Under the hood of what makes Pokemon Go

What started out as an idea of an April Fool’s Day joke is now the most popular mobile app around the world. Needless to say, Pokemon Go has captivated the hearts and phones of many a-mobile phone users, many of which might not have necessarily been fans of the franchise but are familiar enough with it to recognize it.

But for people new to gaming and to the franchise, the question remains, “What makes Pokemon Go… go?”

From a gamer’s perspective, the massive initial success of Pokemon Go can be attributed to a lot of smart game design and well thought out choices but most importantly, recognizing very early on in its development just what kind of game it is and aims to be.

The Elements

GPS play

Despite what memes about business successes say, Pokemon Go is by no means the result of the genius of one company or one group of people.

Niantic Inc. invested on GPS based gameplay mechanics with its earlier app Ingress which is a GPS based turf war game.

While Ingress introduced the world to real time GPS gameplay, it did not come close to the success of Pokemon Go. But as a game on its own, it was intuitive, it functioned well and was well received by players.

The problem was that while the mechanics worked well, the skin it was wearing was not appealing enough to many. An alien invasion isn’t the most relate-able framing device, afterall.

GPS gameplay meant a new way of playing which means an oddity even for just a few days which alone is enough to make people curious for a few days.

Pokemon Skin

Everyone likes Pokemon.

Even if they don’t show it, deep down inside they like it. Even when they claim they don’t like it, there’s still a deep corner of their humanity that likes it.

In a survey done among gamers years ago, Pokemon was by far the most played and most recognized video game franchise among Filipinos.

Couple this with the long running desire of its large fan base to live out the dream of catching, raising and battling with Pokemon and you have a sure fire framing device that people not only recognize but need little to no orientation in order to appreciate.

Heck, the tutorial drops you off where most Pokemon games start, picking your starting Pokemon and teaching you how to catch Pokemon.

“Pick one”

“Here’s how to catch it”

“That’s a PokeStop”

“That’s a Gym”

“Don’t get killed while playing”

Aaaand you’re off.

With the Pokemon skin comes pre-made goals that have been brewing inside its fans long before the April Fool’s joke that started the concept. Because of it Niantic and GameFreak were spared the task of designing long term goals for the game, all they had to do was create the short term goals that facilitated the achievement of the long term ones.

Pokestops and Pokemon gyms were a great design choice to promote the core mechanic of GPS based gameplay and also to frame social goals.

In a nutshell, Niantic made it so that the game’s core mechanic determines the success of any player in the game, “the more you moved around, the more we reward you.”

Randomization and the Skinner box

One big difference between Niantic’s Ingress and Pokemon Go is its use of Skinnerbox mechanics to practically hook its players and never let them go.

Skinner box mechanics are those that use and abuse the natural response of people when given rewarding stimulus for performing certain tasks. It conditions the mind to feel happy when performing specific tasks in anticipation of the reward it might give out.

These are most evident in casinos where slot machines are abundant. These machines are programmed to payout every now and then and to pay out various amounts. There is no amount of skill involved and everything is a matter of luck. Yet people flock to these machines because of the “good” feeling they get with each pull of the lever and roll of the slots. Even if they win P100 for every P1000 they spend, it would have been all worth it to them for the sudden rush of happiness that flows through them when the winning combination finally comes.

The same concepts are used in games like Candy Crush where luck plays a big role in “winning” and the developers’ goal is to keep people playing for longer periods of time.

We see it implemented in how Pokestops are programmed. For each turn of the Pokestop, random items in random quantities are given to us as rewards. Sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less. This reinforces the player to continue looking for more of these Pokestops in the hopes of getting that rare item like an incense, lure module or advanced Pokeball.

The same happens with Lure Modules and Incense activation. These items promise more Pokemon sightings at certain intervals. Incense works by generating a Pokemon every 5 minutes and for every 200 meters travelled while (based on experience) Lure Modules spawn a Pokemon every 5 minutes you are within its radius. But the frequency and kinds of Pokemon are quite unpredictable. Sometimes two Pokemon spawn one after another, other times it takes forever for any Pokemon to spawn and you’d be happy just to see a Rattata.

The randomness in how often and what kind of Pokemon are coaxed out of these items gives players a sense of “rolling the dice”. Both Incense and Lure Modules come in limited quantities, the most efficient was to get them being through spending real money in the Store. Therefore each time a player uses one, he’s making a significant investment at the chances of Pokemon spawning. Every time Incense is used, players feel a rush as they are suddenly excited to try and coax as many Pokemon as they can out, trying to travel as far a distance as they can as they watch the timer count down the thirty minutes.

