Pokemon Go’s second act may be even better than its first: product lessons learned from the hit game

It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area, and I was drawn outside by the warm weather to nearby Burgess Park. Surrounded by basketball courts, soccer fields, a swimming pool, and a skate park, the choice of what to do was obvious, and that was to stare intently at my phone. And I wasn’t the only one. There were hundreds of people like me, making the park unusually crowded, paying no attention to the real world around them but instead focused solely on a more interesting virtual world on their phones. The world of Pokemon Go.

This Sunday, October 21st was a special day for Pokemon Go players, called Community Day, that would bring out millions of people into parks, malls, squares, and other meeting places around the globe. People of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds but all showing a common tell — a phone in one hand, making spinning and flicking gestures with the other, walking in the physical world to catch things that only exist in the digital world. And October 21st was not the only day when the Pokemon Go crowds form. There are actually Community Days held every single month, all eagerly anticipated with the fanfare of a major world event — Sunday’s Community Day was covered by hundreds of media outlets ranging from Newsweek to Forbes and beyond.

But isn’t Pokemon Go yesterday’s news? Sure it may have been popular at one point, but no one actually still plays Pokemon Go right?

Turns out that not only is Pokemon Go doing well, it may be doing better than ever.

Pikachu? Try Pika-cha-ching

Pokemon Go, the hit mobile game created by Niantic, launched over two years ago on July 5th, 2016. It quickly became the number one overall mobile app on both iOS and Android, and held the title of most downloaded App Store app ever in its first week. Within its first 2 weeks, Pokemon Go would also capture the crown of largest mobile game ever in the US with more than 20 million daily active users.

Also in those first two weeks, Pokemon Go averaged a staggering $2 million each day in in-app purchases, and generated financial benefits well beyond that revenue. Nintendo, the creator of Pokemon, saw its stock spike 25% shortly after the launch of the game, and then more than double within 2 weeks adding $20 billion in market cap. And that was simply for being associated with Pokemon Go as Nintendo had virtually nothing to do with the game.

Like with other cultural fads, the popularity of Pokemon Go did eventually wane. From a peak of hundreds of millions of monthly players at launch, the user base shrank steadily eventually hitting 65 million users by April 2017. But that’s also when Pokemon Go began to prove it’s not like other cultural fads. Those 65 million users users stuck around, continuing to spend significant time and money on the game powering Pokemon Go to $1 billion in revenue in record time.

And then something even more unusual happened: Pokemon Go began growing in popularity again.

For its one year anniversary in July 2017, Niantic held its first ever organized event in Chicago (called Go Fest) and sold out the 20,000 available tickets in minutes (and subsequently crashed cellular service in the area during the event due to the high demand). By 2018, the game had been downloaded more than 800 million times. And in May 2018, Pokemon Go had more users (147 million) than any month since its launch, and revenues for that month reached $104 million, which was up 174% from the previous year. That breaks down to $3.3 million per day in revenue, which would be higher than the daily average from Pokemon Go’s meteoric launch week.

And this past September, Pokemon Go celebrated another impressive financial milestone: it crossed $2 billion in lifetime revenue, doing so in only 811 days, which is the third fastest game to ever accomplish that feat.

Pokemon Go’s success has been nothing short of spectacular. For a service to have such a historic opening act, and then go on to not only live up to the expectations from that debut but even exceed them in its following acts is unbelievably impressive. Even more so when you factor in a little secret about Pokemon Go: the game itself is actually boring.

What exactly is Pokemon Go?

There are 3 main tasks for players in Pokemon Go:

  1. Finding Pokemon
  2. Catching Pokemon
  3. Battling Pokemon

Finding Pokemon consists of walking around with your phone until Pokemon randomly appear. Catching Pokemon consists of a short, monotonous flick motion with your finger and then waiting to see if the Pokemon was caught. Both tasks are purely probabilistic — a math equation in the Niantic game code determines if you were successful at either task, not any user skill. Battling Pokemon is deterministic and requires users to perform a specific action to win. However that action is to simply tap anywhere on the screen quickly, and again not something that requires skill.

So the first two tasks — finding Pokemon and catching Pokemon — are all based on random chance. And the third task — battling Pokemon — is based on random, uncoordinated tapping of your finger. In none of those three tasks does any user skill factor in, which is why the gameplay is boring. Saying it another way, in over two years of playing Pokemon Go, I have not improved at any part of the gameplay because there’s simply nothing in the gameplay to improve at.

