Do you remember ‘Draw Something’? It was HUUUGE. It was everywhere, and everyone was playing it. Developed by OMGPop it launched in February 2012 and was downloaded 20 million times in its first five weeks. Just over a month later, the app and its developer were bought out by ‘Farmville’ creators Zynga for $180million. The sale coincided with the peak of the game’s popularity which plummeted shortly afterwards and now it’s a forgotten fad, a footnote in mobile gaming. It’s so past its prime, Sony are probably readying an animated movie based on it right now.
A similar fate might just be awaiting Niantic’s Pokémon Go after a series of self-inflicted gaffs alienating both hardcore gamers and casual users alike. Almost coinciding with the launch in the UK, the Pokémon Go app’s tracking feature broke (the three footprints error), making it nigh on impossible to hunt specific Pokémon nearby because they would all appear equal distances away. With no fix in sight – as the app developers focussed on server stability and an enormous multinational roll out – others stepped in to fill the gap. Some of these relied on user input (and were therefore as reliable as other crowdsourced databases) but some found a way to use Pokémon Go’s APIs and provide real time information on location and types down to the metre.
It wasn’t used by every player but it was used by many and the information eagerly shared with strangers and friends alike as the game’s most welcome and unexpectedly transformative benefit brought everyone out onto the streets of towns and cities.
Rather than fix the three footprints issue, Niantic publicly grumbled about some of the services, such as Pokevision.com and then actively worked to get them to cease their activities. Simultaneously, they removed the tracking function from the game altogether. And here’s the catch. Niantic might think these real time tracking apps were ‘cheating’ but as a casual player and – more importantly – the parent of some eager players, it was invaluable.
I was recently on a business trip in a city I’ve never visited before and as well as staying in a hotel which was right on top of a Pokéstop, was in a great area for going out to catch ‘em all. Rather than any fear or unease at wandering round a strange city at dusk, I must have encountered about a hundred other people in groups, pairs or individually like me, phones held out in front of them like Ray Stanz’ PKE metre, all playing the game. Everyone was friendly, everyone eager to share information on where they’d found this Pokémon or that Pokémon. It was almost magical, the power of this simple little free game to bring people out and together. It’s by far and away the best thing Pokémon Go has achieved.
It’s also been something that we’ve done as a family but my ten year old and three year old can’t spend hours and hours wandering around anywhere and everywhere in the hope of catching Pokémon. And neither can I, I don’t have the time. But, if I know there’s a place we can go together for an hour or so and catch a decent amount of interesting Pokémon then great. And I’ll probably shell out for some coins so we can stock up on lures, incense and spare Pokéballs for good measure. Take that predictability away and suddenly hunting expeditions risk becoming disappointments and disappointment quickly becomes disinterest and the game is forgotten – and I’m certainly not going to spend real money on it. That’s the risk Niantic are facing at the moment. It doesn’t help that they’ve also tinkered with the mechanics of the game making the Pokémon far harder to catch and, like their active user population, much more skittish and likely to run away. That’s the way to get kids into your game – make it much, much more difficult. Bravo.
The warning signs are already there. The number of active users peaked on the 14th July and has been declining steadily ever since. Recent patches will probably only accelerate that. They may not care about users much while they’re riding the crest of all this free publicity and the good Summer weather (in the Northern hemisphere at least) but they’ll have to do something more impressive than dropping some Legendaries into the game or just releasing a second or third generation of Pokémon to stop themselves becoming the biggest, quickest fad of 2016.
I don’t want Pokémon Go to stop, but it can’t carry on like this.