How a 2013 April Fools' prank eventually became the viral sensation Pokémon Go
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On the eve of April 1, 2013, Google released a video titled ‘Google Maps- Pokémon Challenge’, a competition where ‘pocket monsters’ or Pokemon were hidden in real-world locations and users had to search and capture them to become ‘Pokemon Masters’ much like the popular anime series of the same name. The idea for the game was conceived in 2013 by Satoru Iwata of Nintendo and Tsunekazu Ishihara of The Pokémon Company as an April Fools' Day collaboration with Google. The prank caught the imagination of the world.
Image credit- Pokémon Go
Fast forward to 2016, Niantic, Inc and The Pokémon Company recently launched an augmented reality (AR) based mobile game ‘Pokemon Go’on similar lines that has seen unprecedented success in a few days- adding $9 billion in market value to its minority investor, Nintendo. Ninantic was earlier an internal startup at Google, before it spun out as an independent entity in October 2015, soon after Google restructured as Alphabet Inc.
Pokemon Go is currently live only in the US, Australia, and New Zealand, but users worldwide are said to have downloaded unofficial versions of the game given its popularity. Considered to be America’s latest obsession, the app is estimated to be close to surpassing the daily active users of Twitter.
How does Pokemon Go work?
Free-to-play, with in-game purchases, ‘Pokemon trainers’ need to install the app on an Android or iOS device, enable their GPS and step out into the real world to capture Pokemon. While walking around, a user’s smartphone will vibrate when there’s a Pokémon nearby. Then using their smartphone camera that blends the real world and the virtual world of Pokemon, they need to take aim and ‘throw’ a ‘Poké Ball’ to try and capture the Pokemon before it can get away.
Different environments- The game developers note that certain Pokémon appear near their native environment—users should look out for water-type Pokémon by lakes and oceans. Trainers can also visit PokéStops, found at places like museums, art installations, historical markers, and monuments to stock up on Poké Balls and other helpful items.
In-game development- As a trainer progresses in the game, they will join one of three teams and battle (with Pokémon) for the prestige and ownership of gyms. As a player levels up, they will be able to catch more-powerful Pokémon to complete their ‘Pokédex’. Users can add to their collection by hatching Pokémon eggs based on the distances they walk and can also help Pokémon evolve by catching many of the same kind.
From topping app stores to an increase of $9 billion in valuation
Considering the fact that Pokémon Go is one of the world’s first mass market AR games that requires just a fully functional smartphone and no additional gear to function, the game has seen a tremendous response.
Data from App Annie indicates that it took less than 24 hours for Pokemon Go to become the most downloaded and highest-grossing app in the countries where it was available. Similar Web notes that as of July 8th, the app was being used for an average of 43 minutes, 23 seconds a day, which is higher than Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Messenger.
Image credit- Similar Web
Another indication of the popularity was when the game’s servers couldn’t handle all the incoming traffic and some users were experiencing difficulties signing up. The Pokemon Go team acknowledged this issue on Twitter and added that they were adding resources to address this issue.
Nintendo owns an estimated 32% of Niantic and also much of the Franchise’s intellectual property according to the Wall Street Journal. So even though Nintendo didn’t develop the game, investors sent the stock of Nintendo up by 13 percent in two days leading to an estimated $9 billion increase in market capitalisation.
The dark side of AR gaming
As an Augmented Reality game that requires players to explore the real world, the game developers have added a disclaimer in the game advising gamers to stay alert at all times and be aware of their surroundings. But as expected, there have been a few accidents and even crimes related to the game in the past few days.
Multiple players distracted while playing the game have suffered minor injuries from falling. There have been other more chilling incidents too- armed robbers driving a black BMW searched for public ‘Pokestops’, which are meeting points for players, and robbed players at gun point, a teen playing the game ended up in a bad neighborhood and got stabbed and robbed of his belongings.
While these are only a handful of incidents, it has brought out the dark side and dangers involved in AR gaming. It will be interesting to see how the game developers and players make the gaming environment safer through more safety tools.
The future of Pokemon Go and gaming
Image credit- Pokémon Go
Encouraged by the tremendous success, The Pokemon Company plans to release an optional portable device called ‘Pokémon Go Plus’ that is designed to help game players capture Pokemon more easily with the push of a button.
The device connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth low energy and notifies you about events in the game—such as the appearance of a Pokémon nearby—using an LED and vibration.
Niantic also plans to make the game available to more countries globally in the coming weeks. The Wall Street Journal reported that also in the pipeline are new Pokémon games for Nintendo’s popular hand-held 3DS game device.
The gaming industry has gone through multiple evolutions and revolutions in the past few decades. We have shifted from consoles and PCs to mobile gaming and now virtual reality and augmented reality-based gaming (that rely partly on smartphones) seem to be the next frontier.
In June, the Chinese internet company Tencent agreed to buy a majority stake in game maker Supercell from Japan’s SoftBank Group at a valuation of $10.2 billion. In 2015, Activision Blizzard acquired Candy Crush developer King for $5.9 billion. In March 2014, Facebook announced the acquisition of Oculus VR, the leading player in the virtual reality technology space. While it has multiple applications, virtual reality gaming is considered to be one of its most popular immersive experiences.
As the boundaries between the real and virtual world of gaming crumble, it seems to be a great time to be a game developer as well as a casual or die-hard gamer.
Website- Pokémon Go