How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular?

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular

[From: The Commonplace of Ludvig Sunström.]

[Title: How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular?]

[Tagged: Musings, Lollapalooza Effects.]

7 Overarching Reasons for the Popularity of Pokemon GO:

(All of which are explained below.)

  1. Minimal barrier to entry. Available to all, minimal know-how required, and excludes no one of any particular demographic or age. (Free + fast to acquire via phone download on App store).
  2. Extremely social and psychologically appealing. For a number of reasons (~7).
  3. Clever built-in functions. These work as incentives/disincentives to get the player to do what the creators want.
  4. Novelty. New & revolutionary platform/technology. Augmented reality. Which–in itself–is newsworthy for making massive PR enough to start:
  5.  A Snowball effect. Combination of (1) critical mass, (2) auto-catalysis, (3) self-sustaining feedback loop. Even the bad stories–like people getting hurt or dying by looking at their phones and getting hit by a truck–helps sustain this PR/media feedback loop. All news is good news for the sake of keeping the snowball of PR rolling, making it all the more newsworthy.
  6. Strong brand & character recognition. Probably not significant in or by itself, but it’s there all right. And it helps add a few extra sparks to the viral frenzy. Everyone knows what Pikatchu looks like.
  7. Nostalgia. (Similar to #6–not significant, but palpable). Especially to people my age (I’m 25). Playing a hand-held game brings back memories of Gameboy as a kid.

How popular is Pokemon GO?

Very popular right now.

While I did my research/brainstorming (~80 min) and put together this article (~15 minutes of formatting), I had the Hashtag “#PokemonGO” open in Twitter:

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular viral

–So, that’s 5042 new Tweets with that Hashtag during less than 2 hours!

I think it’s safe to say it’s gone viral.

But this picture says it even better:


An answer to the question: How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular?

Product & Design:

1) It’s free & available to everyone. (Freemium model).

2) Community. They put lots of time and money into building a ready-to-go big community on their website. Contains features like:

  • Leadership board for competition. [See image below]
  • Forums for interaction.
  • Real-life meetups / events.
  • Simple instructions for everyone interested (from kids to parents).
  • (And of course a number of clever ways to make money).

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular leadership board

3) Built-in incentives to facilitate social media sharing and virality.

Example: They have purposely not included any in-game sharing. So you have to take screenshots and share it via social media. (Side note: A dual benefit is that it makes you feel like it’s your own idea when posting).  E.G:

  • (“Look, I caught myself a big pudgy Snorlax by our beach!”)
  • (“Look, I’m part of Team Mystic!” [picture of team flag] )
  • (“Look, I’m with my friends playing!”)
  • (“Look, I’m in a dangerous place–[like in the ghetto]–capturing a rare pokemon!”)

>> All of these are potential Tweets of an average person.

4) Availability/Visibility: Then there’s the thing that you can visible see people outside playing it all the time and acting weird (or so I’ve heard, I actually haven’t seen anyone). This makes it constantly top-of-mind for people. It creates a potential conversation with friends or a social media post:

  • “I think there must have been a flash mob at the park today. . .”
  • “Funny thing happened today, I saw three guys running around in the forest with their phones. . . .”


1) It’s extremely easy & user-friendly: No formal education required. Little on-boarding (in-game explanation).

2) Quick rewards: Players are rewarded ASAP upon starting to play to sustain early motivation to continue. As with all successful games, it’s built for instant gratification.

3) It’s a social game — you (can) play it with friends (in teams) and versus enemies. So, in summary: Community, belonging, team-play, and rivalry.

Built-in mechanisms to incentivize social interplay/teamwork. Example:

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular built-in incentive for social interaction

It becomes easy to meet, interact and befriend strangers outdoors.  (You have a reason to talk to them: “Hey, what Pokemon are you trying to catch?” or “I challenge you!”)

