Pokemon GO || Ramblings from a UX Perspective

Gym at Oracle HQ is currently being held by Team Valor. The gym switches hands on average 3x a day.

Crowd at a park playing Pokemon. Most of us have been here for at least 2 hours.

Crowd at a park playing Pokemon. Most of us have been here for at least 2 hours.

By now, I have played Pokemon GO for 2 weeks and have reached the coveted level 22. Pokemon GO (POGO) is a massively popular mobile game that has been a viral hit. It became the most popular paid app in the iOS store within a few days, received more than 10 million downloads within its first week, surpassed Twitter in daily active users (DAU) and has already generated $14.04 million in sales, which is 47% of the total mobile gaming market. It’s so popular that players are deciding where they eat based on the restaurant’s proximity to a Pokestop. In lieu of this, Yelp added a Pokestop filter in their web and mobile app. POGO’s popularity has led to massive amount of server issues that is common amongst the initial launches of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORG) like Sim City, Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2. To be fair, POGO wasn’t expected to be this popular outside of their already established fan base and is technically still in beta 0.29.3. I’m happy to say that the server has stabilized and I rarely encounter any server issues during peak times. Despite the lack of communication and transparency that should be a part of any customer experience, Niantic worked hard and proved with their launch in Japan that servers issues will be a thing of the past.

Success Factors

It’s safe to say that POGO has transformed how we experience reality through our phones. It did it so smoothly in a matter of days! There are a lot of game play dynamics at play, but before I get into that, there are a few external dimensions that led to the success of POGO.

  • Demographic Appeal – The Pokemon IP comes with a ready fan-based of mid-20s to 30-somethings whom may already have children at the perfect age for mobile games. The brand consciously tries to appeal to people of all ages, with marketing schemes that tries to draw new fans in and keep the old ones around. Just a few weeks ago before the POGO game launch, I was at a Build-A-Bear factory at the West Edmonton Mall only to find that the Pikachu skins that I saw the morning off was sold out later when I visited the same night.
  • Dev UXPokevision and Pokemon Go for Slack are a few add-ons that spun off from Niantic’s open API. This is rare for a mobile game to allow their users to build custom tools to enhance game play. Developers are users too.
  • Android and iOS launch – I don’t remember an instance when a mobile game app launched on both Android and iOS stores at the same time. In combination with the single sign-in and summer timing of the launch helped boost conversion.
  • New technology – The seamless camera integration for Augmented Reality (AR) is the differential when comparing POGO to other mobile games. Seeing the small creatures layered over reality makes the game play experience seem more “real.”
  • Dedication & Vision – The game took 20 years in the making, with one single vision of having a game layer over the world. UX is not just about being simple, beautiful nor having a set of easy to use features. That vision laid the groundwork for every design decision made and helped identify strategic opportunities for a potentially disruptive market (More of product thinking and UX vision). In POGO’s case, Keyhole and Ingress laid the groundwork for the success of the game. It’s turning point was the 2014 viral success of finding Pokemon in Google Maps.

My Experience and the UI

A few others have written about the easy on-boarding of the game, so I will not rehash that.

I found that the game incentivizes things that we do already when on the go (Pokemon GO :]) We go to work, we go out to eat, we walk the dog, we go to school, and hang around in groups at parks and meetups. Walking helps us hatch eggs for rare or high IV Pokemon, find other Pokemon that hides in the tall grass, while also getting you from point A to point B. Walking also gets you to gyms and Pokestops for much needed supplies. Best of all, walking takes us to new places and outside to meet new people with the same common interest of playing POGO.

As a game that’s meant to be played quickly and on the go, everything happen within minutes. The traditional Pokemon game play is replaced with a minimum viable feature list. We don’t spend 5+ minutes battling a Pokemon, agonizing over the move sets, IVs (Individual Values) or natures anymore. I mean…unless you want to. Instead, we spend at most 90 seconds trying to take over a gym, move sets are randomly selected for us and catching a Pokemon is done with a quick flick of a finger.

LEFT: I like the ability to turn on/off AR as needed. The bottom of the screen is the primary area for interaction. E.g. throwing a ball and using items from your back. CENTER: This is what battling at a gym with AR turned on looks like! You just continuously tap on your opponent to attack and swipe left or right to dodge. No menus needed. RIGHT: Customizing your own characters makes you feel more attached to the game. It helps you believe that your avatar is you.

The third person avatar view and map overlay is just real enough to be believed. Our brains are harsh judges of things that try to be realistic but falls short. This is a challenge with virtual reality. When something is represented to us as real, we try to find the smallest discrepancies which prevents us from suspending our disbelief; yet when we are presented with something that is not “real” our brains easily accepts that representation and fills in the gaps cognitively. As I walk around, I find myself amazed at how accurate my avatar seems to follow me. Even as I am standing still and turning to face different directions, my avatar follows smoothly.

Strangely, I felt connected to the real world as I was walking around zombified with my peers. Just the other day, a fellow player yelled “Starmie!” and the location of that Pokemon. Unsurprisingly, we all slowly got up and walked in a huge group to the other end of the park. Though we are still staring at our phones, we are really watching our avatar walk in a map overlay of the real world. We are aware of the river to the left of us and the road that is coming up ahead as depicted on the map. The Pokestops are easter eggs of wall murals, sculptures and other places of interest that I never would have stopped to look at before.

