s3e24: OVERNIGHT SUCCESS 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Tuesday, 12 July 2016, and as of this moment, failing to get player information from the server for the last fifteen minutes. There’s been a bit of a hiatus in “things that have caught my attention”, and only belatedly did I realise that struggling with anxiety and depression might have an impact on a) glomming on to “things that would catch my attention” and b) expressing what has “caught my attention” about them. But hey, here we are, it seems that the staggered worldwide release of an augmented reality location-based mobile collecting game based on a 20 year-old multi-media franchise IP with revenues to date in excess of $45bn will do that to you. So, here we go.

1.0 Pokemon, Go

We’ll start with a bunch of flippant[0] tweets I did yesterday. Doubtless after seeing the overnight success of the above mobile location-based augmented reality game based on a 20 year-old multi-media franchise IP which threatened to eclipse usage of a well-known bird-based social networking breaking news service, a whole bunch of digital brand managers and social media marketing managers and innovators were going to get their marching orders from higher up and have the answer ready to the question: What Are We Going To Do About Pokemon Go?

Here you go: I wrote your deck for you.

How Brands Can Replicate Pokemon Go’s Overnight Success:

  1. Travel back in time to 1995 (this is an IMPORTANT and CRITICAL step. You aren’t likely to succeed if you do not travel back in time to 1995)
  2. Create a rich collecting/battling video game for a mobile computing device
  3. Extend your rich collecting/battling game to multiple media including anime and a collectible card game, updating the original video games with each hardware generation
  4. Wait for smartphones to be developed complete with GPS and high resolution displays
  5. Wait for those smartphones to become ubiquitous amongst your target audience due to market forces, globalization, Moore’s law and Metcalfe’s law
  6. Wait a bit longer for someone to make those smartphones actually usable
  7. Invent Keyhole, a geospatial datavisualisation application that later became Google Earth
  8. Gather (anonymised?) location data from hundreds of millions of Android devices and build a points of interest database from it
  9. Test the waters with an April fools collaboration with the world’s most popular mapping service
  10. Partner with an augmented reality game development company bankrolled by the world’s most successful internet company (and was once a group within that company)
  11. Launch a minimum viable product that doesn’t actually have many core Pokemon game mechanics but does have in-app purchases
  12. Put out server fires based on the popularity of your 20+ year-old intellectual property
  13. Wait for the hot takes to come in. There will be many of them.
  14. Watch your share price go up 25%
Look, you should probably read Ian Bogost’s now tepid take on Pokemon Go pointing out the history behind the latest geo-locative overnight success[1]. That there’s been work going on in this area for the last fifteen years or so, dating back from some of the earliest alternate reality games (step forward, Majestic), the seminal work done in other alternate reality games that led to A.I. marketing phenom The Beast, Halo 2 smash hit ilovebees and everything that Area/Code ever did.

And let me preface what’s about to come with the completely honest caveat that yes, I’m a little bit bitter and jealous, because we saw all of these things coming off a long time ago and, as they say, all the feels. From the payphone-powered running games for Nike[2] (what, did you think people were funding this stuff out of the goodness of their own hearts?) by Kevin Slavin, Ben Terrett and the W+K London/AKQA crew and later joined by me, explorations like Nokia’s Twitchr[3] (thanks for the reminder, Chris Heathcote), the heady days of sticker collecting in Gowalla[4] (launched 9 years ago now), my brother’s own locative-audio-drama-running-game[5], and Mudlark’s London Tube Station game, Chromaroma[6]. And Tom Armitage and Tom Taylor’s Noticings[6a], from 2009.

And there’s all the fiction, too: Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End[7]. And if you haven’t read Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko[8], then this is your nth recommendation to do so to find a wonderfully whimsical and serendipitously *nice* depiction of a location-aware world-eaten-by-software future. Or if you want, there’s Charlie Stross’ Halting State and Rule 34[9, 10].

And that’s just all the ones I can remember in about 5 minutes.

