You may have heard about a li'l game called Pokémon Go. It launched in July of this year and was such an instant, massive hit that Nintendo's stock price more than doubled in a few days after its debut—and sank again once the public discovered that, unlike other Pokémon video games, this one was developed by Niantic Labs. At the September 7 Apple event, Niantic's CEO John Hanke announced that the game has been downloaded 500 million times since its debut. They've made over $500 million.
That's all very impressive, and an enviable position for anyone to be in. And yet I maintain that the game is basically over already—Pokémon Go has already lost 79% of its paying players compared to its July 15 peak, and those numbers are going to keep going down. And down. And down. Winter is coming.
It's all in the design; Pokémon Go has no staying power. It's a game that practically begs you to quit.
The Freshness Factor
To understand why, let's look at another mobile game with a pet-collection mechanic: Neko Atsume. In this Japanese game, you play as a homeowner in a neighborhood full of feral cats. You can buy a variety of treats and toys to attract them to visit you. One by one, you can spot them, take their photographs, and learn their names. The object of the game is to collect all the cats in the game, and befriend them enough that they give you a memento.
But once you've collected all of the cats and gathered all the mementos, the game loses a lot of its appeal. Sure, you can continue to feed your digital cats and give them fresh toys to play with. But there's nothing left to anticipate, and the joy of admiring the same few cute animations of cats sleeping, playing, and hiding does eventually fade. Humans enjoy novelty, it turns out. And so we forget to check in on our cats for longer and longer, until somehow we've shifted from being players to not being players anymore.
Neko Atsume has a solution to this problem: introducing new cats to collect! A handful of times since it's hit the American mobile market, the game has updated to include new cats (or, somewhat more often, new toys for the old cats to play with). But it's a very short-term solution. The fresh appeal only lasts as long as it takes for you to collect the new cat or two or three, and once you've done that, well, you've stopped playing again. And you drift away, again. Eventually you won't notice or won't care when new content appears, because you've found other things to occupy that space in your heart and your schedule.
This problem of maintaining freshness is well-known in game circles. This is why the original dominant Facebook game, Farmville, would constantly cycle in and out different styles of decorations, new and exclusive crops, and even change some game mechanics entirely on a regular basis. There was always something new to see or buy or earn. The freshness never completely wore off, and so players stuck around to see what was new.
Today's mobile titan, Candy Crush Saga, also always has new levels to clear—and a constant roster of subtle variations on the core game mechanic. It's all in the interest of maintaining a feeling of freshness. The game never feels completely stale.
Collection is the heart and soul of Pokémon: Gotta catch 'em all. And yet there is a set number of Pokémon to collect in your Pokédex. Several of those 147 species of Pokémon are exceedingly rare or even exclusive to one continent, and hence unachievable to players who don't travel internationally (or at all). Niantic could surely introduce more Pokémon in updates in the future, but they've not suggested that this is something they plan to do.
As a result, the typical player is limited to a small palette of creatures available to catch in the few neighborhoods where they live, play, or work. After perhaps a few weeks, the game has nothing new to show them. Or from another angle, it stubbornly refuses to show anything new. Many thousands—perhaps millions—of players have left because Pokémon Go already feels stale to them.
Competition and Progression
Of course not everyone plays Pokémon solely because they're interested in completing their Pokédex. And not everyone loses interest in a game because they're not catching new Pokémon anymore, either. There are other reasons to play a game! Why, there are new levels to achieve! And there are gym battles where your Pokémon can fight others! Onward and upward.
Or maybe not. Level progression in Pokémon Go is all but illusion. It takes the same number of experience points to go from level 1 to 15 combined as it does to get from level 22 to 23—perhaps a couple of weeks for a casual but consistent player. It takes fifty times that again to get from level 39 to 40.
That means the feeling of growth and progress grinds ever slower, until eventually it feels like no progress occurs at all. Sure, with each new level you get incrementally better wild Pokémon and more powerful Pokéballs to catch them with. But the gains come slower and slower, the next level becomes exponentially more distant, and it turns out that few people actively enjoy games that double as a metaphor for the futility of striving.
