There are an astounding number of 30-year-olds who, when we were 10-year-olds, wanted nothing more than to catch all 150 Pokémon. This was back in 1996, when the first Pokémon game was released on Game Boy. Most of us didn’t get there — because it was tedious and frustrating, and we ran out of AA batteries. But now we’re getting a second chance.
Pokémon Go is the new smartphone app that lets you run around outside and catch these virtual creatures when you’re in proximity to them. My colleague, German Lopez, explains it here.
To understand why your friends are sitting in a bar trying to catch a cartoon Pikachu — and why the game is on pace to have more active users than Twitter and Tinder — you need to understand where this fandom comes from.
The first version of the game sold more than 30 million copies, and following iterations continued to have a strong fan base. For a while, these aging fans stuck around. But when the smartphone replaced the Game Boy as the primary handheld gaming devise, many of these Pokémon trainers hung up their cartridges and stashed away the vast Pokémon worlds they had built in their imaginations.
Now they’re back.
Nintendo knew people wanted to continue to be Pokémon trainers
The first iterations of the game were called Red, Blue, and Green. Each took place in the same world, but there was a slight difference in Pokémon available in each game. Combined, those three versions sold almost 32 million copies worldwide, making it the second-highest selling Game Boy release, behind only Tetris.
But that was 20 years ago. So surely young Pokémon trainers like me grew out of the phase and started doing adult things.
For some, that was the case — but others kept playing.
In fact, Nintendo has something called the "same generation hypothesis," which says that certain audiences stick with their childhood games even after they've grown out of the perceived target audience. Pokémon was one of those games, and Nintendo saw it in the data.
In 2006, the games began allowing for online registration, which helped Nintendo track their audience demographics closely. And since then, it's been able to see how registered Pokémon players have aged.
The charts below are from a Nintendo presentation in 2010 and show the first three Pokémon games that came out on their newest platform at the time, the Nintendo DS. The 2006 game had a relatively young audience, but the 2009 game appealed to a slightly older audience — and the 2012 game appealed to an even older one.
But we stopped being trainers because we had a new gaming device in our pockets — and there were no Pokémon for smartphones
The biggest challenge mobile gaming faced was the release of smartphones. Sales of Nintendo’s handheld devices, like the Game Boy and Nintendo DS, have plummeted in the past decade, because our smartphones became our handheld gaming devices. This means that even if 20- and 30-year-olds wanted to play the newest version of Pokémon, they had to buy a secondary gaming device to do so. And that meant Pokémon was losing hardcore trainers, like me, because I wasn’t about to drop a few hundred bucks to play a single game.
The fandom was perfectly set up for Pokémon Go
So when Pokémon Go came out, it already had a massive built-in audience of people who a) had devices that could play the game, and b) knew that Charmander eventually evolves into Charizard.
And Pokémon Go isn’t just recreating an experience from 20 years ago; it’s almost the natural culmination of this series. There are three reasons why:
- The developers made the Pokémon world rich in our imaginations. The original games were in black and white and on a low-resolution screen. There was a vast story told through clever dialogue and discovery, but we had to use our imaginations to fill in the rest of it. It was a world in which some of these creatures were just really strong and helped us move furniture, while others were legendary birds that may or may not exist. But they did exist, and every former Pokémon trainer probably remembers what it was like to catch their first legendary Pokémon, whether it was Articuno or Mewtwo.
- Pokémon always did a fantastic job blurring the lines between its world and ours. In the first game, you could trade Pokémon with your friends by connecting a cable between two devices — and Nintendo built this out extensively in future games. There were also Pokémon that you could only get if you showed up to special Nintendo events at bookstores and game shops, which further brought their world into ours.
- The first game came out before a lot of kids had the internet. And the developers, either on purpose or not, left a bunch of Easter eggs and cheats that could only be discovered by talking with friends. Even when you had finished the game, it seemed like there was so much else left to discover.
So Pokémon Go is, for many adults, a realization of our childhood fantasies of being Pokémon trainers.
And the audience has reached the critical mass that allows it to feel like it’s not just a niche shenanigan but a real phenomenon
Pokémon Go is already on pace to surpass Twitter in daily active users:
And already people are spending more time in the game than virtually any other popular app that you could expects adults to use.
SimilarWeb, the organization that mined the data above, reports that the retention rate for the game is extremely high.
So why does this augmented reality game work when others have failed?
The idea of mixing virtual candy and real life has been around for a long time. The app FourSquare gave you badges and honorary titles for visiting physical places. Others have tried to implement similar systems, to varying success. I would argue Waze, the crowdsourced traffic app, has done a decent job of incentivizing drivers to report road conditions to the app, in exchange for virtual candy.
But we’ve never seen anything like Pokémon Go, and that’s because every other app tried to overlay a virtual world on top of the real one. They tried to convince us to look at the world differently.
Pokémon Go does the opposite. Many of us already have a model of the Pokémon world; it is in our heads, colorful, mystical, and full, with so much yet to be discovered. And the app is overlaying the real world on top of that one.