Every app wants to be hugely successful and become viral, but in an increasingly crowded market, it’s hard to stand out in the crowd. And yet, Pokémon Go came out of nowhere to become an instant hit, in such a meteoric rise that it even managed to single-handedly eclipse giants such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and even Tinder and Twitter.
How could this happen? How does a brand new app, in the span of a few weeks, become such a smashing hit all over the world? And, perhaps more importantly, what lessons can be derived from Pokémon Go in regards to app development and app marketing? In order to answer these questions, let’s take an in-depth look at what factors contributed to its record-breaking success and what we can learn from them. But first, a little background information on the app that has caught millions of users all over the globe.
What is Pokémon Go?
Pokémon Go is a free-to-play mobile game app developed by Niantic, Inc. for The Pokémon Company (contrary to popular belief, it is not, in fact, a direct Nintendo app, although Nintendo does own both a third of The Pokémon Company as well as Niantic). It launched in July 2016 in various phases across different countries and is part of a celebration of 20 years of the Pokémon brand, which spans countless videogames, animated shows, movies, trading cards and more.
Pokémon Go’s gameplay is deceptively simple to understand: using a smartphone’s GPS and camera, it allows users to locate the well-known creatures called Pokémon across real geographic areas and catch them within the app. While not the first app by far to make use of the technology, Pokémon Go is responsible for popularizing augmented reality, or AR, technology, through which it is able to represent the in-game creatures in real-life settings. Another particular feature is the use of real historic locations as either ‘PokéStops’ – places where users can gather important items for gameplay – or ‘gyms’ – where users can challenge others’ Pokémon to claim the location for one of three in-game teams.
It’s worth noting that many of these gameplay features are similar to the series of role-playing videogames Nintendo has been releasing since 1996. The key differences are in how the app connects these features to the real world, both with the geographical locations and the aforementioned use of augmented reality. Essentially, Pokémon Go accomplishes the long-held promise of the brand to allow people to catch ‘em all, this time interacting with the real world rather than in a purely virtual setting.
Why is Pokémon Go so successful?
Pokémon Go’s rise to popularity can be attributed to a number of different factors. Importantly, none of those factors stand alone; rather, they all complement one another to create a unique experience. With that said, each of these factors holds a key lesson for app development and/or app marketing that you must keep in mind when creating your own killer app.
1. An innovative, outside-the-box concept… that makes sense
As aforementioned, Pokémon Go combines some innovative and technologically advanced features, particularly augmented reality and geolocation. That said, it’s not simply the technology itself that makes it stand out – rather, it’s the way this combination makes perfect sense, and works with the own flow of the app. Using geolocation to let the app know where you are in the world and then augmented reality to let you interact with virtual elements in the real world is creative enough; using that combination of elements to build a game that plays on a sense of discovery and wonder, though, is simply brilliant as well as brilliantly simple. The features just make sense for the game that was built, creating a very enjoyable experience rather than just a gimmick.
The lesson: think outside the box, but most importantly, make sure it all makes sense together. Don’t add creative new features to your concept just for the sake of it; instead, make sure to integrate the potential for creativity and innovation from conception.
2. A well-built, unique brand for which the concept fits
Something that may be surprising for most people is that Pokémon Go is not, in fact, Niantic’s first application of these exact features into a game app. Pokémon Go’s predecessor, Ingress, already prototyped some of the essentials of the game, mainly geolocation. However, it hardly reached the same level of popularity, and it’s safe to say most people aren’t even aware of it. So, what makes Pokémon Go so different from it?
The key difference here is the brand around it. Even before this new app, Pokémon was already a multinational giant, although arguably never to this scale. However, as previously explained, this innovative, logical concept fits perfectly into the brand. Pokémon’s brand is essentially about exploration, finding new secrets and surprises, and sharing and cooperating with others. The game’s model fits perfectly into the brand’s meaning, creating a synergy between app and brand that forms an unbeatable combo. The significance of the brand ‘Pokémon’ elevates the app, and not only does the game feel right for its name, but it benefits from the dozens of well-established creatures that hold a degree of meaning to people.
The lesson: you don’t need a multi-billion dollar brand for success; simply, the app must fit the brand, and the brand must fit the app. If you’re building an app based off an existing brand, make sure it fits within the brand’s meaning. If you’re building an app first and afterwards you’ll create a brand around it, the brand must carry the same significance and meaning of the app you’ve built.
3. The use of the right technology
By “technology,” we don’t mean the innovative features we’ve discussed at length before. Instead, we’re talking about the technology used to power the app.
As previously mentioned, Pokémon has had a series of videogames for two decades, but most of them were limited to the flagship Nintendo handheld gaming systems. This time, however, Pokémon expanded towards a platform that is much more readily available and already well practiced in the minds of consumers: smartphones.
Everyone knows how to use a smartphone nowadays, and practically everyone owns one. This ubiquity means that the potential reach for this app was millions of people of all ages, genders and locations, unlike the comparatively smaller target audience of a Nintendo console.
More particularly, everyone also knows how to use a GPS and how to take pictures using your camera’s phone; therefore, the basic features of the app are already second nature to users. While that’s not a trait that every single app can benefit from, it helps to have systems that are intuitive, or similar enough to the techniques the average user is already well familiar with.
