What Can Pokemon Go Teach Us About AR Gaming?

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When Pokemon Go – an augmented reality game based on a hugely popular Nintendo franchise – entered the mobile gaming market in 2016, it exploded with the kind of success every developer and marketer dreams of but almost never sees. The game hit the top of every app store within a day, and set five Guinness World Records for mobile games in its first month: most downloads, most international charts topped simultaneously in terms of both revenue and downloads, fastest time to gross $100 million, and most revenue grossed in its first month. Pokemon Go made over $200 million in its first month alone, and hit $1 billion in its first 200 days. It shone a spotlight on the possibilities of AR gaming.

Breaking records

The game’s success brought it much more attention than a mobile game would normally hope to receive, thanks to the combination of its explosive success and the fact that its gameplay was tied to real-world locations and times. In those first months in particular, crowds would gather at certain places looking for rare Pokemon, and people made the news more than once for trespassing in places they shouldn’t or not watching what they were doing while in pursuit of digital creatures. Even months later, when the initial fervor died down and the game’s number of daily users fell from 28 million to 5 million, players could still be seen gathering in groups playing together, and the game continued to prosper. Its best month was reportedly 2 years later, hitting 147 million monthly active users in May 2018, and the game hit 1 billion downloads in September that year.

Even now in 2020, while the excitement has run its course, many players have left the game, and it’s no longer newsworthy enough to catch and hold the attention of people outside of the mobile gaming sphere, Pokemon Go still performs incredibly well. 2019 was reportedly the game’s best year, generating close to $890 million in player spending and over 55 million installs. Its best months may have been in 2016, but the game has been going strong for more than 3 years now, and it remains one of the top 5 mobile games in the world.

AR gaming after Pokemon Go

So what does this mean for AR gaming in general? Is Pokemon Go a sign that the world is ready for more AR games? Did Pokemon Go create demand for AR games in the first place? Or is it a game that just happened to hit the right combination of brand appeal and interesting gameplay, and AR is just a secondary feature?

It’s worth noting that Pokemon Go can be played almost entirely without AR. Visiting real-world locations is a core component of the game, but users don’t need to look at the world through their mobile cameras in order to find and capture Pokemon. If they choose to, they can turn on AR mode and see these creatures in the real world, and a recent addition to the game allows players to have a Pokemon buddy walking beside them, but a majority of users often ignore these features and play the game without them. One may argue that having gameplay tied to physical places is still an aspect of augmented reality, but it’s a secondary aspect at best.

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With all that said, Pokemon Go still drew attention to AR gaming in a big way. A key component of the marketing, and indeed of the excitement around the game, was seeing beloved game characters in real-world contexts. AR is still a novel feature, and Pokemon Go introduced it to a lot of people who otherwise would likely not have used it or given it much thought, even if those people didn’t end up playing with AR very often. It created interest in AR, inspired more developers to incorporate it into their own games, and encouraged publishers to put more games with it into the market.

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Do consumers want more AR games?

Of course, the next question is whether any of those subsequent games were a success. None of them have managed to match Pokemon Go, and because of this, some people are declaring the genre a failure. While it’s true that the game is likely an outlier with the strength of the Pokemon brand contributing to its success, that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no future for AR gaming. The fact that Pokemon Go had such unusual success means that it shouldn’t be the standard that other games are measured against. But can other AR games succeed without the Pokemon brand behind them?

There have been several other big AR games since the release of Pokemon Go, including one from the same studio based on the Harry Potter franchise: Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Jurrasic World, The Walking Dead, and Minecraft have all entered the AR gaming market as well. Pokemon Go still accounts for 90% of the genre’s revenue, but several of these games are still making millions of dollars. That hardly sounds like a failure, even if it pales in comparison to Pokemon. People are still playing these games, and some percentage of those people likely never would have if they hadn’t encountered Pokemon Go first. Being able to merge mobile gaming with the real world clearly appeals to a lot of people.

In general, consumers want to see more from AR gaming. According to a report by Ericsson, 2 in 3 people are interested in AR gaming, including 1 in 3 non-gamers. They want to see advances in technology and innovation in game design, such as better batteries and affordable AR glasses that will allow for a more immersive gaming experience. The adoption of 5G wireless technology should also help with this, as it will allow for much faster load times on mobile devices, offering reduced latency and increased bandwidth. Because AR relies on real-time input, this could make substantial improvements to the experience.

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All in all, if Pokemon Go is your standard for success then the AR gaming market has a long way to go, as no other current offerings have come anywhere close to competing with it. But the game has fostered interest in AR among developers and consumers alike, and with technological advances on the horizon, AR definitely has a future in mobile gaming.

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