Another clever mechanism they made to incentivize social interplay is that the game shows you “hot spots” where other people are. This makes you feel less lonely, as if you’re always playing together with other people. This goes back to the minimal barrier of entry (reason #1); many people don’t even want to start (or will quit very fast) if they must play alone.

4) Highly competitive game. Growing up, I remember playing an old Pokemon game on Gameboy and wanting to have the strongest Pokemons. (We all wanted to get the secret/overpowered pokemon Mew.)

“Prestige level.” Example:

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular competition prestige level

[What gets measured gets managed. Pokemon GO gives players a benchmark of competition. Basically, a built-in purpose for playing. Compared to real-life, where there is no evident goal or plotline.]

5) Built-in randomness. Like a slot machine, you don’t know what you get until you get it! This stimulates extra dopamine and is THE main driver of all successful games. (Candy Crush Saga is a prime example.) In Pokemon Go, your phone randomly vibrates when you come near a Pokemon (thus giving you an unexpected reward). And more random rewards. . .

Basically, the entire game is based around it. Running around and hoping to get lucky to randomly discover/encounter/find the right Pokemons.

6) Built-in challenge: Some Pokemons are tricky and rare to find and you have to struggle to get them. All the more joyful to succeed.

7) Collection. People enjoy collecting things. I know I do. Only I sublimate that in a positive way by commonplacing.

8) Visible progression and character development. This was my main motivation for playing RPG games growing up. In Pokemon, you see your Pokemon leveling up and gaining experience points.

9) Commitment: The more Pokemons you capture, the more time you put into levelling them up, and the more in-game friends you acquire, the more likely you are to want to continue playing. This translates into higher customer loyalty/retention for its creators.

10) You have an excuse to play it regardless of age: I have mentioned several already. Mainly the social aspect (including as an excuse for dating!). But probably the “health aspect” (as signified by the name, “GO”) is most significant?


1) Launch strategy:

Timed for when (a) weather around the world is at its peak (early July) and (b) school is out for children, giving them time to play outside more than usual.

(Side note: As a way to capitalize on this storm of hype and virality–which surely no one could have expected to reach this potency (?)–they have re-launched two of their old games on the Nintendo 3DS platform. And probably done a bunch of other (re) launches related to their franchise-empire which I am not aware of. Here’s one example: merchandise:

2) Audience: They already had a massive existing or (potential) audience with which to help them spark the frenzied fire of virality. Basically, anyone aged 5-36. Example of potential audience:

How Did Pokemon GO Become Popular audience

3) Support from early adopters: In conjunction with the launch and audience, they got great reviews and buy-in from their testers and early audience.


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  1. Its funny. Right now, pokemon Go it’s totally dead. Nobody plays anymore. They had the best game in decades, but they managed to fuck it up.
    Too much bugs, problems, lack of features and things to do…

  2. how to learn to think like this???

  3. Like Abgrund said.

    I know nothing/very little about this topic.

    But it was interesting to get an overview glimpse how you investigate and delve into new topics. It makes me think I should come up with some similar way to make observations so that “I know what I’m looking for in advance”, if that makes sense.

  4. OMG! All the way down here, I thought you were crazy about Pokemon Go. But it’s cool to know without even having played this game, you’ve managed to write such a detailed post about it.
    You have pretty much covered a lot of things here. But in my opinion, the popularity and craze of this game goes back to the sense of adventure and possibility that drove the original games and anime series.

  5. Who is this man they call “Pokey”? Is He the Messiah?

    Sorry, I fall outside of the Pokemon demographic and I haven’t got a clue what you’re on about. I know about Mario, though. He’s the guy in Donkey Kong where I never got past the third level. Video games are a waste of quarters.

