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Pokémon GO & What’s out there for AR Games

Updated on July 22, 2016

In less than 10 days after its launch, Pokémon GO became the biggest mobile game in US history with 21 million daily active users. While Facebook, Apple and Sony invest billions in Virtual Reality, Nintendo has quietly proved it might be too early to write augmented reality off as a potential breakthrough technology.

What is Pokémon GO & why should we care?

Before we try to crack the mystery of Pokémon’s unexpected success, let’s go back to the 90s when the popular franchise began. Teens all around the world were literally glued to their Game Boys trying to catch and train the cute monsters. School authorities were banning Pokémon cards saying the game distracted pupil’s attention (to say nothing of under-the-table card trade). Some Web sources even claim the Pokémon Red & Green games and their accompanying theme tune caused several child suicides across Japan.

The franchise games went on to sell 200 million copies worldwide. As of 2014, the Pokémon company (owned by Creatures, Nintendo and Game Freak) was making $ 1.5 billion in retail sales annually – and it certainly was a far cry from what they earned in the early 00’s.

Back in January I published a curious hub about Augmented Reality and its possible impact on mobile and video game industry. I devoted a great share of my post to Magic Leap – a mysterious company that has so far raised $ 1.4 billion in funding and promised to release the first true AR game ever. We haven’t heard from them ever since – except for a brief statement hinting a “hopefully soonish” release. However, I was really excited about the Pokémon Go trailer that got 18 million views in just 30 days.

The high-quality video pictures ordinary guys like me and you walking along the streets with their smartphones out looking for pocket monsters in parks and shopping malls. When a smartphone camera captures a Pokémon, a PokeBall appears on your screen. You then swipe it at the virtual creature. Once you capture the monster, you can view its entire profile, put up virtual fights and exchange Pokémon with other players.

On July 6, the game finally hit the App Stores in US, UK, New Zealand, Germany and several other European countries. Although it received mixed reviews from tech experts, it certainly lives up to the high expectations set by the promotional video. Just like other mobile augmented reality games, Pokémon uses GPS to determine your location and places virtual objects (pictures and animations) on top of your camera feed.

Both critics and the general public felt really positive about the game’s personal approach and the company’s decision to distribute it for free.

Here’s what makes Pokémon Go so cool:

  • Customization. You can change your character’s entire appearance, including skin color and outfit and choose a Pokémon to start your trainer career with;
  • Sense of adventure. The whole concept of augmented reality casual games is about making you leap out of your chair and…walk. Alex Perry from Tech Insider claims the Pokémon game made him discover a lot of places he’d never been to (although they’re literally just round the corner);
  • Positive impact on health. In mere days after the app’s launch some ridiculous stories made their way to the Web, including a post by a Reddit user who fell in a ditch while pursuing an animated creature and numerous articles urging people not to play the game while driving (that’s what a lot of players do). Well, smartphones are distracting by nature, what did you expect? But it turns out playing the game can be beneficial for our health, too! People with severe depression say Pokémon is the only thing that makes them leave beds and spend more time outside;
  • Communication. Although it’s much easier to buy Pokémon inventory using in-app currency (the so-called PokéCoins), you can actually get various stuff like PokeBalls, potions and storage extensions for free – provided you start the app, look at the map and go to the nearest PokeStop. A PokeStop is a place in the physical world (typically, a monument, library or some historic building) where you can upgrade your profile every five minutes (time required to “re-charge” a stop). And that’s where you can meet other Pokémon lovers – and trade your beasts, of course.

Pokémon Go Trailer

The dark side of Pokémon Go

There were some nasty Pokémon-related accidents, too:

  • A Florida man mistook two Pokémon players who wandered into his yard for burglars and fired at their car thinking they wanted to run him over;
  • A teen who was hit by a car while crossing the road 20 miles outside Pittsburgh blames the Pokémon company for placing AR objects in potentially dangerous locations. The unfortunate girl does have a point, of course, but shouldn’t we stay aware of our surroundings regardless of what’s happening on our smartphones?
  • Two San Diego men fell off an unstable cliff while hunting down pocket monsters – despite a 4ft high fence and warning signs all over the place;
  • A 28-year-old man ran off the road and slammed his brother’s car into a tree while trying to catch a Lapras;
  • A group of armed Missouri criminals aged between 16 and 18 used the app’s geolocation feature to lure unsuspecting players into a trap and rob them.

And don’t forget about the woman who found a dead body in the river – and the hilarious girl trapped in the graveyard while playing the game.

Luckily, Pokémon Go has caused no deaths so far. Ironically, the app urges users to take all possible precautions and mind their safety – but people get too absorbed in the game and hardly notice what’s happening around them.

Playing Pokémon Go in Public

Augmented Reality games in the future

Sceptics think the game’s success is largely driven by nostalgia. Well, it could be so. In case you’re a millennial, you most likely watched Pokémon cartoons some 15 years ago and still have a plush Pikachu in the attic. And yes, Pokémon Go is not the only AR game out there.

Back in 2012, Niantic Labs – the co-creator of Pokémon Go – launched its Ingress Augmented Reality game that has so far been downloaded over 11 million times. The Ingress players (the Enlightenment and Resistance) engage into heated battles over portals similar to PokeStops. A single user cannot take control of a strong portal, so gamers have to gather up in teams (8+) in person and join forces to crack portals and obtain hidden artefacts. There are numerous Ingress communities all over the world. The game’s fans frequently befriend each other and spend a lot of time together. What makes Ingress special is the complicated science fiction storyline that involves malicious underworld creatures called Shapers who try to control people’s minds. Technically, the game has more interesting features than Pokémon; for example, players that visit unique portals receive complementary badges and subsequently upgrade their profiles. Thus, Ingress encourages users to travel more – and to actually meet new people in real life (while hunting Wartortles and Poliwags is more of a solitary activity).

It’s been mere days since Pokémon’s release, but the game is already making around $ 1.6 million a day in the USA alone. As of now, it may lack some useful features and feel underdeveloped – but it’s bound to evolve somehow. The Pokémon company should also address the network performance problem ASAP. Although the game consumes considerably less network traffic than Facebook, the number of users who interact with the Niantic servers is growing non-stop. Procera Networks, a California-based networking company, has recently analyzed the app usage within a small European telecom – to astonishing and somewhat scary results. Over a period of three hours the game was accessed by 7% of the network’s 2 million registered users!

And what if Niantic lets third-party companies to use the app for business purposes?

Millions of users share their GPS data with a brand – and that means the general public is finally ready for location-based interaction. Pokémon Go merges the physical and digital worlds into one. It’s a perfect opportunity to reach target audience through a totally new customer acquisition channel – and no successful company will miss it.

A mobile app typically loses 77% of its users within 3 days. Pokémon Go has been around for almost two weeks, and it’s still growing. I think it says a lot, doesn’t it?

Personally, I expect more companies to jump on the AR trend in the near future. There’s nothing new about it. Converse launched its shoe sampler app 4 years ago. Makeup Genius app (L’Oreal) has been downloaded over 6 million times. And yes, the IKEA catalog that allows you to virtually furnish your house before making a purchase is classic. However, Pokémon Go’s become the first app to prove the future of marketing lies in Augmented Reality. You have a great idea for an AR app? Start working on it now – while the iron is hot!

The future of Pokémon Go

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