Product Teardown – Pokemon Go

I’m starting a new series, putting skills I learned from my Master’s degree to work. Drawing on design methodology and PM fundamentals, I’m exploring various companies’ products in “Product Teardown” case studies.

First up is Pokemon Go, which has made quite the mark on mobile gaming since Niantic launched the game in 2016. Millions of people continue to catch delightfully colorful “pocket monsters” roaming around the augmented reality landscape, although missteps by Niantic shrank the player base from the massive scale at inception.

For this product teardown, I’m going to discuss the unique design and testing phase of Pokemon Go, the good and bad of the current product, and areas I see for improvement on the longer-term roadmap.

The April Fool’s Pretotype

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Pokemon Go actually started off as an April Fool’s joke: Google’s annual prank in 2014 featured 8-bit Pokemon sprites added to Google Maps as part of a “Pokemon Challenge”, with a promotional video showing people crossing rugged terrain to look for Pokemon with their phones. Unlike most other April Fool’s pranks I’ve seen companies put out, it’s entirely plausible that this test served as a “pretotype” (borrowing terminology from the Stanford d.school) for Pokemon Go, transforming a day that’s normally only used for simple branding stunts into a multi-billion dollar opportunity.

What makes the Pokemon Challenge a pretotype? It was able to test key features of the game  without committing significant resources beyond those already allocated to a yearly prank. Although AR and real-time geolocation tech were considered a major part of Pokemon Go hype, the basic mechanics of the game involve finding and catching Pokemon. With the Pokemon Challenge, people could “find” Pokemon in the real world by scrolling through Google Maps, and “catch” them by tapping on the Pokemon icon. The AR technology was simulated in their video, without any need to actually create the technology yet. The fact that the “tap and catch” mechanism alone was engaging to a wide audience, along with high interest in the promise of AR the video illuminated, gave an early signal to Niantic (and Google, by extension) that this was an idea worth investing in.

The Product

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Nowadays, Pokemon Go still revolves around those tested core mechanics: people go around to find and catch Pokemon, using their smartphones as a conduit between the real world and the augmented reality map filled with Pokemon. As people wander around the real world, they can restock on necessary items by spinning Pokestops and gyms, which are anchored to local landmarks. Gyms have the additional functionality of providing places to station Pokemon as guards, or fight current Pokemon placed by an opposing team to guard the gym (each player can join one of three possible teams early on in the gameplay).

Since there’s little storyline, different players have different goals. Some seek to literally “collect ’em all,” chasing after rare and powerful Pokemon across the world. Others focus on their trainer level (Level 40 is the maximum level), doing activities to gain XP and level up. All activities, however, tie back to the main mechanic of finding and catching Pokemon.

Monetization comes in the form of Pokecoins, which can be (slowly) earned by having your Pokemon guard gyms for a certain length of time without being defeated. For faster access to Pokecoins, people can buy the coins with real currency, spending anywhere from $1 to $50 per transaction. These coins can then be used to buy a variety of items, from cosmetic avatar upgrades to useful items that enhance gameplay.

Over time, many new features have been added, expanding gameplay and building community interactions. Some of the best features to highlight include:

  • Raids: This was the first major revamp of Pokemon Go’s gameplay, and it dramatically revitalized the game. A raid occurs when a Pokemon “takes over” a gym temporarily, and players have a time limit to defeat it and get rewards, including the chance to catch it. Some very rare Pokemon only appear in raids, and are impossible to defeat alone. As a result, large formal and informal networks formed in the player base to coordinate battling in raids.
  • Research: Daily “research” quests can be obtained from PokeStops, awarding items to players who complete the requisite tasks. With weekly bonuses awarded for completing at least one quest a day, this feature encourages players to be daily active users (often used as a success metric for apps and games).
    Niantic has been experimenting with a few “Special Research” quests, involving a multi-step process that awards items at each step, and culminates in an encounter with an extremely rare Pokemon (impossible to obtain otherwise). These provide additional avenues for even very experienced players to take time to pursue and accomplish.
  • Friends: Niantic added “friend codes”, which allow players to connect with one another to send gifts and trade Pokemon. The latter functionality was a huge addition to the game — swapping Pokemon opened up avenues for enhanced community aspects, especially since the “costs” associated with trading are reduced depending on the amount of interactions with a “friend” you are trading with.
  • PvP battles: Of all the gameplay mechanics I can think of, “player vs. player” is something that Pokemon Go players have been clamoring for since the game’s inception. The new game mechanic gives players more options for how to spend their time in the game, with options to battle NPCs, strangers, and friends alike. Notably, PvP gives players more uses for many of their weaker Pokemon (besides collecting them): there are several “tiers” players can choose to battle in that limit the strength of Pokemon used for battle. In their own networks, some players have  imposed other informal constraints to make battles even more creative!

Roadmap

One of the biggest reasons why Pokemon Go has been so successful is because it helps young and old alike experience a bit of the “magic” promised by the advent of AR: seeing the virtual creatures of our childhoods come to life.

I have three suggestions to offer, all with the overarching goal of reducing the attrition rate. I think this goal is particularly interesting given the high attrition that plagued Pokemon Go during its first year. Although attrition has definitely lessened compared to the 2016 drop-off, it still remains an important concern for Niantic, especially as people reach maximum level caps and capture all available Pokemon in their area.

  1. Native Chat Functionality
    This remains one of Pokemon Go’s greatest flaws: although many community-building game mechanics and events have been created over time, there is no way to actually message or communicate with other players. To fill the void, people have turned to other messaging platforms, like Discord or Facebook Messenger, to coordinate activities. Players often stumble upon these groups by chance, such as being in the right place at the right time for a raid. In the absence of discovering these communication channels, players without many close friends playing Pokemon Go feel increasingly isolated by the community-building mechanics, and are at high risk of attrition. Native chat would solve this issue by providing an in-game communication method in local areas that anyone playing the game could discover and access.
  2. Reduce Regional Pokemon
    One big gripe players have with real-world Pokemon distribution is that some Pokemon require actually traveling across the world to find and catch. Until the advent of trading, the only way to obtain these “regional” Pokemon was to travel to a region of the world they would spawn and catch one. Since Niantic isn’t also a travel service, this doesn’t help their monetization strategy, and ironically can hurt attrition; although some people may see regionals as a perpetual challenge to strive towards, many others view it as a frustrating barrier to accomplishment that leads them to abandon the game altogether. As Niantic releases more Pokemon into the game over time, I think it should move away from world geography, and focus more on its efforts to match Pokemon with local geography instead. Traveling 20 miles to seek out water-type Pokemon at a lake, or look for grass-type Pokemon in a forest, is much better — it gets people outside, moving, and captivates the imagination by enhancing the realism of encounters. With some exploration required on a local (but not worldwide) scale, people will be less likely to abandon the app.
  3. Expanded Pokemon Actions
    Catching a Pokemon involves trying to throw a PokeBall while the Pokemon moves around. Although more actions were added a couple years ago, and a few Pokemon have slightly enhanced actions, most of the movements have become very predictable. Even something as simple as adding more tweaks on the underlying actions (drifting to the left of the screen, or jumping) could create more realistic catch encounters, thereby improving the wonderful illusion that keeps players engaged with the game over time.

That was a lot to sort through, especially given the scope that Pokemon Go reaches with its expanded features today. I think that doing more teardowns, and narrowing the focus of my explorations, will help me continue to think through the process of designing, building, and refining a product.

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