Caught the Starmie! The jewel of the sea.

Caught the Starmie! The jewel of the sea.

The game is addicting as Facebook and Instagram are. There is a constant need to check if there is a new Pokemon spawn around the corner. Feedback is constant and instantaneous. Catching and spinning a Pokestop is just as satisfying as clicking on the red notification bubble or pulling to refresh a feed. Despite server issues, there were intrinsic rewards tied to every game mechanic.

A list of pokemon caught. Since the game is meant to be played on the go, there is a focus on coffee shop interactions. This means I can hold a cup of coffee in one hand and interact with a mobile app in the other hand. All the main action icons can be reached with my right thumb!

Since we have to walk around to play an augmented reality game, we are encouraged to interact with strangers. On the game map you can find high activity hot spots. Many times in and out of work, I have no problems befriending others while finding an elusive dratini at the Oracle lagoon or when picking a random picnic spot between high traffic lures at Guadalupe Park and chatting about our latest Pokemon catches, know-hows and food. Last week, I walked across the street to have lunch at my friend’s work place. The many times that I’ve been there before, I’ve talked to only 2 or 3 of her co-workers. Now when I walk over, we have lunch then join a group of my friend’s Pokemon hunting colleagues and we found a rare Hitmonlee together. They shared the location of an Electabuzz spawn. They taught my friend and I how to hunt nearby creatures using the on-screen compass.

Interestingly enough, there is no need to share your activity with your virtual social network, nor is there a push for you to purchase in-app items. How many times have you been asked to invite your friends to play to progress further in a game? How many times in a game is an advertisement for an in-app purchase persistent through every screen? I’m never bombarded with such eye sores  in POGO. Everything seems more organic. It’s refreshing from the usual Facebook game apps and Candy Crush games that gamifies your network to level up further.

Life has definitely changed as illustrated by this meme (credit: http://www.dorkly.com/post/79726/life-before-pokemon-go-and-after).

My dog has noticed that we’ve been stopping a lot more than usual.

One night when when it got dark at the park, we were asked by our local police to leave. I suspiciously watched as the gym turned from red to blue 😡

Thoughts on the Future of Pokemon Go

Having gone this far in the game, it’s hard to keep motivated. Catching Pokemon and gaining experience is harder unless you are willing to shell out money for more pokeballs, lucky eggs and incubators. Other than the group meet ups and the need to “catch em’ all,” the rewards to get up to the next level isn’t incentivizing enough. For those that have caught ’em all or are have the grinding stages of the game (lvl 22+), Pokemon Go’s announcement at the San Diego Comic Con 2016 gave current players a reason to keep playing.

  • They are planning on releasing the 6 elusive legendary Pokemon to round out the original 151 Pokemon in the 1st generation series.
  • The teams we have chosen will have a bigger role in the story of the game. I’m excited that there will be a more immersive story that will translate into the real world. When I currently play with players from other teams, we are simply taking turns imperializing gyms. There is no purpose other than to gain experience points and bragging rights. Storytelling inspires and persuades. It makes your games more real and engaging. The three teams in POGO already has a persona behind them that frames each player’s alter ego in the game. Just as people can easily identify with and exhibit character traits from Gryffandor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw in Harry Potter, I’ve seen groups in the real world exhibit the characteristics of their chosen team as they play the game. I’m excited to see what narrative Niantic has planned out for us.

Since the goal of the game is for players to go out and explore and/or be on the move, what if there was a Fitbit like band that that counts your steps so you can hatch eggs when running on a treadmill? Can Google glass make a comeback? Instead of staring at the phone, I can still hunt for Pokemon while keeping my eyes on my real surroundings? How about a wearable like an Apple Watch that vibrates when a Pokemon comes up. I can just tap to automatically throw a ball without looking if I am riding a bike.

The game will definitely spur more AR games that may or may not have as huge of an impact as POGO but will increase adoption of AR as a social media and marketing platform. McDonalds is the first to partner up with the game to turn every location in Japan to a gym. Eateries, museums and police stations have all been inserting themselves into the game by purchasing lures to attract crowds of players into their establishment.

Beautiful lures! Waves of people are usually found camping out at these high activity spots left by other players or establishments. In this case, a popular BBQ joint dropped lures. I saw many people enjoying sausages and other meats on the lawn as they played the game.

Beautiful lures! Waves of people are usually found camping out at these high activity spots left by other players or establishments. In this case, a popular BBQ joint dropped lures. I saw many people enjoying sausages and other meats on the lawn as they played the game.

So far I’ve only seen glimmers of what the game hopes to be. It’s not polished and lacks the social feature that its Nintendo counterparts have weaved in seamlessly. Despite all these setbacks, it’s still made a huge impact on our culture and technology. I’m excited to see how Niantic plays this out, especially as mixed reality devices like the Microsoft Hololens and Magic Leap come to market.


