The Walking Death of Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO, the hit mobile game that made international news this summer—is it dead? Pokémon GO made history when it was downloaded 10 million times in the first week after release and rocketed to #1 in the app charts faster than any app before it. Recently, the game has begun to set unfortunate new records — for being abandoned by 10 million users in less than a month. What happened?

Pokémon GO is an “alternate reality game” (ARG). Using your phones’s camera and GPS, your device is transformed into a magic lens. Gazing through your phone/lens, you see a fictionalized Pokémon version of your world, which you can tap to interact with. As you move through your neighborhood (or someone else’s neighborhood), you do what one does with Pokémon: catch ‘em all.

It turns out that Pokémon GO suffers from a key issue that’s been holding back the development of ARG’s (alternate reality games). This issue is not news to insiders in the tech industry — in fact, it’s the #1 reason this technology has yet to be adopted widely. Walking may be the death of Pokémon GO.

The story of ARG’s go back to at least 2001. At this time, The Go Game launched — and I was lucky enough to be one of its first participants. I went with a friend to Venice Beach, where we used a cell phone, camcorder, and even interacted with a local bartender to solve a mystery. The treasure hunt was engaging indeed.

While the game was fun, it was the kind of fun you experience going to a theme park. The problem with the Go Game, like all ARGs, is that it’s a ton of actual work to perform it. Playing these games resembles running errands. And I don’t know anyone who needs more errands in their life.

You see, moving around on a map is not the exclusive province of the ARG. Games as varied as Halo, Clash of Clans, and Super Mario Bros all have one thing in common – you move your character around a map. Hell, even Candy Crush has a map. In Grand Theft Auto, the map is an artistic interpretation of the contemporary city. In SimCity, I build the contemporary city.

If you look at the rapid-fire pace which one goes about a map in these top games, you’ll see a drastic weakness in the ARG. The very activity at the core of exploring an alternate reality—moving about town—is much, much slower in an ARG than in a regular game.

The slowness of walking (or worse: driving) explains why many ARGs are hits once. Like an escape room or treasure hunt, good ARGs in the vein of The Go Game have a richness that is best savored rarely. Which explains why The Go Game has gone on to become a healthy corporate team-building business. Clearly of value, but far from replacing cinema or becoming the next internet.

The tedium of travel explains why ARGs have had great success as one-off marketing stunts (e.g. I Love Bees) but, until now, have rarely built lasting community. The tedium of travel also explains why Foursquare stands out as the biggest success in ARGs to date. The original Foursquare was designed around the check-in, performed by players at locations they frequented as they went about their daily lives. Only the truly insane went to places specifically to check in to Foursquare. While that insanity did drive a core group of diehard users, the mass-market brilliance of Foursquare is in its recognition of the tedium of travel. Foursquare is about taking a second or two to flip open your phone and check in. Not the minutes (perhaps hours) it can take to visit special locations to collect game items. Even with these advantages Foursquare failed to sustain a Facebook-scale audience, and today is a has-been of the tech world. Creating lasting value in an ARG, beyond the initial novelty, is tricky indeed.

Along with Pokémon GO’s tremendous download numbers came projections — $3 billion in sales, and a $3 billion valuation for Niantic, creator of Pokémon GO. Those numbers are today starting to soften in light of reports that 79% of the paying player base has simply disappeared. So before you start to use Pokémon Go to drive sales or jump on the bandwagon of building the New Wave of Alternate Reality Games, understand what’s going on here.

Pokémon GO’s success was due to the wow factor of the augmented reality integration (a technology which itself, like fine wine, is best savored rarely) along with rock-solid mechanics, developed on the shoulders of games like Ingress and dozens of predecessors. Not to mention the overwhelming power of the Pokémon franchise. The game is simple, compulsive, and with Pokémon GO we also saw the development of a new kind of socializing around the game. These forces, combined with novelty for many players, drove a flash hit.

The success of location-based, alternate reality gaming—like that of other forever-on-the-horizon fantasies such as augmented reality and virtual reality—depends on an honest appraisal of the costs, as well as the benefits of the technology. We wax poetic about ARGs because we see their benefits, and ignore their costs. Pokémon GO competes with games on the Xbox and PlayStation that allow players to quickly jump around exotic worlds, even socializing with people in other parts of the world. All in their pajamas.

However, the stark truth that will always handicap alternate reality games like Pokémon Go is that we are lazy, and we don’t want to move. Games that can be played with the faintest motion of a finger, while sitting in a vehicle or in the bathroom or while walking or eating a meal are fundamentally more accessible. ARGs must either (1) develop around the places people already move in the world, or (2) be so fun, with real-world social interactions that wouldn’t be possible in virtual space, that they are worth the work of getting up off the couch.

With an honest recognition of the burden of work that ARGs place on a player, they can be built to succeed. In fact, the Pokémon GO team seems keenly aware of these tradeoffs, releasing tomorrow a device called the Pokémon GO Plus that allows you to play without removing your phone from your pocket. This keen intelligence is part of why this game is a rare success amongst ARGs.

Let’s hope that Pokémon GO continues to make smart design decisions and be the exception that proves the rules around ARGs. Let’s hope future ARGs learn from Foursquare and design around activities people already participate in (exercise being a big, glimmering untapped opportunity space). But the delusion that it’s fun to run around the city collecting targets, etc., without understanding of the associated human costs has gotta end.