3 reasons Pokémon Go is so engaging (...and 3 things Niantic could fix)

As I stared at the loading screen for Pokémon Go for the third time this morning I started to question myself... why am I still playing this game? It's incredibly buggy, there's not that much to it, yet I'm still finding myself opening it to look for Pokémon.

I'm sure you've heard of Pokémon Go given the insane popularity of it. It's a location-based game for your smartphone where you walk around in the real world and try to catch virtual monsters to add to your collection.

Source: Pokémon

Source: Pokémon

It's taken the world by storm, and for very good reasons, Niantic, the team behind the game, have made some very clever gameplay design decisions that keep people coming back for more. Let's teardown this app and look at the design in more detail.

3 things that make this game engaging

1. Gotta catch 'em all!

The Pokémon brand is powerful, with over 20 games in the core series and a huge following already, Pokémon Go was destined to be popular. 

This game has a nice clear goal. In fact it's had the same goal for the last 20 years, "gotta catch 'em all". However, the difference between this and other Pokémon games is that catching them all is really all there is to this game. There's little in the way of story, you can't trade other players or battle them, the focus of this game is really about finding all the different Pokémon. The novelty is that this game takes place in the real world, and so as Professor Willow tells you at the start of the game "You'll need to find and collect Pokémon from everywhere." So with that in mind you begin to walk around, and try to find as many Pokémon as you can in the real world.

The game gives you great immediate feedback, showing when you're close to a Pokémon you haven't caught yet by presenting a silhouette of the Pokémon (see image below). This makes it incredibly that something you don't have is nearby, and you're motivated to want to see what the Pokémon looks like, and to fill in the silhouette. 

In addition to this, the Pokédex then gives you good overview of how you're progressing towards your final goal of catching them all by clearly showing you which Pokémon you've caught and which ones you've seen out of all that are available (see image below).

So we're off to a good start with a novel game mechanic, clear overall goal, immediate feedback to sub-goals, and a sense of progression towards the goal of catching them all. 

2. Reward schedules

Here's the kicker though when it comes to catching Pokémon, some are incredibly easy to catch and you'll soon get sick of them appearing (I'm looking at you Zubat), but others are much more difficult to find. 

Niantic encourages you to "look for Pokémon at habitats that match where they're most likely to live.  For example, if you’re on the beach or at a pier, you’re more likely to find Water-type Pokémon." This gives you some idea of what you might find in a particular, but beyond that it's pretty random. 

Yes! No Zubats today! Source: Niantic Labs

Yes! No Zubats today! Source: Niantic Labs

So there's a variable ratio intermittent schedule of reinforcement at play here. You walk around and Pokémon will appear nearby, often they'll be common Pokémon (like Zubat or Pidgey) but sometimes a rarer one will appear, or one that you haven't caught yet. This type of reinforcement can be very rewarding, case in point below.

There's also another reinforcement schedule in the game, each Pokémon has different stats, some of them are weak and some are strong. So as a player you're motivated to try and find the strongest Pokémon (there's even websites to help you work out if you should train your Pokémon or not - see the IV Rater tab). 

This kind of gameplay is similar to loot drops in some games, where you fight monsters who drop loot, some of it might be average but some might just be totally epic and powerful. Finding the best loot can be incredibly motivating.

There are other rewards that drive players, catching Pokémon, fighting at Gyms and spinning Pokéstops gives experience points (XP) and players can level up. As you level up you get items and you often find more powerful Pokémon.

3. Social connectedness

Finally, this game has added some really nice elements that encourage social connectedness. I want to talk about two, the lure module and shared Pokémon.

The lure module item was a great idea. It's an item that can be placed on a Pokéstop and using it encourages more wild Pokémon to appear. The nice thing about the lure module is that it can be used by everyone, not just by the person who placed it. This means that you get groups of people gathering in the same areas and benefitting from the module. If you place it, you're likely going to feel good that you're helping people out, and it encourages people to meet in real life. 

What makes this even better is that most of the Pokémon that appear in the game can be caught by everyone. Niantic could have chosen to design it in a way so that everyone found different Pokémon, or that only one player could catch the Pokémon that appeared. However, by choosing to let every player try and catch the same Pokémon you get some really interesting shared experiences occurring.

Supporting social connectedness is important in games for fostering engagement. If you're interested in why, you can read up on this in the lesson on motivation on this site. 

3 things that need to be fixed

Of course no game is perfect, and there are some things that could be fixed in order to improve the player experience. Here's a few I'd like to see Niantic fix in future updates.

1. Bugs and problems

I'm beginning to hear more and more people start to complain about bugs in Pokémon Go, where something is broken or not working like it's supposed to. Of course it's difficult to find all the bugs in a game before it's released, and players are often forgiving if they're pretty minor. Bug major bugs that break the flow of the game or make you feel cheated can often be a deal-breaker. There are a few in Pokémon Go, but Niantic are starting to address them with updates.

2. Hatching eggs

Keeping the app open in order to hatch an egg is frustrating. Primarily, because the app uses so much battery and it's not natural to walk with the phone on in your pocket. Smart phones have sensors in them to be able to determine how much you've walked (or at least how many steps you've taken). I'm not sure of Niantic's reasoning behind not using these features, maybe it is difficult to do it the game engine they're using, but nonetheless it's frustrating and should be fixed.

3. Long-term engagement strategies

Finally, because there is little in the way of story, progression, or challenge, the game begins to get boring quite quickly. Once the novelty of finding new Pokémon wears off, the game becomes a bit of a grind. Releasing more types of Pokémon might help, but it only stays off the inevitable a bit longer. This game needs more to it to continue to engage players. It would be great to see the addition of community events and missions being added, or even the introduction of Team Rocket to create a sense of purpose to the game. Let's see what Niantic have up their sleeve for future releases to keep us engaged.

Neither good... nor bad?

Poor instructions

One more thing, this game has terrible instructions. Trying to work out what to do can be incredibly difficult and I'm still finding out about new features I didn't know existed. However, I couldn't work out if this something that needed to be fixed or if it was in fact a clever design choice. The reason? By hiding information about the game it encourages you to find it and share it with your friends. This encourages socialising, sharing of tips and tricks and even urban myths, which lead to an even stronger community being built around the game.

Wrap up

So that's a teardown of Pokémon Go. There's a lot more to the game but hopefully this teardown has provided some insight into some of the clever design choices made by Niantic. I can't see what they have in store for us in the future and I'm excited that these location-based games have now become more mainstream.