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Strategic analysis
Okay, Okay... Let's Talk About Pokemon Go for News

Written by on July 27, 2016

As some of you know, when Pokémon Go first launched, I tweeted that I wouldn't spend any time on it as a media analyst, and that people could judge my indifference towards it in six months... which is roughly the time I give it to stay relevant for the mass audience.

I still stand by this tweet. From a media perspective, Pokémon Go has no relevance whatsoever.

But in the time after I tweeted this, I have been asked by quite a lot of people both about why I tweeted that and why I didn't think it is important; I have even had editors and CEOs questioning my role as an analyst by not analyzing it.

So... okay, okay. I give in. You win.

I will write this article about it. Or rather, this article isn't really going to be about Pokémon Go for News, but will instead focus on why Pokémon is a success, about the future of location-based news and augmented reality news. We will talk about whether there is something here that we use, and we will talk about the trends and the behaviors that make this work, or not.

Okay?

Pokémon Go as a game and a social phenomenon is amazing

When I tweeted that I wouldn't spend any time on Pokémon Go, many people thought I said it because I didn't like the game. This wasn't what I meant.

Pokémon Go is very interesting from the perspective of mobile gaming. And it's absolutely amazing if we look at it as a social phenomenon. And I have spent some time looking at it from that perspective.

So let's talk about Pokémon Go for a brief moment... from a non-media perspective.

First, let's talk about its success, which is due to a number of very specific factors.

One factor is that the developers behind the game have a very long history with mapping and location-based technology. It was started by the people behind Keyhole, the company Google bought to create Google Maps, and the game engine itself is a product of years of experimentations.

As such, Pokémon Go didn't come out of nothing. It's the result of 15 years of innovations by people working in this space.

So when I hear media people (or others) say, "We should make something like this", I don't think they realize just how much has gone into Pokémon Go before it reached this point. Not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of understanding human behaviors, optimizing the social engineering, and generally refining the way everything works.

You can't just make something like this out of nothing. This is next-level gaming development. We are way above the baseline that we usually see with mobile games or apps.

Remember, before Pokémon Go, they had developed Ingress. What is Ingress, you ask? Well, it's basically the same thing as Pokémon Go. Here is a trailer, and you will notice the many similarities.

So, why wasn't Ingress this huge success that we see with Pokémon Go? Well, because Ingress was designed as a 'secret agent' kind of game. It was something you did in hiding, which meant that it didn't really have the social element.

Pokémon Go changed all of that by centering the same experience on lots of people doing the same thing, chasing the same spots, with each other and in public. In other words, Pokémon Go is winning because it's a social experience rather than a location-based experience or even an augmented reality based experience.

It's the social element that has changed this from a niche game into a mainstream phenomenon. This is very important thing to understand.

And the social element is huge. Take a look this video from the Sidemen and just feel the energy, the social experience and the excitement around it.

It's absolutely brilliant, especially considering that people would otherwise be spending their day watching old episodes on Netflix all evening.

Then they have the power of the brand. Pokémon is a huge brand. As in seriously huge. It's the fourth largest gaming franchise in the entire world. But more to the point, the Pokémon universe is incredibly expansive and has so many elements in it.

For one thing, there are about 750 Pokémons in total, although I hear that there are only 151 in Pokémon Go at the moment (but this will surely be expanded once people's initial excitement wear off).

Pokémon is like Star Wars in terms of branding effect.

It's hard to tell how much of an effect this has had on the overall success of the game, but I will argue that if it wasn't for the Pokémon brand, it probably wouldn't have been a success at all.

Can you imagine if, instead, it was the Kellogg's Go game?

I mean Kellogg's is a big brand as well, but this would probably have failed. Partly because Kellogg's Tony the Tiger isn't known for battling other Kellogg's characters, and partly because it would feel too much like advertising.

Very few companies would be able to pull this off, brand-wise. You might be able to do with Disney, in which the all the Pokémons would have been replaced by Disney characters. But again, Disney characters aren't designed to battle each other, so something else would be needed to replace the Gyms (which is an essential part of the game).

The only one that I can think of is what Jeff Gibbard, the President of True Voice Media said to me, when he suggested it would work with Marvel/DC superheroes and villains. The Marvel/DC universe is just as rich and expansive as Pokémon, and the Marvel/DC characters are constantly facing off against each other.

The problem with Marvel/DC, however, is twofold. Firstly, it would force a slightly older and a more male focus upon the game, whereas Pokémon is completely gender and age neutral.

Secondly, it wouldn't make much sense to find a character more than once. With Pokémon Go, a vital part of the game is that you can find the same type of character more than once, and you can use that to evolve into other characters.

But if we had the Marvel/DC Go instead, once you had found and captured Batman, finding him again an hour later would not make any sense.

So you see what's happening here? Pokémon Go is exceptionally unique for why it works the way it does. It's almost impossible to translate into other things without jeopardizing its potential for success.

