Pokémon Go Revolutionizes Mobile Gaming And Augmented Reality

Posted by Matt Manning on 14 July 2016

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In 1996, Nintendo released a role-playing game for their handheld Game Boy system called Pokémon, short for “pocket monsters”. In this game, “trainers” explored a world filled with animal-like characters called Pokémon. The goal was to catch Pokémon in a ball, and then train them by battling other Pokémon. As you gained experience, your Pokémon evolved, and became stronger. With the help of a USB wire connecting two Game Boys, users could trade and fight their Pokémon with friends. This social element of the game would become a crucial element to its success.

After its initial launch in Japan, Pokémon became a worldwide phenomenon, with television shows, movies, lucrative licensing deals and even a spin off trading card game. I personally must have used 75% of my allowance in the late 90s on those cards, searching for an elusive “Charizard”. In the meantime, Pokémon continued its popularity in the gaming community, releasing new every few games with better graphics and new Pokémon.

Fast-forward 20 years to this week, and Pokémon is again causing a tsunami. This time, it is in the mobile smartphone gaming space, a segment that Nintendo has struggled with in recent years. Pokémon Go was developed in partnership with Niantec, which formerly worked under Google, and has since spun off. The game uses Google Maps GPS and augmented reality technology to place gamers in the context of the real world. It displays the map of your local area and your avatar on your phone. When a Pokémon is in your area, the screen turns on your camera, and you see the Pokémon standing there in the real world in augmented reality. For longtime fans of the game, this is a dream come true. I was personally delighted to catch a “Squirtle” that was standing in my backyard.

What makes this game so revolutionary is the seamless use of augmented reality. As we all know, gamers tend to have a bad reputation for staring at a screen inside for hours on end. Pokémon Go turns that on its head to force users to go out in the real world to find these Pokémon in different locations. The gameplay is also engaging and addictive, and users are enticed to keep playing for a number of reasons. As you gain experience, your Pokémon become stronger, and you start to encounter stronger and more rare Pokémon. The tagline for the series is “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, which becomes a mission statement of sorts for players to continue the game until they have collected every type of Pokémon. There are also certain designated landmarks throughout the map that are called “gyms” where users can battle against each other. Just like in old arcade games, the best player is listed on top of these gyms like a high score. This drives engagement by tapping into people’s natural competitive spirit.

As they did with the original Game Boy version, Nintendo again expertly tapped into the social element of gaming. Users find themselves congregating at these designated landmarks, battling each other for bragging rights. On social media, my friends seem to be trying to one up each other to see who can share a screenshot of a virtual Pokémon in the strangest real world location. A colleague of mine told me that his son spent all weekend chasing Pokémon around their town, and ended up running into friends, and even one of his high school teachers. In Australia, one police station felt obligated to put up a Facebook post saying, “For those budding Pokémon Trainers out there using Pokémon Go—whilst the Darwin Police Station may feature as a Pokéstop, please be advised that you don’t actually have to step inside in order to gain the pokéballs.”

There are also lucrative business opportunities that some are taking advantage of. In line with the theory of SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile), some small businesses are advertising their locations as “Pokémon Go Hotspots”, offering discounts or free Wi-Fi to those playing the game. Larger businesses may begin to take notice of this type of strategy, with deeper partnerships and possible merchandise crossovers forthcoming.

In its first week, Pokémon Go has had such tremendous popularity that its daily users already were matching those of Twitter. However, there have been some initial concerns about safety, with users staring at their phones as they walk down the street and experiencing unexpected injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent out a tweet saying “Eyes up, pokéballs down, people”. Since the game tracks your location in real time, there have also been concerns about privacy issues. On Tuesday, Senator Al Franken sent a letter to Niantec to find out what user data they collect, how the data is used and with what third party service providers that data may be shared.

The success of Pokémon Go also presents a few valuable lessons for business leaders looking to drive this type of engagement in their own internal/external programs. As this blog has mentioned in the past, employees are more likely to gain and retain knowledge through gamification platforms that present traditional business training or information in a fun and competitive manner. One idea could be a platform similar to this where employees use their smartphones and GPS capability to interact with certain “landmarks” around the office. Imagine walking into company headquarters, seeing a designated plaque on the lobby, and using your smartphone to pull up an augmented reality “tour guide” to explain company history.

With Pokémon Go, Nintendo has revolutionized both mobile gaming and augmented reality. It seems that Pikachu has saved the day again.