Why Pokemon Go is Failing: A Design Perspective

Pokemon Go: the mobile game turned worldwide phenomenon. Unless you've lived under a rock, you've either played it, know someone who's played it, or at least heard about it by now. After it's July release, it peaked at 400 million active users, but has steadily been on the decline ever since. At last count, it had lost over one-third of it's user base - a huge drop. That's more than 130 million people who have stopped using the app. The question is though, why is it falling so hard? And can Niantic do anything about it? I'm going to address what I think the game's greatest shortcomings are and simple ways to fix it. None of my ideas are particularly revolutionary, or even unique - something that any developer who gives a damn could implement.

The Good

I'll start positive here. While Pokemon Go is definitely on a downward slope, it is still holding a large active fanbase and continues to make loads of money. It's not "dead", as some people seem to trumpet. The reason it attracted so many people and continues to hold the attention of many stems from several aspects of the game's design:

-Unique Concept: Perhaps the main draw of Pokemon Go is it's incredibly unique premise - travel through the real world on your own Pokemon journey and capture the little creatures to add to your collection. No major mobile game has really integrated exploring the real world with gameplay in such a way, which gives Go a niche in the market that no one has yet to fill. This is especially critical in a mobile landscape consisting 99% of Farmville, Clash of Clans, and Candy Crush clones, with some real-money slot machines and Chinese knockoffs of Western IPs written in Engrish. It fills a niche and gives it a purpose.

-Embracing the Spirit of Pokemon: While I said there is no MAJOR mobile game that has used this concept, there is a smaller one that has: Ingress, a sci-fi game developed by the same company as Go, Niantic. They function the same, but Pokemon Go has gotten so much larger primarily because of it's major IP. No one will deny that Pokemon has always been huge, and though not the juggernaut it was in the 90's, it has always been a staple of video games and crappy kids anime. That alone gets people's attention. What it really succeeds in doing though is embracing the spirit of Pokemon. Series creator Satoshi Tajiri collected bugs as a child, and developed the idea of Pokemon with this kind of exploration and collection in mind. Pokemon Go really brings this concept full circle, actually encouraging players to explore the real world and collect Pokemon they find. It's about the most "Pokemon" Pokemon game that there's ever been.

-Easily Accessible: Everyone seems to play Pokemon Go: little kids, older kids, and adults. Even grandma and grandpa sometimes get in on the action! This is because Pokemon Go is an easily accessible game that requires little in the way of learning mechanics. Walk around, click a creature, flick a Pokeball, catch, repeat. It only requires a few more clicks if you want to evolve or power up. By relying on such a simple, accessible concept, anyone and everyone can pick up the game in minutes flat, even those who have never touched a controller in their lives.

-Social Gaming: Most people have seen it: groups of people wandering the neighborhood looking for Pokemon. Videos of the throngs of people running to one spot to catch an elusive Lapras or Charizard, bordering on a riot. Pokemon Go extends beyond its in-phone universe and into the real world by bringing people together. They work in groups to find where creatures are located, gang up on gyms together to take it over for their team, and let others know passing by if they've seen something rare pop up nearby. The Pokemon Go game has become a community of sorts, keeping many people engaged for the camaraderie and socialization it brings with it. It's a unique environment not seen with any other game.

-No Money Grubbing: The biggest sin of most free-to-play mobile games today is that they extort money from their players through psychological pressure. You start off raking in lots of goodies early on, but once you get past the first few levels, it all grinds to a halt. The only thing you way to proceed further without copious grinding or days of timers is to pay real money to "unlock" things. They keep encouraging you to "unlock this now for X gems!" or "Don't want to wait? Pay $19.99 now!", until we give in and pay up. Pokemon Go bucks this trend, not relying on any sort of timer or any other arbitrarily limited resource to goad money out of players.

Sure, there is a real-money market where you can buy Pokeballs, inventory expansions, experience boosters, etc. However, the game never requires you to buy them. Pokeballs and most other items are easily obtained through Pokestops in the real world, and every player will encounter the same Pokemon in the same places - no money required to access premium creatures. Premium items only improve the experience and aren't required to have a good time. It avoids the typical "haves and have-nots" environment of mobile gaming, and allows everyone to experience the game completely no matter if they spend a bunch or nothing at all.

