By Zoe Dowling
In the few weeks since Pokémon GO’s U.S. release, it’s become a hands-down winner for this summer’s “craze.” Future generations will likely reflect on these times with the same fondness as with the hula-hoop or (more recently) the ice bucket challenge – but for smartphones, the needle has forever been moved.
A Friday evening walk on Los Angeles’ Redondo Beach Pier mirrored many landmark locations around the country – a majority of visitors on the Pokémon hunt, many of whom came furnished with mobile battery packs and chargers. Beyond the volume of active players, it was striking to note how inclusive the game is – from tweens to grandpas; from individuals and couples to groups, everyone wanted to catch ‘em all.
What drove Pokémon GO’s unprecedented popularity?
Given the inclusive fan base of the game, its popularity isn’t just a result of the 90’s kids eagerly reliving their youth, nor is it simply techies delighting in the technological convergence and execution. While these are contributing factors, there’s more going on.
Pokémon GO is accessible
The internet, social media and smartphones facilitate a connectivity and global reach to the extent that memes and trends spread almost instantaneously. News about the game swept across the country and the globe. People want to be part of the newest trend.
At the same time, the game’s easy (and free) entry allows anyone with a smartphone to participate themselves. Within minutes of opening the app, you experience the wonder of being virtually positioned within your physical location and catch your very first Pokémon where Augmented Reality delights. Perhaps also Pokémon GO highlights the universal popularity of mobile casual gaming, although maybe for the first time it becomes a visible, in fact public, activity.
Pokémon GO merges technologies in a way that its predecessors didn’t succeed
Maps aren’t new to gamers but location-based gaming appears to have gone mainstream. The use of GPS and walking your virtual character around your physical world is very neat.
Aside from tracking your movements on the map, your physical and virtual location are also linked by Pokéstops. Here you pick up PokéBalls and other items to add to your stash while learning about the micro-landmarks in your immediate vicinity. During my first walk I discovered that my local diner is 40 years old and that the town library gardens are home to a small remembrance fountain. Not to mention countless, hitherto undetected, Pokémon to add to my Pokédex.
The inclusion of Augmented Reality (AR), which some rightly say is a limited aspect of the game appearing only when you encounter a Pokémon and attempt to catch it, nevertheless delivers one of the most ‘wow’ moments, being the final convincing glue between your physical and virtual worlds. These technologies, coupled with classic game elements of a mission based activity where you are awarded experience points, level ups and engage in traditional video-game combat, deliver a compelling experience.
Pokémon GO allows users to concurrently escape and explore their world
Finally, it’s possible that the game brings a welcome relief from this year’s bleak newsrooms. It provides a moment of escapism that you can share, even just with slight smiles and nods, with the people around you. Bringing us together, albeit for a brief moment, in an increasingly fragmented world.
The branded advantage
Whatever the reasons for Pokémon GO immense success, it has given us a glimpse of possibilities with geo-location and AR that up until now have felt more like a futuristic hyperbole. The opportunities extend well beyond the gaming world. For brands, the race is on to capitalize upon people’s engagement with the game and drive traffic to their retail environments. Furthermore, well-considered partnerships can also help position the brand as a player within the cultural conversation.
McDonald’s Japan became the first official brand partner with 400 restaurants as ‘gyms’ and the remaining 2,500 sponsored Pokéstops but there’s also been many instances of unofficial linkage with signs on shop windows offering “10% discount for any Pokémon captured here” and countless social media posts by brands all eager to be part of the moment.
Will Pokémon GO impact market research?
It’s hard not to start considering the implications for research. From an immediate perspective the smartphone message, which should already be loud and clear, is booming. People have smartphones. People are using smartphones. This is where we’ll find them.
The willingness to use GPS and having your movements mapped is an interesting one. In many ways, people already give out this information freely with check-ins on various social media and review sites but perhaps this takes it to a new level.
What would a shopper journey look like using an app with a map overlay? What if there were virtual items within the retail environment that people found during their journey to signal a feedback loop? What if we could use AR to have people select items from a set of features and overlay them to create a view of the environment as they’d like to see it?
In matter of few short weeks, this type of interaction with research respondents feels entirely possible rather than a pipe dream. The challenge now – turning the potential into a reality.