Lessons Learned from the Pokemon Go Launch

July 25, 2016

While everyone else is talking about the tremendous success of Pokemon Go, I would like to examine the mistakes that limited what could have been a much more successful launch. Whereas Hollywood has mastered the art of the Feature Film debut, the app industry and Fortune 500 companies have a lot to learn about achieving maximum reach and revenue in the first month following release. There is no question that Pokemon Go is a huge success. I really enjoy playing the game when the servers aren’t down. This article focuses specifically on how the launch was managed. Let's take a journey to explore not the game but the launch of Pokemon GO. We will discuss four key lessons that may help you maximize initial ROI on your company’s next major app launch. For anyone new to the game, we’ve added a short tutorial at the conclusion to get you started.

Let us start with a little backstory. In 1848, Captain Henry Cleveland sailed a whaling vessel named The Niantic from Rhode Island around the tip of Cape Horn in route to a whaling expedition in the Pacific. This is important because the app development company behind Pokemon Go is named after this ship. Stopping in Peru in early 1849, Captain Cleveland encountered thousands of people hoping to find transportation to San Francisco for the Gold Rush who were willing to pay great sums to get there. Cleveland immediately modified his whaling ship to carry 246 passengers. The Niantic wasn’t built for this. Then Cleveland sailed The Niantic far out into the Pacific in the wrong direction (southwest) on purpose for nearly 30 days at great risk to the ship and human life in hopes of catching the powerful tradewinds that would get them to San Francisco first.

The reckless gamble paid off and The Niantic arrived in San Francisco harbour on July 5th, 1849 ahead of many other ships who had taken a more direct route. It doesn’t take a Hollywood writer to figure out why Niantic so desperately wanted to launch Pokemon Go on July 5th even though the app and the infrastructure weren’t fully ready. Perhaps the symbolism was too hard for the founders to resist or maybe the investors were just in a hurry to “get there first”. What it seems they may not have fully realized was that great brands like Pokemon don’t have to be first, they just have to do it right.

Pokemon Go should have been engineered from the beginning to anticipate the guaranteed global demand for all things Pokemon. Instead, the powers that be at Niantic must have thought it would be a good idea, and would save time, to try to repurpose something that was built for a different audience. Niantic was started as an internal division of Google and run by John Hanke, the former VP of Google Maps and Google Earth. Niantic’s first attempt at augmented reality was a relatively financially unsuccessful game called Ingress. This game was launched nearly three years ago, but it has only retained about 500,000 monthly active users on 10 million all-time app downloads after a massive investment of $32MM. Rather than engineering Pokemon Go from scratch with modern architecture for mass adoption that should have been anticipated to greatly surpass the volume of the Ingress game, Niantic apparently decided to retrofit the Ingress source code and infrastructure for expediency. Then, like Captain Cleveland, Niantic took great risks by sailing in a questionable direction just so they could “get there first”. The risk appears to have paid off, but only time can tell for sure what long-term damage was done.

Yes. They got there first, and yes, it was and still is a viral, worldwide phenomenon. But was it worth it long term? This wasn’t a scrappy little startup hoping to catch a break nor was July 5th Black Friday. This was one of the world’s most valuable gaming franchises, (The Pokemon Company is partially owned by Nintendo) and one of the world’s most valuable tech companies (Google). July 5th was only a symbolic deadline . No one was on their heels in this space, at least not if you believe that it was the Pokemon brand that made all the difference. Both Nintendo and Google’s market caps initially increased over $20 Billion within the first 10 days post launch and the app is the #1 grossing app in the world right now. However,  just 20 days after its initial release, Nintendo is seeing the largest drop in stock value since the 1990s after it was discovered that Apple and Google stand to make more on the game’s success than Nintendo. Both companies get 30% of revenues from their respective App Stores and Google still owns at least 30% of Niantic. That means Google stands to earn 51% of all revenue generated from sales on the Google Play Store plus 21% of all revenues generated from sales on Apple’s App Store.

Google, Niantic and The Pokemon Company certainly deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished in terms of breaking App Store download records. However, fortuitous timing and the viral explosion of the game on social media played a major role. Also, Pokemon is one of the world's most popular gaming brands. This game was going to get a lot of press and social media attention now or later. What I am here to talk about today is how Pokemon Go could have achieved much greater success by paying closer attention to the fundamentals before launch.

