Jacob Friedmann

Pokemon GO Nails AR Without Actually Nailing AR

Four days ago, Nintendo and Niantic released Pokemon GO–an Augmented Reality (AR) mobile game–to a (mostly) unsuspecting public. If you haven’t heard of the ensuing events, you’ve been living under a Geodude: Nintendo’s stock price has jumped by an astounding 25%, it has become so popular that it is about to eclipse Twitter in usage, and it has somehow managed to dominate the news cycle even as nation-wide protests are breaking out in reaction to police killings of black Americans. The coverage is all over the place: the apps popularity, the negative societal effects, the positive societal effects, fake stories about car accidents, and real stories about dead bodies. What these two companies have managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time is remarkable unto itself. But perhaps what makes it most remarkable is how utterly broken the app was at launch.

Yes, as new users began to download the app on launch day, many–if not the majority–were unable to even login to create an account. The “server error” screen, so prevalent, quickly became a meme a la Twitter’s “fail whale” of yesteryear as would-be players tried and tried again to see what all of the fuss was about. Even those that were able to gain entry were often met with gameplay crippling bugs and were kicked out without notice and without recourse. Here we are four days later and the picture has improved some, but not significantly. And yet, no one seems to care.

Pokemon GO error screen encountered by many early users

Pokemon GO error screen encountered by many early users

We live in a world where the mobile app ecosystem is every day more saturated and harder to penetrate and at the same time mobile users are downloading fewer applications, but somehow, a broken app in a new space has made an enormous impact. Mobile users have been trained to hold applications to high standards and are prone to uninstall at the first sign of shoddy development. The bugs that are present in Pokemon GO would easily sink any other new application beyond recovery, but GO lives by a different set of rules.

This observation is made not to dog Nintendo and Niantic for developing a buggy application–far from it. While they probably could have battle-hardened it a bit more before release to the US, surely even they did not predict the magnitude of its viral popularity. The story here is that users are doing something we wouldn’t have expected: they are seeing the potential of an application, and perhaps a new format, through the haze of bugs and technical difficulties.

No, GO is not the first AR game to be publicly available, but it is the one that has finally ushered AR into the light of the mainstream. There are a confluence of reasons why GO might have been successful: it re-energizes a franchise that 20-somethings are nostalgic and hungry for, it builds on a database of landmarks from previous Niantic AR release, Ingress, to create a universe that is pre-populated with content to discover, and its “catch-em-all” theme is a perfectly suited hook into a format that encourages people to venture into the real world. Whose to say which of these things has had the largest impact or if, perhaps, there is something larger happening here.

GO’s path to monetization couldn’t be more clear. In-app purchases of Pokemon lures and other goods is only the beginning. In a not-too-distant future, players will travel in the real world to sponsored Poke-stops to get industrial strength Pokeballs brought to you by Walmart. States will run tourism campaigns that flaunt their jurisdiction as the only place to catch a wild Porygon. Not only are these new native ads bound to be effective, they aren’t in the least bit offensive; players will embrace them.

I loved Pokemon as much as the next millennial. I am certainly excited to advance my level in the nation’s capital once the next release settles some of the most pervasive issues. But what I see when I look at GO is something far more grand: mobile gaming has changed. GO will not be the last AR game of 2016 and perhaps will not even be the best, but it has kicked down the door and you’d be crazy not to pay attention.

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