But anyway. I said I’d think out loud about Pokemon Go.

So: here’s the lukewarm take. The surprise, obviously would’ve been if Pokemon Go *hadn’t* been a stupendous success. It is, as I’ve facetiously pointed out above, a worldwide juggernaut of an intellectual property. It is, as some people would say, a “brand”. Some other people might even call it transmedia. But any which way you slice it, it’s $45bn worth of successful and the sheer name recognition is off the charts. Whenever you’re going to launch something new – anything new – if you’re not prepared to be patient and wait and/or execute some gigamarketing, then you’re just going to get disappointed.

But let’s be doubly clear here: it’s not just that Pokemon’s a well-known brand. I mean, Nike’s a well known brand and they don’t go around launching incredibly successful first-party or even second party games, right? I refer of course to all of the copies of Nike+ Kinect[11] (breathlessly described by Fast Company as ‘the perfect exercise game’) that may well even have just gone into landfill. I mean, with Nike you’ve at least got some semblance of a call to action to physical action that might’ve helped their Kinect title succeed. But for everyone trying to work out what the augmented reality, location-based strategy is for their fast moving consumer goods brand, remember this: if I say “Pokemon” to you, then you say “Gotta catch ’em all” to me.

Let’s put it another way: successful game (er, brand) about collecting things launches new game (er, product) allowing you to collect things in a novel way and succeeds.

Perhaps something about Pokemon Go’s success can be said about the particular audience. Pokemon is about 20 years old, which makes it right in the sweet spot of millennial, always-having-grown-up with computer technology, never mind networked, never mind digital, audience. These are not people who you’re going to have to teach new behaviours to in order to learn a mechanic that, let’s remember, *they already know*.

No, if I think about this more, the part that I’m bitter and jealous about is luck and timing and the reminder that IP can count for so much.

We (and I’m speaking loosely about a collection of people in the games, internet and mobile industry who’re a combination of people-who-work-in-that-area, colleagues and close friends), *knew* this was going to happen. We were the people dicking about with Nokia N95s marveling about how awesome it was to get such an amazing GPS receiver into such a tiny thing and then having our jaws collectively kicked out of our skulls when the iPhone came out. We were the people *convinced* that cameraphones were going to be a thing when everyone else was asking why you’d even want to carry a camera around with you all the time anyway. We were the people who were watching (or in some cases building) Flickr and seeing the switchover and trends in where photography was going and what photography was *meaning*, how it was becoming more ephemeral and documentary and less like a formal event and hell, knowing what it would mean to be able to share all of this digital media to anyone (well, the stunningly small proportion of the population who had access to these tools in the first place). We were, of course, stupendously privileged. We were the people who built groundbreaking location-data arbitrage services[12] in 2008, almost *ridiculously* early given the exponential growth of people capable of using a service back then, and people who would almost certainly benefit from such a service right now, thanks to the permissions morass that we’re in. We were the people building alternate reality games with real-world elements marveling at the people we could get to run from one place to another.

But.

Mostly, we were all too early. I mean, I guess being early isn’t necessarily being unlucky. It’s just that: being early. In some ways you could count it as a bit of a validation, right? Oh yeah, we were totally right: these things will happen. Still. It would’ve already been nice to have been more involved.

Something like Pokemon Go sits at the intersection of so many different ideas, technologies, the crossroads of multiple worldlines of influence and data. I was in a meeting, many years ago, that I probably shouldn’t write too much about, but it demonstrates at least one aspect of what I think is interesting or will be interesting to watch about Pokemon Go over the next year or so.

I met John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic. We’d been invited by Niantic’s VP of Partnerships to come in – I was busy working with a team at Wieden designing a massively multiplayer global local augmented reality photograph mobile game for a client because it was the mid 2000s and what else were you going to do with all of those buzzwords than silently push them to one side and try and get on with building something good. Niantic, we were told, had something interesting to show us. And it was *pretty* interesting, and a few months later, Ingress launched for Android. Now the meeting was a bit weird, and I say this because I was coming in with a game design background and probably unfortunately a little bit cocky about having been involved in actually running and designing location-based games.