The Bad

Now to the negative. While Pokemon Go was huge when it came out, it's been on a steady downhill slope ever since it's release. Fewer and fewer people play it and it's popularity has seemed to fade drastically. Why is that? I've got a few reasons why I think this may be true, and I'll explain in depth below.

Stale Mechanics

This is perhaps the greatest problem with Go - a lack of new gameplay mechanics. No new functional aspects have been introduced to the game since it's initial release, and the developer has remained silent as to if or when any new features will be implemented. Each update has only seen minor tweaks and even the removal of some features, such as the all-important tracker. For such a simple game, it's inevitable that people will eventually become bored of simply flicking balls at creatures on the screen. The lack of communication from the developer gives the impression of nonchalance, making people apathetic and putting down the game for good. Until the developers give players something new to do, the userbase will continue to shrink out of sheer boredom.

How to Fix It: This one is simple - actually implement something that was promised at release. Trading, trainer battles, more creatures, anything at all! By adding new mechanics and giving players something new to do, they'll inevitably stay longer and play more.

No End Game

When talking about open ended games, many times it is divided into three stages: early, mid, and late/end. Early and midgame covers when players are learning mechanics and building skills/power, usually striving towards the goal of completing the difficult late-game content. It's this ultimate goal of conquering the most challenging tasks that keeps many players in for the long haul, long after they may have otherwise grown bored. Even if it's just grinding a bit each day, if there's something to be conquered, people will work towards it.

The problem for Pokemon Go? It doesn't even have an endgame. If I were to define this point, it would be after a player reaches level 20 - at this point, they have access to all items and further leveling requires exponentially more experience. There are no changes for players who hit this level - no benefits, no different monsters to catch, no additional items... Nothing. Since there is nothing left to do, a lot of players decide to quit once they hit around this point. If there's no further challenge, why keep going? Players need to feel rewarded for making it so far, and Go offers no such rewards.

How to Fix It: This one is a bit tricky, but I'd imagine a system like this: Once a player reaches a certain level, introduce the ability to catch legendary Pokemon. Have a long, involved set of quests that the player must complete to gain access to the Pokemon, then let them catch it. These creatures would act as visible, valuable mark of skill, and give higher level players a reason to continue playing the game after they have reached a high level.

Useless Gyms

Gyms were initially introduced as a huge part Go's mechanics, but have turned into an afterthought. They act as a sort of "king of the hill" style location, where players can knock out opponent's Pokemon and members of that team "control" the gym until another team knocks them out. The problem is, there's almost no benefit for even holding down the gym. Players who keep their Pokemon in the gym for a day will get 10 coins (premium currency) not even enough to buy a couple Pokeballs. That's barely a motivation to take the time and effort to conquer them, especially when it's a simple game of mashing the screen as fast as possible.

How to Fix It: Make gyms benefit more than just the players who occupy it. Since gym control is indicated by the players' teams, have the gym give benefits to all members of that team. Perhaps they receive some special items or coins when they visit it directly, or give them some benefit when catching Pokemon near the gym. This would give players a reason to actually band together and conquer a gym as Niantic intended, instead of individual players with powerful monsters picking them all off.

Useless Factions

We've all been asked that question - Valor, Mystic, or Instinct? Everyone loved being part of their respective teams early on, banding together with them in rivalry against others. Everyone was gearing up to compete and be the best... and then nothing happened. Currently, there's no benefit to joining any of the three teams. The only purpose they serve is to determine who wins a gym. You might as well pick whatever color you think is prettiest for all that it matters.

How to Fix It: Give each team a particular boon. The mention in the beginning that they each "believe" in something (Valor in powering up, Mystic in evolution, and Instinct in hatching). How about integrating this into being a team benefit? Valor members get a Stardust discount in powering up Pokemon, Mystic members need less candy to evolve their Pokemon, and Instinct members need to walk less distance to hatch their eggs. It fits each team, and it gives players an actual reason to consider what team they are part of.

"Location Discrimination"

Pokemon Go is a geographically based game, with stops and gyms located in major areas of towns and cities. However, this presents a unique problem for those who live in rural or other unpopulated areas. Without Pokestops to collect items in, they are not able to acquire the necessary Pokeballs or other items to catch Pokemon effectively, requiring them to either pay money for the, travel massive distances to reach a stop, or just not play at all. It's a big problem that unfairly disadvantages a huge portion of potential players simply because of where they live.

