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Pokémon GO shows where gamification is going wrong

Opinion, 26 July 2016

This guest post is written by Timo Tuominen, senior software consultant at digital innovation consultancy Futurice.

Sectors ranging from banking to retail are drawing lessons from the success of Pokémon GO, a global media and marketing phenomenon. Closer to home, this location-based, augmented reality mobile game provides four clear learnings for the burgeoning gamification app and pure gaming sectors.

1. Gamification must take play more seriously

Unlike services such as LinkedIn and DuoLingo which use gamification design elements to improve engagement/reward progress/motivate learning, Pokémon GO does not try to be useful. Instead, by creating a virtual reality world that is seemingly fair and internally coherent, it reminds people of the joy of pure play.

Too many gamification apps attempt to merely glue game design elements such as badges on top of services that do something "useful” without taking the play element seriously. Just adding badges without a game plan, prompts the question "why would I want these badges?" and “what is their value?” On check-in app Swarm I have 2600 coins but I have no idea what they are for, or what I can do with them. On Pokémon GO I am considering whether to buy coins to progress faster in the game and "save time."

2. Social appeal is as important as rewards

One of the unusual features of Pokémon GO is its real world social component with communities forming and meeting in physical locations at Pokéstops and Pokémon GO Gyms. The app’s Lure Module feature, which increases a player’s chance of seeing a Pokémon, underlines the social element because when a player buys a lure, they become visible to other nearby players who are drawn to the same location.

This is a key learning for gamification apps: rather than focusing purely on rewards, they need to consider how they can inject the same excitement and social appeal into their gaming strategy. Can we expect to see tie-ups between Nintendo and brands that use gamification apps going forward?

3. Augmented Reality trumps Alternative Reality

Pokémon GO also has lessons for pure gaming, which with one or two exceptions such as Pokemon GO’s less well known predecessor, Ingress, have been about escaping the real world. The attraction of blockbusters like World of Warcraft, Clash of Clans and Counter Strike is that players become so immersed in their gaming world that they consider it as an alternative to reality.

By contrast, interacting with (an augmented reality version of) the real world is a pre-requisite of playing Pokémon GO: it’s only possible to play by leaving the house and walking around your local area. In fact, it’s not surprising Pokémon GO is being called an exercise app in disguise; the game rewards players according to how far they walk by requiring them to walk a certain distance before hatching an egg or catching more valuable Pokémon.

Expect to see more alternative reality games develop an Augmented Reality/real world dimension to the existing online version.

4. Nostalgia beats the allure of the new

Creating a state-of-the-art VR game from an entertainment brand familiar to many Millennials from their childhood, is a stroke of genius. What feels like an overnight success is actually the accumulation of 20 years’ hard work with Nintendo able to leverage two decades of goodwill towards its brand.

This is a real lesson for state-of-the art gamified apps which don’t have the heritage and brand equity to fall back on should the user experience fail to live up to expectations.

About the author

Warc invites guests to post on its blog from time to time. If you have an issue or topic of interest to a global audience of advertising and marketing professionals, get in touch.