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We shouldn’t have underestimated ‘Pokémon Go’ in 2020

Pokémon Go, the AR mobile game published by Niantic in 2016, is still making the news – four years after its release. Data gathered by Sensor Tower has revealed that in 2020, the game earned over $1bn, a feat the mobile app had never achieved before in a single year.

Few could have predicted such an outcome for a game, which after an incredibly successful release – it was downloaded approximately 10 million times within its first week, and earned a revenue of around $206.5 million by the end of its first month of life, placing it in the Guinness World Records book – seemed to fall off the radar. Already by mid-September of the same year, the game was reported to have lost 79% of its United States players, and 2017 recorded a 29% decline in player spending ($832mn in 2016 vs. $598mn in 2017). Yet, after 2017, spending has increased every year, and 2020 arguably has represented the cherry-on-top for a mobile game that has been able to defy expectations.

But how was Niantic able to reverse the fortunes of Pokémon Go?  And as for 2020, surely Covid-19 has something to do with the dramatic earnings, but is it really the whole story? I am inclined to think otherwise, and believe there are other factors that help explain the game’s continued success.

Niantic proved itself to be particularly receptive to players’ feedback

One of these is certainly the power inherent to the brand. After all, Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world, having earned a staggering $100bn since its creation in 1996 (for reference, its closest competitor is Hello Kitty, a brand established 22 years before Pokémon, but that has earned ‘only’ $86bn). The brand has an enormous fandom, and this was always going to play a role in the success of Pokémon Go. The number of players might have dwindled a few months in, but this was never going to imply a shutting down of the game.

In 2017, the year of the ‘supposed flop’, Apptopia estimated that monthly players were still about 60 million. This might have been a far cry from the number of players at launch (estimates put the number of monthly users in 2016 between a staggering 100 and 380 million users worldwide), but it was significant nonetheless. As another comparison, one has to only think that in the same period all of Blizzard’s hit mobile games averaged together ‘only’ around 41 million monthly players. Not too shabby for a supposedly ‘dead’ game.

Having said this, I think we also have to acknowledge the work Niantic put in the game following its release, and thus give them their due. Pokémon Go might have been pretty glitchy at the start (it definitely tested my patience), but it is undeniable that it has only grown from then. The plethora of new features that have been steadily introduced after 2016 is a testament to Niantic’s hard work: raid battles, trading, the friend system, and the improvements to the camera feature represent only a part of the content that was progressively added. 

Niantic proved itself to be particularly receptive to players’ feedback, as shown by the possibility being offered to users to propose PokéStops and Gyms, a welcome addition for players struggling to find them in their local area. Niantic made sure to maintain a variety of Pokémon to pique player’s interest through the periodic release of new generations, and the mobile game was kept relevant by integrating it with some of the console games (such as with Let’s Go, Eevee! and Let’s Go, Pikachu!). We also cannot forget the multitude of events Niantic brought to the game, with the Community Days by far the most popular feature, enabling you to meet other fellow Pokémon trainers in real life. 

Obviously, these features were not all free, but it is undeniable that their addition definitely served to make the game more exciting, and players more willing to purchase, say, tickets to access these events. It is likely that had Niantic not introduced these fresh new features, the mobile game would not have reached the level of success it has now, although it probably would have still been around.

Pokémon Go should not have done as well as it did, if one thinks that it was originally devised as a game based on movement

In terms of the role of monetisation, I think it also fair to point out that Niantic – to some extent – has become more “aggressive” in this respect, or better, it has understood how to incentivise players to spend money in-game. Although plenty of the features are available for free or can be unlocked by simply playing the game, it is undeniable that the difference between playing for free and playing while also spending is big. 

Take the Pokémon eggs – they are free to obtain, but in order to hatch, they would normally require walking, which can become particularly tedious if we are talking about 12 km eggs that then end up not being the Pokémon the player is looking for. One incubator is available for free in the game, but it allows only for one egg to hatch at a time. On the other hand, by purchasing incubators from the in-game store, you can place multiple eggs in incubators simultaneously, and wait less for them to hatch. For those trying to collect all Pokémon, paying soon starts to be seen as a viable alternative.

Not surprisingly, Niantic has come under fire for its practices on multiple occasions, which have been criticised for seemingly being aimed solely towards incentivising players to spend actual money towards the game. For example, many feel that the hatch rates are unfair, devised to stimulate the players to hatch multiple eggs at the same time, and thus to spend for incubators.

As for its 2020 earnings, COVID-19 has certainly played a role in their dramatic increase. Pokémon Go is only one of the mobile games to have benefitted from a more general trend that saw the download of mobile apps skyrocket during the pandemic, amid lockdowns across different countries. 

However, this is not enough of an explanation. Pokémon Go should not have done as well as it did, if one thinks that it was originally devised as a game based on movement, that aimed to encourage trainers to move physically across locations in order to find Pokémon, Gyms and so on. 

New features have served to maintain interest for the game and have enabled players to continue enjoying it from the comfort of their own homes

Once again, it’s on Niantic’s merit if the game has survived during this time. It implemented many stay-at-home features, such as Remote Raid Passes, and enabled players to purchase virtual tickets to its Go Fest events, and made them available worldwide. Additionally, Community Day: Stay at Home events were introduced, and the volume of Pokémon spawning from incense was radically increased. All these features have served to maintain interest for the game and have enabled players to continue enjoying it from the comfort of their own homes. Granted, the issue of having to spend money to enjoy many of these features has remained, but it is undeniable that Niantic’s risky strategy of radically changing the system of play has paid off. 

Having said this, what impact will Pokémon Go have on The Pokémon Company’s mobile game strategy? And on Nintendo more generally? As for the latter, despite reports that Nintendo would be retreating from the mobile game market, the annual 2020 report has instead stated that, although Nintendo will not be releasing new mobile games in the new few months at least, interest in expanding their reach over smartphone platforms remains.This makes sense as an approach – Nintendo is aware that mobile games have increased in popularity and is keen to keep trying to capitalise on this. 

However, it is undeniable that the mobile business has been one of the least lucrative for the brand, and considering the Nintendo’s Switch ongoing and dramatic success, it makes sense to want to focus more on the console sector (Nintendo’s latest earnings report revealed that between July and September, more than 6 million Nintendo Switch consoles were shipped, reaching approximately 68 million consoles sold since its launch three and a half years ago).

As for The Pokémon Company, it seems keen to capitalise on the success of Pokémon Go. In addition to connecting the app to its mainline games (via, for example, the recent addition of mega evolutions), TPCI is investing more decidedly in the mobile games market, with the release of new applications such as Pokémon Smile, Pokémon Café Mix, and Pokémon Unite, the latter being a new spin on the MOBA genre. 

This has not had a significant impact on TPCI’s frequency in releasing games for the Nintendo Switch, with yearly releases on the console remaining a reality. However, it is proof that the brand has realised there is potential in expanding its own reach into the mobile games sector, an opportunity it is keen not to miss. One can only hope that a similar passion is put into developing Pokémon games for Nintendo’s actual consoles.

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