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The endurance of Pokémon Go

As with any other highly engaging smartphone game, the key to Pokémon Go’s endurance has been variation in gameplay and player rewards that come with it. Photo: AFP
As with any other highly engaging smartphone game, the key to Pokémon Go’s endurance has been variation in gameplay and player rewards that come with it. Photo: AFP

One year ago, Pokémon (the pocket monsters from your childhood card-trading days) made a comeback into our collective technology-driven lives by invading our smartphones. Niantic Labs, the developer of the wildly popular augmented-reality (AR) game Pokémon Go had struck gold with the launch (nearly 750 million downloads since its launch last year). 

Since then, about 65 million players have caught 125 billion Pokémon, and covered more than 16 billion km collectively in the quest for these creatures. However, download and usage statistics are only part of the story—behind the success (and failures) of the game is a story of human behaviour that we suggested last year upon its launch

As with any other highly engaging smartphone game, the key to Pokémon Go’s endurance has been variation in gameplay and player rewards that come with it. Given that Niantic had the prior experience of the AR space with Ingress, they appeared to be content with adopting a similar strategy for Pokémon Go. 

A common fixture in the game has been the introduction of time-bound in-game events that celebrate a particular festival or time of the year. For example, during Halloween, players were more likely to catch Ghost-type Pokémon, while during Valentine’s Day, there were increased spawn rates for pink Pokémon. 

Often, events would include doubling player experience rewards and increasing the likelihood of obtaining otherwise rare or new Pokémon. This is a strategy that appears to have been a mixed bag, since some events resulted in a jump in monthly average users, while others did not.

The most recent large-scale change in gameplay involved a reworking of “gyms” (AR-tagged locations where players can claim territory and gain rewards). The reason this is of interest is because gyms represent the only scenario where players had any interaction with each other (or others’ Pokémon, anyway). 

Before June, gyms were largely dominated by high-level players who, consequently, had powerful or rare (or both) Pokémon. Typically, this would mean having to defeat up to ten powerful Pokémon, which were all very high in their combat power (CP). In cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai, it was not uncommon to find ridiculously high CP Pokémon occupying gyms, since only a handful of players had Pokémon that were capable of taking these down. 

This is where Pokémon Go began to fade away, riddled with user complaints about a seemingly unfair system. Common get-arounds to get powerful Pokémon (and therefore dominate gyms) exploited loopholes in the game, with GPS-spoofing (reprogramming one’s GPS to mimic movement or another location) bogged down enthusiasm for the game. Pokémon Go saw dwindling users, and the events weren’t being met with the same response.

Behavioural science offers some insight into why this might be the case. First, players clearly felt slighted by the unfairness of the gym system—the average player often had no way of taking over a gym if it was dominated by powerful Pokémon. This was compounded by the fact that such powerful Pokémon were obtained by cheating, which although largely subjective, was destroying fair gameplay. 

While players who purchased rewards in-game could still have got powerful Pokémon without cheating, a majority of gyms appeared to be dominated by (literally) ill-got pocket monsters. Niantic, although slow in its response initially, finally took steps to remedy this by revamping the way players interact with gyms and clamping down creatively on spoofers (for example, generating common Pokémon such as Pidgeys and Rattatas for them to catch when spoofing). 

Gyms now generate rewards other than player experience points (XP), and involve individual Pokémon’s “motivations” that can be maintained by feeding them berries. What’s more, when a gym is assigned to a specific team (Mystic, Valor or Instinct), any player from that team can feed berries and help maintain their team’s territory. 

Thus, players may compete across teams but may benefit from cooperating within their own teams to gain rewards. For a Pokémon to stay in a gym, its trainer must constantly interact with it, failing which the gym will be taken over by another. 

By introducing cooperative gameplay, there is greater scope now for players to form groups to attack gyms—paving the way for a study of cooperation within the game. With the introduction of high-CP Pokémon as “raid bosses”, even lower level players have a chance to obtain powerful Pokémon by successfully taking down a raid boss, but often only with the support of other players. 

The author learnt this the hard way when attempting to battle a Tyranitar raid boss with only four other players. Upon looking around a quaint Bandra by-lane, we found three other people glued to their phones, tapping furiously (but with great futility). Sheepish smiles were exchanged, and eventually we all wandered off in different directions, fleeing the scene of our collective depantsing. 

Indeed, Pokémon Go has resulted in a number of benefits that are being documented in recent research. It has been suggested that the game could contribute to reducing severe social withdrawal in Japan, by incentivizing players to venture outdoors. In just the first weekend of Pokémon Go launching, there was a spike in the number of steps walked in the entire US population, with nearly 50% of users exercising more. 

Another study finds robust increases in physical activity as a result of playing Pokémon Go, drawing implications for public health by gamification. The key takeaway here is the fact that Pokémon Go is engaging with users who are a largely inactive population, compared to health and fitness apps that are largely used by an already active population group.

One year on, Pokémon Go has clearly left a Pikachu-shaped mark on the way we view AR games, how they work, and their potential. Given that the key challenge for Niantic is in keeping players engrossed, it would be useful to think of a strategy that might provide an enduring legacy to the Pokémon universe. 

One way might be to organize social campaigns that draw on gamification to contribute meaningfully to society. For example, a blood donation drive or clean-up campaigns at beaches post-festivals in India where additional in-game rewards and rare Pokémon are offered for those who attend and participate. Indeed, it has been suggested that increasing player interactions with parks and gardens (where Pokéstops are often located), could be harnessed to improve conservation efforts

Regardless of future events (around the world), there is clearly huge potential and opportunity for Pokémon Go to continue to endure as a revolutionary game for all ages and all cultures. If nothing else, players will always want to catch em’ all.

Anirudh Tagat is a research author at the department of economics of Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit academic research organization in Mumbai.

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