5 lessons to learn from Pokémon GO


Pokémon GO has become the most downloaded app in most countries where it has already been published. The game is very well designed, and in our view, also serves as an example of certain things that make gamification such an interesting approach today.

Do be informed: Throughout this post, we sometimes expect the reader to be familiar with the game, as we use examples from the game to discuss gamification – that is, the use of game design/logic in non-gaming contexts.

1. As gamers age, games are going mainstream

There is less of a stigma associated with gaming than there was – let’s say – 20 years ago. One terrific article from Vox aimed to explain Pokemon GO’s sudden success. A lot it has to do with demographics:

The people who in their childhood played Pokémon on their Gameboy or Gameboy Colour, have grown up. In 2006, when the so-called 4th generation of Pokémon games came out, most players tended to be in primary school, while – come 2012 and the 5th generation – there were as many Pokémon players over 20 as there were ones in the 1st to 3rd grade of primary school.

At the same time, the platforms we use for gaming have become more ubiquitous: pretty much everyone has in their pocket a gaming device. Our smartphones are capable of delivering even rich augmented reality and VR content. More women have gotten into gaming.

Because the children have grown up, there is also new generation in working life. People are familiar with how games and rewards in them work. We’ve already lived surrounded by ‘points and badges’. I believe this to be one reason why we see a current trend of gamifying learning, human resources management, etc. The solutions don’t feel forced or off-putting when you have gamed your whole life. Gamifying other things, such as marketing, should work well for this younger demographic.

2. Good onboarding helps players learn the game

The experience of starting Pokemon GO is gradual. You don’t select a team before you reach level 5. A tutorial from Professor Willow helps you get started.

Some of the first impressions of the game showed worry over the game being too simplified. This turned out to be quite false. The game only starts out simple. This gives the players time to learn the game mechanics one or two at a time. New items such as berries which make catching high-level pokemon easier don’t become available before the player progresses, and before it there is no need for the specialized gameplay utilizing these items.

Onboarding means that all the features off the game are not thrown in to confuse the player when the games starts. Because things are being learned one-by-one, the experience stays manageable and appealing. This should be aimed at when designing any user experience, since it makes new tools etc. easier to use and learn.

3. Buyables should not break the game

As so many ‘freemium’ games today, GO includes the option to buy virtual credit with real money. While this can be used to keep one’s storage of Pokeballs (crucial to the game) or other items full, there is no planned scarcity of items. There are reasonable in-game methods to get these monster-catching devices, such as levelling up or visiting Pokestops.

One might imagine that people, who don’t have as much time as others to go from Pokestop to Pokestop in search of balls, to use money to compensate. But in Pokemon GO you can’t “pay to win”.

This is always a thin line to walk, when designing a branded game or other experience. In some cases, you want to include monetization. The app is not free to make or maintain. You might not have a product that is marketed and whose revenue you are trying to optimize. Yet, the mechanisms needs to feel fair – there should be a reasonable link between what the player can do in-game and what they achieve without a lack of funds coming in the way of their fun.

This goes for other projects too. If somebody gets special treatment at work without having done anything special to achieve it, it is fully reasonable for the others to feel mistreated.

4. Community is facilitated, not controlled

The game is ambitious. To succeed in it, one needs to be invested. Some core drives beyond curiosity/exploration, which are used by the creators of the game, are competition and belonging.

At an early phase of the game, you select one of three teams to be your team. The teams compete for domination of Pokemon gyms and daily bonus rewards associated with holding the real world locations.

It is hard to tell what kind of culture will develop around Pokemon GO, but the game developer Niantic’s earlier similar game Ingress can give us a clue. Communication between players, such as mentoring and recruiting new players, is encouraged.

In Ingress local factions play an important role. Both games incentivize working together with others. In Pokémon, defending a gym is easier the more players are active in the area. Returning to ‘train’ at the gym builds up the ‘health points’ of the gym and allows the team to put more Pokemon there to fight against the pets of the rival teams.

People wish to belong and take part. There is not much more evidence needed than the reaction in the countries in which it took longer for the game to come out. The World is global and we be darned if we don’t find ways to circumvent the intended sources (Google Play, iOS App Store) to get the game as soon as it comes out. The ways to do this were spread from player to player more than through news.

Of course too fierce competition might also put some people off. Yet, people are already building tools and starting social media groups to communicate with other players of Pokemon GO. When planning a gamified app for your product or brand, why not think about doing the same? (We did, in the fan application Isac Elliot App 2).

Fun and rich augmented reality is no hot air hype. The technology is here and can be used to build magnificent things. Ingress, released in 2012 already proved the concept, which has now been branded for Nintendo.

5. Augmented reality is here

Fun and rich augmented reality is no hot air hype. The technology is here and can be used to build magnificent things. Ingress, released in 2012 already proved the concept, which has now been branded for Nintendo.

In the extreme, this means that the people walking up and down your home street might be walking in a different world from you. They might be catching Pokemon. While they are using a real world map to navigate in the game, their experience has been augmented – “stuff” has been added to their devices which is not available to people not playing.

Augmented reality allows for layers upon layers of information and tightly designed experiences. Let’s think about non-game functions that could take advantage of the Pokemon GO approach: people in the market for housing could walk around their preferred neighbourhood and see available buildings’ prices and pictures from inside, a tourist looking for a restaurant could see the menus and reviews while walking around town…

These examples are not fictional. Some of them have already been implemented. AR is only going to get more practical as they are going to be implemented in mobile browsers. That is is why 2016 is a good year to consult with experts and plan your approach: what can gamification and augmented reality mean for your business?

RealityXpander is an advanced technology and interactive media studio with decades of experience in augmented reality and gamification. We offer both consultation and development services on top-notch solutions in app creation, amongst other things.

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