From the years-in-the-making tech to the beloved monsters themselves, imitators will struggle to replicate its success
In the world of mobile gaming, immediately and aggressively copying a proven success is par for the course. There's even a term for it: studios and publishers call it "fast following." But while Pokémon Go is so huge that it's decisively lapped its closest competitor, the technology it embraces is considerably more complex than your average mobile game. Given this success, are we going to see a sudden wave of similar experiences?
"It's the biggest viral phenomenon we've seen in some time – really, the biggest ever in mobile," says Aaron Loeb, president of worldwide studios and live services at Kabam, the publisher of mobile hits such as Marvel Contest of Champions and Star Wars Uprising. "What's particularly delightful about it is that it's so specific to mobile. It requires mobility, GPS, the camera. It's a novel way to use technology you've gotten used to on your phone, like maps and the camera. It takes this technology that has now become mundane to us and makes it magical again."
Part of what makes Pokémon Go so magical is that it proves people are willing to get up off their butts to play. It's far from the first game to be built around this notion, though. Defunct mobile game company Booyah was tinkering with location-based games as early as 2009 when it launched MyTown, which worked as both a simple location-based real estate game and a social network. Players would "check in" at locations to get in-game cash and experience points, then invest in properties and collect rent. In 2011, Red Robot Labs explored a similar approach, but instead had players committing fake crimes in real locations like coffee shops and banks in its location-based MMO Life Is Crime. Both were moderately successful in their own right, with several million players at their peak, but they hardly changed players' expectations, or the way other game developers thought about making games.
“Making this stuff is not simple," says Red Robot Labs founder Pete Hawley. "You can’t just grab this location data and plug it in. It’s time consuming, and it’s expensive. It’s not part of Apple’s services, and it’s not part of Unity," he says, speaking of the game engine that Pokémon Go, like thousands of other games, is built with. "Trying to pull this off at a reasonable cost is tough, so you’re not going to see some little startup just replicating what Niantic have done," he argues.
According to Hawley, the real challenge for any Pokémon Go clones will be getting to that kind of scale. "The world is a really big place," he says. "For a game that requires interacting with others in some way, you’ve got to have a huge audience to make it worthwhile. When you’re at 20 million daily active users like they are, you know that you’re going to run into other people – but if you don’t get that big, what are you going to do for that one person playing your game in Winnipeg? How do you keep them busy?”
Niantic had a number of advantages over most, both for achieving the kind of scale needed, and for working with the necessary technology. The most obvious is the connection with the Pokémon Company, and the enormous popularity of Pokémon. It also certainly helps that the fundamental premise of Pokémon fits perfectly with the idea of walking around in the real world hunting for creatures.
Secondly, Niantic CEO John Hanke's career up until this point put him in a perfect position to deliver on this particular experience. A Facebook post by wealth consultant Roger James Hamilton has been doing the rounds on social media for the past week illustrating how the "overnight success" of Pokémon Go was actually 20 years in the making. Hanke's career began in 1996 when he co-created the PC-based MMO Meridian 59. He then launched the company Keyhole to come up with a way to link maps with satellite photography, and create the first online, GPS-linked 3D map of the world. Google bought Keyhole in 2004, turned it into Google Earth, and then put Hanke in charge of its Geo division, overseeing Google Maps, Earth and Streetview.
In 2010, Hanke wanted to work on something new, and was fortunate enough to be able to build his new studio Niantic Labs inside the Google organization. "We looked back at what we'd built with Google Maps which is a pretty amazing thing," says Hanke. "Over the span of several years we had amassed a huge amount of data, mapped large portions of the world, and added satellite imagery, vector maps, terrain, and 3D buildings. We were thinking about what other kinds of interesting products we could build, particularly for mobile. That led to a brainstorm and games were a part of that from the beginning."
"It's always been our goal to build other games on that [Ingress] platform," says Hanke. "Pokémon was one of the first ideas to come up."
In September 2015 Niantic was spun out of Google as an independent company. That same month, it was announced that Niantic was co-developing Pokémon Go with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company for iOS and Android.
Given the success of Pokémon Go as a social phenomenon, the logical next step for location-based gaming may very well be something that emphasizes an off-screen experience. Almost everyone who’s played Pokémon Go has a story about encountering someone out in the real world who’s also on the hunt. It's this sort of shared, real experience that's made it a legitimate cultural phenomenon, and yet the game relies more on serendipity for this to occur.
While the location-based tech is arguably the biggest challenge for competitors to fast follow, Pokémon Go is also the biggest test case thus far for augmented reality. Again, Niantic isn't the first to harness the concept for games. In 2009, Barcelona-based Novarama launched Invizimals for the PlayStation Portable, which also had you capturing and battling monsters in your hometown.
Pokémon Go's current implementation of AR is more a cute visual trick than a great example of the technology. It's definitely a long way from the stirring, grandiose vision posited by the game's marketing. For a clearer idea of AR's ultimate potential, look to Microsoft’s Hololens. The long-gestating wearable puts augmented reality into a headset. Its potential as a gaming device has already been ably demonstrated, with demos of robots breaking through walls and a Minecraft demo at E3 2015 that looked like something out of Minority Report. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is clearly heartened by Pokémon Go’s resounding success. “This Pokémon interest will hopefully translate into a lot of interest in HoloLens," he told CNBC.
What's clear is that you don't get Pokémon Go without the underlying tech, but you don't get a phenomenon without the Pokémon brand. "Pokémon is a singularly powerful and beloved brand," says Loeb when asked to predict how soon we'll start to see clones of the game. "It will be nearly impossible for anyone to reproduce this success. That means developers will need to be creative to try to get into the space being pioneered by this game. In short: I don't think we'll see a slew of direct clones. Or, maybe we will, but I don't think they will do well."
Find out everything you need to know about the 'Pokémon Go' app that's taking gaming outside. Watch here.