Surely by now you’ve heard of Pokemon Go, this summer’s mobile-app craze. Perhaps you’ve seen players on sidewalks, iPhones held aloft, trying to catch the little virtual creatures that appear on-screen in the “augmented reality” of the game. I’ve played Pokemon Go myself, walking around Manhattan and catching Pokemon, and I’ve come away with some conclusions.
First: Pokemon Go is worth learning from. Not because the game will take over the world; to the contrary, I think it’s a momentary craze that will cool off within a few months. Dedicated players will stick with the game in the long run, but for most mobile users it won’t remain relevant.
Instead, Pokemon Go is worth learning from because we will see more AR (augmented reality) apps enter the market, which will put pressure on everyone with an app, or a brand, or a mobile strategy – take your pick – to “figure out what we’re doing with AR.” If you’re on a mobile product team, you may be asked to come up with an AR proposal, or at least a perspective on the AR trend, soon – if you haven’t already. And that means it’s worth studying the lessons of the most successful AR app so far.
Second: Pokemon Go has been successful to date, in part, because it offers simple, fun interactions. For the casual player, there’s not a lot of complexity to the game: You walk around outside, you swipe to capture the occasional cartoon monster that pops up on-screen, as it appears to be floating over the sidewalk.* You can walk by local landmarks and tap them to get points. The act of walking itself can confer some modest benefits (gaining points, incubating eggs). As long as players watch where they’re walking, it’s all benign, harmless fun.
Compare this simplicity to AR visions of years past: one AR idea I heard multiple times was that as users held the phone up to landmarks, they could see an overlay of how the skyline looked 100 years earlier. Or something like that. AR has always been too complicated (both for developers and users), and not that fun, so it’s never taken off. Until Pokemon Go. The lesson is that AR apps shouldn’t try be too complicated in what they deliver: just deliver a simple, fun interaction, overlayed over the local area shown on camera.
Third: Pokemon Go will fade out quickly, in part, because there’s no clear adoption path for casual users. I played the game to level 6 and found that I was nowhere near approaching the ability to compete with other players at the local Pokemon “gyms” (locations where players’ Pokemons battle each other). As a casual player – which is to say, someone with a job and a family and not a whole lot of time for Pokemon play – I hit a wall in my interactions in the game within a couple of days. I’ve stopped playing and don’t miss it. The lesson here is that AR games must offer an adoption path that rewards casual players as well as any super-fan players that dive in. (For an excellent example of an adoption path that rewards both casual and expert players, watch Paul Murphy’s talk at my Gel conference, where he explains the experience design of Dots, the chart-topping mobile game.)
Fourth: Pokemon Go is not yet a finished product, as it lacks the basics of battery management and code stability. Playing the game drained the battery of my iPhone 6 at least twice as fast as any other app I’ve ever used – maybe three or four times as fast. And the game crashed repeatedly. I know these are fixable issues, and I’m sure Niantic is working feverishly on a revised app. But other teams won’t have the luxury to launch an unfinished app and gain a huge user base: other AR apps will have to launch with good code stability, and good battery management, starting at launch. AR teams must get the basics of the experience right, or they will fail right out of the gate.
I did enjoy playing Pokemon Go while I tried it out. During this national moment of tension and uncertainty, I found it a welcome diversion to concern myself briefly with how I might catch the next Zubat. (As it turns out, a passing player, who I had never met before, gave me a helpful tip – I give the game credit for creating these serendipitous connections.) And the game gets people outside to just walk: not merely to track their steps or heartrate, but just to go out and have fun. We could use more apps like that.
In the meantime, for Pokemon Go and for all the other product teams working on AR apps, creating a good user experience is the key ingredient of AR success.
*P.S. I had an awkward moment in Whole Foods, also posted on Twitter, while I was ordering sliced turkey. A Pokemon appeared and didn’t seem too happy about it: