2018 has been a good year for Pokemon Go so far.
While the overall player base is down compared to its massive launch, Niantic’s AR hit is still thriving two years later, with an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue and $70 million last month alone according to analysts.
This weekend, Niantic held its second annual Pokemon Go Fest in Chicago, overcoming last year’s connectivity issues and instead highlighting the game’s biggest strength: its community. With new features coming every few months and near-weekly in-game events, Pokemon Go has hit its stride in the wake of its second birthday, and it isn’t slowing down any time soon.
The Second Time Around
Following an inaugural Pokemon Go Fest plagued by problems, Niantic faced a class action lawsuit and thousands of unhappy fans last year. Of the many goals set for Pokemon Go in 2018, one was obvious: Pokemon Go Fest had to go well.
As CEO John Hanke told us earlier this year, Niantic used the lessons from previous stumbles to make future events stronger. Taking a cue from the end of last year’s Go Fest, Pokemon Go events have radically transformed to take place over entire cities in order to reduce cellular network strain, a strategy that has worked well for events in Europe and Asia since last year.
“There's obviously a lot of learnings from Chicago, and we've said publicly that that was a tough day for Niantic, one of the toughest in our history. We learned from that,” Niantic CMO Mike Quigley told IGN at this year’s Go Fest.
Those lessons seem to have paid off. Walking through this year’s event, the problems from 2017 were nowhere to be found. Connectivity was nearly flawless throughout the entire two-day event, and the structure – spread out across a 1.8-mile path in Lincoln Park – led players to points of interest including various themed real-world “habitats” with diverse Pokemon spawns. Hubs for event check-in were placed at the far opposite north and south ends of the park, eliminating lines and potential cellular bottlenecks.
“It's very iterative and I think we take each event seriously in the sense that we try to make it customized a little bit, make sure it's something special so it's not just a cookie cutter rinse and repeat thing,” Quigley said. “The layout you see here today with the four habitats and the lounges at the north and south end is actually us reacting and trying to optimize as opposed to just saying ‘let's just go brute force and let's try to cram a higher amount of people in a smaller space.’ I guess in hindsight it sounds like something that we should have instantly known, but there are just some things you can't test until you try them. The thing I'm proudest of is we just continued to try to push and be aggressive and be innovative.”
This year’s event saw no major problems and kicked off Niantic’s summer with a bang, bringing 21,000 registered attendees and more than 180,000 players to Chicago over the weekend. The event culminated with the release of mythical Pokemon Celebi for attendees and marks another notch in Niantic’s belt during a successful 2018 so far.
A Pokemon Renaissance
Looking back a year, Pokemon Go was having a tough time last summer. Even aside from the issues at Go Fest, last summer’s events were followed by the introduction of the invite-only EX Raid system, a controversial feature that split the community, as well as a drought of major new content leading into autumn.
We're listening, and we're trying to be responsive to not only some of the innovative ideas internally, but to what the fans want.
But throughout those bumps in the road, Niantic was listening and learning. Existing features have been refined and improved, and in 2018, Niantic has found a much faster, more consistent cadence of updates and monthly events to rally the community. The developer has also hired an ever-growing community team behind the scenes to facilitate better experiences for fans, including the monthly Community Day, which features a specific Pokemon with an exclusive move.
“We've said this before, but we listen to the community a lot,” Quigley said. “We're listening, and we're trying to be responsive to not only some of the innovative ideas internally, but to what the fans want. [Pokemon] is an IP that's 22 years old and growing strong, and we feel we're helping contribute to that. If we're not keeping fans happy, then we're going to fail.”
Quigley says the development team works closely with The Pokemon Company to make sure new features make sense not just for Pokemon Go, but for the Pokemon brand in general. “It's been a learning curve for both companies. There are some things that we have done in our history that they haven't and vice versa. I think that it's exciting to be growing this product experience together with them, making sure they feel comfortable, that we're doing right by Pokemon overall globally, and that we're also helping to add some fresh energy and fresh experiences for folks.”
