A year ago a little-known ex-Google offshoot called Niantic Labs partnered with Nintendo to launch Pokemon Go, a game that would top App stores around the world, gain more daily users than Twitter, make Nintendo, who had not produced a console in years, more valuable than Sony, and see hundreds of adults walking the streets until late at night, cursing their luck as they picked up yet another Pidgey or Rattata.
It was not Niantic’s first foray in the world of augmented reality game design, with Ingress, a long running virtual capture the flag game, informing and ultimately laying the groundwork for Pokemon Go. A year on, Pokemon Go remains its most successful and only major hit, but as a game that promised to get us all up and out of our homes and into stores, it has had mixed success.
Niantic had an ambitious plan that not only made use of the traditional monetisation of in-app purchases, but that also saw the opportunity to drive traffic into stores with sponsored “Pokestops”, encouraging people to visit and spend time in areas marked on Pokemon Go’s digital map, collecting things of virtual worth, whilst (hopefully) parting with something of actual worth.
With almost no marketing behind it, Pokemon Go took the world by storm, but after a very short while things started to look sour for it. Nintendo’s stock, whilst originally skyrocketing, took a dive as investors struggled to come to terms with a game that was not just for the Nintendo platform and was also given away for free. After the initial burst of nostalgia and the thrill of late night Pokemon hunting, players started to leave the game in droves, some having completed the goal of “catch ‘em all” in as little as two weeks, whilst others were discouraged by the media panic and high profile cases of muggings, traffic accidents and robberies related to the game.
From the game’s launch, Niantic struggled with their own success and suffered crippling technical issues and server outages. Unable to cope with their massive audience, they seemed unable to keep up and when more and more users came on-board it looked as if no new content would be coming.
With a shrinking user base and struggling technology, it was seemingly impossible for Niantic to deliver on their plans, but according to Forbes, where they turned a corner was when they finally acknowledged the issues many users had been complaining about and started to engage with fans about how and why they were altering things and how they were fixing the bugs.
Despite the stumbling start, Niantic hit their stride and have now become the defacto example for augmented reality, either as a game or as a marketing tool. At a keynote at the Mobile World Congress in 2017, the CEO of Niantic John Hanke said there are now 35,000 sponsored locations live. These locations include Starbucks, Sprint and McDonalds, and according to him there have been more than 500 million visits to stores because of it. It is a number that needs some scrutiny as the ratio of locations to visits is 1:14300, but even considered as passing trade, or the more digital equivalent of impressions, that is an impressive number.