The lessons: make sure you use the right platform for your idea and your audience. Maybe it’s better suited for a responsive website? Perhaps an app is the perfect way to use it. Possibly, a combination of both is the ideal choice. Also, keep in mind to keep the concept simple and intuitive – build from the user’s prior experience and knowledge for the best user experience.
4. The right target audience, at the right time
Partly related to the previous point about the right platform, it’s worth mentioning that the kids that first played Pokémon are now in their 20’s or 30’s, who, not so coincidentally, are a demographic that heavily relies on smartphone usage. They’re also at exactly the right age to look back fondly at their childhood, when Pokémon was at its first peak of popularity.
Nostalgia is a powerful factor, which is why so many marketing campaigns heavily rely on it. Pokémon is no different; as mentioned, it’s the 20 years celebration of the original launch in Japan. For a large demographic, it was an integral part of their youth, so seeing it again now brings back all those powerful, lasting memories and emotions, which make them even more susceptible to the app.
Pokémon Go, in essence, is the culmination of a promise made to the children of the 1990’s. Back then, their imaginations were filled with dreams of adventuring, of hunting Pokémon, of catching them all. Today, with the use of their primary technological tool, they can do just that. It’s this realization that makes Pokémon Go so infectious for this demographic, which, in turn, spreads like wildfire across even more demographics, curious to see what all the fuss is about.
The lesson: know your target audience, and know it well. If you market your app to the wrong people, it will go nowhere; if you market it exactly right to the right people, it has the potential to spread like wildfire. Therefore, make sure to heavily focus on app marketing, even before starting development, to make sure you have the right mindset from the start.
5. Addictive features that make you not want to stop
Previously, we’ve made mention of “free-to-play”. Free-to-play is gaming’s equivalent to freemium, that is, an app that is completely free to start using, but that has more advanced elements that you need to pay for. Here, your profit isn’t from the user’s acquisition of the app, but rather from its continued use, particularly by power users who know its nooks and crannies and/or need it more.
Freemium may sound slightly counterintuitive at first – why would I risk making my app free to use? What if users manage to work with it just fine without spending a dime? –, but there’s another extremely powerful factor at play in Pokémon Go that has made it extremely lucrative so far: gamification.
Gamification is, in essence, the notion of bringing game-like features and design elements into contexts that aren’t usually associated with play, in order to make their use more engaging and, therefore, more repeatable. You might think it’s obvious how Pokémon Go does this – the GPS and, to some degree, camera are features not usually related to games that have translated perfectly, and Pokémon’s own collectability aspect is pure gamification –, but it runs much deeper than that. And it’s how it makes money.
Pokémon Go is built with certain elements that are locked behind a paywall. Some extremely helpful items you can’t get without paying; others are readily available at the aforementioned PokéStops, but if you don’t want the hassle of physically going there or need more quantities immediately, you can buy them instead. Importantly, none of these elements are vital to play the game, but they help you get farther more quickly; and since Pokémon Go is so gamified that it’s borderline addictive, a big percentage of users are going to rely on these paid methods. Therefore, instead of limiting their user base from the get-go with a paid app, they instead make it free for all, expanding their scope, and then make the core gameplay so addictive that many players will willingly spend money to get ahead and enjoy it even more.
Mind you, gamification doesn’t just make sense in gaming contexts. It may surprise you to learn that social media is heavily gamified as well. After all, it does have a scoring system – the number of friends or followers you have is a measure that lets you know whether you are “winning” against others. Likewise, any app or platform can include gamification methods that are sure to make their use extremely motivating by itself, which even B2B applications can make use of.
The lessons: use the right payment process for your app, and make it engaging through game-like features that make users feel like they’re winning. Even a seemingly free app can be extremely profitable with the right use of optional add-ons.
6. A powerful social element
A final element behind Pokémon Go’s success, which is behind many other successful apps and platforms as well, is how social it is. The game itself gives you plenty of reasons to interact with others: it lacks extensive tutorials, leaving players to look for each other for answers and advice; it incentivizes comparing collections to check on your progress against others’; and it also has features that let you collaborate with others in order to get far more Pokémon together than you would get alone. It also has a competitive streak as well, with the inclusion of gyms and separation of users by teams, which add another quirk to the game that allows you to derive a sense of satisfaction from it.
Obviously, in the modern days, social is a crucial element in anything. From social media to the Internet itself, we’re all connected, and Pokémon Go succeeds by taking that need for social interaction – or fear of missing out – and pushing it back to the streets and exterior, leading people to learn more of their own cities alongside other users. In essence, providing a social experience that not even the most popular social networks can give you.
The lesson: don’t underestimate the social aspect – it’s crucial. Even if you’re building a B2B app, the support network and interaction with other users or even the developers themselves make all the difference for the user. Make sure you consider and implement social tools to boost the longevity and use of your app.
As we’ve seen, there are six major factors for Pokémon Go’s popularity, a winning combination that seems random but isn’t. It’s all development, design and marketing working together to create something new, exciting, and just right for the times, lessons we ourselves have applied in the past to our own highly successful eQubes game app. And if you want to aim for that level of success, you’re not going to get there by ripping off Pokémon Go. Instead, learn from its victories to build your own creative idea. If Pikachu can do it, so can you.
By Diogo Ferreira