Background Briefing: Mobile Gaming Mainstreams AR

Brands looking to stake a claim in the Augmented Reality (AR) landscape should take note: San Francisco-based Niantic, Inc. is mainstreaming AR gaming through Pokémon GO. Niantic partnered with Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company to bring this emerging technology to the masses by meeting consumers where they are – on their phones.

Greenberg Strategist, Scott Lansing, lives life one brunch at a time and considers karaoke a competitive sport

Greenberg Strategist, Scott Lansing, lives life one brunch at a time and considers karaoke a competitive sport

Greenberg Strategist, Jason Rice, consistenly maintains that Bulbasaur is the best starting Pokémon

Greenberg Strategist, Jason Rice, consistenly maintains that Bulbasaur is the best starting Pokémon

If you’re in the dark, augmented reality integrates digital data into a person’s reality – in real time – to enhance their user experience.

Consumer-targeted AR has moved front and center with the release of Pokémon GO, building on years of the technology’s proliferation (e.g., the NFL’s digital end zone lines on TV^1; e-commerce shopping aid solutions^2; Snapchat Lenses using image recognition^3).

Many vehicles benefit from the subtle aesthetics and minimal interactions AR provides, but Pokémon GO exemplifies how gaming can introduce interactive AR to a broad consumer base and deliver immersive opportunities for consumers to acclimate to this emerging technology. 

Niantic is an AR innovator and educator, but it's worth noting that they didn’t do it alone.

Niantic based Pokémon GO on its earlier game, Ingress, developed when they were an internal Google startup^4. Ingress failed to achieve Pokémon GO’s level of success – perhaps the sci-fi storyline was too niche, the gameplay too competitive and complex, or maybe it lacked the backing of a popular franchise with a 20-year history. 

Regardless, Google knew Ingress was innovative, marrying gaming with Google’s successful history of mapping^5. So what was Google/Niantic’s challenge? Gaining traction with mainstream audiences – casual mobile gamers obsessed with games like Candy Crush Saga and Plants vs. Zombies. Google/Niantic needed to partner with a brand that had a track record of entertaining the masses. Enter Nintendo.

Acknowledging mobile’s relevance in 2015^6, Nintendo needed credibility with mobile gamers to enter the landscape. Niantic needed to leverage a popular franchise to position AR mobile gaming with casual gamers. If Nintendo is chocolate and Niantic is peanut butter, then Pokémon GO is the proverbial peanut butter cup of mobile gaming brand synergy. 

Niantic was spun off as an independent company during Google’s Alphabet, Inc. restructuring. Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company (manager of the Pokémon media franchise, a third of which is owned by Nintendo)^7 then seized the opportunity to enter a symbiotic relationship, investing up to $30 million in Niantic to develop casual mobile gaming steeped in AR technology^8. 

But why is Pokémon GO such a success?

Pokémon GO is a milestone, bridging social experiences with gamification to bring AR to the masses. With an estimated revenue of more than $3 million per day as of August 1, 2016^9, Niantic is cashing in on the accessibility of AR gaming through devices consumers already own, without requiring expensive headsets.

Niantic has also taken the social implications of AR further than Snapchat Lenses provide consumers, creating social AR experiences that incentivize and prolong gameplay, keeping players coming back.

Evidence of the social experiences Pokémon GO delivers is found in a Sensor Tower study^1^0 that reports that at one point, people spent more time on Pokémon GO than Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or Instagram (July 12, 2016). Whether with friends or strangers on the street, Pokémon GO and AR are bringing consumers back to actual reality, facilitating real life experiences that most popular social media apps aren’t providing.

An example of this is Pokémon GO’s emphasis on cooperative competition among players. Instead of focusing on individual competition – and the pressure it can bring – success is achieved through active engagements that are social in nature (e.g., walking with friends on your team; walking solo to play with strangers at a physical location; advancements via smartphone pedometer activity; changing locations to “catch ’em all!”). 

It’s not a difficult game – if your dog needs walking, you can engage with Pokémon GO. It also doesn’t require the time needed to effectively manage an Internet presence (e.g., maintaining Twitter or Instagram accounts) to achieve success.

Pokémon GO creates engagement opportunities for people who prefer digital and/or real-life interactions because they’re simultaneously experiencing both. It has even been cited by Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization, as an example of how AR gaming can motivate children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to get outdoors and interact^1^1. Pokémon GO’s ease of gameplay makes it accessible for all casual mobile gamers.

Consider Pokémon GO as AR training wheels

Pokémon GO is establishing AR credibility with Niantic, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company. These brands are carving their place in consumers’ consideration sets to be synonymous with AR before more sophisticated platforms are available. 

Pokémon GO’s accessibility means its reach extends beyond the niche audience that Ingress created, appealing to mainstream mobile gamers. It also means Niantic has created a mobile experience that keeps audiences captivated by their smartphones for up to 30 minutes at a time – an opportunity for brands interested in location-based consumer engagement. 

Consumers may not know they’re experiencing AR while playing Pokémon GO, because it’s a fun, casual game that allows for seamless adoption of AR as a platform for consumer interaction.

How brands can benefit from Pokémon GO

Technology brands should use Pokémon GO as a rubric to advance AR gaming and other consumer experiences, always keeping in mind the importance of brand partnerships and other factors that need to work in unison. 

It took the offspring of a tech giant acquiring funding from established gaming and entertainment brands to bring AR mobile gaming to the masses. This was achieved with: 
•    A low barrier of entry (free app download, easy to play)
•    A recognizable property (the Pokémon franchise)
•    An inherently social experience (competing with peers, not against them)
•    The cool factor of AR (a new toy)

Omit one of these and a brand is likely to create the next Ingress, not Pokémon GO.

Tech brands looking to corner the AR market should consider gamification to reach consumers, but tech brands alone aren’t credible when it comes to gaming – it may take synergistic partnerships to establish this. Google and Niantic didn’t do it alone; they had the infrastructure in place, but Nintendo and The Pokémon Company delivered credibility.

Pokémon GO exemplifies how gaming can introduce interactive AR to a broad consumer base

^1 “Did Sports Pave the Way for Augmented Reality?” Dennis Williams, Augment, July 7th, 2016
^2 “Can augmented reality reinvigorate one-time e-commerce darling Fab?” April Berthene, Internet Retailer, July 12, 2016
^3 “Snapchat has taken a lead in one of the most disruptive areas of tech” Seth Archer, Business Insider, June 22, 2016
^4 “The accidental history of Niantic’s Pokémon GO, as told by John Hanke” Dean Takahashi, VentureBeat, August 10, 2016
^5 “How the gurus behind Google Earth created Pokémon GO” Ariel Bogle, Mashable, July 10, 2016
^6 “Why Nintendo Is Finally Making Mobile Games” Ryan Winslett, Cinema Blend, March 25, 2015
^7 “The Pokémon Company: Company History” The Pokémon Company Website, 2016
^8 “Niantic Inc. Raises $20 Million in Financing from The Pokémon Company, Google and Nintendo” Press Release, Niantic Inc., October 15, 2015
^9 “Pokémon GO Money: A Game Worth $29 Billion” Tom Gerencer, Money Nation, August 1, 2016
^1^0 “Mobile Users Are Spending More Time in Pokémon GO Than Facebook” Randy Nelson, Sensor Tower Blog, July 12, 2016
^1^1 “Pokémon GO: What parents of individuals with autism need to understand” Dr. Peter Faustino, Autism Speaks Blog, July 15, 2016