What Makes Pokémon Go? Roots and Ramifications of the Global Gaming Craze

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A veteran video game analyst and consultant discusses the creative processes that paved the way for Pokémon Go fever and explores the app's implications for the future of video gaming.

How many billions of virtual Poké Balls have been hurled since the launch of Pokémon Go this July? The mobile gaming app is an unprecedented global sensation. The media have reported on the phenomenon at length, covering a raft of related incidents, some troubling and some heartwarming. Yet few of the reports convey the real significance of the Pokémon Go craze for the video game industry. Here I offer my own insights on the game’s phenomenal success and its implications for the future.

A Character-Driven Classic

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had many occasions to work with the talented young developers at Game Freak, the software development house that handled Nintendo’s Pokémon series. As an editor of a video game magazine, I frequently asked them to write articles for publication, and I learned much from them in the process.

Thanks to my association with these masters of the craft, I gained valuable insight into the creative process that gave birth to the Pokémon franchise with the 1996 release of Pocket Monsters: Red and Green for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy console.

To me, the most impressive aspect of this process was the skill and care that went into the creation of the game’s characters. Pokémon revolves around the capture and training of various magical creatures for dueling purposes, and the game’s popularity hinges on the individual appeal of each of those “monsters.”

What goes into the development of such characters? Some people imagine that one can create a Pokémon simply by adding fanciful elements to a drawing of an actual animal. This is a gross misconception. The superficial attributes of a game character are less important than its inner qualities. Creating convincing, compelling “pocket monsters” involves fashioning a whole fictional universe—complete with an ecosystem and a back story—and allowing that world to determine the characters’ unique individual attributes. Unlike the superficially similar mascot characters known in Japan as yuru kyara, each Pokémon is endowed with highly developed, specific, and fixed personality traits.

Those involved in the development of Pokémon at the time compared the characters to the deities and creatures that inhabit Greek mythology. The reason Greek mythology continues to resonate with people even today, after thousands of years, is that its gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures are endowed with very specific and recognizable personality traits. The creators of Pokémon were striving for characters with something of that timeless appeal.

Another pertinent feature of Greek mythology is the frequent appearance of hybrid beasts like the Chimera (combining features of the lion, the goat, and the snake) and the winged horse Pegasus. People are fascinated by the idea of a creature that combines the attributes of divergent life forms in defiance of natural laws. The Pokémon creators tapped into this tradition but refined their hybrid “monsters” into endearing creatures that appealed to children. This technique yielded such beloved and enduring characters as Pikachu, the “lightning mouse.”

The original Pokémon game released in 1996 played out on the tiny five-centimeter-square black-and-white display of the handheld Game Boy. Under the circumstances, it might seem absurdly ambitious to strive for a game that could stand the test of time. But really, all the creators were doing was applying the principles of character creation rigorously and skillfully.

Promotional Prowess

This is not to suggest that game developers who focus on the basics invariably achieve commercial success. The history of video games is littered with simple, well-designed titles that were eclipsed by glitzier competitors; these are the games that later resurface as “hidden gems.” However, such was not the fate of Pokémon, which benefited from a unique and ambitious promotional strategy made possible by the PR prowess of producer Ishihara Tsunekazu and the financial muscle of Nintendo.

The 1998 US debut of Pokémon was marked by a splashy PR campaign that enlisted even the public sector, as the mayor of Topeka, Kansas, renamed her city ToPikachu for a day. During the 1998 Kōhaku uta gassen (Red and White Year-End Song Festival)—the popular Japanese song show broadcast each New Year’s Eve by public broadcaster NHK—Kobayashi Sachiko performed Kaze to issho ni (Together With the Wind), the closing theme from the Pokémon movie released earlier that year. Fast-forward to 2016, when the franchise celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a 30-second commercial spot that aired during the National Football League’s Super Bowl 50, reportedly at a cost of $5 million.

In short, the Pokémon franchise owes its success to a consummate blend of creative integrity and mass-marketing flair. This is the secret to the enduring popularity that laid a firm foundation for the Pokémon Go craze long before the app’s release.

Meeting of Minds

From a technological standpoint, of course, a lot has changed since 1996. The intervening years saw the dawn and rapid evolution of mobile computing. Google launched its Google Maps application, followed by a widely used mobile app that can pinpoint the location of devices, addresses, and landmarks all over the world. Next, Niantic, a spinoff of Google, incorporated Google Maps technology into its location-based, science-fiction battle game, Ingress. And finally, the Ingress concept joined forces with the Pokémon creatures to create Pokémon Go.

What accounts for this merger of such divergent ideas? The decisive factor was not any quantitative consideration, such as the number of active Ingress users, the recognizability of Pokémon characters, or the marketing track record of the franchise. Rather, it was the willingness and ability of people from different backgrounds to communicate and work with one another. Without that, the project could never have gotten off the ground.

