How Pokemon Go Became a Viral Hit & What We Can Learn From It

By now, you’ve almost definitely heard of Pokemon Go. And, if you haven’t, this must be your first day on the internet or something 😉

Released in July 2016, the augmented reality-based mobile game quickly skyrocketed to the top of the charts on both major app stores – and immediately took the world by storm.

But, before we begin discussing the massive success Pokemon Go (and its developer, Niantic) experienced, let’s back up a bit and talk about exactly what the game is, and how it came to be.

A Brief History of Pokemon Go

How many companies behind an incredibly successful product or service can say that it all started with an April Fools’ joke?

Well…Niantic can.

See, back in 2014, Satoru Iwata, the late Nintendo CEO, and Tsunekazu Ishihara, President of The Pokemon Company, got together with Google to develop an April Fools’ prank that involved having Pokemon characters pop up on people’s Google Maps throughout the day.

(Can you say “lightbulb”?)

Now, Niantic had previously created a similar augmented reality game, titled Ingress. While playing Ingress, users would need to travel to different physical locations in the real world to progress further in the game.

While Ingress experienced a decent amount of success in its own right – which is how Ishihara got the idea for the April Fools’ prank in the first place – there was definitely more success to be had for Niantic.

Long story short, the team began developing the original “prank” idea into a full-blown, standalone game. Essentially, Niantic used the Google Map data it had used to create Ingress’ “portals” (basically, physical points of interest), and simply revamped the UI to fit the Pokemon motif.

If you really haven’t played Pokemon Go (again…really?), it basically works like this:

After loading up the app, you’ll be shown a top-down map that matches your physical surroundings. Pokemon characters will pop up on this map, which you can then tap on. This will bring up a mini-game in which you toss a Pokeball at the Pokemon by tapping and dragging your finger toward the Pokemon character on the screen. If you hit it with the ball, you’ll capture it; if not, you can try again (you only get a certain number of tries, though).

There are also “Pokestops” and “Gyms” within the game, which match up with physical landmarks in the real world (such as parks, statues, etc.). When a user approaches these areas, they can unlock an additional mini-game in which they choose from their collection of Pokemon to “battle” with another players’ Pokemon characters. If you win, you capture the “gym”; if not, the other player maintains control of it.

(If this is all confusing, don’t worry – all you need to know is there is a social aspect to the gameplay.)

Throughout this article, we’ll unpack all of this a bit more, and call attention to the important aspects of Pokemon Go’s gameplay – as well as its overall user experience – as it relates to our overall purposes.

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Before we do that, though, let’s talk about how successful Pokemon Go has been over the years.

Pokemon Go: An Instant Success

After a period of beta testing, Pokemon Go was officially released to the public on July 6, 2016.

By July 12 (read: less than one week later), the app had an astounding 21 million active users – enough to bring it to the top of Apple’s App Store in the “Top Grossing” and “Free” list of downloadable games.

(Note: We probably should have mentioned that the game operates as a freemium product: it’s free to download and play, but users are required to spend money in order to unlock additional and advanced features.)

Immediate revenues for Niantic were, in a word, insane. By the end of July, Pokemon Go had generated $160m from in-app purchases. A few days later – right around the one-month mark – Niantic reported $268m in revenue from the US, British, and German markets alone.

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Flash forward to June 2017, and Niantic has earned over $1.2 billion from in-app purchases alone.

With regard to retention, Pokemon Go was still seeing about 5m daily active users in April of 2017, and 65m monthly active users in June 2017 – a little less than one year after launch.

Now, there’s no shortage of articles and editorials on the web discussing the apparent “falling off” of Pokemon Go. If by “falling off,” we mean the game is no longer trending among, well, pretty much everyone, then yes: interest in the game has certainly waned.

However, the reason this drop off was so apparent is because of the ridiculously high numbers the game saw in the first place. Case in point, Niantic saw fifty times the amount of downloads it anticipated almost immediately.

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In other words, the number of people downloading the app for the first time was bound to fall off after the initial surge:

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Additionally, despite reports that Pokemon Go’s daily active user numbers were plummeting, the initial week-over-week decrease in user base was, essentially, nothing out of the ordinary. In other words, Niantic experienced the same rate of drop-off as other successful apps like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans; it just looked worse because the initial numbers were so high in the first place.

