Pokémon Go is the game that caught the world. With downloads in the tens of millions and active user rates overtaking Tinder and Twitter in the US, it’s a game that’s become a cultural phenomenon in less than a week and sent franchise owner Nintendo’s share price soaring. The appeal seems obvious. For kids, the catch-em-all, collect-em-all appeal of Pokémon is evergreen. For parents, it’s a way to bond with kids and get them out of the house. And for that massive slice of the game’s audience in between who were there for the first Pokémon craze in the late 90s, it’s a childhood dream come true.
Fluent Innovation is all about combining genuine, surprising novelty with stuff that is already fluent and familiar. “20% exciting surprise, 80% delightfully familiar” – as we put it in our previous post about it. That combination of the instantly familiar and the marvellously new is what made Moka coffee machines sell, what helps scientific papers get cited… and now it’s what’s broken augmented reality games – where the game interface overlaps with the real world via your device – through to the mainstream in one remarkable swoop.
Pokémon Go maker Niantic previously made another augmented reality game, Ingress, which worked in very similar ways to Pokémon Go (Ingress’ maps of key locations overlap heavily with the new game’s Gyms and Pokestops). It was a big cult success, but on nowhere near the mainstream scale of Pokémon Go. Some gaming commentators have sighed over the fact that the genuinely innovative, smooth-running and feature-rich Ingress only achieved a tiny percentage of the success Pokémon Go has. The difference, obviously, is Pokémon: add a strong franchise to new technology and you have a success on your hands.
The reason why this technique works so well is Fluent Innovation. The barriers to an unfamiliar behaviour – interacting with the world via augmented reaity – are lowered by the addition of familiar unique assets – Pikachu and his chums. There are a lot more useful things you can do with the new behaviour than catch Pokémon – but without that shot of fluency they just feel weird. Just look at Google Glass, which sought to bring augmented reality to the masses and ended up an ambitious white elephant as far as wider consumers were concerned.
But it’s not just a case of add a branded character and sell more. At the height of the Pokémon craze, you could buy Pokémon toothbrushes, watches and duvet covers. I’m sure they sold fine, but they didn’t dramatically expand teeth-brushing or time-telling overnight. They didn’t have any real innovation in the mix. For Fluent Innovation, neither the new or the familiar is enough by itself.
(With thanks to the trainers in our London, Shoreham, New York and Miami offices for the images used in this post!)