Another vital factor for why it has become such a big thing is... timing.

The timing of the launch of Pokémon Go is absolutely brilliant. It was launched in the middle of summer when the weather outside is at its best, just before many people were to go on their vacations.

Can you imagine if they had launched this in January instead? Would it still be as popular then? And for how long?

This, of course, also causes us to question its longevity (which I why I tweeted that we should see in six months). What will happen when the weather turns miserable? When the temperature gets near freezing, and when the wind makes walking outside for an hour a bit of an ordeal. Will Pokemon Go still be this massive success... or is it just a seasonal thing?

Another element is with the Pokémon's themselves. Right now, people are still very excited about it because they keep capturing new Pokémons. Everything is new and exciting. But what happens six months from now when you have already discovered most Pokémons, when you have already ranked up to a high level, and when the whole thing starts to become repetitive?

As I said, the Pokémon universe is quite expansive, but this is going to happen at some point. So what will happen when it's no longer new? Will it continue to be a success, or will it turn out to just be a gimmick?

Personally, I think the vast majority of people playing today will lose interest when autumn arrives. And this actually a bit of a problem. Because, as people start to lose interest, there won't be as many gyms to battle in. Pokémon Go is designed to rely entirely on scale, and also the energy within that scale.

We have seen this so many times before with location based apps. Take Foursquare, which was only really a success in the largest cities where the volume of people was high enough to make a difference (and where becoming the 'major' of a place actually meant something).

As soon as people started to get bored with it, the number of interesting locations quickly diminished to nothing. I predict the same thing will happen with Pokémon Go.

However, Pokémon has an exceptionally powerful mechanism that sets it apart from all other location based apps or games that you have used before. And that is that it doesn't use existing locations. It is constantly creating new ones.

Here is what is happening in London as I am writing this:

As you can see, the Pokémons aren't defined by a specific place. They are constantly appearing and disappearing, making each 'hunt' different at any moment.

This is another reason why it's so popular. With Foursquare, once you had visited a specific part of the city, that was it, because the locations never changed since they were defined by the physical world.

With Pokémon Go, every location is new all the time, and what you will find in each place is new as well. It's not actually a location-based game, as much as it is a location 'creating' game.

Finally, we have the extremely heavy focus on the social engineering part of the game. Everything you do is linked to a reward and a challenge. The hunt is a challenge, in which you are rewarded not only by what you find, but also by the eggs you earn as you move around.

When you find something, the challenge of catching a Pokémon is another level of social engineering, which in turn is linked to in-app purchases when you get desperate enough.

The levelling system and the gyms are socially engineered as well. Every single element of the experience is designed around this challenge/reward system.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It certainly helps with the enjoyment and the feeling of involvement that people have when playing it, which is a big part of the success. And without it, it just wouldn't be as fun to do.

But this is also what is creating the addiction that people feel towards the game, and we have already seen so many problematic outcomes from this... including a journalist playing Pokémon at a White House press briefing, or a guy driving into a police car.

But this is really another topic for another time.

So, as you can see, the reasons why Pokémon Go is a success are a mix of extremely specific elements, which are each very hard to reproduce for anything else.

And this brings us to the future of location-based news.

Location-based news? Well...

The challenge we have with location-based news apps (or experiences) is that, compared to the things that you can see above, news doesn't really fit well with any of them.

If you didn't know this, the company behind Pokémon Go actually tried creating an app designed more for business and the media. It is/was called Field Trip.

The way it works is that as you walk down a street, the app will notify you when you get close to a place of interest. These places could be landmarks, restaurants, interesting info about that area, museums and other things like that.

So if you are living in New York, for instance, the app might tell you that you are now walking by a location that was once used in a Seinfeld episode.

The app could also be extended. So Niantic (the company behind it) at one point tried partnering with local companies, so that when people walked by a store their phones would tell them about 'offers and deals'. This particular feature, however, wasn't very well received.

They also tried partnering with publishers and newspapers, so that you could get alerted to news stories if you happened to walk by where something had happened in the past.

It sounds cool, right? But it doesn't actually work in reality.

Most places don't have interesting locations anywhere near where people are. Sure, if you are living in Hollywood or New York, then you can find a ton of places all around you. But if you live in, say, Bremen (Germany), very few things if any would be worth being notified about as you walk down the street.

Again, Pokémon Go doesn't have this problem, because it is creating as many locations as it needs at any given time. It doesn't care about where you are, because you can find Pokémons anywhere.

The reality of location-based news is that it doesn't actually work.

  • Unlike with Pokémon Go where you can place Pokémons anywhere you like, news is entirely outside of your control.
  • Unlike Pokémon Go where the activity is real-time and is constantly updating, news is about things that happened in the past.
  • Local news might be a big thing as a whole, but very few things ever happen in any given place.
  • The few places where news is constantly happening are also often the places where you don't want people to go.
  • You really can't gamify news. The reason is that as soon as you start to turn the misery of others into a socially engineered game, you will end up with the biggest social media backlash your publication has ever seen. It's an ethical minefield.

