The summer 
of Pikachu

Foto: Pixabay, CC0

Are you Team Red, Blue, or (ugh) Yellow? Where is Pikachu hiding? How many Magikarp candies do you need to get a Gyarados? Hardly any other game has dominated conversations, media and smartphones in 2016 like Pokémon Go.

In a summer which was marked above all by depressing world events, Pokémon Go provided some lighter, happier news. Suddenly people were talking, not about the next calamity, but about an app that brought people together all over the world.

Pokémon trainers meet in Berlin’s Friedrichshain Park; a Pokémon hike across the Tempelhof Feld with over a thousand participants was organized and then called off at the last minute; a local politician from the Berlin neighbourhood Moabit wanted to take journalists along on a Pokémon Walk. A player in Berlin set out in search of new Pokémon and wound up finding a lost dog. I experienced the hype in real-time while reporting on the game and its following for several weeks for the youth-oriented public radio station Fritz. Other media reported about players who ran over a cliff in California (they were unharmed), who got into car crashes, broke into front gardens in Florida and found themselves hunted by an old man with a shotgun—all just to find new Pokémon.

Pokémon Go is the spellbinding video game story of the year

Within 13 hours of the launch of Pokémon Go in the USA, the app had the highest turnover of all time, beating previous champions like Clash of Clans or Game of War. The app analysis firm App Annie estimated that Pokémon Go generated around 10 million US-Dollars every day. By autumn, the app had reached 100 million downloads.

Pokémon Go made waves on the stock exchange. Shares of Nintendo, the company traditionally associated with Pokémon, shot up—and then fell again when investors realized that Nintendo was not behind the release, but the American studio Niantic.

Even before the game’s official German launch, the game spread like wildfire. It made sideloading part of everyday vocabulary. Masses of fans weren’t buying the game from an official app store, but putting it on their smartphones using a downloaded installer.

A few days after the US launch, people in Brandenburg started organizing themselves into teams, while more and more Berliners could be seen sporting USB cables hanging from their jacket pockets. Because the game drains smartphone batteries so fast, mobile battery chargers soon became bestsellers.

Two factors have contributed to Pokémon Go’s success: the game mechanics and the brand. With Pokémon Go, Niantic refined the concept they had developed for their first title, a science-fiction adventure called Ingress. Just like when playing Ingress, players couldn’t just stay at home, but had to go out with their smartphones in order to play.

But whereas Ingress was all about occupying abstract quadrants for one team or another, in Pokémon Go is all about finding cute little monsters. It’s a more intuitive and accessible game. Pokémon hide away in all sorts of places in the real world, so the rare Pikachu can only be found in the park on the other side of town, and cuddly Poliwag only at the lake. If you stay put in your own neighbourhood, you are likely to find only the boring rat and pigeon Pokémon.

Lure Modules are a stroke of genius: these are items which can be used at specific locations (Pokéstops) and which can then unlock new Pokémon. Shortly after the launch, city parks were full of picnic blankets and players who were waiting under the stars with their lure modules for new monsters.

How long can a hype last?

But the hype of the first month did not last. Journalists turned to other subjects, and the many pages in gaming blogs and magazines dedicated to Pokémon grew fewer. The numbers of players also told an unmistakeable story. In August, Pokémon Go had over 52 million active players; in September only 32 million. Use time fell steadily, and as of Autumn 2016, in the German app store, Pokémon Go had fallen from number 1 to number 59. On the street, I rarely see people making the characteristic swiping motion of catching a new beast. People have reverted to typing messages into Whatsapp, Facebook, and Snapchat.

The reason for the ebb of interest is not only the natural hype-cycle to which every successful game is subject. It also has to do with the huge burden placed on the developer. Niantic fought hard through the first few weeks post-launch to keep the game online and to cope with the immense masses of players. New features were few and far between; in fact functions were dropped.

Gradually players noticed. Because rare Pokémon appear where there are a lot of players and Pokéstops, players in the countryside hardly ever find new monsters. An absurdity, when you consider that in the Nintendo Gameboy titles, Pokémon always wait for trainers in the tall grass, not at the corner shop next to the tube station. The fights in Pokémon arenas rely on mashing the screen, and leave tactics by the wayside.

And because Niantic closed the game’s API, external Pokémon maps no longer work in the way that players are used to. Previously, you could consult at a Google Maps-style map to see where would be best for a Pokémon expedition; but now you have to rely on luck to find new monsters. The game play is supposed to be more exciting that way. But it isn’t. Many find it frustrating, random, uninteresting.

Niantic is pursuing a vision of the game that is not shared by players. The hype surrounding Pokémon Go doesn’t just show how a game can create a community, but also to what degree a community can shape a game—and how it can make of it something very different from what the developers had in mind. As long as Niantic doesn’t make any wide-ranging changes to the game, Pokémon Go will likely remain successful, profitable and popular. But it’s likely we’ll never again see a Summer of Pokémon like we did in 2016.

“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!

Dennis Kogel

Dennis Kogel

Dennis Kogel, 28, is a journalist and trainer from Berlin. He speaks about games, technology and internet culture for the public radio station Fritz. He teaches at the Games Academy Berlin and writes reports for GameStar and VICE.
Dennis Kogel

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