But that doesn’t mean that the game itself is boring. In fact, my own usage has pointed to the exact opposite of boring as Pokemon Go has hooked me into walking 1,318 kilometers to catch 23,586 Pokemon and counting. Which begs the question how can I rationalize boring gameplay with a compelling game?

Because Pokemon Go isn’t really a game. It’s a collectible.

Two of my Pokemon Go achievements

Pokemon Go is effectively a digital scrapbook. A sibling of baseball cards, stamps, or coins, and not related at all to Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or Fortnite. With collectibles, it’s the destination, not the journey, that’s important. The action of collecting, or the gameplay for Pokemon Go, is not what provides the entertainment. Rather the result of the gameplay, which is possessing the Pokemon character, is what engages Pokemon Go players.

The gameplay can be boring because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the satisfaction of having collected the collectible, and Pokemon Go has nailed that. They’ve effectively created a baseball card collection that talks and moves, changes forms, can be carried with you at all times, and has no fakes or frauds. And Niantic is in full control of every aspect of the entire collection because it only exists on their servers. Every single collectable (a Pokemon in their case) can be created, deleted, transferred, modified, audited, and repriced instantaneously with lines of code.

Pokemon Go may be a boring game, but it may also be the best collectible ever created.

The lessons of Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go began of all things as an April Fool’s Day prank inside of Google, who is famous for their elaborate April 1st stunts. In 2014, Google Maps engineer Tatsuo Nomura came up with the idea of hiding Pokemon characters inside Google Maps, which at the time was such a wacky concept that it was literally done as a joke. Two years later in an amazing case of life imitating art, Nomura would actually be the product lead on the Pokemon Go launch. You can’t make this stuff up.

Teaser video for Google’s Pokemon April Fool’s joke

Around the one year anniversary of Pokemon Go, Nomura gave an interview to the Nikkei Asian Review in which he shared an update on the product roadmap. But in his quotes, he also provided insights behind Pokemon Go’s immense success. And if you read carefully, there are 3 key product decisions that I believe made all the difference.

“Everybody in every country knows the [Pokemon] character. There is no other such amazing content. Pokemon as a brand has kept expanding.”

— Tatsuo Nomura

The Pokemon media brand was recently recognized as the top grossing franchise of all time with a staggering $85 billion in estimated lifetime revenue. That’s more than media legends Star Wars, Harry Potter, and even Mickey Mouse. That’s more than James Bond, Looney Tunes, Peanuts, and Barbie combined.

Pokemon Go is certainly a contributing factor to that financial windfall, but even before the launch of Pokemon Go, Pokemon itself was already wildly popular with 260 million games sold, 21.5 billion trading cards shipped, and 800 TV episodes and 17 full length feature films released. Pokemon for many years has been a media juggernaut. So while Pokemon Go has helped take the overall franchise to new heights, its starting point was already sky high because of the strength of the Pokemon brand.

And it’s not simply the popularity of Pokemon that made it such a great foundation to build on. Sure having an initial audience for the Pokemon Go game was helpful, but even more important was that the media franchise created a shared history, shared culture, and shared value system amongst its viewers. You didn’t have to explain all the basic rules: what’s good versus what’s bad, what’s rare versus what’s common, what’s important versus what’s ignorable. The media franchise already did the work of creating and explaining the Pokemon universe such that the Pokemon Go user base collectively already knew which stats, scores, and characters mattered. And not only did they know, they also cared.

And that’s the power of a strong media franchise. The followers of the franchise have already been taught the rules and convinced that they matter. So a product that builds on that franchise has far less work to do. As a product builder, you’re able to start your user journey halfway through, with all the exposition taken care of by someone else.

Media franchises provide an existing history and mythology that’s already understood by viewers, and that’s a huge advantage that products and services of all types can use to gain a head start.

“Traditionally, video games have been played inside living rooms with players sitting on couches. But we hit upon the idea of enticing gamers into spending some time outdoors.”