And, of course, it’s certainly worth pointing out that, even if Niantic never makes another penny off of Pokemon Go, the revenues it’s already generated are nothing to scoff at. Clearly, the game has been a huge success.

Pokemon Go: A Cultural Phenomenon

As we alluded to, Pokemon Go as a trend has certainly ebbed.

But you don’t need to go back all that far to remember how insanely huge the trend was when the game was initially released.

Throughout the summer months of 2016, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people chase virtual Pokemon on their smartphones. The game spanned generations, with kids and adults getting in on the craze. Even more surprising, it permeated the mainstream: while those who were already Pokemon fans were certainly all about the game, even those who had no idea what a Bulbasaur was wanted to get in on the action.

There were couples breaking out their phones at restaurants to catch Pokemon together.

Complete strangers would nod to each other in grocery store parking lots, excitedly proclaiming that “there’s a Pikachu in the bread aisle!”

Mobs of people gathered together in popular spots like Central Park to go on Pokemon “safaris.”

As far as cultural phenomena go, the Pokemon Go craze was as big as they come. For a few short weeks, it changed how people lived their lives. We were getting up and walking around our neighborhood – something most of us would never have done otherwise. We bonded with complete strangers in real life over digital creatures instead of shouting at each other on social media over actual political figures. We all “nerded out” without any fear of being ostracized – because almost everyone else was doing the same.

Perhaps the craziest thing about all of this?

From a critical standpoint, Pokemon Go really isn’t all that great of a game. The game offers little in terms of depth, the UI is clunky…the list goes on. Compared to other mobile games (and certainly compared to current-gen blockbuster games), Pokemon Go is average at best.

But, as The Guardian pointed out a few days after Pokemon Go’s official release:

In spite of the fact that Pokemon Go isn’t exactly an incredible game, it still provides an incredible experience to its users.

Let’s dig into this a little more.

What Made Pokemon Go a Cultural Phenomenon?

Something we haven’t really mentioned in this article up until this point is that Niantic really didn’t do all that much in terms of marketing or advertising Pokemon Go around the time of its release.

There were no cross-app advertisements.

No television ads.

There wasn’t even very much buzz on Niantic’s Twitter profile leading up to game’s release date.

And, as we said above, the game itself isn’t really all that great.

If we didn’t just spend a ton of time explaining how successful Pokemon Go has been, you would think that whatever product we’re talking about here was doomed from the start.

But, of course, that certainly was not the case.

So…what exactly happened here?

Innovation + Accessibility + Branding = Ka-Ching!

As we mentioned earlier, Pokemon Go was not the first AR-based game Niantic had created.

But, we also mentioned that the company’s first foray into the world of augmented reality, Ingress, didn’t experience near the amount of success Pokemon Go did.

So how did Niantic go from Point A to Point B, here?

While there’s obviously a bit more to it, the overall journey looked something like this:

  1. Develop a unique, innovative idea (a game that blurs the lines between the real world and video games)
  2. Peel away the advanced features of the game, making it easily accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike
  3. Partner with an established, immensely successful company, and match your idea to said company’s branding
  4. Laugh all the way to the bank

Let’s break this down a bit more.

First things first, there’s no denying that augmented reality is an interesting concept. Society in general has been imagining augmented reality in some way or another ever since the inception of video games – and perhaps even before that. With Ingress, Niantic was certainly on the right track.

However, one of the main problems with Ingress was that it wasn’t exactly accessible to the “casual” gamer. In other words, the in-depth and complex game mechanics featured within Ingress were tailored to experienced gamers who enjoy dedicating large amounts of time and effort to learning the nuances of various video games.

With this in mind, Niantic decided to peel away many of the more advanced features of Ingress, keeping Pokemon Go’s game mechanics relatively simple – while still offering depth of play for so-called “core” gamers who would want more out of the experience. Still, casual gamers didn’t need to do all of the advanced stuff within the game to get what they wanted to out of the experience.

The final piece of the puzzle was the partnership between Niantic and The Pokemon Company (and, by extension, Nintendo), which allowed Niantic to rebrand its AR-based game as a part of the Pokemon franchise. In doing so, Niantic was able to present its innovative idea via a vehicle that was much more familiar to the general public – Pokemon fans or not.

