Pokémon GO: where did it come from, and where is it taking us?

June 5, 2017
Pokemon GO

Source: Nintendo & Niantic

Remember the ‘Pokémon GO’ craze of summer 2016? Little did we know that the adorable little critters of our childhoods would not only be back in our lives, but they’d be throwing the mobile tech world upside down with their use of augmented reality and $2 million of daily revenue. But ‘Pokémon GO’ didn’t just come out of nowhere – the AR industry had been quietly humming away in the background, with apps like ‘Augment’ and ‘Ingress’ gaining underground popularity since as way back as 2011. So why was AR thrust into the mainstream so suddenly, and why was ‘Pokémon GO’ so influential?

How did ‘Pokémon GO’ start?

As most know, the ‘Pokémon’ series was born in the mid-90s and grew to become a behemoth brand worldwide. The franchise primarily focused on Nintendo game consoles, but despite the continuing popularity in recent years, the sales of handheld games began to decline due to the rise of smartphone devices. Like any other reputable company looking to stay with the times, Nintendo (and their Pokémon Company subsidiary) began to look for ways in which they could cautiously dip their toes into the deep waters of the mobile market. Cue Niantic and their charismatic founder John Hanke.

John Hanke

Niantic CEO John Hanke

Hanke initially founded the geospatial software company Keyhole in 2001 and worked on numerous projects with Google, including the ground-breaking Google Earth platform. By 2010, Hanke and his team had become an official subsidiary of Google, rebranding themselves as Niantic and diving into the creation of location-based apps and gaming with ‘Field Trip’ and ‘Ingress’ in 2012. ‘Ingress’ in particular was the most prominent stepping stone to the birth of ‘Pokémon GO’, with it’s at the time innovative gameplay mechanic of moving around real-life maps and claiming “portals.” While the game was an underground success, it had one enthusiastic player in particular – the Pokémon Company CEO himself, Tsunekazu Ishihara.


Screenshots from the Niantic location-based game ‘Ingress’.

Jump to April 2014, and Google are in the midst of their yearly April Fools’ Day shenanigans. This year they quietly teamed up with the Pokémon Company to surprise Google Maps users by scattering Pokémon across the globe, which became a sudden hit as users scrambled to complete their Pokédex and catch all 151 coveted monsters (and an amusing prize of customized “Pokémon Master” business cards). The success of this prank didn’t go unnoticed by Hanke and his team who, once spun out of the Google brand into an independent entity in 2015, went on to approach Nintendo with the idea of combining their expansive user-created location data with a well-known brand. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why was ‘Pokémon GO’ so popular?

‘Pokémon Go’ exploded onto the iOS and Android stores in select countries in early July 2016, to record-breaking users and downloads. Soon enough, hundreds of mainstream news channels were reporting on the craze, prompting the question – just why was the game so popular? A number of factors come into play:

  • Novelty
  • Branding power
  • Social aspect
  • Completionist complex

Thanks to the growing popularity of apps like Snapchat that were beginning to introduce real-time AR filters, the novelty of AR was fresh in the mind of smartphone users. As opposed to sitting at home on the couch, the thrill of “real” Pokémon popping up on the real-world maps around you that can only be caught by moving to their location physically piqued the curiosity of the masses. With this in mind, the period of initial release – summer – made prime opportunity to get out and about in the warm weather.

Branding power
Seeing as a large majority of smartphone users are millennials, the nostalgic power of the Pokémon brand was another strong influence in the popularity of ‘Pokémon GO’. Being in the form of a smartphone app, teens and kids – who in this day and age are inseparable from their devices – were also a prime target. The game also made a perfect vessel for family play as millennials relived their childhood along with their own kids.

Social aspect
While ‘Pokémon GO’ is definitely playable alone, a major drawing card at its initial release was it being an inheritably social platform. Can you remember the hordes of players gathering around common areas to collect rare Pokémon? Henke himself stated that the goals of ‘Pokémon GO’ were not only to catch Pokémon, but to get people outside and breaking the ice with strangers as they adventured together.

Completionist complex
One of the main factors as to why the original ‘Pokémon’ series was so popular harks back to its well-known catch phrase – “gotta catch ‘em all”. Having a bevy of Pokémon to catch in order to fill out your Pokédex was a driving force behind the compulsiveness of the ‘Pokémon GO’ game mechanic, to the point that players began to go to extreme lengths in order to catch the Pokémon around them.

How did ‘Pokémon GO’ affect AR and the tech industry?

You could say that ‘Pokémon GO’ was a catalyst in bringing augmented reality into the mainstream. As with all trends and fads that shoot to popularity, other companies have begun to take AR more seriously and even major corporations such as Microsoft and Apple have taken to investing in augmented reality software and hardware. According to Forbes, AR technology will grow from 515 million to a 5.7 billion dollar industry by 2021 – a statistic that is making hundreds of tech companies stand up and take notice.

Pokemon GO Gameplay

A screenshot of the capture screen.

The ripples of the “Pokémon GO effect” also spread past the tech industry and into governments and law offices. Along with news bulletins on the popularity of the game, its physical aspect brought about a number of issues and problematic situations in regards to personal safety and the law. Due to the random nature of Pokémon appearances as well as user-created “Pokéstop” checkpoints, a number of home-owners and managers of public landmarks have taken legal action against Niantic in regards to trespassing and vandalization of their properties.

Accidents related to playing the game – such as a woman in Japan killed playing the game while driving – as well as robbery and sexual offenses have also brought to light the physical dangers of AR-related games and apps. Factors such as these have added additional pressure on governmental law’s seemingly endless struggle with the introduction of new technologies and how they deal with them.

Pokemon Go Warning

A warning sign in Arizona discouraging playing while driving.

As the field of AR moves forward, it’s bound to take the lessons learnt by cautiously watching the boom and consequences of ‘Pokémon GO’ as a prominent case study in tech history – all while the world waits in anticipation for the next AR craze to hit.

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