  1. There *is* a wearable coming, but it’s delayed and the functionality is pretty limited;

    It’s interesting to read about the pre-cursor to #pokeMongo that, surprisingly enough, wasn’t quite so popular. But, laid a lot of the groundworks for this phenomenon;

    The game is fascinating on a number of fronts;
    – As a nerd, the technology is interesting. Both for the micro-scale clever usage of mobile features, and for the macro-scale of the huge infrastructure needed to support that many concurrent users.
    – As a people watcher, it’s interesting to try and understand exactly *why* it’s so popular. And how it seems to transcend traditional boundaries. I overheard a group of adult guys, who looked like bricklayers, standing outside the pub the other day, smoking and discussing how much stardust and candy it was going to take to power up their Jigglypuff. Even more interesting, my kids (6, 8 and 11) don’t particularly care about it.

    – As a gamer, I like to play to *escape* reality. I’m not a supernaturally enhanced monster hunter, or a chainsaw wielding space marine, I don’t own a tricked out Pagani Zonda or a penthouse apartment in Los Santos. But, when I’m in that zone, I can imagine for a brief period that all of those things are true. It’s a nice escape. I play a lot of games, maybe I’d like to play more, but…
    – As someone who *loves* the outdoors, I want to experience actual reality for what it is; absolutely awesome. Whilst the (arguable) goal of #pokeMongo is admirable; get people up off the couch and get them visiting places they normally wouldn’t, IMHO it’s just getting people to go to those places because they have to (to catch imaginary monsters) rather than because they want to. So, it just serves to make places appear busier than they actually are, because there’s hundreds of people there who might as well not be. They are not the least bit interested in their surroundings and don’t interact with the rest of humanity. They are, as you say, zombies.

    So, yes, as a technology platform it’s amazing. As a social experiment it’s fascinating. But as a game, I’m not a fan. I think modern life could benefit from the boundaries of reality and fantasy being more clearly defined, not increasingly blurred.

    Having said all that; as a spark for innovation, it’s invaluable. To what actual useful application can we put this same concept?

  2. @Ed: I’ll let Tawny respond to most of your points, as she’s the author, but to the last one, AR has been waiting for a consumer spark like this for many years.

    I thought Glass might be a vessel for AR, and it has been, in limited forms. Companies other than Google have made headway in the heads-up display space.

    AR remains a very useful technology that’s been waiting for a nexus moment.

    I love the power of Google Translate’s AR translation; that’s a killer feature. We need that kind of thinking applied everywhere.

  3. Hi Timothy & Oliver 🙂

    I’m on Team Mystic because Articuno is my favorite legendary bird!

    My strongest Pokemon right now is my 1840 Vaporeon followed by Snorlax.

  4. @Ed

    How about a smart home or smart office?

    Are you familiar with IFFFT? At the tail-end of 2015, MIT labs worked on a physical IFFFT to control internet connected devices by using real world objects using AR and markers: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3054389/mits-amazing-new-app-lets-you-program-any-object.

    Imagine being able to dim the lights or winding all your clocks for daylight savings by rotating a physical object (totem) of your choice right next to you.

    To take it one step further, let’s forget about having an app or tying devices to our totem. There is now a browser enabled AR using awe.js that works seemlessly with IFFFT, leap motion and will work with VR see-through mode.

    This blog post has a great tutorial on creating an AR interface to control the colors of his lights: https://www.sitepoint.com/augmented-reality-in-the-browser-with-awe-js/

    We can build invisible controllers to control our IOT devices by simply holding up our camera. No downloads, no extra remotes to juggle needed.

  5. @Tawny: Not that you would know bc internets, but this Ed is the same one emailing us about the browser-based AR 🙂

  6. LOL. Yay for interweb anonymity!

    Interestingly, I found that awe.js article a few days ago, after developing the bulk of my own browser based AR stuff. Typical! That could’ve saved me a bunch of work. But, on the other hand, where’s the fun in that! Also, my printer’s out of ink, so I couldn’t print the locator image.

    I like the idea, it’s a cool demo. But, really, I wouldn’t want my whole house littered with location markers. Two ideas spring to mind; 1) Printing the markers in some kind of “invisible ink” that’s in a spectrum which humans can’t see, but cameras can. I’m not sure such an ink exists though! I guess phone cameras are built to emulate the spectrum response of human eyes. 2) Have image recognition and/or micro-location built in to the app, so it knows I’m pointing it at the lamp, without having to be “told” by a marker.

    However, all these ideas still require me to have “something” near me. Be it my phone, or a totem, or something else. If I want to change the color of my light, and don’t have my phone with me, I have to go get it. Which defeats the whole purpose. I might as well just go to the light itself.

    So. Taking it to its extreme conclusion, forget about having a physical device *at all*. I’m imagining a room sized, or whole house, gesture tracking system. It would know I’m pointing at the lamp, and that I’m making the gesture to turn it on/off and would act accordingly. No need for a phone, no need for a totem. It would be like having the power of the force!

    But, anyway, all cool ideas. What my own AR development has taught me is that Pokemon GO! does an *extremely* awesome job of presenting a convincing impression of virtual objects being positioned in the real world, despite the sensors in mobile devices really not providing accurate enough information.

    So, full marks to them!

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