TL;DR: Niantic lucked out in a huge way, but they may have squandered Pokémon Go’s enormous potential. Here I explain my feelings and thoughts on the matter.
For almost an entire year before July 2016, Pokémon fans around the world eagerly awaited the arrival of Niantic’s Pokémon Go. We fondly recalled the Nintendo games and TV shows of our youth, and were beyond excited to experience the same joy again on our now-ubiquitous mobile phones.
I remember watching the original trailer for Pokémon Go in 2015 and feeling a lump in my throat — the kind that immediately precedes tears of joy. It was the most amazing video game ad I’ve ever seen, and it spoke to all of my most treasured experiences and associated childhood feelings. I watched the trailer at least 5 times in a row.
This was true for a lot of other people too. You see, Pokémon was more than a Nintendo franchise for us — it was a familiar face, a childhood friend, and a stable constant for our former younger selves. We loved Pokémon like we loved Disney. It was special in a way that Pac-Man never was, even to those of you who spent their formative years in the ’80s. Firing up a Pokémon game was like coming home.
(Side note: In middle school, I was active on multiple Pokémon message boards. To this day, I still know how to type an accented “é” using ALT+130 on the keyboard numpad.)
We had no idea what to expect before Pokémon Go’s release. All we knew was that it was going to be some subset of the things we loved already from the franchise, which included:
- Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex (721 species were in the franchise by mid-2016)
- Earning badges and/or achievements
- Getting items
- Growing, leveling, and evolving Pokémon
- Incorporating some real-world VR/AR element
- Battling and trading with in-game trainers
- Battling and trading with our friends
- Mini games
After Niantic’s trailer, we waited month after agonizing month for the launch of Pokémon Go.
Finally, Pokémon Go arrived on July 6th, 2016. I downloaded it immediately.
To be honest, we probably should have been disappointed as soon as we opened the slow app, experienced the constant network issues, and explored the sparse feature set. The actual feature list ended up being the following:
- Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex for only the original 151 species
- Earning achievements
- Getting items
- CP-ing (?), and evolving Pokémon using…candies
- Rudimentary AR (that we switch off anyways)
- Battling in-game static representations of other trainers
Battling and trading with our friends Mini games
Guess what? We didn’t even care. Our childhood friend returned — in 3D! We couldn’t wait to greet them with open arms, regardless of trivial matters like “gameplay.”
It’s easy to say this now in retrospect, but Niantic was truly sitting on the holy grail of initial customer engagement. We cared zero about the current state of the product — not the weird CP and candies system, not the lack of features, and not even the stuttering server issues. We had total faith that in perhaps the next month or two, Niantic (backed by none other than freaking Google) will help Pokémon Go grow into the beautiful Butterfree that we knew it was always Go-ing to be.
“It’ll be amazing. All 700+ published Pokémon species will eventually be rolled out. We will finally start trading and battling Pokémon with our friends. Right? Right…?”
Our disappointment is (only slightly) humorously expressed by 3 words:
“Minor text fixes.”
Here we are, almost 4 months later, and analysts are already calling it — Pokémon Go is dying.
Some of these analysts attribute the sharp decline of user engagement to simply the natural progression of mobile game fads. I don’t buy it; I believe that Niantic failed to execute on an enormous market opportunity.
I’ll discuss it more in Part 2.