Pokémon Go: Gamification lessons for research

Pokémon Go: Gamification lessons for research

Gotta Catch ’em All

You’re reading this on the Internet, so it’s a safe assumption you’ve heard of Pokémon Go. It might even be a decent bet that you’ve played it: In just over a week, it has passed the daily user base of Twitter and users are spending more time with Pokémon Go than Facebook. How has Pokémon Go garnered such success so quickly? Why it is so engaging? What can we learn, as researchers, from the first legitimately successful augmented reality application? And what can we learn, as businesses and an industry?

A brief Poké-history

To understand how an app could blast off so rapidly, it’s important to understand the brand we’re talking about. Pokémon is a mammoth, global, wildly successful franchise with over 20 years of history spanning games, trading cards, comics, TV series, and 19 films. The franchise has sold nearly 300 million units of software; its estimated global market size is larger than the global research industry.

In other words, Pokémon was huge before Pokémon Go hit the scene.

Also relevant: Pokémon has never had a major game for smartphones. Niantic Labs (the developers of the game, themselves a spinoff from the Google Maps team) uncorked two decades of childhood memories and installed them on your phone.

Why is Pokémon Go so successful?

Setting aside for a moment the brand strength and history of the franchise, Pokémon Go does several very clever things very, very well:

  • It gamifies everyday life. In particular, it provides an endless supply of opportunities to engage while you’re traveling between point A and point B with nothing better to do. Your game profile levels up the more you play, unlocking new capabilities over time.
  • It fully leverages your mobile device. The experience uses your smartphone camera, GPS, social media connections, and mapping data in a way that is frictionless. The functionality of the game itself is fairly limited; it only comes to life because of the immense amounts of geocaching data that have been collected and tagged on Google Maps and other GIS platforms.
  • It is “free.” More accurately, monetization is an optional decision left solely in the user’s control.
  • Gotta catch’em all. The core of the Pokémon experience has always been the never-ending effort to collect as many different types of Pokémon creatures as possible.  This collection dynamic (and the scarcity of rarer types of creatures) is no different than a bird watcher spotting a rare Californian condor.
  • It is socially aware. Unlike most other mobile games, playing Pokémon Go requires the user to register an account before playing (which makes its success even more impressive, when you think about the additional barrier to trial caused by user registration processes).
  • It is viral by design. By making it easy to share pictures of Pokémon in an augmented-reality view, it taps into widespread photo-sharing behaviors as a way of spreading the word.

What does this tell us about the opportunity for augmented reality?

As a games researcher and a research gamification professional, I’m hesitant to make any proclamations about the world after one week. There are many, many, many stories of games that catch fire and either fizzle out or don’t have any lasting impact beyond the original experience. Other titles become the inspiration for an entire genre that may endure for decades.

Which games do you think have had the largest cultural impact?

We don’t know how much overlap exists between the Pokémon Go audience and pre-existing Pokémon affinity, but I think it’s fair to predict:

  • People are OK with augmented reality, done right. Google Glass was too complex / expensive / awkward for the general population, but fitting an A/R experience onto existing devices doesn’t have any barriers to adoption.
  • Within weeks, you will see copycat games flooding the App Stores. The notion of geocaching or augmented-reality games as a new type of experience has been unleashed, much like Angry Birds ushered in a still-flowing stream of physics games.
  • Augmented reality will precede virtual reality. As an early adopter, I’m super-excited about VR tech, but also pragmatic. Augmented reality is a natural stepping-stone, and will likely see much broader adoption before VR can break out of the gaming silo it’s going to be stuck to for the next 5 to 10 years.

What do you think? Which of these games had the greatest impact?

Does any of this help or hurt me as a researcher (or research business)?

Pokémon Go presents an opportunity, and a warning. From a gamification perspective, we recognize how powerful gamification engagement techniques can be at driving behavior (such as motivating millions of people to walk around their communities). It’s accomplished in a couple of weeks what FitBit has failed to do after nearly a decade. So, when used properly, gamification can encourage desired behaviors that are normally quite challenging to realize.

The warning, however, comes from Pokémon Go was actually developed. If you explore the types of roles that work at Niantic Labs, you will find:

  • Machine learning engineers
  • Software engineers (obviously)
  • Community managers (a common role at game companies, that publicly interacts with an audience for sharing and gathering information)
  • Game designers
  • QA/testing

There’s a complete lack of traditional insights agents or research managers, which is typical of most mobile game companies. “Insights” are gathered primarily through user testing, beta test programs, analytics and machine learning, and community engagement on social media or message forums…which seems to have worked just fine as far as they’re concerned. Pokémon Go is a new billion-dollar machine that will generate no business opportunity for traditional researchers. Niantic will create their own insights.