— Tatsuo Nomura

Pokemon Go’s Wikipedia entry begins with “Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) mobile game”. However the actual reality is that AR plays almost no role in Pokemon Go. In fact, the AR feature is what most players first disable because it makes the gameplay slow and inconsistent. And holding a phone on front of your face is still such an awkward and uncomfortable experience for any AR application.

Instead, Pokemon Go is a location based service, and not just one of the most successful games, but rather one of the most successful startups ever built on top of the GPS radio in phones (along with Uber, Lyft, and Waze).

Location has played a critical role in the Pokemon Go product evolution. First, it dramatically simplified the gameplay by making the real world the game map and you the controller. You didn’t have to learn where to move or how to move within the game — your real world movements were automatically converted by GPS into digital world movements.

Second, location made the game inherently social. Other games build dedicated features like on screen user callouts and in game chat to market to users that there are other people playing with you. Pokemon Go doesn’t need these workarounds because you can simply look up (like I did at Burgess Park) and see other players, making the community as real as the best games without having to build any features to promote it.

Finally, location is a powerful notification mechanism. Consider this interesting stat: research has shown that humans are such creatures of habit that we only visit an average of 25 places with any regularity. As you play Pokemon Go, you begin to associate landmarks in the real world with landmarks in the game since they are one and the same. And since you are passing through the same 25 places throughout your normal day, those regular visits become subtle but constant reminders of Pokemon Go. Other games depend on artificial notifications to draw you back into their digital universe. Pokemon Go on the other hand can use landmarks in your daily, real world routine to draw you back into their digital world universe because of their use of location.

Pokemon Go leveraged the GPS radio in all our phones brilliantly to simplify their user experience, provide stronger social signals, and create constant reminders triggered by real world landmarks. We will surely see other apps do the same.

“We want to create a game that hardcore players and casual players can enjoy together.”

— Tatsuo Nomura

Niantic has long been locked in an arms race against Pokemon Go cheaters, commonly called “Spoofers”, who use special software to fake location and activity in the app so they can play anywhere in the world without ever leaving their homes. One one side, Niantic regularly updates their game with new anti-spoofing software. On the other side, there are entire communities dedicated to promoting and enabling spoofing.

As the battle rages on, I have to admit that I am someone who has spoofed at one point. [If you’re curious how, I’ve included what I did at the end of this post.] At first, it was wildly entertaining. I checked off my Pokemon Go bucket list and virtually visited popular destinations from the Taj Mahal to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to the Sydney Opera House. I caught rare Pokemon missing from my collection. I played when and wherever I wanted. And that’s when it all stopped being entertaining.

As I mentioned before, the Pokemon Go gameplay is devoid of skill. But what it is filled with are constraints: certain Pokemon only appear in certain locations, certain actions can only be performed at certain times. And that’s actually a user benefit as great products are great because of their constraints, not despite them. 280 character limit for Tweets allow fast content consumption, 10 second timer for Snaps encourage free and spontaneous sharing, 24 hour limits on Stories provide structure and narrative. These are all intentional constraints that improve the experience on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Similarly in Pokemon Go, the limitations in the app have been added for a specific purpose, and that purpose is to slow down the pace of the game. Slower play adds friction to the act of collecting, which makes the collectible feel more valuable when achieved. You appreciate more what you’ve caught when you’ve had to invest time and effort in the catch. But when I could change locations and time zones instantaneously through my spoofing and collect with no effort, I inadvertently lowered the value of the very thing I was collecting. My overall product experience with Pokemon Go was far worse with the constraints removed.

Think of it as the slow movement for games. And that’s part of the ingenious product design of Pokemon Go, which has created a level playing field for everyone. By making the game most enjoyable at a slow pace, with deliberate friction in the act of collecting, there’s no pressure to get better at the game (either through practice or cheating). Playing like a novice is actually how you can have the most fun, which means everyone can enjoy the game to its fullest.

Every app will always have more novices than experts on their service as that’s just the way user funnels work. And if you can narrow the experiential gap between your beginner and expert users, you can create more cumulative satisfaction and enjoyment for your audience as a whole.

All good things must end?

Over the summer, Niantic saw its user base grow yet another staggering 35% in a few short months, and also had more than 400,000 people attend their real world events (in Chicago, Dortmund, Germany and Yokosuka, Japan). Pokemon Go is truly stronger than ever, but again how much longer can this popularity possibly last? This hot run has to end soon right?

