Augmented Reality Hits The Mainstream With Pokemon GO!
Augmented reality gaming has been slowly building up steam for a few years now, but only in that past few months has it reached anything approaching the momentum needed to take on the mainstream casual gaming market.
The breakthrough came this week, with a game that proves the Tajiri Formula right – and for those unfamiliar with the formula, here it is:
That game was, of course, Pokemon GO, and it has taken virtual reality gaming to the masses the way no game before it ever has. It has been adopted by millions of players worldwide, and has created an online storm with dedicated forums, communities gathering to help work around glitches, huge joint efforts to coordinate with fellow trainers and masses of children, teenagers and young adults going outside to play for what might be the first time in a generation. Two days after release, Nintendo’s total share value has increased by $7.5 billion.
So what did this game do right that others failed to do? Well, first off…
It’s a free smartphone game
All childhood nostalgia and VR-game geeking aside, the most powerful reason Pokemon GO has taken over the mainstream market so suddenly is that it is a free smartphone game. Other augmented reality games rely on expensive gaming rigs, large amounts of space, and VR-goggles that block out the real world… If that all sounds pricey, that’s because it is. Other virtual reality gaming options are currently bulky, heavy and awkward, and cast an arm and a leg, but Pokemon GO uses nothing more than the phone in your hand. Using the smartphones that most of the population already own, the game can be downloaded for free, and takes up only as much space as the phone does.
Since it’s a free game, there’s no reason for many people not to try it out, and download it, adding to its already-impressive membership figures, and if they don’t like it, all they need to do is hit “delete” and it’s gone, with nothing lost but a little time. With that in mind, millions are downloading it and trying it out, and of those, most are keeping it.
It makes use of the real world in an interesting new way
A successful game doesn’t just create new worlds – sometimes, it changes the way we look at the real world, too. Pokemon GO is taking augmented reality into the public eye by doing just that, literally. First, players must navigate a map with their avatar on it – a GPS map of their actual surroundings that they can only move the character through by actually walking through it – and look for Pokemon, gyms (points of interest that the different factions compete for control over) and “Pokestops” (the branding on this is off the charts) where they can replenish their supplies.
It’s all free, and it gets players investigating the world around them as they seek out these points of interest… and when they find one?
The Gyms and Pokestops are based around landmarks, which has been instrumental in getting people to explore the cities and surroundings they can take for granted, putting new importance on old places. The train station is just the train station until it is a Pokemon Gym where you and your friends battled for hours to fight off a rival team. By tying the places around us to memories of fun and friendship, Pokemon GO manages to give us back a little of the sense of adventure we had as children.
It has three unique, joinable factions
The players of Pokemon GO have a choice of three teams to join – Mystic, Valor and Instinct. They are, in order, Blue, Red and Yellow, the same colours as the Pokemon games the GO playerbase grew up playing, so the emotional connection is immediate. They are functionally the same, but each has a distinct philosophy and a connection to the elements – the red team allies with fire, bravery and the sun, the blue team ties itself to cool-headedness, wisdom, patience, ice and winter, and the yellow team praises keen instincts, following your gut and living in the moment, and links itself to lightning and storms. In short, every player will find something to relate to in one of the teams, and will be able to invest themselves in the camaraderie of their group.
More important than that, however, is the fact that the Pokemon Gyms can only be controlled by one team at a time, and confer bonuses to their owners, so competition is immediately established. Nothing ties players together like having enemies – just ask any bunch of football fans – and the three teams have emerged as charismatic forces that their players are often deeply loyal to. While most other augmented reality games remain first-person shooters or tense, isolated horrors, they won’t be able to compare with the social rewards of Pokemon GO.
It rekindles a sense of adventure in its players
As mentioned above, Pokemon GO succeeds spectacularly at one thing – it creates a sense of childhood adventure in its players. The premise – catching Pokemon in the real world – is strong enough to draw people who grew up playing Pokemon on their Gameboys and now own smartphones, but the use of powerfully nostalgic figures isn’t the only way the game taps into that childhood sense of wonder. By encouraging players to follow the trail wherever it leads, and incorporating cultural areas around the cities and towns as important points, by encouraging players to talk, make friends and work together to surmount obstacles, and by making the game available to everyone, the Pokemon GO creators have done something no other augmented reality games company can do – they have kindled a sense of genuine adventure in their players.
It builds on a spectacularly successful gaming legacy
Of course, this game wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular without the inclusion of Pokemon. One of the most dramatically successful gaming dynasties ever to exist, Pokemon seems like a “get-to-success-free” card, but it must still be implemented well to succeed. The decision to include only the first 150 released was a clever one, too – this way it can appeal to people who played once when they were seven and never again without making them feel like the series has moved on without them, as well as being much easier to pick up for new players who have never seen a Pokemon before. Those fans who have followed the series all the way to its current 100 million+ pokemon will still like it however, as the 150 are the classics; the first.
Needless to say, Pokemon GO has been a success. In terms of downloads, gamer engagement and financial success, it is unprecedented. It’s up to the other augmented reality gaming studios to decide whether they will learn from this spectacular success, or continue to work away from it as it shoots for the stars.