How to Fix It: There's a couple ways to fix this one. One would be to add more Pokestops in locations that don't have high population density. Even if they were just along local paths or in natural landmarks, it would give people in sparse locations more access to necessary items. Another would be a "daily bonus" system that many games have. For each day a player logs in, give them some free items, like Pokeballs or Berries. With this system, outlying players can gather items without needing to travel large distances. This system is less ideal, but would be easier to implement than more stops.

In Conclusion

So there's my perspective on things. I believe that until these things are fixed, the game will continue to remain an afterthought with a continually declining player base. It's clear to me at this point that Niantic really doesn't care that much about the player base, so perhaps it's a pipe dream, but I hope they will stop monkeying around and actually improve the game for the benefit of the players.


Most Helpful Guy

  • First off, Called it. You can check my pokemon take when the game was first gaining traction as proof.

    Second, I don't think there's anything you really can do. I mean, the pop craze was not just gamers playing pokemon it was the general public and like a pop song, a pop game shines hard and fades fast.

    I honestly think if Niantic wants to keep making money they need to keep innovating. If they're deal is with Nintendo they have so many games to explore with AR. If it's just with pokemon company, well then they can probably make deals based off their successes.


Most Helpful Girl

  • Embracing the Spirit of Pokemon: No it does not because the pokemon trainer doesn't level. The pokemon are the ones that become stronger not the trainer and pomeon go makes it so only the trainer really does by lvling.

    The main gaming series doesn't technically have an end game at all. Sure the story line can end but you still haven't caught every single pokemon by then.

    The main thing killing pokemon go is the mechanics because they're utter shit.

    Bottom line, pokemon is nothing but a gimmick nothing else.


Join the discussion



What Guys Said 11

  • It's because it's another grinding game, so people who don't have time to play 5 hours a day are behind. They can't capture gyms, and they feel useless.

    But, that happens with many, many apps and games.

  • http://e.lvme.me/8ctt3pd.jpg
    It's basically a bunch of good features with the potential to become a really good game, swimming in a sea of shit that the developers will not fix for some reason. People that played Ingress tried to warn us that Niantic would fuck it up. We didn't listen. :(

  • considering it was not going to be a game in the first place they did pretty good. they only joked about it becoming a game, but when it received so much positive feedback they decided to make the game anyway, but it needs many more updates and development. but not nothing nintendo can't handle, they have enough money not to go bankrupt for the next 50 years. this game is not gonna make them fail as a company.

  • No specialized perception needed. The idea was stupid from the getgo, it wasn't intended to do anything other than to get attention for a short period of time otherwise it would have been released on mobile consoles to boost Nintendo sales.

    The game was purely a cash grab second by second and now they've got their money and don't give a damn anymore.

  • I never got into Pokemon Go. I played it up to level 6 or 7, then uninstalled.
    I'm a hardcore Pokemon fan, but this couldn't compare to the main games

    Anyways, I agree on all these points. Even so though, it's too late to implement. The damage to player numbers is too long done

    Pokemon Go actually had the potential to get people into the main games or at least shell out the big bucks for Merch that aren't shirts. I just think it was released too early, to capitalize on the hype.

  • The fact is catching the same pokemon over and over again gets boring fast, another fact is they don't have the original battles like in the games. Those are the reasons why I stopped playing.

  • except it not failing at all. It normal to have a drop off period after a release.

  • Niantic is playing the long game tho and they still need to release the game in India and South Asia. Im not sure how many live there but its prolly over a billion.

  • The real problem is that pokemon stopped being cool 10 years ago and most people are interested in it for nostalgia.

  • I hate Pokemon Go

  • It was a really bad game, just people got excited about it cause it was "augmented reality", hardly anyone played it for more than a week or two though.

    Augmented reality and VR are exciting but you're not gonna get much from a shitty pokemon app, but it's about as far as augmented reality has gotten. In VR we have the Vive though, which is truly amazing, makes the oculus seem like an old gameboy


What Girls Said 3

  • Also, the fact that the server never seems to be available for some wannabe players (a. k. a. me!)!! Soooo annoying.

  • i'm impressed with the way you tackled this

  • But it's not failing. -_- Millions of people still play it. Just because all the bandwagoners don't play it anymore doesn't mean it's failing.