We get it. Pokemon GO is a thing, and it’s super cool. Everyone is talking about it. For those living under a rock, here’s a basic overview
of the game and its mechanics.
Unfortunately, I had a wild couple weeks—I missed the first wave of press of who’s got the coolest PokeStops in town and which restaurants, bars and stores keep Pokemon GO lures popped on their location to draw in customers. I don’t even get to make jokes about the Magikarp evolution being impossible or Rattata spawn rates.
That’s my fault, and I’ll admit it. I knew I’d missed the opportunity to publish concurrent with emerging interest when one of the 50-some-odd year-old retired regulars at the restaurant I work at asked me how to get Pokeballs. I asked him how he even knew about the game just a few days after release. He found out about it in The New York Times.
However, now that the initial wave of Pokemon coverage has passed, we get to talk about cooler, less topical stuff—the implications of Pokemon GO and the tech behind it. I called up some of the folks at the digital agency Smashing Boxes
to dish on the future of the game and its potential as a marketing tool. Also, what the platform—a well-skinned geocaching app with some gamification aspects—can mean for the app and gaming industries.
Senior product strategist Hillary Pitts, lead designer Andy Hamilton and developers Dan Morgan and (the wonderfully excitable) Kevin McAbee were all kind enough to take some time to talk Pokemon, fitness, Kim Kardashian and how all these things collide.
These questions served as jumping off points.
- What are some of your thoughts on Pokemon GO? Do you play? What do you think of it as a game and what does it mean to you?
- Since Pokemon GO is essentially a re-skin of Niantic’s previous game Ingress, what other skins/brands do you think could be successfully be applied to the framework?
- How do you see this affecting the app market? How might this inspire the future of mobile gaming and apps?
- If you had a hackathon tomorrow where you had to draw some inspiration from Niantic’s tech and Pokemon GO, where would that take you?
First up: Hillary Pitts
While Hillary isn’t an avid player, which she blames on her “tiny attention span” for games like this, she's excited about what it can mean for the app market.
One of her thoughts in response to my question about reskinning the app—and something that seems frighteningly probable—is that celebrities like Kim Kardashian could cash in on what I like to call “gamified geocaching”.
What I mean by “gamified geocaching” is that the point of the experience is to get users to travel to a specified point in the real world, engage in some action there, and receive experience points (XP) or some other reward that benefits the user in-game. You go to point A, receive reward B/XP, which helps you with goal C, with all of the locations, rewards and goals justified and taking place within the lore or story of the game.
This is the general philosophy of Pokemon GO.
Hillary could “see some celebrities bandwagoning on it” now that they see how Pokemon works.
Speaking specifically about Kim K, she explained “you become closer to Kimye status as you visit malls and Sephora's.” As you travel to these shopping centers or boutiques, you gain XP and in-app currency to purchase cosmetic items to earn fame/popularity, the metric of success seen in Kim K’s existing app.
She seemed most excited about the fitness aspect of Niantic’s wildly popular app, as many of the other SB employees did. Hillary sees a lot of promise in “incentivizing the younger generation to be doing some physical activity” using some form of gamification as seen in Pokemon GO.
Additionally, she's looking forward to “wearables companies integrating more of this AR technology.”
Pitts is also interested in the financial side of the game.
Word is that Niantic will be introducing sponsored PokeStops in the future, and retailers are sure to scramble to sign deals that could bring customers into their businesses. When something has taken the world by storm like this, it can pay to cash in early and take advantage of the emergent product’s reach and visibility.
But one thing Pitts has concerns about about is how businesses might quantify the impact that Pokemon GO has on their profits and brand awareness, and how that could factor into Pokemon GO’s use as a marketing tool.
While Pokemon GO is a cultural phenomenon today and seems like a great way to market and advertise, Niantic might “not really be able to show the value to the advertisers” in the early stages of marketing efforts like sponsored PokeStops.
Morgan is a big fan of the Pokemon franchise, but he was a bit more critical of the wildly popular app than some of the people I spoke with.
Much of the conversation was dominated by the state of the game, and what can be done to improve it.
As it stands, the battle system is a bit of a button masher. Sure, there’s some strategy in dodging oncoming attacks, but it’s essentially a three button system. You tap to attack, hold to super attack and swipe to dodge. He’s looking forward to development towards a more nuanced combat system, where instead of just battling AI controlled opponents, trainers have a chance to face off one-on-one and use a variety of attacks and tactics.
Additionally, while “Nintendo has a habit of teaching through playing” instead of offering thorough instructions or guides in the game, he’d like to see a bit more effort put into the as-it-stands barebones UI which can cripple new or more casual players.
He’s most excited for the social opportunities brought about by PokeStops and gyms as a gathering place, saying “this could be great for anyone who’s antisocial”.
One thing he suggests could be a cash cow in the app market is the development of companion apps for Pokemon GO. Things like Pokemon locators and “other services that help more experienced gamers get more out of Pokemon GO” could be extremely valuable with some smart marketing in what he considers an already “flooded” market.
Kevin McAbee is extremely excited about Pokemon GO. I barely got through introductions and niceties before he went head first into what became a surprisingly long, thoughtful and nuanced conversation about Pokemon and developer Niantic.
We launched into a conversation about how to “skin” geocaching apps like Pokemon GO and what other franchises might throw their hat into the ring.
He put on his marketing and product strategy hat and posited the following.
“What franchises or brands do I have that excite people and make them want to go out and interact with other people? Take the Marvel Universe, the Star Wars universe, the old Disney cartoons, or the new Pixar characters. Imagine people trying to collect storm troopers or get Darth Vader like a super rare Pokemon.”