  6. The sales of the games may have declined over the years but 10~15M units sold in the current gaming landscape is still quite a feat. If I’m not mistaken the Game Boy was nearing the end of its life cycle when Pokemon first came out, so the hardware prices were quite low which made access to the games affordable. The last generation (XY and OmegaRuby/AlphSaphirre) debuted on the 3DS, which annoyed some fans who were a bit reluctant about buying a new handheld to play the new games but it turned out fine. My point is that the Pokemon games (not including spin-offs like Go) are still wildly popular while other franchises (most RPGs from PS1/PS2 era) faded away. Why? There’s always something new. Each 1-2 years there is a new mainline game coming out, with new Pokemon, a new (or revisited) setting and new gameplay tweaks. The idea is that by always putting out out new, great content, the popularity is sustained and the audience gets larger (younger generations joining the ride). The developers could take it easy for a year or two but no, they’re always working on the new next thing. So regular great content (several new Pokemon were revealed today) equals ever-growing engaged audience and massive dough. It takes a lot of creativity though (I’m baffled by how they keep creating new, interesting Pokémon)

    • Asynchronous Mech says

      An important observation. I think you could say the same thing for many other games and — to some extent — normal products.

      I made another comment where I mentioned Magic the Gathering card game and I think that’s a good example of where this observation also is true.

  7. Great article and analysis Ludvig. Some interesting details: the game is based off an existing technology from Niantic’s other game, Ingress, AR game released a few years ago (Niantic was a startup within Google until 2015). I played it for a few hours back in 2013, and it’s similar to what they did with Pokemon (but now with Pokemon branding and gameplay mechanics). I assume the Ingress game was more of an experiment, where they collected user behavior and technical feedback, and Pokemon GO is the final launch product w/Nintendo branding. Similar to what might be happening with Google Glass; what they made was a technical/social experiment, and now that that’s done, Google will release Google Glass 2.0. As the saying goes, “It takes years to become an overnight success”.

    • So that’s the game that I was talking about in my first comment. And you said it, the pokemon branding is key.

      • Yup, branding is everything. I’ve read that MacDonalds Japan released “Pokemon meals” this week and their stock went up over 20% in one day… 1 day. And Pockemon Go is not even out in Japan (for some reason).

      • Yup, branding is everything. I’ve read that MacDonalds Japan released “Pokemon meals” this week and their stock went up over 20% in one day… 1 day. And Pockemon Go is not even out in Japan (for some reason).

  8. I sure as heck won’t be playing Pokemon Go if it does arrive in Singapore. I still intend to play video games in future, but certainly not this one. I like to play to finish and watch a story unfold, much the same way as reading a good novel. I couldn’t be bothered with “110% game completion” though, and all those sides that are just too time consuming.

    Pokemon Go is quite a meaningless game in my opinion. Just like MapleStory which I played about 10 years ago when I was a kid. I still want to complete some Final Fantasy though, heh.

    • It’s the same for me.

      Games are very fun but we should all be worried about how addicting they are. One thing I have learned is that it is best to completely avoid rather than trying new things when you know that it’s bad for you, even when you see many others doing it, including your friends and so on.

      Yeah whatever you might miss out on some little funny moments here and there but its not gonna make a big difference over the long time. When I am 50 or on my dead bed I wont regret it!

    • I understand what you say. I wouldn’t want to play this game either. But this is not new in pokemon GO, all online RPG are the same.
      I like good stories too.

  9. Imagine being a young kid growing up today and this is your baseline “normal”. The world sure is changing….

  10. hehe you’re finally discovering the trick to “making money” — put stuff out regardless of how “stupid” it might seem. Indeed, the more stupid, the more money it makes.

    I think the potency of the brand / product has warped its success.

    It will probably have massive hype and then suddenly die when the novelty wears off (mid/end of August).

    I don’t think Nintendo did anything crazy to launch it, they did a superbowl ad and got organic growth from people who wanted to play.

    From a business perspective, engagement != sales. They need to turn their engagement into buyers.

    The old Pokemon games/cards used to be an upfront payment. This new game is free-to-play, meaning that Nintendo is actually taking a hit with every player (they have to provide server resource).

    To turn a profit, they either need to convert engagement into in-app purchases or get people buying the games/merch again. I imagine this will work well for them but it has to be achieved before the hype dies down.


