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How Pokémon Go is trying to lure back the millions who have abandoned it

The game has seen daily use wane significantly since its August peak.

Ina Fried for Recode

“Oh, you’re the one who’s still playing that.”

That response, heard by my Pokémon Go-playing co-worker over the past Thanksgiving weekend, has become all too typical for those still flinging Poké Balls and capturing Pidgeys.

Many who initially embraced the game in its early days this summer have moved on, while a smaller but still sizable group spends hours per day chasing creatures and visiting real-word PokéStops to replenish their virtual resources.

Among the diehards are cousins David and Kurt Wendler, who spent a chunk of Thanksgiving Day at Santa Rosa’s Howarth Park catching Pokémon near the park’s duck-filled lake.

The pair were taking advantage of a week-long promotion that gives trainers, as the game’s players are known, double credit for each creature they catch.

After spending most of the summer and fall expanding Pokémon Go to new parts of the world, creator Niantic has at last turned some attention to getting early fans reengaged in the game.

“It shows they are still willing to do stuff, but they should be willing to do stuff, considering it is one of the highest-grossing apps of all time,” David Wendler said, while ducks quacked and geese squawked in the background.

The moves to reengage the existing fan base come none too soon for Pokémon Go, which remains one of the most popular games in history, but has seen usage wane significantly from the weeks after its July debut when the game was packing local parks and spurring citywide pub crawls.

Daily active use among U.S. iPhone users is less than 4 percent of what it was at its peak in August, when more than 10 million people were playing each day, according to Mobile Action.

“Pokémon Go's had a very strong start, and now Niantic has to work to keep consumers continuously engaged after the initial honeymoon period,” said Amir Ghodrati, director of market insights at App Annie.

In the days leading up to Halloween, Pokémon ran its first global promotion, making certain “spooky” creatures more prominent and increasing the reward for catching all the Pokémon. Since then, the company has added other incentives, including bonuses for those who play each day. Such tricks are standard fare in the gaming world.

For Thanksgiving, Niantic added a couple more perks, offering a week of double rewards as well as introducing a long-awaited creature, Ditto, into the game. Sources say several more twists and promotions are planned for early December — and the game is due to arrive for the Apple Watch before the end of the year.

Keeping fans engaged is critical for Niantic because while Pokémon remains quite popular, downloads and active use have both waned significantly since the initial surge.

Mobile Action

Pokémon Go debuted in July to a crush of demand, with early usage more than the company expected to have built over several years’ time. That meant that rather than adding new elements of gameplay, Niantic’s early days were focused on keeping the game running and scrambling to get more server capacity from Google.

While focusing on international expansion and ensuring stable gameplay were understandable initial goals, the company was arguably too slow in making sure that it did enough to keep its most ardent fans engaged.

And not all the changes the company has made have gone over well.

“I do think they made a lot of blunders,” David Wendler said.

In particular, he was critical of changes that the company has made to reduce the risk of people playing while driving. Those same changes, though, have made it harder for car passengers to play, as well as those taking public transportation.

“I think that really hinders people who live in the suburbs when there are not a lot of PokéStops around them,” he said. “When you are a passenger in a car, you can’t even reload Poké Balls to keep playing the game. That pisses a lot of people off.”

The initial lack of new features was exacerbated by some elements of Pokémon Go’s gameplay, which make it progressively harder to advance in the game. There are only 40 levels total and it can take the average player weeks to move up a single level once they hit, say, level 30.

That meant that the game’s most enthusiastic players were nearly maxed out, having reached the upper levels of the game and caught nearly all the available Pokémon creatures (some rare creatures are only available in certain geographic regions, while Niantic withheld some others).

Niantic has responded with a steady stream of changes, including tweaks to gameplay, rewards for users who play more often and special events that make it easier for those at higher levels to advance.

Early data shows the moves have paid off, or at least provided a short-term boost.

During the Halloween promotion, average daily usage rose globally by 13.2 percent and U.S. usage increased 19.2 percent from the prior week, according to numbers provided to Recode by Niantic.

The spike in revenue for Pokémon Go was even more noticeable, with consumers spending twice as much some days during the Halloween promotion as they had in the days just prior to it, according to App Annie.

App Annie

In a September interview on the Recode Decode podcast, Niantic CEO John Hanke indicated that more elements were coming, including the introduction of more Pokémon creatures as well as other game mechanics.

“We've said in the past that trading is coming, and player-versus-player battling is something that we talk a lot about internally, and I think it very much is within the spirit of Pokémon Go,” Hanke said. “So it's possible you'll see that as well.”

Watch: Pokémon Go Advanced Tips

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