The real lesson of Pokemon Go

Hilarious woman freaks out as she gets stuck in graveyard while playing Pokemon Go. Courtesy: denial007

On the hunt for Pokemon.

THE real lesson of Pokemon Go is this: don’t be first.

Pokemon Go is a new game for smartphones, with a difference. To play, users don’t just sit still. They must visit locations in the real world. Since its release a week ago, it has become the most popular smartphone application in history.

Observers are tripping over each other in a rush to call it “revolutionary”. But it is not revolutionary at all.

Many big companies seemed to develop a new technology then turn into giants. It is easy to think of Google’s search technology or Twitter’s micro-blogging interface. But the easy lesson to learn is often the wrong one.

Both Google and Twitter merely tweaked existing concepts. They may have been the first to pop into view, but they were carried far by predecessors that revealed the best ways forward and the dead ends.

Believing in first-mover advantage is an easy trap in business — and in life. But for those that come along after a trail is blazed there is still plenty of room — and sometimes even more room to blossom than ever seemed possible.


Games just like Pokemon Go — involving walking, visiting landmarks and doing tasks — have existed for ages.

Let’s not even talk about the old, off-line activities of orienteering, scavenger hunts and geocaching. The era of location-based computer gaming seems to have really begun with a game called Shadow Cities. It was collecting a lot of investor money in early 2011 and got some positive reviews, before fading away in 2013.

I never played Shadow Cities but it seems to have pioneered the basic concept of Pokemon Go, with other real world players and computer-generated elements dotting the map.

Shadow Cities was followed by a rash of similar games — Life Is Crime, Please Stay Calm and Merchant Kingdom — which utilised the real world in a mafia game, a zombie game and a trading game, respectively.

All these games faded away, but not before revealing a little more of what worked and what didn’t to the global game design community.

Florida students on campus in Panama City getting right into Pokemon Go. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)

Florida students on campus in Panama City getting right into Pokemon Go. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)Source:AP


In February 2014 I downloaded a game called Ingress — a game especially relevant to the Pokemon Go story. Back then, I had no way of knowing what it would become. I didn’t even know I had downloaded a game that required moving in the real world.

I remember first opening the Ingress app and reading the instruction to “walk”. I tried just about everything — shaking the phone, dragging my finger, double tapping — until I realised it actually wanted me to walk. I was intrigued.

Ingress proved to be a sort-of hit. Not a big hit like Pokemon Go, but enough to get a few headlines, and to eventually reach 10 million downloads of the app.

In the end, like most players of Ingress, I grew bored and gave up. The game was OK at best. But it has had a multi-billion dollar legacy: the success of Pokemon Go has added almost $20 billion to the market value of Nintendo in just days.

Ingress is very important to the history of Pokemon Go, because the company that made it — Niantic Labs, owned by Google — is also the company that joined with Nintendo to make Pokemon Go.

In fact, the maps, layout and content of Pokemon Go are based on Ingress. (A lot of the content of Ingress was player-sourced and has been shared with the new game. If I load the Pokemon Go app I can even see a photo I took and uploaded to Ingress back in 2014 being re-used in the new game.)


The lesson of not being first can be an inspirational one. Just because someone something has been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and done even better.

Consider the people that made Snapchat. Launching a service to send photos by phone in 2011 probably seemed silly. Email, MMS, Facebook and literally dozens of other apps were doing the job. But by doing the same thing slightly better, the people behind Snapchat ended up owning a business boasting a billion dollars in annual revenue.

That should be a lesson to anyone lamenting that their good idea has already been done. Nothing is perfected!

It should also be a warning to anyone thinking their success is assured. Even Pokemon Go should watch its back. There will be games launching soon to try to steal its thunder. None of us should be surprised at all if the next generation of real world games becomes even bigger.

Jason Murphy is an economist. He publishes the blog Thomas The Thinkengine.

Follow Jason on Twitter @Jasemurphy

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