Everyone is talking about Pokémon Go as if it is changing the world. And it is. I don’t mean that I absolutely believe all of the marketing fluff that because it gets us walking all over with our smartphones, we’re all going to be healthier, appreciate our public monuments more, and become closer as families. That could only happen over a much longer period of time, if Go survives its hype cycle and becomes a part of our daily habits.
I’m happy to report that I’ve seen it make small changes in my own life. But my job is to be critical. Before we get too excited, we should recognize that this phenomenon has only been going for eight days. That’s like saying I’ve changed my life because I stuck to my New Year’s Resolution for eight days.
Now, I grant those true believers that it has been a crazy, record-breaking eight days that nobody really expected. Released in a few countries on July 6, Pokémon Go shot to No. 1 in the top downloads, but in the U.S. it also broke into the top position on the top-grossing games charts. That means it shot ahead of games like Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Mobile Strike, Game of War: Fire Age, and Candy Crush Saga. Pokémon Go is making at least $1.6 million a day in the U.S. alone, according to tracking firm Sensor Tower.
Many experts believed that those games had just too big of a stranglehold on the wallets of mobile gamers. Those games were making so much money that they could only be beaten, the logic suggested, by big companies that spent far too much money on user acquisition advertisements, making the challengers hopelessly unprofitable.
But Niantic Labs has managed to bypass that user acquisition problem by licensing a famous brand with a lot of pent-up demand on mobile. To trump those top games is truly a rare achievement, and we’ll be talking all about that change at upcoming game conferences such as Casual Connect next week and our own GamesBeat 2016 event on August 1 to August 3, where Pokémon Go co-creator John Hanke, chief executive of Niantic Labs, will give a talk.
The company has scored a better first week than anybody has ever had in mobile games. But the real accomplishments could still lie ahead. If Niantic Labs and its partners Nintendo and The Pokémon Company play their cards right, they have a chance to stay in the top ranks, break a lifetime of habits for gamers, and change the landscape of mobile games. They even have a chance to change gamers from couch potatoes to walkers. And if they do all this, they really will make people healthier and change the world.
We could have foreseen some of this explosion. Social media monitoring firm Taykey found a huge bump in online conversations about Pokémon Go from June, when the launch was announced, to July 6, when it launched.
Taykey said that an even more powerful indicator of the breakthrough nature of Pokémon Go is the success of the app in appealing to new audiences. Between June and July, Taykey saw a “massive shift in the demographic profile of people talking about the Pokémon franchise.”
Prior to the launch of the app, people talking about the brand online were consistently male (80 percent) and teenagers (40 percent). Since the explosion this month, the online audience has changed dramatically. Fans are now split evenly with regard to gender, and 25-34 year olds have emerged as the predominant age group.
I have seen the beginnings of this change in my own family. I’m the only hardcore gamer in the house, though my kids have spent a lot of time over the years with Pokémon on their Nintendo 3DS portables.
But last night, four of us went out for a walk into the big public park near our house. We violated the park curfew and went in looking for the Pokéstops where we could collect Pokéballs to toss at the wild Pokémon in the park. That was the second walk of the day for my kids and the third time in a week that I went on jaunts with my kids. We ran into two groups of people exiting the park, and one of them kindly told us there was a Jigglypuff around the corner.
I got excited when I one of my eggs hatched, but my kids laughed at me when we saw it was just a low-value Rattata. Our dog has never been happier, as she’s finally getting walked multiple times a day.
I’m having so many firsts here that I was tempted to buy into that hype. I made an ironic joke, talking in a kid’s voice. “Dear Mr. Pokémon Go. I can’t tell you how much you have changed my life. I play Pokémon Go with my children. They go on walks with me now. They never used to do that. Now they love me again. Thank you so much Mr. Pokémon Go.”
When I said that to my kids, they laughed and yelled at me, “Dad!” I told the joke a couple of more times and then they got tired of it. But slowly, I’m getting sucked into thinking about the possibilities. That joke could get a lot closer to the truth.
So many people are discussing new experiences with Pokémon Go that it’s already feeling like a bit of a transformation. Each day, I’m seeing reasons for people to re-engage with the app, because they’re telling stories about running into strangers in the park. Or they joke about playing it at work.
Imgur, a community for visual imagery fans, has seen a huge spike in its Pokémon Go topics, most of them funny, said Steve Patrizi, its vice president of marketing. It’s not a site for hardcore gamers, but they are coming out all over Imgur with Pokémon Go stories.
Players are creating funny memes that are getting passed around. My kids saw online that they could bypass the exercise required to hatch an egg by putting their smartphones on a Roomba vacuum robot. (It didn’t quite work, but we got a good laugh out of it).
Niantic will probably have to sprint as fast as it can to keep up with this craze. It needs to scale up its technology, so it can handle all of the traffic. It will have to start implementing more daily operations that keep people coming back, such as tournaments, factions, and player-versus-player modes. Fortunately, it has a very good road map for that already, as it has spent a lot of years perfecting the features for Ingress, the location-based online mobile game that paved the way for Pokémon Go.
What’s Niantic’s next move? The company has had many years to think about this possibility of what happens if its big game takes off. It should probably study the playbooks of other companies that went for a rocket ride, such as King, Zynga, Supercell, MZ, and Bethesda (with its Fallout Shelter mobile game). It has to keep pace with the rapid expansion, execute on making fans happy on a daily basis, and keep its eyes on the prize of changing the world.
And it has to watch out for copycats that do a better job. There are many ways the small team could blow it. I wish them luck, because I don’t want this to be a New Year’s Resolution that runs out of gas. I really do want to write one of those “Dear Mr. Pokémon Go” letters for real.