The Takeaway: An innovative idea alone isn’t enough to generate a following. In fact, sometimes it can be a deterrent (as most people tend to avoid the unfamiliar). That said, it’s the modern entrepreneur’s duty to bridge the gap between the familiar and the innovative in a way that gets as many people as possible on board with your idea.

UGC (and Non-UGC) Generated and Maintained the Buzz

So, we talked about how Niantic (and even Nintendo) didn’t really do all that much to market or advertise Pokemon Go around the time of its release.

But its users certainly did.

Take a look:

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As the craze took hold, it inherently got even larger – simply because the people who were playing the game were also sharing their experiences on their social media pages, in turn exposing more and more individuals to the phenomenon.

But, perhaps what’s even crazier is that companies, organizations, and other such places of business began to capitalize on the hype, themselves:

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Call it “reverse influencer marketing,” or simply opportunistic marketing; whatever the case may be, many businesses took full advantage of the craze at its peak.

And, of course, the fact that businesses were using Pokemon Go to generate awareness of their brand inherently meant that the Pokemon Go name itself was being spread even further.

The Takeaway: The reason anything goes viral in the first place is because of the people using or engaging with whatever that “thing” is. In other words, your customers can be one of the most valuable marketing tools in your arsenal. While, as we’ve said, Niantic didn’t really incentivize any sort of social sharing or anything like that, you certainly can do so in order to increase your reach via your customers’ social feeds.

Gotta Catch ‘em All: The Open Loop

As we’ve discussed, Pokemon Go wasn’t just some game that people played in their spare time.

We were playing it constantly throughout the summer of 2016. Our phones would buzz, and we’d stop whatever we were doing – work, dinner dates, even driving – to try and catch the Charizard nearby.

And we couldn’t get enough of it. For some time, we quite literally felt as if we had to “catch ‘em all.”

Essentially, Niantic created an open loop experience, in which there would always be something more to do in the game.

If you already had one Squirtle, you’d still want to catch another to see if it was stronger than the last one.

(Side note: I’m running out of Pokemon to name off the top of my head…)

You captured the Pokegym by your house yesterday? Too bad; someone came by and snatched it from you later that evening – but you can try again today!

You could even “hatch” more Pokemon simply by walking a certain number of kilometers in a day – even if you weren’t actively playing the game. If you captured an egg, you’d spend the rest of the day wondering which Pokemon would hatch once you hit your step goal.

As we mentioned above, this allowed both casual and “core” gamers to play the game on their own terms. At the same time, the open loop mechanic works to keep both types of gamers “on the hook” and always looking forward to the next experience.

The Takeaway: Create an open (and open-loop) experience for your users, so that each of them can get exactly what they want to get out of your product.

In the case of Pokemon Go, the draw for casual gamers was that they could stop at any time without feeling like they “never finished the game” (since there is no “end”); for the “core” gamers (who are still playing the game to this day), the draw was, and is, that there will always be more to accomplish.

For other products or services, this goes back to accessibility. Can newcomers to your brand use the basic features of your product to sufficiently achieve their original goals?

Once they’ve gotten accustomed to these basic features, and achieved their initial goals, will they be prepared to dig into your more advanced services and accomplish even more?

And, even if they choose not to check out your advanced features, will they still be happy with the value they received from the basic level of service you provided?

(Hopefully it goes without saying, but your answer to these questions should definitely be “Yes.”)

Wrapping Up

There’s one last thing we want to call attention to, which we’ve touched on but haven’t specifically addressed.

While the Pokemon Go craze may have died out, it is still among the top 40 gaming apps on the iTunes App Store – meaning the game is still being downloaded and played, both by new and existing gamers alike.

Obviously, not nearly as many people play Pokemon Go today as in July 2016. But that doesn’t mean Niantic has moved on; in fact, the company continues to develop new means of keeping its loyal users engaged.

The point we’re getting at is this:

Whatever your company has to offer, make sure you’re “all in” when it comes to providing value for your target audience – as they’ll be the ones that provide you with the most value over the long run.

If you end up generating a buzz in different circles that you may not have initially anticipated…well…just think of it as a bonus for creating something that even more people love.

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