Lesson 1.) “Tap” into user testing data

On mobile devices, an unnecessary tap usually represents lost opportunity. Our usability experts counted 83 screen taps and nearly 3 total minutes of loading time required before users can start playing Pokemon Go. Requiring users to tap through a lot of screens before they can start playing is fine on a gaming console with an audience who has come to expect to wait during initial loads. However, this approach is a terrible user experience on smartphones where the next phone call, text, email or push notification is always only seconds away. My first observation is that Pokemon Go could have increased revenues and active users by an estimated 10-20% by getting to the point more quickly. They could have simplified the initial sign-up and onboarding process by letting users start playing and then educating them along the way. At the very least, the backstory text could have been delivered during the loading wait periods.

It’s impossible to overstate the value of end user testing when it comes to mobile app development. In almost every respect, the initial onboarding experience of Pokemon Go appears to be designed by and for console gamers. This is fine when dealing with early adopters in the gaming and virtual/augmented reality app spaces. However, working with a worldwide phenomenon brand like Pokemon requires testing a larger sample of users, including late adopters who aren’t accustomed to console gaming apps. These users are much less likely to make it through the 83 taps required to start playing Pokemon Go. Once you make it through all those taps and waiting, there isn’t even a tutorial that explains how to catch the Pokemon or the fundamentals of the game. Most fans learned how to play Pokemon Go by watching the YouTube videos that popped up on launch day. It’s difficult to estimate the lost revenues and momentum Niantic, The Pokemon Company/Nintendo and Google have already incurred. Failing to design the initial launch experience and onboarding with a broad audience base in mind has undoubtedly been costly. This is an important lesson: never overestimate the value of broad-reach usability testing.

Lesson 2.) Provide value before asking for information

My second observation relates to permission. The rule of thumb in mobile apps is to first engage with the user, gain their trust and then gauge user intent before you ask permission. Pokemon Go breaks the rules in this regard and has probably lost millions of potential active players because of it. In fact, on initial launch, Niantic’s logo is on the screen alone for nearly 20 seconds before confronting users with the dreaded “Sign-Up” screen. No attempt is made by the publishers during this waiting period to motivate or encourage users to hand over their contact information. The ultimatum delivered on launch is… “Give us your email address or authorize access to your Google account or you can’t play.” This oversight represents another estimated 10% in valuable lost revenue due to driving away new users who value their privacy.

The Google Play Store recently came out with an update that allows users to search for and access features of an app as a preview before they decide to download it in its entirety. This points to a significant trend in the app space - users want to know if an app will be of interest to them before they provide access to personal information or even before they decide to download. Pokemon Go’s creators didn’t even upload a video into their App Store description to improve install rates as Apple strongly recommends. While apps like Pokemon Go might be somewhat of an exception to this rule, it’s vital for most apps being launched in today’s market to facilitate “instant gratification” for users. Ignoring this trend may only mean a minimal opportunity cost of 10% in revenues for Pokemon Go, but it may mean the success or failure of apps that aren’t legendary blockbuster hits. The biggest problem for Niantic is that they will never get a second chance with many millions of users that were turned away.

Lesson 3.) Prepare for the best case scenario

My third observation is that Pokemon Go was not appropriately engineered to account for its foreseeable scalability issues. Perhaps there was a failure on the part of the marketing team to understand the popularity of the Pokemon brand and anticipate the app's widespread adoption. More likely, as mentioned earlier, a decision was made to launch the app before it was ready for mass adoption. It’s important to engineer mobile apps with the best-case scenario in mind, even if that is only so your servers can handle a lucky article on TechCrunch or CNN. Pokemon Go achieved almost instantaneous widespread adoption, but wasn’t engineered to support it even though John Hanke used to run Google Maps with 1 billion users. User registration servers were often overloaded and the game was largely inaccessible worldwide on peak days. Throughout the first 20 days, new user registration was often down for hours. On many occasions, the servers were down or the app would completely freeze. Worst of all, on several occasions we found The Pokemon Items Store to be inaccessible for a few minutes or longer when trying to buy items. A few simple tweaks to enable the game to be playable offline or keep users attention during outages would have served as sufficient insurance for potential mass adoption. For example, Pokemon locations, local area map data and Poke Stops could have been cached locally and updated in the background. User progress could have been cached during server outages and synced once servers were available. And finally, GPS could have been designed to work with locally cached map data even in airplane mode with no connection to the server. Several offline map apps work this way. Had they taken this approach, the app would have retained a greater number of users and overcome much of the negative press these issues have afforded it.

Short of an app completely failing to gain momentum, there are few things as discouraging as launching an app that achieves legendary adoption rates only to find it crashing your servers and bleeding users (and revenues) by the minute. While it is rarely necessary to release apps that are thoroughly flawless upon their initial debut, being unprepared for mass adoption is a huge mistake, especially considering that mass adoption is the primary goal of nearly every major brand app release. In the case of Pokemon Go, the app was bound to be covered at length by thousands of news publications worldwide. This is Pokemon, Google and augmented reality we are talking about, after all! When preparing for your next app launch, work closely with your marketing and PR teams to estimate the consumer response, and always be prepared for the best case scenario.

