Pokemon Go, an augmented reality (AR) side project from Nintendo and Niantic, unexpectedly bore fruit to become a mobile craze a year ago. But as it celebrates its first birthday, did it herald the unstoppable rise of AR and mixed reality (MR) or merely see it aggrandised in many a puff piece?
If you somehow missed it, Pokemon Go is a mobile game that overlays digital monsters onto the player's own real-world neighbourhoods, courtesy of Niantic's clever GPS tech. In short, fans of the series could 'Catch 'em All' in their gardens, on the highway, in a graveyard, anywhere. By putting Pokemon into the real world, the game provides an immersive and compelling experience that is true to the series’ root – marking an unusual instance where a title’s exodus to mobile actually improved the gaming experience.
Having generated over $1.2bn in revenue globally since its launch last July, and notched 752m downloads, its performance would appear to have lived up to the hype.
At that time of its release, one commentator in The Drum claimed the title "paves the way for virtual experiences to thrive in the real world". Another urged critics dismissing the game as a fad to be less cynical about it, enforcing that it “is helping people, families, businesses and cities”. More than once, the "Pokemon Go Effect" was uttered by marketers keen to emulate its success.
John-Paul Burke, country manager UK & Ireland of leading mobile games company Gameloft, says that “Pokemon Go showed the world that mobile gaming needn’t be a purely online experience by seamlessly connecting gameplay with our everyday lives”. By being sharable and sociable, it formed a community of its players.
“It also made marketers and advertisers sit up and take mobile gaming seriously," he continues. "Players were literally being led about the world by a mobile game. The opportunity for brands was vast and clearer than ever before."
Compelling and addictive titles open the door to commercial opportunities: Pokemon Go, for instance, integrated real-life Starbucks and McDonald's outlets as 'Poke Stop' locations (places users could go to retrieve important items for their quest) driving traffic to the stores – for a fee.
Burke adds: "We know that if branded content is integrated into gameplay, and tailored to the player’s own interests, they are generally happy to be served it. Mobile gaming in particular offers numerous avenues for advertisers, be it branded mini-games or sponsored in-game events."
His summary is that the game showed “the power and diversity of mobile gaming”.
Jon Wadelton, chief technology officer of the Foundry, a 3D effects company that creates AR, VR and MR solutions, is a little more measured in his appraisal of the title's true impact: “We were heralding it as the piece of augmented reality (AR) content that would help take the medium mainstream. Whilst we’re still awaiting more widespread adoption of AR technology, Pokemon Go showed us that there was huge consumer appetite – with millions downloading the game.”
In the year since its release, Wadelton claims that “the success of Pokemon Go has shown artists, developers and programmers that AR content can prove to be a riveting success,” although whether Pokemon Go will be emulated anytime soon remains to be seen. He adds: “It’s shown that AR content can prove successful with mass audiences, and bring financial rewards to a company.”
But have marketers made the most of a fresh new realm of interactivity?
Brands ranging from Manchester United to Ikea to FX to Burger King to the Gorillaz have all experimented with the medium, indicating just some of the possible use cases. Snapchat and Facebook have rolled out respective AR lenses and features, both of which are still very early in their development.
Pokemon Go has shown the medium can be popularised, easily accessed by consumers (unlike AR's cumbersome cousin VR), and there are monetisation options.
On the marketing oppprtunities, Daniel Harvey, chief creative officer of This Is Zone, said: "You can imagine Ash saying 'Nothing gold can stay, Pikachu.' Assuming you don't mind referencing Robert Frost or The Outsiders. A year after Pokémon Go's smash debut there's a fair bit of reportage that suggests this axiom remains true."
ComScore reported that the game peaked with 28.5m users in the US in the first week after launch. By September that number had dropped to 10m. February 2017 saw the AR game hit a record-setting 650m downloads since launch, for what it's worth. But despite that possible brief respite, by April 2017 four out of five players had bailed on the game.
"Incentives to keep playing were few and far between. John Hanke, president of Niantic, recently confirmed that developer plans had to change. Staff that were slated to work on new features had to deal with server load and cheaters instead. This put in-demand and frequently touted features such as player vs player and trading behind schedule.
"It's also worth noting that those earlier numbers are biased against US-only data. Over the course of the past year the game has rolled out across a swath of other countries. Rather than being the "wasteland" some say, the game has 65m active users per month globally. To put that into some perspective, Uber has 40m monthly average users. I don't know about you, but that sounds healthy to me, even if it's under the radar.
"Tear away all the stories of injuries, scammers, small business and health benefits and there's still an important legacy. From an experience and technology point of view, Pokémon Go helped democratise augmented reality even more than Snapchat has. If, as Benedict Evans has said, AR is the next age of computing, then we all owe something to Pikachu... and at least it's not fucking fidget spinners."
It has inspired mobile titles like Snatch, a real world prize stealing game, that shares some DNA with Pokemon Go, and at MWC, virtual reality headsets lay gathering dust as marketers ran about in full business attire trying to snatch a Koffing or a Kedabra.
Speaking about the title's anniversary, Niantic's chief executive, John Hanke, laid out the game's product roadmap for all to see. It's clear with player vs player and trading to come, that Pokemon Go, at the very least, is not going anywhere, anytime soon.
So it is fair to say, it can continue to wave the flag for AR while brands and developers master the development and distribution of content in the area.