My opinion of Hanke was that he was determined to do something *about* videogames. Here was a guy who I was legitimately and assuredly in awe of: he’d built Keyhole, turned it into Google Earth and then pretty much made Google the dominant force in consumer mapping when, well, there wasn’t one unless you count whoever it was who printed out paper maps and sold them to people. Videogames, from his point of view, weren’t that good because they – and to a greater extent, non-mobile computers – had contributed to society spending most of its time inside looking at screens. He wanted to do something about that. There was so much in the world for people to experience, it was a shame to just be stuck in a room, no matter how well-lit with full-spectrum lighting, staring and pawing at black, glowing mirrors when there was art and culture outside in the physical world. I mean, that’s a pretty defensible position, right? From my point of view I was quite tempted to say “well actually the internet’s done some quite good stuff and really don’t we want a balance between the things we do outside and the things we do inside?” but I was afraid I’d sound a bit like an All Lives Matter apologist when really the point was: shouldn’t we go outside a bit more? To which the answer, of course is, well, *in general* yeah, that’s probably a good thing.

The thing that felt weird was that the Niantic team were coming at this completely from the point of view of location-based product managers. They had a whole bunch of data. They had commissioned a game designer[13] who, were I to be completely candid, I’d say that I didn’t rate that much *in this particular area* to work with them on creative direction.

So there was this: what would become Ingress looked and smelled like a *game* to me. They were clearly thinking about how to influence certain behaviours. From my point of view, my recollection that the main aim was to make something that would get people off their butts and out into the real world. Thus the lore of Ingress was born, and I’ve been pretty vocal about this in the past: I think it’s a mess, I think it’s not particularly compelling and I think it’s pretty second rate. And also inaccessible *compared to what it could be*, and I realise that that makes me sound like an armchair product manager/game designer/creative director but hey, I like to think that I have form in this area.

But Ingress looked like it was being treated like a product. Niantic even *call* it a product, not a game, on their jobs page[14]: “Our first product, Ingress, has been downloaded more than 14M times and has attracted a fan-base of highly active users in more than 200 countries around the world.”

And maybe that’s where it all started feeling a bit weird: I saw Ingress’ success as being tied to it being thought of as a *game*, or at least, that’s where I saw Ingress’ potential. Side note: ask me what I think about Foursquare and Swarm, sometime, but I expect at this point you can probably figure it out. And no, I don’t think everything should be a game, either! Anyway: there appeared to be no gamey-ness being infused into Ingress and the team at Niantic. I know that people with game design and ARG backgrounds ended up working on Ingress in the end. And that makes sense to me. But I remain concerned or, more likely, upset, at the thought that Ingress and probably Pokemon Go won’t be as good as they could’ve been.

Look: Raph Coster, who’s *much* better and smarter than me at this kind of thing (ie: design of massively multiplayer online games) wrote about this the other day, so his take is both hotter and also more useful, I think. It goes into excruciating detail as to why Pokemon Go is a game and why it doesn’t feel like one yet, as well as some *really obvious to game design people* mistakes or omissions that have been made in the Niantic engine design[15]. Not least of which, coincidentally, only *after* the not-game’s launch, is Niantic hiring for a Global Community Manager[16], the kind of thing that a well-capitalized startup normally will do *before* their game launches, not after. Unless, of course, signs point toward the well-capitalized startup treating what it’s doing as a product and instead as a not-game.

