Just when you thought apps were dying in favour of messaging bots and interest in mobile gaming had hit its peak, the augmented reality game Pokémon Go exploded over the weekend.
As of this Monday, it has amassed 7.5 million US users – double the user base of Tinder – and it is on track to topple Twitter. The app has been downloaded on 5% of all existing US Android devices. Over 60% of those who have downloaded the app in the US are using it daily, meaning around 3% of the entire US Android population are users of the app.
Nintendo’s declining market share soared to $7.5 billion within two days of its release. And crucially of all, large numbers of Pokémon Go players are emerging out of darkened bedrooms and venturing into the real world, smartphone in hand, to find and catch virtual Pokémon in our streets, our parks and even our stores and restaurants.
It is out of the realm of this post to explain the magnetism that Pokémon holds over millions of millennials and early Gen Z. But, the objective behind the mobile game Pokémon Go is for players to explore their real surroundings and find a menagerie of Pokémon to catch, train and then fight amongst other players. The more players explore and strengthen their Pokémon, the better they will fare in battle. In some cases, their efforts will be rewarded by being able to claim public territory.
The game uses augmented reality and GPS for players to find and track down Pokémon. With the help of power-ups and an in-game map, players go out into the real world and scan their surroundings to stumble across all sorts of different Pokémon, from a run-of- the-mill Zubat or Rattata, to a much rarer Rhyhorn or Cubone.
With millions of Pokémon populating every square corner of the globe, and millions of players desperate to “catch them all”, it’s no surprise that a number of questions and issues arise as digital and physical worlds collide. There has been many reports of players putting themselves in danger, whether from reckless driving, stumbling upon unusual sights and even being at the mercy of organised mugging, in an attempt to catch a wild Psyduck. But if online anecdotes are anything to go by, Pokémon Go has given its fair share of joy to the world, such as kindling new local friendships and the bold claims that it has done more to combat national obesity than Michelle Obama’s years of campaign efforts!
So what does Pokémon Go mean for brands and the world of retail? The game’s mechanics mean that nowhere is exempt from the sightings of a Sandshrew or a Magikarp. Corporations, storeowners and residents alike have no control over the part-logical part-random distribution of virtual monsters, nor the placement of Pokéstops and Pokémon gyms, which are virtual outposts where players can replenish their inventory or fight to win territory. Pokéstops are typically positioned outside churches and other familiar civic landmarks. Beyond the new potential for in-game advertising and other content, I would not be surprised if advertising agencies and global businesses are already knocking on app developer Niantec’s doors to open new Pokéstops on branded spaces in the near future.
Some stores have acted quickly to stop players from coming in just to catch a Jigglypuff, while many other retailers have embraced Pokémon Go as a new way to drive in-store footfall. Quick-thinking sales associates and managerial staff have embraced the craze with store window posters encouraging exploration, with some staff even familiarising themselves with the sightings of Pokémon and guiding players to known hotspots as part of in-store customer service. Australian supermarket Woolworths recently posted a handy list for gamers to catch Pokémon in its stores.
Beyond positive PR wins, Pokémon Go begs a lot of questions about the relationship between retail spaces and public spaces, and how customers expect to be treated in light of this overnight phenomenon. GDR has seen physical traffic driving through augmented reality before with apps such as Traces, but nothing near this large a scale. Pokémon Go gives rise to a new paradigm of placemaking, where new communities are driven to physical spaces for reasons that can only be understood virtually. Should customers be able to behave as they please in retail space? Are brands in a position to leverage this behaviour to get customers to act under their own terms?
The app is only available in the US, but this hasn’t stopped players across the pond from accessing the it with US-based IDs. Our team has given it a go with contrasting experiences: Laura managed to catch a Drowzee just sitting at her desk while Lamorna had no luck tracing any Pokémon in the park round the corner!
Growing up around the obsession of diehard fans that cut their milk teeth on Pokémon cards and GameBoy games, I think Pokémon Go is here to stay – at least for the near future. An app with this feverish an uptake will not be forgotten about quickly.