While the overall player base is down compared to its massive launch, Niantic’s AR hit is still thriving two years later, with an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue and $70 million last month alone according to analysts.
This weekend, Niantic held its second annual Pokemon Go Fest in Chicago, overcoming last year’s connectivity issues and instead highlighting the game’s biggest strength: its community. With new features coming every few months and near-weekly in-game events, Pokemon Go has hit its stride in the wake of its second birthday, and it isn’t slowing down any time soon.
The Second Time Around
Following an inaugural Pokemon Go Fest plagued by problems, Niantic faced a class action lawsuit and thousands of unhappy fans last year. Of the many goals set for Pokemon Go in 2018, one was obvious: Pokemon Go Fest had to go well.
As CEO John Hanke told us earlier this year, Niantic used the lessons from previous stumbles to make future events stronger. Taking a cue from the end of last year’s Go Fest, Pokemon Go events have radically transformed to take place over entire cities in order to reduce cellular network strain, a strategy that has worked well for events in Europe and Asia since last year.
“There's obviously a lot of learnings from Chicago, and we've said publicly that that was a tough day for Niantic, one of the toughest in our history. We learned from that,” Niantic CMO Mike Quigley told IGN at this year’s Go Fest.
Those lessons seem to have paid off. Walking through this year’s event, the problems from 2017 were nowhere to be found. Connectivity was nearly flawless throughout the entire two-day event, and the structure – spread out across a 1.8-mile path in Lincoln Park – led players to points of interest including various themed real-world “habitats” with diverse Pokemon spawns. Hubs for event check-in were placed at the far opposite north and south ends of the park, eliminating lines and potential cellular bottlenecks.
“It's very iterative and I think we take each event seriously in the sense that we try to make it customized a little bit, make sure it's something special so it's not just a cookie cutter rinse and repeat thing,” Quigley said. “The layout you see here today with the four habitats and the lounges at the north and south end is actually us reacting and trying to optimize as opposed to just saying ‘let's just go brute force and let's try to cram a higher amount of people in a smaller space.’ I guess in hindsight it sounds like something that we should have instantly known, but there are just some things you can't test until you try them. The thing I'm proudest of is we just continued to try to push and be aggressive and be innovative.”
This year’s event saw no major problems and kicked off Niantic’s summer with a bang, bringing 21,000 registered attendees and more than 180,000 players to Chicago over the weekend. The event culminated with the release of mythical Pokemon Celebi for attendees and marks another notch in Niantic’s belt during a successful 2018 so far.
A Pokemon Renaissance
Looking back a year, Pokemon Go was having a tough time last summer. Even aside from the issues at Go Fest, last summer’s events were followed by the introduction of the invite-only EX Raid system, a controversial feature that split the community, as well as a drought of major new content leading into autumn.
But throughout those bumps in the road, Niantic was listening and learning. Existing features have been refined and improved, and in 2018, Niantic has found a much faster, more consistent cadence of updates and monthly events to rally the community. The developer has also hired an ever-growing community team behind the scenes to facilitate better experiences for fans, including the monthly Community Day, which features a specific Pokemon with an exclusive move.
“We've said this before, but we listen to the community a lot,” Quigley said. “We're listening, and we're trying to be responsive to not only some of the innovative ideas internally, but to what the fans want. [Pokemon] is an IP that's 22 years old and growing strong, and we feel we're helping contribute to that. If we're not keeping fans happy, then we're going to fail.”
Quigley says the development team works closely with The Pokemon Company to make sure new features make sense not just for Pokemon Go, but for the Pokemon brand in general. “It's been a learning curve for both companies. There are some things that we have done in our history that they haven't and vice versa. I think that it's exciting to be growing this product experience together with them, making sure they feel comfortable, that we're doing right by Pokemon overall globally, and that we're also helping to add some fresh energy and fresh experiences for folks.”
Speaking to members of the Pokemon Go community, it’s clear that Niantic’s tactics are paying off.
“There's just a lot more to do in the game than there was two years ago,” YouTuber Nicholas Oyzon told IGN at Go Fest. Under the name Trainer Tips, Oyzon started his channel at Pokemon Go’s launch and has grown into one of the most popular Pokemon Go influencers, nearing 750,000 subscribers with videos focused on traveling while playing the game and his love of the core Pokemon series.
“When you hear people saying ‘oh, you're still playing that game?’ they're thinking it's still the same game as it was at launch, and it's really not. There's so much more than that.”
“When you hear people saying ‘oh, you're still playing that game?’ they're thinking it's still the same game as it was at launch, and it's really not."
Brandon Martyn, who publishes on YouTube as Mystic7, has amassed more than 1.6 million subscribers and publishes daily Pokemon Go vlogs. According to Martyn, Niantic has been doing a much better job of keeping the community energized through recent updates.
“When you think of hype in Pokemon Go, you think of the first month of everyone running around, but hype comes from constant things coming to the game, and that's something the game lacked, which is why it saw lower numbers in January or February 2017. It was just really slow,” Martyn said, “But once they started bringing out those constant updates – monthly Legendaries, weekly or biweekly events, Community Day events. There's so much that the game gets now that they just didn't do in the past. It's consistent. You always have something to do.”
Another influencer, Holly Patterson (PkmnMasterHolly on YouTube) has become a rising star in the community, interviewing players and highlighting the game’s ever-improving AR photo functionality in a channel she started just over a year ago.
“The game has changed so much in the past year,” Patterson agreed. “Weather, friendship, raids, not to mention new generations of Pokemon, Alolan forms, giving gifts, trading. It's a whole different game.”
“Niantic has shown over and over through features like friendship, the way they have reinvented trading, the way they introduced features like the weather system... it really goes to show that Niantic does have a really innovative, creative team behind them to make sure that we continue to be surprised about features,” Giorgio Lapian (Reversal on YouTube) told us.
Lapian, who recently crossed the 100 million experience mark in Pokemon Go (five times the game’s current level cap of 20 million) covers everything from quick news updates to in-depth features on the art of grinding.
For Patterson, it’s the social features that have helped Pokemon Go shine, especially those that foster face-to-face interaction.
“Raids were the thing that got me to start my channel. The very first Tyranitar raid ever released is the first video I ever made. Because as soon as they announced that, as soon as I knew that was going to be a thing, I was like, ‘so you're telling me that I'm going to get together all my friends that I've been grinding with forever, and we're going to get to play together? Oh, okay. It's real.’ Pokemon Go was always meant to be a game that you play with your friends.”
“I think it's definitely something they had in mind from the beginning,” Oyzon added. “Coming from Ingress, there's a lot of social features. You have the in-game chat, and I think Niantic understands social aspects add to the longevity of the game.”
While Niantic hasn’t always offered social features natively, the community has been able to fill in the blanks themselves. The Silph Road, a thriving Pokemon Go community that began as a potential trading marketplace, has evolved into a research hub for all things Pokemon Go. From determining the probability of in-game events to datamining software updates, the community works together to solve some of the game’s mysteries.