That same sense of profound futility carries over into the mechanic for battling your Pokémon at gyms.
There are games for which freshness derives, not from injections of new content, but from exploring all the ways in which a game can play out. The rules of classic board games like chess and go have been unchanged for generations. Still, compare the lasting power of chess to that of tic-tac-toe, a game with only three opening moves and a mere 138 possible end states.
On the surface, Pokémon Go has countless different matchups of types and skills to keep gym battles interesting. And that's what keeps the Pokémon card game feeling fun: different decks and strategies make each matchup feel surprising, or at least not repetitive.
In Pokémon Go, battling your Pokémon at a gym is basically playing the same old minigame again and again, perhaps with slightly different graphics. There's not a substantially different flavor to one matchup versus another, and victory is determined by which Pokémon types you use and how many combat points they have far more than how skillfully you tap your screen. The element of strategy is present, but vastly reduced.
And that's if you have any hope of winning a match at all. If a gym is taken by your own team, you can't get XP unless one of your Pokémon can beat one that's guarding the gym. So if the players on your own team in your area have even a single better Pokémon than you, you have no hope. You get to field six Pokémon to each fight at a gym held by a rival team. But if things go swimmingly, then you win, and you can't do anything else unless and until another player can beat you.
In even the best case, eventually only the highest-CP titans remain, evenly matched at an infinite plateau. Wins and losses are symbolic solely of who has more free time to attack a rival gym. There's a player base interested in this sort of game, to be sure, but it's a very small subset of all players who are, in theory, interested in a mobile Pokémon game.
And many would-be-devoted players don't have regular access to a gym in the first place, so it's a moot point for them. Pokémon Go doesn't care about you if you live in a small town, or not in a town at all.
Stickiness and Story
Finally we come to our final problem. Pokémon is fundamentally a narrative-driven game. Pokémon Go is a fun thing to do for a while, and it can certainly captivate a new player. Well enough that early players were willing to forgive server problems and outright crashes for the chance to keep playing.
But Pokémon Go, unlike prior Pokémon video games, doesn't have a story. The narrative has never been particularly deep; become the best trainer in your region, foil the evil schemes of Team Rocket. But that at least provides some sense of stakes to the action. The player has been armed with goals, a sense of righteousness, sometimes even a mystery to solve.
Players will stick around a long time to get questions answered, and endure even the dullest surface gameplay.
And story doesn't have to be complex or intrusive; it doesn't have to be cut scenes, dialogue, or branching. A brilliant example right now is the new-ish mobile game Kleptocats, in which you are purportedly collecting a bevy of cats who go out and steal . . . things . . . for you. Treasures. Toys. Knives. It's cute, easy, and just a little weird. The novelty of that would seem to wear off rapidly, for all that there are hundreds of items for them to steal for you, and dozens of cats to collect.
But over time, it becomes clear that something else is going on entirely. Why does the cell phone have a text message on it saying "U OK?" Why is there a book titled "Obey Your Cat"? Why is your reflection in the mirror tied up? This small bit of environmental storytelling takes a game with a mechanic so simple that it's arguably a toy and not a game at all, and makes it deeply intriguing.
Pokémon Go has no story at all. That would be fine in a game that had freshness or a sense of constant progression, but it doesn't have those, either.
To be clear, basically every game designer would love to have a "failure" on par with Pokémon Go. Even 21% of its paying customer base (and dropping) is still massively larger than any other mobile game on the market right now—they're making six times more money than the runner-up, former mobile juggernaut Candy Crush Saga. And even if that drops to zero, they'll probably have around a billion dollars to show for it. So come February, perhaps you'll notice the icon on your phone and feel a little guilty that you haven't been walking your eggs to hatch them or defending the gyms in your area.
But don't feel bad. Niantic will still be laughing all the way to the bank.