Pokemon Go: Why is it such an extraordinary success?

A Ratatta in a glass, Jerry mouse he ain’t. Photo: Tom Tyler-Jones

I was talking with my son about Pokemon Go today, and I thought it might be useful to run the game though my model of affect and affordances. Would it reveal why this game is so spectacularly popular, given the barriers to engagement that locatative games have had in the past?

My son pointed out that one thing the game has, especially over its Niantic stablemate, Ingress, is the Pokemon brand, which two or three generations have grown up with since the mid-nineties. Speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with Pokemon however I could not believe this was the only reason for its success.

A huge difference from Ingress is ease of entry. As my survey a couple of years ago may have indicated (though I could not disprove the null hypothesis) here-to-fore locatative games have only held any interest for Hard Fun (otherwise Hardcore) gamers. Pokemon seems to be the first truly casual locatative game (though some might give that honour to Foursquare, I don’t think it was much of a game).

So lets run it though the model:

Game Affects stripped

Leaderboards – Although Pokemon Go doesn’t have a leaderboard as such, it does have Gyms. Just today with my 11 year old son’s advice I managed to (very temporarily) take over a local gym from some quite high powered Pokemon of an opposing team.  So a few minutes after that, I was indeed at the top of a very local leaderboard.

Badges – There are a huge variety of medals you can win for achievements like, for example, collecting ten Pokemon of a particular type.

Rewards – Pokemon Go has LOADS of rewards. For a start, visit a Pokestop, and spin the dial and you will acquire a randomly generated reward of Pokeballs, Eggs, and Potions etc, all of which will be useful in the game. Take over a Gym (as I did this afternoon) and you can claim a reward of 10 Pokecoins every day that you keep the Gym under your control.  Capture a Pokemon, and not only can you add it to your collection, but you are also rewarded with Stardust and Evolution Candy. Every time you go up a level you also earn rewards such as new equipment.

Points and Levels – To level up, you need to earn experience points, which you get for pretty much everything you do, collecting Pokemon, especially new types, spinning Pokestops, hatching eggs, earning badges, evolving Pokemon, battling in gyms, etc.

Story/theme – There isn’t much of a story inherent within the Pokemon Go game, but players who have been brought up on the other computer games and TV series, will know of quite a complex backstory. However, not knowing this story does not seem to be a disadvantage to players. Story knowledge isn’t essential to play, and the lack of story within the game seems to attract (or at least not be a barrier to) players of all generations, many too old to have been captured by the original Pokemon game. My son also points out that as you play you do procedurally generate a story of your own trainer avatar, even if that is only in your head, as Sylvester describes.

Progress – As you go up in level, you do get better equipment, and are more like to catch Pokemon with higher combat power, and you are more likely to encounter rarer Pokemon.

Feedback – The game is casual enough that you don’t need to be looking at the screen all the time, but because the game does not allow you to put your device into sleep mode, you end up holding it, waiting for the tell-tale buzz of nearby Pokemon.

Spectacle and Environment – The graphics and Augmented reality are not very sophisticated, but they are fun. Two things make it so. One is that creatures that only exist in fiction now appear in our real life world. The other is that they can (with some luck and an little movement of the screen) appear in amusing places (on your knee, in your dinner or drink, on your friend’s head), and if they do, you can take and keep a photo.

Challenge – There isn’t much skill based challenge in the gameplay. Capturing rare Pokemon, is more of a feat of luck than skill. There is a real-world challenge of sorts though, and that is to walk around, which is the only way to hatch eggs. Some eggs only require two kilometer walks, but other more rewarding eggs require ten kilometres.

The game lacks (or doesn’t make the most of) a number of emotional triggers:

Music – My son likes the music, but I turned it off early in my play. The music isn’t a very sophisticated feedback generator. One track plays pretty much continuously, and the only changes are for evolution cut-scenes (my boy likes this track best) and Pokemon encounters.

Insight – There  is very little learning through play. My son teaches me most of what I need to learn, and he has leaned most of that through YouTube.

There is no Threat or Sex (even when you capture Male and Female Nidoran), and no real character arc.

So, given the affordancies listed above, we can predict which emotions players will be feeling: playful Amusement (from humorously placed AR Pokemon); the social emotions Fiero and Naches (because though the gameplay isn’t inherently social there are enough players currently on the streets for conversation; advice and insight; and even a degree of cooperation; to take place); the seeking emotions, Excitement and Curiosity (especially when find new types of Pokemon); Frustration, a rage affect (when Pokemon randomly break out of your Pokemon); and some degree of Care (from nicknaming, nuturing and powering up your stable of Pokemon).

And let us not forget the Panic/grief, when nothing makes your phone buzz -you are out of mobile reception or have a weak signal, and especially when your phone battery is running low!

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