part of the integral Pokémon journey.
The original Pokémon games were as much exploration as they were about adventure. Walking was the predominant way of getting around – you were not given access to Running Shoes or the Bicycle early on, and even if you do have the shoes or the bike, you would still need to walk around at moments. In fact, walking was all but required to achieve some pretty cool things, such as maximising your Pokémon’s affection towards you or to hatch eggs for unique Pokémons. In some ways, walking was the gameplay for the Pokémon games in between major battles. Walking was how you met and obtained new Pokémons. Walking was how you could find hidden items and secret passages. Walking was… a part of the game, a part of life.
Such an understanding of how naturally walking comes about in the Pokémon games would explain one of the major reasons cited by Pokémon players as they flocked to Pokémon GO, that this is their ‘childhood dream coming true’. To walk around and find wild Pokémon was the core mechanic of Pokémon games, the whole premise of the travels behind Pokémon game protagonists. It was because of the necessity to walk that the player felt he or she became a trainer in the flesh, that they were truly traversing the entire world hunting for Pokémons, just like the premises of the original games.
Pokémon GO successfully reproduced this integral ‘walking’, and it made sure the game led flawlessly from the handheld console experience to the mobile phone. But Pokémon did not become a decade-long franchise just because of mindless walking. Pokémon games offered something modern games are struggling with even now: players felt they were in control of their own destiny. Players could go wherever they want, and be with whichever Pokémons they want. ‘Walking’ was an expression of the freedom players were given in the Pokémon games, both in terms of how to explore, as well as getting which Pokémons and how long one wants to stay in a region to hunt for rare Pokémons. Collectively, players have spent billions of hours walking around in the games over twenty years, and yet it was with a purpose – the walking was a means to get things done. Little wonder people took the idea of walking around for Pokémon with such gusto.
The vast cast of Pokémons also offers endless customisation and individuality for each player. You could put any Pokémon suitable for the upcoming Gym Battle into your team, and you could walk with your personal favourites whenever you feel like switching out. There was re-colourisation for some Pokémons depending on gender and specific game versions, and if you really loved one kind of Pokémon, there were rare Shiny versions you could spend hours looking for. The initial games were targeted towards children in their early teens, who were on the cusp of gaining independence and yearned for expressions of individuality. Most Pokémon GO players first came into contact with the world of Pokémon during that period of their lives, and the psychological freedom the games offered became a memorable part of their early adulthood. That was why people look upon Pokémon GO as the fulfilment of such a powerful wish, the materialisation of such potent dreams.
And that was the beauty of user experience, the ability for game developers to craft entire worlds for our players. User experience has always been such an intangible thing, so often overlooked compared to mechanics and aesthetics, and yet is the conglomerate of all the individual parts of the game combined together, often extending long beyond the end of the gameplay. The current interest in the game development industry with better graphic performance and more realistic combat systems surely does contribute to the overall feel of the game, but must form a comprehensive whole. It is the combination of all the little parts of the game that makes the user experience linger so long on the player’s mind.
Indeed, subtle manipulations and designs of a game is sometimes enough to create a highly emotional and powerful formula, one that not only bring fun to the player, but also a sense of meaning and personal expression. Games draw in the player’s mind for an immersive experience, for sinking into a different mental state. Memories and emotions formed during that period stay with players, and in the case of the Pokémon franchise, remained for decades. Yes, AR contributed significantly to the novelty factor of Pokémon GO, and the fluffy and adorable designs of Pokémons worked to endear and draw in some new players, but it was the unique feeling that came with playing the game that saw to the success of the Pokémon world. It is a lesson pivotal to game designers, and the key difference between games and any other narrative drive traditional media.
The magic of the cinema is to become lost in someone else’s dream, to surrender yourself to the vision of the director.
The magic of games is to realise your own dream, to rediscover and evoke hidden parts of yourself in the designer’s world.