Lesson 4.) Watch your data and power consumption

Pokemon Go’s astronomical demands on data and battery life have caused issues for both users and mobile service providers - one hour of app play could mean up to 8MBs or more of data usage (yikes!) and 50% of your battery life. Not only does this mean sky-high cellphone bills, especially for parents of young children playing this game unsupervised, but it also discourages profitable play for users that need their phones for other things. Users are faced with a trade-off that benefits neither the app’s developers or its end users. Users are forced to either limit game playing time, or continue to play the game until their battery runs out or their data fees skyrocket. These issues inhibit app adoption, as users quickly discover these problems and opt to delete the application shortly after downloading.

There are several ways to optimize even the most complex apps to minimize data usage. First, never send information from the server to the mobile device that is already known or that could be calculated or determined on the device. Second, use a minimalist approach to condensing the data that must be sent by storing lookup tables on the device. Developing apps for today’s consumers means keeping these constraints in mind, or losing active users that you may never get a second chance with again.

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While there are many lessons to be learned from the lost opportunities of the Pokemon Go launch, it will be fascinating to see how the game evolves as they continue to optimize the app and the backend services. Unfortunately, when it comes to mobile apps, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Millions of casual users will never come back. The long loading times, up-front sign-up, privacy concerns, safety concerns, lack of instructions, battery drain, cellular data costs, crashes and server down issues that have plagued the app’s initial release have left a lasting impression on what could have been a greatly expanded worldwide fan-base for the Pokemon franchise. Niantic, Google and The Pokemon Company have an unprecedented opportunity to expand the market for augmented reality games but now the work will be much harder to expand the audience. The good news is that thousands of companies are learning from the mistakes of the Pokemon Go worldwide release. The next iterations of mobile AR applications will be that much better. In future posts, we’ll explore the possible applications of the virtual/augmented technology found in apps like Pokemon Go for industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, visualization and retail.

While we hope we’ve shed some light on the ways you can learn from the lessons of Niantic with the Pokemon Go launch, the app itself is actually really fun to play when the servers are responding quickly. Although we suspect your next app won’t involve Pokemon, there is evidence to show that experimenting with unconventional ideas increases the likelihood of coming up with original solutions to conventional problems. For your reference, we’ve included a tutorial to get you started experimenting with Pokemon Go. Who knows, you might just come up with a revolutionary idea for your next app. Happy catching!

How to start playing Pokemon Go in seven easy steps.

Pokemon Go is essentially a treasure hunt where you collect Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) and then work to evolve them for battle at the Gym when they are ready.

  1. Choose your starter Pokemon (Charmander, Squirtle or Bulbasaur)
  2. When Pokemon appear, aim and swipe up on the Poke Ball to throw it and hit the Pokemon on the top of its head. (You get 50 Poke Balls to start, so use them sparingly)
  3. Each time you catch a Pokemon, it will be stored in your bag and you will be awarded Experience Points that will help you move up to higher levels in the game. Tap the Red and White button at the bottom to see what you’ve captured.
  4. When you capture the same Pokemon again, tap on the one with lower CP (power), scroll to the bottom and “Transfer” to trade the Pokemon for items that you can use to improve the one with higher CP power.
  5. You will need to get out and walk, bike or have someone drive you around to nearby Poke Stops where you can collect important items like more Poke Balls, Potions, Incense and Eggs. Parks and green spaces are a great place to find more Pokemon.
  6. You’ll have to keep collecting Pokemon in order to gain Experience Points and move up to higher levels. Once you reach Level 5, you’ll be able to take your Pokemon to the Gyms in your area to fight against other Pokemon. However, don’t get too excited about being able to go to the gym. You really need to collect a lot of Pokemon before you’ll find one with enough potential power and then spend time increasing their power before you would ever be able to win a battle at a gym.
  7. Sometimes the best Pokemon will be found in the eggs you collect at Poke Stops. On the screen that shows your Pokemon, tap the tab for eggs and put one of your eggs in the incubator. You incubate Pokemon eggs by physically walking 2km, 5km, or 10km.

For a complimentary consultation for your next mobile app, email services@ProductiveEdge.com, or give us a call at 312-561-9000

References:

PR Disaster in Google Account Authorization - The Wall Street Journal

US Senate Asks Niantic About Privacy Mistakes - Ars Technica

Pokemon Servers Down Day After Launch - ComicBook

Battery Usage Problems and Bugs - Forbes

Pokemon Go and the Pokemon Go logo are trademarks of The Pokemon Company and Nintendo, Inc, registered in the U.S. and other countries.

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