Lure Modules use the social aspect of the game to trigger a flood of emotional cues that keep players on the hunt. PokeStops with Lure Modules are clearly visible from a player’s map User Interface even if they are not within the radius. This announces to them that a Lure Module has been activated on this PokeStop, prompting the player to walk to if not at least want to walk to the said PokeStop. But if you think about it, the spawn rate of Lure Modules isn’t so high, but the fact that cherry blossoms are raining down from the PokeStop is enough reason to trigger giddy cheers as groups of trainers flock to the said Stop. Add the fact that unlike Incense, the lifespan of Lure Modules are not displayed as a counter, instead it’s a battery icon that barely tells players anything. This prevents players from being discouraged from chasing the PokeStop with the Lure Module if he knows the time it will remain active is limited.

Then there are the Pokemon themselves. Without the aid of Lures or Incense, Pokemon randomly appear around the map. You can try to find them with the “Sightings” function, but based on other reports, it’s based on a 200 meter radius, which is quite a distance.

Even the gym battle mechanic is an exercise of this principle. The fact that battle statistics are imprecise and that battles happen in real-time rather than turn based makes it more chance based. The higher the CP of the Pokemon you use, the higher the chances it might win in the battle. Chances, meaning it does not at any time guarantee victory just because the CP is higher.

What this does is it motivates people to go about the area hoping to run into the Pokemon because of the imprecise nature of the tracking system. You don’t know when you’re close or far, you just know it’s there, somewhere, which also means your search doesn’t end right away. It’s the randomness and uncertainty that keeps people coming back. Despite how illogical it may seem, people tend to play more often and invest more time in an activity when the rewards are uncertain in frequency, as long as the reward, when achieved is immediate.

Peer group tendencies

One of the core mechanics of the Pokemon franchise is the social interaction. But with limited Pokemon at first and soft and hardware capabilities that would make the traditional ability to trade Pokemon a game breaking feature, Niantic built in mechanics that integrate social interaction with the main goal of the game.

Lure Modules

Do you want to be the best friend of all your Pokemon trainer friends? Drop a Lure Module at a nearby PokeStop where you can all hang out and reap the benefits of randomly spawning Pokemon.

Heck, even the shopping malls have gotten into the craze and embrace the Lure Module party idea, offering to place Lure Modules on PokeStops found inside their establishments non-stop for hours.

This public nature of Lure Modules plays to our natural desire to play as a community. Using one benefits everyone, and who doesn’t want to be the guy responsible for the happiness of many friends and strangers alike, right?

Niantic knows people like to spread the love, with Lure Modules, you can. Great way to exploit our kindness, isn’t it?

Teams

At level 5, trainers are given the second most difficult choice they will have to make (first being the starter Pokemon). They can choose to join Team Instinct (my team btw), Team Valor or Team Mystic.

The only known function of these teams is to facilitate the gym battle feature where members of each team take turns fighting over control of the gym.

But beyond this delineation came an unintended (or maybe they did) consequence as the teams started growing in number. Instead of the 33% split among the three expected, Team Mystic has nearly 40% of the players joining them. This reinforces the natural urge of people to become loyal to a team they identify with. With the membership numbers being so telling, the teams took on characteristics of their own, the Mystics being the juggernaut team while the Valors playing opposition while Instinct carried their own way to domination despite the lack of number.

This is the same psyche that keeps people rooting for certain sports teams and identifying themselves a fans of the teams. Some root for teams based on choice, others because of what they represent, often times the school or nation they represent. In the Philippines, the product or company they represent.

Conclusion

Understanding how elements of a game affect us should help us appreciate the game even more. It also helps focus our goals and not get trapped in pitfalls that other not so responsible game developers put in place for gamers, trying to milk us based on our urges and desires.

As we can see so far, Niantic has developed a system that is both fun and humane. Its core mechanic of moving about is well used and well emphasized throughout its features meaning even the whales of this free to play endeavor will need to get off their butts in order to get ahead.

When the playing field is equalized and effort is the obvious determining factor, games like Pokemon Go shine brightly as an example of a well implemented concept that can keep people playing for years to come. As long as they stay focused on their primary goals, it won’t be difficult to imagine all seven generations of Pokemon spawning at Pokestops.

For the first time a video game has gotten so many people excited for their next road trip instead of their next staycation.

If nothing else, Pokemon Go as a free mobile app has at least made daily commutes more bearable.

 

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