    1) The “legendary” pokemon are current unattainable (MewTwo etc). This is fueling speculation / expectancy.

    2) There are two demographics – “old timers” like us (who played it on Gameboy) and the “iphone generation” (born > 2000). I imagine the former will be the ones who spend the money (nostalgia).

    3) I was reading up about Pokemon on Friday. A very interesting fact — it was created in 1996 and… “As of May 2016, the Pokémon media franchise has grossed revenues of ¥4.8 trillion worldwide (equivalent to 46.2 billion USD).” The guy who made Pokemon is worth $5bn

    4) It lacks “story”. This might seem trivial, but would increase engagement, eventually sales, massively. The old games – like other Nintendo titles like Zelda and Mario – were engaging because you felt like you were on a quest. Pokemon go is more of a free-for-all, consequently I don’t see it lasting past the summer.

    • I think the key is that you can impress others in a way that does not take money or skill. This is totally overlooked.

    • “the more stupid, the more money it makes.”

      –Possibly true. But Pokemon GO has employed some pretty sophisticated ways to make it so. This is the way the world is going in general, making things as “stupid” and viral-inducing as possible. The results are not promising for the species.

      As you point out, they’ve made a ton of money with the franchise and done lots of clever things from a business standpoint. But the thing I’m mainly interested in is why so many people even care. And if they will care about it 1 year from now.

      • >”–Possibly true. But Pokemon GO has employed some pretty sophisticated ways to make it so. This is the way the world is going in general, making things as “stupid” and viral-inducing as possible. The results are not promising for the species.”
        Yeah, that’s why I don’t play video games anymore, games are really stupid and hold your hand like you were mentally handicapped (besides that there aren’t a lot new – original ideas).

    • I agree about the lack of a story. It’s there but not enough. The anime, with Ash, isn’t related to the games. It should, it would provide a better story.

      They should work on a better storytelling. Comics, anime, movies, videogames. So that nerds can talk about pokemon stories and trainers for a couple of hours.

      That’s where Mortal Kombat did a good job. There were interesting characters with minimal story, but they made you want to learn more about them, or at least your favorites. So you could get more from comics, cartoons, movies, secrets in the game, etc.

      Gary, Ash, Brock, Misty, etc are strong characters and they aren’t using them in the game… What a waste.

      • Asynchronous Mech says

        How about Magic the Gathering? As a card game, compared to Pokemon, it was on a whole other level of complexity from so many ways…. from the gameplay to other things, like story..

        I remember playing it as a kid with some of my friends (we were the nerdy kids in our school back in those days, but now not so much……)

  11. My one Takeaway from this??

    I am glad I dont have Apple phones so they can track all I do on it!

  12. Incredible breakdown. You have a great business mindset.

  13. Great article, as always. I took notes and gathered a lot of information for both CSS and Best Practices in my commonplace.

    One thing I’d like to add to the analysis is the factor of geographical identity. Most people feel a strong connection to where they live (a type of local nationalism, if you will) and having your country/city/neighbourhood included in a game creates familiarity, security, and maybe even pride.

    What gamer hasn’t dreamt of playing an open world game in their hometown? Thanks to Pokémon GO, that is now possible.

    • That’s really interesting. Now that you say it, I did see a couple of pics like that, but I did not draw the connection. One Twitter image was of a guy working at a coffee shop and he was giving -15% on all the drinks to people who played in the same Pokemon Gym as him.

  14. Hi! I still didn’t finish reading the article but I would say that #6, “Strong brand & character recognition” is the most important of all reasons.

    I don’t remember but I think I seen that a game like this was released but didn’t succeed.

    Remember that games with strong brand are the most successful, like any mario game, super smash bros (all nintendo characters), all pokemon games sell well, mortal kombat, call of duty, need for speed, fifa / pro evolution soccer, dragon ball.

    For example, super smash bros when it was being developed was planned to use generic characters. Later it was tough that it was a good idea to use known characters, so they asked Nintendo to use theirs. The game was great, but fighting with pikachu, link or mario is key.

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