Out in the Wild: Pokemon Go’s got legs, but does it know how to use them?

07.11.16

No matter how you look at it, Pokemon Go’s been a phenomenal success for Nintendo that shows “Nintendo Magic” may be platform-agnostic. After shooting past both Supercell and Machine Zone to seize the #1 top-grossing spot on US iOS, the geolocation RPG has added $9 billion to Nintendo’s market cap and is estimated to be installed on 5% of all US smartphones (which gives it twice the install base of Tinder). Not bad for a game that’s only been out four days.

Much of Pokemon Go’s success is tied to the strength of the Pokemon brand. The core gameplay of Pokemon Go adheres closely to the formula of Niantic’s excellent sci-fi themed Geolocation game, Ingress, which peaked at #80 and #93 top-grossing for Android and iOS (respectively). The Pokemon brand, however, is a 20-year-old cross-media juggernaut that’s expanded from the core Roleplaying Games to physical card games, various gaming spinoffs, cartoons, movies, and – of course – merchandizing carried by the adorable designs of some of the franchise’s most recognizable characters (many of whom appear in Pokemon Go). It’s small wonder, then, that The Pokemon Company ranks as one of the Top 30 global licensors, falling between heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and Cartoon Network.

So the brand itself is hot, but how does the game actually play – and is it engaging enough to retain the massive community it created virtually overnight? EEDAR sent a team of its analysts out in the wild this weekend to see how the game held up in Southern California and to find out just how big the buzz around it really is.

Pokemon Go’s breakout success has been nothing short of astounding.

Anecdotally, everything you might have heard about Pokemon Go’s rocky launch is true. The notoriously unstable servers which have ‘paused’ its global release are definitely an annoyance, frequent freezes and crashes are the norm, and the game has a frustrating tendency to not remember your login credentials, settings, or preferences. Also, its draw on your phone’s battery life is intense enough that you will absolutely want to carry one or more external batteries with your phone if you plan on playing for more than an hour in the wild.

A launch weekend like this would have been a death knell for any other game but, fortunately for Nintendo and Niantic, players seemed willing to overlook these issues as the lure of hunting Pokemon in the real world proved to be quite a compelling hook.

EEDAR began its field report in downtown Carlsbad Village, a seaside town with a population of 110,000. Immediately, its analysts noticed that all gyms were already claimed (with some held by frighteningly high-level Pokemon). Pokestops ran the gamut from painted fire hydrants to murals and sculptures – many of which stood on empty streets with nothing more than the usual summer tourist traffic filtering past.

At first, it looked like early reports of Pokemon Go’s breakout success may have been overstated, but as EEDAR’s field team walked up to the “Hipster Girl Mural” Pokestop, two friends walking in the other direction stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, swung their iPhones around, and the unmistakable green field of Pokemon Go’s map was displayed on both of their screens. They were hunting an Arbok.

These weren’t just summer tourists looking down at their phones to browse social media feed – they were Pokemon Go players, and they were everywhere once you knew how to look for them. More crowded Pokestops (fountains, beach heads) in Carlsbad drew crowds of 20-40 year olds, gaggles of friends, and parents helping young children along. The atmosphere was friendly and convivial as people would greet one another with shouts of “Pokemon!” or the more polite greeting “Pokemon Go?”

The next day, EEDAR’s team of analysts went to a more densely populated location – the San Diego Zoo -  for more observations.

The San Diego Zoo is a hotbed of Pokestops.

As the customary summer crowds moved from exhibit to exhibit, it was easy to spot groups of friends, couples, parents, and groups of children standing together in shaded spots with their eyes glued to their smartphones as they searched for rarer Pokemon. Smiles and helpful tips between groups were the norm, as players directed each other to locations where choice Pokemon could be captured, and gyms changed hands from Red (Team Valor) to Yellow (Team Instinct) to Blue (Team Mystic) regularly in the course of an afternoon. It was impossible to miss the players in action and confused onlookers (including zoo employees) often asked what everyone was up to as they clustered around empty exhibit cages to plan and strategize.

All of this paints a healthy picture for Pokemon go in the short-term (in urban areas, at least), but there are concerns about how well it will perform as the initial surge of popularity cools down.

Its gyms, for example, can and will be locked down by the most invested of players with high value (CP) Pokemon putting them outside of the reach of more casual players. This was already the case in many gyms encountered on launch weekend, and it’s likely going to get worse as the game matures. If gym battles are (realistically) off the table for the broad audience, then it will definitely be in Pokemon Go’s interests to create multiple ways for players to engage with the game once the novelty of filling up one’s Pokedex wears off.

Finding ways to allow real-time PvP in the wild would be a fantastic value add for the app and would give casual players a fun way to engage with one another, as would a trading system to encourage Pokemon breeders to ply their trade. Finally, Pokemon Go has to do more to encourage players in rural or more isolated locations to continue playing, as the lack of Pokestops in non-urban areas will quickly put these players at a disadvantage against players in cities – unless, of course, they’re willing to pay to make up the difference. 

All in all, there is a huge community excited about Pokemon Go both online and – remarkably – out and about in the real world. Nintendo may have just accidentally wandered into its next “Wii Moment” by finding a broad, untapped audience with the strength of its brands.

What they do with it from here will definitely be worth watching.

 

Matthew Diener

Senior Analyst, Insights | EEDAR

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