Speaking to members of the Pokemon Go community, it’s clear that Niantic’s tactics are paying off.
“There's just a lot more to do in the game than there was two years ago,” YouTuber Nicholas Oyzon told IGN at Go Fest. Under the name Trainer Tips, Oyzon started his channel at Pokemon Go’s launch and has grown into one of the most popular Pokemon Go influencers, nearing 750,000 subscribers with videos focused on traveling while playing the game and his love of the core Pokemon series.
“When you hear people saying ‘oh, you're still playing that game?’ they're thinking it's still the same game as it was at launch, and it's really not. There's so much more than that.”
“When you hear people saying ‘oh, you're still playing that game?’ they're thinking it's still the same game as it was at launch, and it's really not."
Brandon Martyn, who publishes on YouTube as Mystic7, has amassed more than 1.6 million subscribers and publishes daily Pokemon Go vlogs. According to Martyn, Niantic has been doing a much better job of keeping the community energized through recent updates.
“When you think of hype in Pokemon Go, you think of the first month of everyone running around, but hype comes from constant things coming to the game, and that's something the game lacked, which is why it saw lower numbers in January or February 2017. It was just really slow,” Martyn said, “But once they started bringing out those constant updates – monthly Legendaries, weekly or biweekly events, Community Day events. There's so much that the game gets now that they just didn't do in the past. It's consistent. You always have something to do.”
Another influencer, Holly Patterson (PkmnMasterHolly on YouTube) has become a rising star in the community, interviewing players and highlighting the game’s ever-improving AR photo functionality in a channel she started just over a year ago.
“The game has changed so much in the past year,” Patterson agreed. “Weather, friendship, raids, not to mention new generations of Pokemon, Alolan forms, giving gifts, trading. It's a whole different game.”
“Niantic has shown over and over through features like friendship, the way they have reinvented trading, the way they introduced features like the weather system... it really goes to show that Niantic does have a really innovative, creative team behind them to make sure that we continue to be surprised about features,” Giorgio Lapian (Reversal on YouTube) told us.
Pokemon Go was always meant to be a game that you play with your friends.
Lapian, who recently crossed the 100 million experience mark in Pokemon Go (five times the game’s current level cap of 20 million) covers everything from quick news updates to in-depth features on the art of grinding.
For Patterson, it’s the social features that have helped Pokemon Go shine, especially those that foster face-to-face interaction.
“Raids were the thing that got me to start my channel. The very first Tyranitar raid ever released is the first video I ever made. Because as soon as they announced that, as soon as I knew that was going to be a thing, I was like, ‘so you're telling me that I'm going to get together all my friends that I've been grinding with forever, and we're going to get to play together? Oh, okay. It's real.’ Pokemon Go was always meant to be a game that you play with your friends.”
“I think it's definitely something they had in mind from the beginning,” Oyzon added. “Coming from Ingress, there's a lot of social features. You have the in-game chat, and I think Niantic understands social aspects add to the longevity of the game.”
While Niantic hasn’t always offered social features natively, the community has been able to fill in the blanks themselves. The Silph Road, a thriving Pokemon Go community that began as a potential trading marketplace, has evolved into a research hub for all things Pokemon Go. From determining the probability of in-game events to datamining software updates, the community works together to solve some of the game’s mysteries.
“On the one hand, we've grown because interest in the game has grown. We continued to grow all throughout these two years, but growth has accelerated, for sure,” The Silph Road co-founder Dronpes told IGN. “More people come back to the game, the weather is better in the northern hemisphere, and the social features have brought a lot of casual players back. That reflects in the Silph Road's activity and growth, and that's really cool to see.”
These communities stimulate one another to bring out the better in each other.
“There's tons to learn and study about the game,” he added. “[Niantic] doesn’t share the mechanics. You've still got to solve them, figure out what's hatching out of eggs, figure out what the rarity tiers are for shinies. All these unanswered questions that we work hard to solve, and that's interesting and fun for the people who really want to spend more energy on the game.”