I remember a conversation I had with Hanke about the difference between a location-based game (traditionally, one where you have to go to specific places to get things to happen) and location-aware games (ones where things happen based on where you are, but those places don’t necessarily have to be static locations). Another way of explaining that distinction might be that in a location-based game, player events happen at discrete locations like particles in a continuum; in a location-aware game, the player traverses a field of differing probabilities of things like loot drops. The reason for this was because our experience had shown that *some* people will go out of their way for *some* things *some* of the time, but not *always*, and certainly not *enough* people. This happened this morning to me: my 45 minute walk into the XOXO outpost didn’t take 45 minutes, it too more like 90 because I went out of my way to go to Pokestops along the way. That behaviour – in our experience – simply isn’t retained *in a majority of the player population*. Because, of course, you’re trading not just attention, but also time. There’s one thing in using cognitive surplus to produce new goods, but do we have a similar location/temporal surplus? We don’t know!

Another worldline: the realisation that none of us could really make a go of it without significant amounts of backing. No one has, I think, any idea how much funding Google sunk into Niantic. But I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume that Hanke was highly favoured by Google’s executives and was able to enjoy substantial patronage for his pet location-based project. Even if, eventually, it did have to face up to p&l responsibility. But the rest of us didn’t have that. The rest of us didn’t have access to the location data of hundreds of millions of Android phones. And I guess that’s where the financial thread comes in. It’s arguable that Foursquare *still* doesn’t have a business model for what they’re trying to do, and that in the meantime, Pokemon Go has come out and blown them out of the water *if* Foursquare’s strategy was to double down on bringing foot traffic to physical retail partners. Foursquare simply doesn’t have, from my point of view, the critical mass audience worthy of paying to acquire customers. I mean, here’s a potentially non-stupid idea, Square could probably buy Foursquare and make a half-assed attempt at trying to deliver some value out of what Dennis is doing. From Foursquare’s point of view, it might be easy to say that Pokemon Go cheated. And by cheated, I mean: bought a license to use the brand and characters and (hopefully) game mechanics of a stupendously popular world-wide IP that had instant name recognition *and* was aligned to getting people to go from one place to another and do it repeatedly. In this way, again, Pokemon Go is a no-brainer.

Of course, the corollary of this is that it’s impossible to buy something if the seller isn’t interested. And it may well have been that, prior to the April Fool’s Joke[17], Nintendo and The Pokemon Company really weren’t interested because, well, I’m not one to cast aspersions on Nintendo and their mobile strategy but I will anyway and they have demonstrated that they don’t really know what they’re doing and/or that they’re not interested, which I’m pretty sure just supports the first point anyway. For all we know Foursquare *did* try to negotiate with Nintendo and TPC and got a big fat “we’re not interested what is a mobile phone anyway”, to which: luck, I suppose.

Anyway. Pokemon Go. Some thoughts.

[0] well, what other kind of tweets would you expect?
[1] What Is Pokemon Go? – The Atlantic
[2] Nike Turns London Into a Game Board to Get People Running | Fast Company | Business + Innovation
[3] Tom Hume: Selling New Mobile Phone Features (11 years old, now)

2.0 Miscellanea

* After seeing someone passively-aggressively complain on Nextdoor in Portland (could there *be* any etc etc), the horror of thinking about what Nextdoor might look like if upvoting/downvoting/karma had been applied to user profiles. So, here’s a starter: what would Nextdoor have looked like if there’d been proper[0] community moderation. Answer: we’ll never know. In the meantime, you can go read Matt Haughey on Metafilter, which is a tragic-ish example of how to do community right[1, 2]

[0] Anyone who’s been on the internet professionally for over ten years will know what this means, the rest of you will have to just assume that the internet has always been a tire fire with small pockets of civility
[1]  Life Lessons from a Lifestyle Business — Strong Words — Medium
[2]  On the Future of MetaFilter — Technology Musings

Wednesday, 13 July. I was on vacation last week and one of the things I did to calm myself down and to destress was to fire up an old copy of Sim City 2000 (DOS version), turn on all the cheats, turn off all the disasters and zen out, building a city. It’s sometime in the thirty-fourth century in my city now, and there are arcologies popping up all over the place. Most people are happy. Amusingly, one of the top exports is electronics.

Goodbye, again, it was nice writing, and hopefully I’ll do this again sometime soon. As ever, I appreciate your notes.

Best,

Dan