With over 100 million total worldwide downloads from the Apple App Store and the Google Play store, you can’t deny Pokémon GO’s popularity. Just go out into the city streets of Malaysia to see the almost zombie-like horde players staring at their phone screens and wandering around.
Among the frenzy and the hype and excitement, I’ve decided to take a step back and examine the craze that is Pokémon GO, and exactly what is behind its massive appeal and popularity worldwide.
1. Never underestimate nostalgia
I grew up playing Pokémon. From the start, the game was such addictive fun and I spent many happy hours with my brick of a Gameboy.
I’ve been fairly vocal about how sick I am of my feed and life being overwhelmed by the Pokémon GO madness. But the day I went round and round Damansara Uptown and found a Growlithe, one of my favourite original 150 Pokémon, that thrill of seeing it on my phone really brought me back to the time I was playing that original game and arguing with friends why Growlithe was obviously superior to Vulpix.
The power of nostalgia is its own article, and has already been written about, but as a quick summary, it touches our emotional cores and brings us back to some of the happiest times of our lives with the original games, or cards or TV shows, or whatever the first exposure to Pokémon was.
2. The usual free-to-play addiction tips and tricks
Free-to-play (F2P) games are a major part of the app stores. They operate on the model that they are free to download and play, but of course, since the developers need money, they get their income from ads, extra paid game expansions or through the purchase of various in-game currencies and items by players.
It’s the latter model that Pokémon GO and many other F2P games use, and of course, developers want to make it as attractive as possible for you to spend. This is where they make the game as addictive as possible, first by starting out easy, but upping the difficulty as time goes on.
There are lots of other tricks they use, which is summed up nicely in an infographic here.
I will allow Pokémon GO that for a F2P game, it does offer quite a decent user experience without giving the feeling as if I cannot progress or grow unless I spend money on it. This is definitely part of their success, as a casual gamer can pick it up, have some fun, then put it back down without getting the urge to spend.
Of course, this might change as the paying players zoom ahead of the crowd and you find yourself being left far behind. Having only a CP200 Pokémon in a world where everyone else is over CP2000 can’t feel very good.
3. The heady connection to others
There’s all sorts of heartwarming stories on the interwebs about people with disabilities or just a lack of social interaction making friends and connecting with others because of the game. There are groups being formed, and just wandering around the street, you’re able to start conversations, joke with others and share the pain of your Pokéball missing that rare Snorlax.
I’ve experienced it myself.
Late one night, I was walking down the road in my neighbourhood with my dad, heading towards the nearest Pokéstop. My dad was learning how to play the game, so we both had our phones out as we walked. We passed by quite a few others, and they smiled, waved, said “Good night” and flashed thumbs-ups at us.
I don’t live in a particularly genial or friendly neighbourhood, and all these people were strangers, but we now had one powerful point of connection. Striking up conversations with people we’ll normally never talk to aside, this games brings us all to a sense of instant community.
Just watch the reactions as this guy catches a Dragonite in his office, and how people on the street react to him too.
No other video game has been able to bring so many people out on the street playing simultaneously together like this, ever.
4. The insidious marketing
Sing along with me guys: I wanna be the very best…
Let’s move along to the chorus. 1, 2, 3 … “POKÉMON! GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL YOU SEE! I know it’s my destiny…”
If you found yourself singing along out loud (no shame there), or at least hearing the song in your head, congratulations. You’ve been caught up in the expert marketing that has probably been going on for a large percentage of your life.
Anyone with even minimum exposure to Pokémon would know that catchphrase, “Gotta catch ‘em all”, and that’s what has been drilled into us.
I’m not insinuating that we’ve been subtly pre-programmed to want to catch them all over the years, but we know that repeating a message is part of effective marketing. It is agreed that one way to successfully get messages through is pure repetition. You might think repeating yourself over and over again is bad and annoying, but it works wonders.
If you’re below the age of twenty, you’ve probably heard this song all your life. That’s a pretty powerful message to have been drummed into you since infancy.
And that’s why, you can’t help but unconsciously want to be the best and catch them all.
5. The breadcrumb trails of rewards
There’s always this little urge when you’re playing and swiping at the Pokéstops. You look at the little map on screen and think, “Hey, there’s another Pokéstop just down this road. Maybe I can hit one more…”
If you’ve found yourself in that situation, you know what it is to be hooked into playing just a little bit longer, to walk just a little bit further to get just that little bit extra, to catch just one more Pokémon.
These small but very constant rewards keep us hooked and playing, and is probably another reason why Pokémon GO app usage is surpassing all other apps on smartphones, according to these statistics.
6. Playing up our hoarding instincts
We as a species like to collect things. A quick Google search brought me about 64.4million results for the question, “Do humans like collecting things?”.
According to Russell Belk, professor of marketing at York University in Toronto, our urge to collect Pokémon isn’t really driven by the need to complete the collection, which many of us would think is impossible. Russell, who has been researching hoarding and collecting behaviour said, “You’re not striving for that closure as much as striving for bigger and better collections.”
It’s a bonus that having the strongest or rarest Pokémon in the office gives you major bragging rights at the moment.
7. The collective advantage
It’s not just the players who are having all the fun and the developers who are gleefully rubbing their hands and swimming in the mountains of cash that the game has brought them.
Local businesses all over the world have seen greater traffic into certain areas, and many who are not blessed with Pokéstops or Gyms nearby are still trying to use the game’s popularity to their own advantage, and rightly so.
Since business is booming, it is in everyone’s best interests to keep the hype up and keep the interest going.
It doesn’t hurt that Pokémon GO is also now known to bring health and social benefits to the users. How many mobile games can promise the same?
8. Cross-generational appeal
Go out on a morning stroll around your neighbourhood or to a park and observe the morning joggers.
I’ve seen aunties and uncles go around, their eyes on their phone, excitedly discussion all the Pokémon they’ve caught.
My dad’s friend, a venerable grey haired gentleman excitedly said, “I caught so many of them I ran out of the Poké Balls!”
It’s not just kids, teens or young adults caught up in the game. Basically, anyone with a smartphone and a data connection can get to it, and it’s easy enough and fun enough that a lot of people who normally won’t even touch mobile games are trying it out.
9. The game keeps evolving (like the Pokémon themselves)
This is going beyond the Pokémon GO mobile app and moving right back to the beginning. We started with the classic Nintendo Gameboy game, in black and white, with only a 150-ish Pokémon.
Now, Pokémon have ventured to so many mediums, from television, to card games, to other consoles, merchandise, partnered marketing, and now, a hit worldwide app.
Honestly, as someone who has loved Pokémon from the start, this is why I still will follow it and play whatever games I can get my hands on.
Sure, having over 700 Pokémon is becoming a bit ridiculous, but with all the changes, most of the media still stays true to its original motto of “Gotta catch ’em all”. I can still believe in that.
Feature Image Credit: Getty Images