“Really, the news and communication from Niantic is a great improvement to the game. We welcome it and further improvements to that section, because ultimately that drives people to want to learn more about those mechanics and really dive in,” fellow Silph Road executive Marco Ceppi added. “That's a place we're happy to get to, filling that kind of spirit of the game, crowdsourced data. As the game evolves, we're happy to evolve with it, and find ways that we can help contribute to the larger ecosystem of that game, keeping it moving forward in that same spirit.”
Aside from online communities, local in-person groups also bring a new level of teamwork to the game, playing and raiding in crowds to keep each other motivated.
“These communities stimulate one another to bring out the better in each other,” Lapian said. “There are so many communities out there that constantly grind, get to level 40, and even beyond level 40, there are groups dedicated to getting 100 million experience, which is insane. And they work together in groups, which is so much more than the solo experience that we initially had when the game came out.”
One of the most hardcore of those groups is in Singapore, which is home to Brandon Tan, the number one Pokemon Go player in the world. Tan has more than 571 million experience points in Pokemon Go, nearly 29 times the game’s level cap.
“I'm a numbers person. I like looking at the numbers going up,” Tan told IGN. “Whether it's the XP going or the level going up, or whether it's just looking at the in-game credit going up. Those things you can farm, I enjoy looking at.”
Tan travels in groups for “tap and go” speed raiding, measuring to the second how long his group needs to stay in one place before moving onto another gym, maximizing the amount of experience points they can earn in a day. For Tan, playing this way takes a different level of teamwork than traditional play, as it requires everyone to stay perfectly in sync.
"When you go to a raid, you're going to run into a community pretty quickly. So many people are willing to explain things to new people."
“Without you, I can't take the boss down. Without me, you may not be able to take the boss down,” he said. “That's why in speed raids, the leader will have to announce ‘okay, we're at the next raid. Be ready. Prepare yourself.’ You can't possibly do that if the leader doesn't give you a heads up. The same goes for the fact that everyone needs one another. Assuming you go with a group of, say, five or six…assume one person doesn't tap. He falls asleep while tapping, or, I don't know, somehow he didn't get into the lobby because he's messaging his girlfriend. You guys can't win, because now your [team] can't take the boss down before all your six Pokemon faint. So that's another aspect of teamwork.”
While high-level strategies like that require maximum coordination, Oyzon feels the game is still accessible to new players thanks to the strength of local communities. “As a new player picking up the game now, when you go to a raid, you're going to run into a community pretty quickly. So many people are willing to explain things to new people. They're eager to have people join their raid groups. If you're intimidated, there are plenty of people out there willing to help and you'll find them very quickly through the game.”
“The community is so not toxic. Everyone's just so nice, right?” Martyn agreed. “I think it’s because it's face to face. You can talk trash online, but face to face it's a whole different monster. It’s a really, really nice community, and that helps it grow and build.”
As with any mobile game, the question becomes how long this will all last. Even as Niantic prepares to add a third game to its roster with the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in the future, Quigley is confident Niantic can maintain Pokemon Go’s momentum by being smart about staffing and growing where it needs to, as it did with Pokemon Go’s community team.
“I think the company is in a good position financially to be able to invest and double down on things. We just have to make sure that we add the right people in the right places and do that in a responsible way versus just throwing headcount at stuff, but also make sure we're leaning into all the learnings from six-plus years in Ingress and now just hitting two years in Pokemon Go. I think it’s finding that balance of new blood to help us with future products that we will build on top of the platform, as well as making sure that the existing games are taken care of.
The game is not like other games in that it's a hobby. It's a lifestyle.
“In all these cases, these are long term plays for us. John [Hanke] has talked even more recently about how these could actually be lifetime experiences and generational experiences where you could literally pass on knowledge or maybe even characters or that sort of thing.”