Maybe not.

There are 809 total Pokemon characters in existence today, with approximately 493 available in Pokemon Go. So by one measure, the app still has 40% of its lifecycle remaining. But the Pokemon Company and Niantic recently announced a new Pokemon in the game — the first time they’ve ever created a new character for Pokemon Go first. Not only is the Pokemon Go universe not finite, it is easily expandable with no new game design needed. Niantic doesn’t have the same pressure as other games of constantly releasing new levels and new playing modes to keep players engaged. As a collectible, Niantic simply needs to do one thing — never run out of things to collect.

With a never ending assortment of collectibles to find, millions of passionate collectors will continue venturing from the real world into the Pokemon Go digital world. Why? Because, you gotta catch ’em all.

Epilogue: a guide to Spoofing

Spoofing in Pokemon Go involves sending fake GPS data to your phone, so you can pretend to be anywhere in the world, and doing so in a way that Pokemon Go can’t detect. I spoofed from a Nexus 6 device so the instructions below are specific to Android. I also used a second phone as it’s far easier to get things setup when you’re not worrying above preserving anything on your device.

There are 5 general steps to enable spoofing.

(1) Wipe your phone and put stock Android on it.

Technically, you don’t have to do this step but it removes the risk of the random system incompatibility you might run into. To install a clean Android build on your phone, you first need to download the appropriate image from Google. For my Nexus 6p, I downloaded the Angler 8.1 build to my Mac.

Next, I installed ADB and Fastboot on my Mac, which are tools that allowed me to communicate with my phone from my laptop through a USB cable. I then used ADB and Fastboot to push the Android build on my phone. Here are instructions you can follow.

(2) Install TWRP recovery

With a clean Android build on your phone, you next need to install custom recovery software so that you can start to modify the Android operating system. The best recovery software is TWRP, and here are instructions for installing it.

After TWRP is installed, go immediately into recovery mode for your phone by holding the VOLUME DOWN plus POWER buttons for 5 seconds. Navigate to RECOVERY to launch TWRP.

(3) Root your phone

This is where the fun begins. From within TWRP, you can now install special software to gain root access to your phone, which allow you to perform actions that Android normally prevents. The best way to gain root access is through a wonderful piece of software called Magisk. Here are instructions for installing Magisk.

Magisk should successfully root your phone upon reboot. To confirm your phone is rooted, you can use the Root Checker app to verify.

(4) Install a GPS spoofer

Now it’s time to take your rooted phone for a spin. First, install a GPS spoofer, which is an app that will send fake GPS coordinates to your phone. I highly recommend GPS JoyStick. After you’ve installed GPS JoyStick, you’ll need to do 2 things:

  1. Clone the GPS JoyStick app, which creates a new, random name for the app (so that Pokemon Go can’t find it).
  2. Make GPS JoyStick into a System app by moving it to the System partition of your phone via Magisk Manager and App Systemizer (which is a module inside of Magisk Manager). That will give GPS JoyStick special permissions and make it further undetectable by Pokemon Go. Note, you’ll need to have first successfully gained root access on your phone before you can modify the System partition.

Here are instructions on how to install GPS JoyStick correctly.

(5) Install Pokemon Go

Just do a normal install from the Play Store, but don’t open the app yet. You’ll need to first hide all the evidence of your previous transgressions, which Pokemon Go will be looking for when it starts up.

(6) Hide the evidence.

Pokemon Go does an annoying thorough job of searching for evidence that you’ve installed any software that could be used to root your phone and fake your location. Before launching Pokemon Go, make sure you’ve done the following.

  • Remove the TWRP install package from step 2.
  • Uninstalled Root Checker from step 3.
  • Hide Magisk Manager itself, and hide Pokemon Go from within Magisk Manager. Here are instructions on how to do this.

(7) You should be all set to teleport anywhere in the world!

Warning: Niantic monitors unusual gameplay behavior so if you do too many abnormal things within the game, you run the risk of being banned. So make sure to use your newfound evil powers responsibly. And that said, I hope to eventually see you back again in the slow lane, enjoying the journey as much as the destination.

Leading Commerce Incubations at $FB. Was co-founder at Packagd (acq.), GP at Kleiner Perkins, and writing messy code at Hulu, Flipboard, Erly (acq.), and $MSFT.

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