Of course, management gurus talk a lot about synergy between people in different disciplines, but in the real world, joint-development projects have a tendency to run aground owing to differences in priorities and perspectives. There are numerous stories of failed ventures between telecom companies and video game developers. The basic priorities of Google Maps software engineers are naturally different from those of game developers. The makers of Pokémon Go also had to overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers between Japanese and American businesses.

They were able to overcome these obstacles because they shared a simple, basic vision. They wanted something that was fresh and creative but not over-the-top. They wanted a cutting-edge game that stayed true to the original concept and spirit of Pokémon.

The Real Innovation

Most reporting and commentary on Pokémon Go has highlighted its character as a location-based game requiring users to move from place to place. On the negative side, we have seen news items concerning auto accidents or robberies involving use of the app. At the same time, though, we are told that it can encourage exercise, help treat autism, and even assist with postdisaster recovery. In either case, global interest in the game has focused largely on the fact that it requires players to venture out of doors, smartphone in hand.

But contrary to popular belief, this is not a new development. In Japan, location-based mobile games go all the way back to the early 2000s, when Japanese manufacturers were busy developing feature phones with advanced functions that made them highly popular in the home market. Even before the spread of GPS technology, Japanese developers made use of mobile phone tracking (by which telecom networks track the location of cell phones through signals that the devices send to base stations) to create location-based mobile games. The trend accelerated with the spread of GPS technology and advanced smartphones. As a result, some 100 location-based game titles have already been released in Japan. But none have been anywhere near as successful as Pokémon Go.

Why, then, is Pokémon Go such a runaway bestseller? I believe that it is best understood not as a location-based game but as the leading edge of a newer trend toward mobile augmented-reality games using location-based metadata.

Your Choice: Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality

Today’s GPS technology allows us to identify and digitally communicate the coordinates of almost any location on earth with a high degree of accuracy. The superimposition of place names and landmarks—such as as Shibuya Station and the Eiffel Tower—on this data yields useful map and other geographical applications. By further assigning fictional metadata to those places or landmarks, we can imbue them with augmented meaning. In Pokémon Go, for example, real locations are identified as PokéStops or gyms. Pokémon Go is a game that overlays information about the real world with computer-generated sounds and images to create an augmented reality. But geographical information is not the only kind of digital data with the potential for augmentation. In the future, game developers could attach such metadata to bar codes, image data, sound wave patterns, and so on. The possibilities are practically limitless.

As a location-based augmented-reality game, Pokémon Go appeared at a fortuitous moment, just when the game genres that had dominated the market were losing steam.

Globally speaking, the two top genres over the past few years have been first-person shooter games and casual games for smartphones. FPS games portray gun- or projectile-based combat from a first-person perspective and require a home game console or computer. These titles are not that popular in Japan, but worldwide they are far and away the best-selling genre, accounting for six of the top ten games last year.

The second-most popular genre is casual games for the smartphone. These include color-matching puzzles and simple action games that can be downloaded and played for free. They generate profits by charging extra for upgrades or tools that give the player an advantage.

Since around last year, sales have leveled off in both of these genres. Now Pokémon Go has come along like a breath of fresh air, pointing the way forward. The market had already sensed that video games had gone as far as they could go within the world of the two-dimensional screen. Augmented reality, which blends on-screen and off-screen experience, has emerged as an exciting new option. But it is not the only game in town.

In October, the launch of PlayStation VR could set the stage for an epic battle between two longtime Japanese rivals, Nintendo and Sony. As Pokémon Go players wander about town with smartphones in hand, PlayStation VR users will stay home and explore virtual reality via the system's advanced headgear.

The latest VR games go far beyond the kind of three-dimensional visual experience previously available to gamers. Cognitive psychology teaches us that we see with our brains; our eyes merely detect light and convert it into signals that are sent to the brain to process. This means that at a certain level of sophistication, the digital images of virtual reality can become visually indistinguishable from the real world. This is the goal of PlayStation VR. One gets the sense that gameplay within this virtual realm will leave a lasting visceral impression on the player.

Pokémon Go and PlayStation VR represent two divergent visions of the future: augmented reality using mobile hand-held devices versus virtual reality using mounted headsets. Yet both achieve the same goal of breaking free from the confines of the flat, rectangular screen. The appearance of these two groundbreaking developments within a few months of one another may signal a major turning point in the development of the video-game industry.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 29, 2016.  Banner photo: Gamers try to catch a Pokémon at the “scramble intersection” near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station on July 22, 2016, the day Pokémon Go was released in Japan. © Jiji.)

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