But most of all, news is mindbogglingly boring. It's not something people spend hours walking around the city and 'exploring' with their friends.

News is entirely the wrong product for this. Look at the stories in your local newspapers, and ask yourself: could you ever imagine a young person running around town to collect those news events in a 'Local News Go' app?

It's just not going to happen.

We see the same thing with augmented reality news.

There have been plenty of media people talking about how amazing it would be if you could go somewhere where news had happened, and then be able to hold up your phone to see it as a form of augmented reality. And from a technology perspective, they are right.

But from a behavioral perspective, it's the same problem. As I tweeted last week:

The reason why augmented reality rarely works with news is that you are asking people to go to a location to see something that is virtual.

This works great for games, where going somewhere is part of the adventure. It doesn't work when people just want information quickly.

In other words, news is not something you want to spend time finding. There is not a single media trend that points in that direction. Instead, everywhere we look, news is increasingly turning into something we want as efficiently as possible.

So, instead of location-based news using augmented reality, we are seeing news companies experiment with 360 videos. Like this video made by Universal Channel in Germany:

With this video, you can experience what it's like to be a firefighter. And you do this from anywhere. In your home, at the office, while commuting to work, while standing in line at the supermarket, and so forth.

This makes a lot more sense than location-based/augmented reality news. You don't add anything to the experience by asking people to go that specific location, except if the location is really special (and it rarely is).

The bottom line is that Pokémon Go for news simply isn't a thing, nor will it be. It's not the right product, not the right moment, not the right behavior, nor the right mood.

It's the same reason why newspapers are struggling so much on social channels. Every study we look at shows us that channels such as Facebook or Snapchat don't really work well for 'hard news'. And if newspapers can't get people to engage with hard news on Facebook, why would they think they could convince people to do it in a location-based app?

But is there something in this for news? Well, yes and no.

The potential for news as a service

There is a very interesting potential coming in the future when we start to talk about news as a service. We already see it with things like Apple Siri, Google Now, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana.

But this is a very different thing from Pokémon Go and also from how we think about news today.

This is news as data, rather than as stories. It's on-demand, location-based, and contextually aware news. It's something that alerts you when it senses that there is critical information that you need to know as an individual, targeted both to the specific area you are in and the moment that you are having right now.

And it's a service, where you can ask a newspaper to tell you "what is happening here?" at any given moment.

For instance, several years ago I was on my way out of town when a police car blocked me at an intersection. But instead of approaching my car, the officers just blocked the road and stood there as if they were on a break. It turned out that it was because Post Danmark Rundt (the Danish version of Tour de France) was coming though.

So, for the next 20 minutes, I was stuck at this intersection watching this race, which was enjoyable in its own way.

But wouldn't it had been amazing if I could have turned to my phone and simply asked "Uh... what's going on?", and my phone would then have told me that this race was due to come by, and given me options, insights and details for not just what was happening, but things of interests to look out for as they passed by... along with explanatory and more in-depth back story as I was waiting?

Another example is when there was a fire in a building nearby my home a few weeks ago. As with most other people in the neighborhood, I walked out to see what was going on, but we couldn't see anything (except the fire trucks).

Again, I wish I could have turned to my phone to ask it about it. And even if it didn't have any information, wouldn't it be cool if it gave me this option:

We have no 'at the moment' news for your specific location, but our system has noticed an increase in requests from your area and we have asked one of our journalists to look into it. Would you like to get an update when we know more?

It would be amazing if we could do that... and not just in our local city, but everywhere.

Mind you, a service like this wouldn't be used like Pokémon Go in any way. It would be completely different. And in order to make it work, we have to redefine the way newspapers work together and create scale across the entire news ecosystem.

And the news itself would have to be far more data- and AI-focused, and have a very strong support of metadata that can match any specific event to just that place, person, interest, context and moment. This is would be nothing like how newspapers work today.

On top of this, we would be even more challenged than we are today with making sure that people are kept up-to-date and have the big perspective, and aren't just overwhelmed by hyper-local micro-stories that by themselves doesn't help us.

But as a media analyst, I see a lot of potential here. Imagine if this was how Facebook Messenger worked with its bot system (instead of the passive and random way that it works today).

And of course, a system wouldn't just work with hyper-local news. If you can ask it "what is happening here?"... you could just as easily ask it, "What is happening in Baton Rouge?", "What happened in Baton Rouge?" or "Keep me informed when [insert something specific here]."

For instance, last week we heard the rumor that Yahoo was being sold to Verizon, so I would have loved a 'News as a Service' platform where I could say: "Let me know when Yahoo announces it officially."

Twitter, for instance, would be a brilliant platform for this. Imagine if you could query Twitter to keep you up-to-date this way? That would be awesome.

So yes, there is a future here. But it's not Pokémon Go.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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