That potential longevity is boosted simply by Pokemon Go’s uniqueness. While many imitators have popped up in the last two years, none have been able to rise to Pokemon Go’s level of success.
“The game is not like other games in that it's a hobby. It's a lifestyle,” Dronpes said. “When you're hiking or walking -- my mother-in-law hikes and she always turns it on. She hatches eggs. She loves hatching eggs. She's not into the forums or any of the deep analysis, but it's a hobby for her. That's really different, I think, from a lot of other games. It gamifies activity. Then there's the social side. It does keep you playing, having these groups of people. All those things are just really powerful. Each of those is really powerful at bringing people back and back again.”
Martyn, Lapian, and Tan are veterans in the mobile space, covering Supercell’s Clash of Clans before moving onto Pokemon Go. None of them seem concerned about Pokemon Go’s longevity.
“The reason why I moved on from Clash of Clans despite playing it for almost three years and being one of the top players is due to the fact that I was introduced to Pokemon Go,” Tan said. “So it's possible that I would move on from Pokemon Go if a new game were to entice me to play, but at this point in time, Pokemon Go is going to be here for a while. I'm not sure how long, but it's going to be really long.”
"They've found their groove, their rhythm. They know how to space out updates, how to keep people interested and having fun.”
Martyn feels the constant community updates will be enough to keep Pokemon Go thriving. “With Clash of Clans, I stuck with it for so long because it was just so fun to play. It was addictive. But it fell off because they stopped updating the game and they stopped listening to the community. Pokemon Go is the opposite. It started in a good spot, but they weren't really listening and they weren't updating so much. Then they started ramping it up.”
“I always knew that Pokemon Go as a game had incredible potential. Niantic has finally found a good balance of fueling the community,” he added. “When they approached us with their Community Day idea, we fell in love with it initially. We were like, ‘this is fantastic. Please do this.’ And they did, and it works incredibly. They've found their groove, their rhythm. They know how to space out updates, how to keep people interested and having fun.”
“It is really hard in the app space to stay on top of the game, just in general, because there's so much competition out there. Everybody wants to become the new Supercell game,” Lapian added. “But Pokemon is an IP that I consider timeless. Everybody is invested in it. We already know, and this is a big factor as well, there's going to be seven generations, with an eighth one in the making. That’s already [years] of content alone. If Niantic can do this in two years’ time, imagine what will happen five years from now.”
I'm going to be playing this game every single day, because no matter where I go, no matter who I meet, no matter who I'm hanging out with, every single day the game is different.
“I don't know about staying on top, but I can tell you as soon as Pokemon Go came out, I was like ‘okay, this is the game I'm going to play for the rest of my life,’” Patterson said. “I don't care if it remains the top game in the App Store. I'm going to be playing this game every single day, because no matter where I go, no matter who I meet, no matter who I'm hanging out with, every single day the game is different. It's always going to change. Every single day. There's always new Pokemon to catch, there's always special events. There's just no reason to get bored with it.”
As Niantic continues to work in lock step with The Pokemon Company, Go has more staying power than most other games in the mobile space thanks simply to the strength of the franchise overall.
“As far as what brings players in, I think just the fact that it's Pokemon,” Oyzon said “I've been playing Pokemon for 20 years. Every single core series player wanted to go on a real life Pokemon adventure at some point in their life, and Pokemon Go made it possible. So everyone was into it for the potential. Some people dropped off, but the potential is still there. I've turned it into a real-life adventure. I've been all over the world with it.”
“The good news is you're going to see more from us in terms of new features, new content, as well as all the smaller things in between,” Quigley concluded. “The live ops, and the monthly events like Community Days.
“Hopefully the fans will stay happy. If they don't, they'll let us know, and then we'll listen and we'll adjust if we need to.”
Andrew is IGN’s executive editor of news and currently has a complete Pokedex. You can find him rambling about Persona and cute animals on Twitter.