He sees people chasing down different heroes and villains and battling them to control locations in their towns, giving them a chance to lead their own galactic conquest and control an area either in the name of the Empire or the Jedi resistance.
One problem that comes up here is how to get the location data that Pokemon GO relies on. See, Pokemon GO uses primarily user-submitted data from Niantic’s previous territory control game, Ingress, to create PokeStops and gyms. If you want to get more in depth, check out this article.
Other companies don’t have this crowdsourced data. This leaves two options. Partner with Niantic and buy the rights to use the data, or find a way to get your own locations for battles, landmarks or other XP awarding locations. The first is likely to be extremely costly but easy, the latter tough yet cheap.
Kevin mentioned that it seems Niantic is opening a software position whose responsiblilites include helping to “create mobile real-world MMO experiences on Android and iOS... to turn the entire world into a gameboard.” This might indicate the team looking to use its framework for use with other IPs or partners. But as Kevin explains, a talented data scientist can eliminate the need for an expensive partnership or license like this.
By tapping into a few map APIs, a data scientist could isolate different stores, landmarks, parks, cultural centers and others and assign virtual stops or battlefields to them. It might take legwork, but don’t be surprised if the next Pokemon GO competitor or clone tries to sidestep licensing fees using a technique like this.
What would he do?
Something else related to the outdoors like backpacking or rock climbing. He envisions tracking elevation gain during a climb, the number of popular local and national spots you’ve hit, and certain milestones you’ve reached—all wrapped up in a GPS-based app featuring heavy gamification and social integration.
On to my next (and favorite) question when it comes to examining new tech and tech movements—how does this affect dating and attraction? Both Kevin and I are single, so we had a chance to discuss how services like Tinder might integrate GPS tracking (I know, it already has some GPS-based features) or how a new app might use location check-ins to match people together.
According to Kevin, dating apps could track your movements or interests, like trips to Cocoa Cinnamon or Fullsteam, then match you with users with similar movement patterns. This passive data, unbiased and non-self-reported, could be extremely valuable and reliable for finding a good match.
On OKCupid, there’s a question asking whether, hypothetically, you think you’d be a good porn star. While I might be self conscious about my beer-and-Domino's belly, I’m gonna answer “yes” because I know other users will see it and I want to seem cool and attractive.
This self-reporting bias is absent in passive data, making location and behavior tracking an extremely powerful resource for online dating companies.
Finally, Kevin waxed poetic on the importance of an AR app like Pokemon GO hitting the mainstream.
It’s slowly acclimating smartphone users to the power (and fun) of AR overlays.
“One thing that AR can do to help people as a whole is that it can show you how to do things you don't know how to do”, Kevin says. Say you’re fixing a part of your car engine. Youtube can show you how another person does it step-by-step.
With AR, your phone screen could show an overlay with each individual part of the engine, an explanation of what the each component does, and information on how to remove/repair/replace it.
While Pokemon GO might be considered AR-lite or “Diet AR”, Kevin sees it as an exciting step in the right direction.
Last up: Andy Hamilton
Most exciting to Andy, as a designer, is the next generation of apps that will come out of Pokemon GO.
Pokemon GO is essentially in what we might call an “open beta” phase right now, so Hamilton is anxious to see the polished version of the product. But even more so, he’s curious what we can do with the next iterations of the technology years down the road.
“It’s like Tinder for AR… My mom has no idea of what AR is, or at least she didn’t last week. This is one of those big incremental steps forward” he says.
While the AR/VR movement right now might seem niche, unpolished or even nerdy and antisocial, he sees Pokemon GO as “totally the antithesis of it [negative perception].” It’s a family friendly introduction into the world of modified or virtual reality, and it’s wildly successful.
Andy had a few different ideas of skins for reusing the platform. Skateboarders could tag locations like stairs, rails or downhill pitches, then if you visit and attempt these challenges, you could be offered some in-game reward. Like with Kevin McAbee’s rock climbing idea, Andy is pushing to find a way to use this location-based platform to get people outside and active—something which Pokemon GO has already done an incredible job of.
As a self-described nerd, Andy is looking forward to the card game Magic: The Gathering taking inspiration from Pokemon GO. Honestly a Pokemon GO-esque app with a darker tone, more stark art style, and a focus on high-level tactical gameplay sounds pretty awesome. Magic, if you steal this idea, be sure to thank Andy. Or pay him.
So while all the folks at Smashing Boxes had different views on what makes Pokemon GO exciting, interesting uses for the framework, or things they might build if they had Niantic’s tech, there were common threads.
Everyone I spoke to had quite a bit of excitement around combining light-RPG (role-playing games) mechanics and geocaching-based gameplay with a marketable skin or theme, and how these come together to gamify exercise.
Not only could this be a profitable venture, but it could benefit the health of millions of kids, not to mention the scores of adults who’ve had a hard time getting outside and exercising. If you’re depressed, anxious, out of shape or just shy, the game is an incredible incentive to get outside and enjoy the world.
Apps like Zombies, Run! have paved the way for the gamification of exercise, but nothing has been as much of a cultural phenomenon as Pokemon GO. Nor has any other game driven people to socialize like this one does.
Pokemon GO, from what I’ve seen and heard, is the next big app. It’s the fish growing legs and crawling onto land. It’s a massive evolution for gaming, apps, fitness and the AR/VR movement, and the future of these industries in the wake of Pokemon GO should be nothing but exciting.
However, one thing Niantic needs to do before all this can be set in stone.
Fix your dang server.