As of this week, Pokémon Go is, by almost every measure, the most successful mobile game ever created.
In the short time since its release, the game has been installed on tens of millions of smartphones. In cities across America (and the world) millions of people are leaving their homes to play the most popular Pokémon game of all time.
As a game designer, when I see something succeeding at this level, my instinct is to try and break the game down into the individual game dynamics and technologies to see if I can figure out what the game’s developers did it right, what they did wrong, and how the particular elements that make the game so successful are resonating with players.
To figure what makes Go tick, I’ve intensely played the game myself, and analyzed how other people are interacting with this phenomenon through conversations, articles, and social media posts. Here’s why I think Niantic has been successful in creating a title that is connecting with, and delighting, players all over the world.
There is nothing like the Pokémon brand
One of the most difficult things about successfully launching a new game into the modern marketplace is letting people know that your game exists. But marketing isn’t a problem for a brand as powerful as Pokémon.
It never seems to die. Pokémania first swept the world in the 1990s, but Pokémon’s biggest years were much later. The sales of toys, cards, games, movies and more, has continued to peak year after year, long after the media hype died down. Two generations have fallen in love with its ever growing roster of adorable characters. But up until now, you had to buy a Nintendo handheld console and a cartridge that, together, would cost you a hundred dollars or more.
With the arrival of Go, Pokémon is free and will play on a device that’s already in your pocket. Whether people are playing out of nostalgia, curiosity, or hardcore fandom, the price is right for millions of fans who have been waiting for a real Pokémon game to appear on a smartphone.
But in order to take full advantage of a powerful brand you need to also play off the user’s expectations. If there’s one thing that’s core to the game’s success since the beginning, it’s the catchphrase — “Gotta Catch ’em All!” This isn’t just a slogan, it’s the fundamental set of directions for every iteration of the game. Pokémon Go may play differently from its Nintendo handheld predecessors, but this core concept remains the same.
Augmented reality is a gimmick. Movement is not
I don’t doubt that the excitement of seeing Pokémon in the real world is driving people to check out the game, but once the initial excitement of catching a “real live” Pokémon on your street has worn off, most players will discover that it’s easier and more effective to play the game with AR turned off.
Related: Ready to become a ‘Pokémon Go’ master? Our ultimate tips guide
There is one dynamic that is deeply integrated into every aspect of the game, however — movement.
Go is a game about walking around the real world. From gathering resources at Pokéstops, to hatching eggs, to the subtle game of hide-and-go-seek you play while hunting for new creatures to put into your Pokédex, you have to walk to win.
It’s incredible to see a game that demands so much motion find a big audience. I’ve been cynical about geo-location games working outside of big cities, and up until now, I’ve been right. But Pokémon Go has broken the mold.