Lessons from Pokemon GO 2016 success through game design reverse engineering

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AutorDr. Flavio Escribano >> @ludictador

Revision: Sergio Alloza Castillo >> @PsycGamer

Spanish Version here: POKEMON_GO.pdf

Intro Pokemon

Pokemon is a very sucesfull game, specially for gamers who usually enjoy Nintendo handsets. All these creatures have been one of the favourite plagues inside the japanese machines and we call them ‘a plague’ because ,despite some pokemons are very hard to be found in the game, every Nintendo portable has been blessed with at least a game from the saga for the last 20 years, from Game Boy to Nintendo DS and WiiU.

His creator, Satoshi Tajiri has transformed his personal obsession on insect collecting into a massive, mutant and international phenomenon of misterious mini-monsters hunting, thanks to them a lot of micro-stories are concatenated to produce a bigger transmedia meta-story.

‘Pokemon’s plague’ has touched everything, not only videogames but films, TV, cómics, card and board games, clothe, etc. It is so successful that even All Nippon Airways has ten of their regular air lines Boeings fully decorated with giant Pokemons. There are also very profitable mechandising Pokemon Centers by the wealthiest areas of Japan, Europe and United States.

IATA ANA B747-400D Pokémon
Pokemon Jet ANA B747-400D by IATA.

There is only one best-selling franquise above Pokemon, this is Mario, maybe the most famous fictional character worldwide. On 2014 videogame global sellings lists were led by Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Saphire, on 2013 Pokemon X and Y were in third position. Pokemon have been selling leaders globally year by year in the Nintendo handhelds and by the time it is the only  mobile game ever with 5 Guinness world records.

What is the reason behind this new form of success of Pokemon saga in Mobile devices? We would like to use one of our main gamification tools in order to analyze the possible causes of this success.

Intro GMC

Gamification Model Canvas is one of the three most popular and relevant tools to design a gamified experience. It was released 4 years ago by Sergio Jiménez (Gamification World Conference Director and AIWIN CEO) and is considered the most cost-effective framework for gamification projects. It consists in a box-by-box playful path with visual and conceptual helps thanks to which is possible to drive the process and deal with the most of the information available and decissions to make in order to design a complete succesfull gamified experience.

Gamification Model Canvas Cards
Image of Gamification Model Canvas Board cards


The first step on Gamification Model Canvas process is to define the Revenues (or benefits) we will obtain thanks to implement gamification itself.

In Commercial Video Games revenues mean selling, selling and keeping selling more and more. This is a lot of players playing our game and talking about it, buying it a lot and during longer periods of time. Furthermore in the field of Gamification the gameplay must be able to be moved to out-of-the-screen reality (reallity of atoms). Beyond the goals of maximizing videogames sells, gamification sets goals about behavior change not only in the game but also out the game, revenues in gamification must to empower throught a mixing between behaviors and game mechanics. Some examples about this are: burning calories throught a running app, use credit cards more frequently in an ecommerce portal, etc.

To understand this much better it is needed to speak about Gameworld and Gamespace concepts. According to some authors GameWorld is the space our avatar inhabits within the game, the digital underworld where the game dynamics happen; furthermore GameSpace is everything needed to sustain gameplay (from game console, to visual interfaces elementes). Even so I prefer to think on GameSpace as everything that happens around the gameplay (and also needed to sustain gameplay experience), that is marketing campaigns, chatting in forums, youtubers inputs and also school playground discussions.

Videogame marketing has evolved to become progresively aware of the need of generating lots of buzz (maybe the fastest way of setting actions in the GameSpace) about their games, part of this necesity has crystalized in the form of ‘youtubing’. Youtubers make very rich content for GameSpace in an unprecedent manner even to the point of summoning their fans for actions in the real space to receive personal worship from them. However any of those actions have not being parameterized by any game engine, conversely some very complex statistics tools from digital marketing could barely collect similar information at most. On the other hand gamification really wants to parameterize (and also dynamize) all those actions trying to put both Gameworld and GameSpace under the same umbrella, both controlling and generating some outputs or results called Revenues (according to Gamification Model Canvas), these revenues can be measured in terms of economics, procedural, engage or just behavior changes revenues.

In this case of Pokemon Go (I think it applies also to most of the aumented reality-geolocated games) it is needed the players to develope some parameterized actions throught the accomplish of some gameplay challenges (revenues) in the real-analogic space, so that means that all these actions which usually players develop in GameWorld actually they have also to develop in the GameSpace, exactly how this happens in Gamification projects. This is one linking point between AR-Geolocated Games and Gamification.

Player Profiling

According to a Gamification Model Canvas analysis of Pokemon Go, the following is doing the Player Profiling.

Users types let us to choice among a catalog of aesthetics thanks to which we engage players to our activity, we motivate players to use our game/app anywhere anytime this way.

Making some review of videogames History one of the most important limitation Nintendo had (and also the majority of videogame consoles brands) in order to attract a huge amount of users was every player needed to have one of the company devices and usually all these players have been a children audience. However something that have positioned Nintendo over their competitors in terms of opening the scope of their customers was 2006 Nintendo Wii Console. Why? Basically because Nintendo finally opened the can of worms with beatyful results thanks to a first move with Nintendo DS which provoked an explosion of an unprecedent huge amount of casual gamers and making a close contact to them. Suddenly the japanese company realized its users markets are 20 years old high school stundent but also their aunts, their teachers and the grandmother of the neighbour so this afterlight forced Nintendo to rethink the contents and, also, the gameplay of its games, setting a new know-how and the development of a very particular game culture.

Meanwhile Nintendo was working that way, both SONY and Microsoft looked on that with mistrust from their addiction to polygons and hardcore gaming place of complacency. There were some clues that pointed out Microsoft to be able to move itself into smartphones gaming: first it doesn’t have any handheld console, SmartGlass was presented in 2012 E3, etc. Unfortunetelly Redmon’s company have barely published a couple of puzzle games in Google’s Market. SONY looks like yet defining its mobile sexuality reaping very poor successes and without solving its partnership to Ericsoon, which is a lost of precious time. Taking all this background into account it was very surprising to see how the company which is the most implied in handheld gaming was the first to launch a real bet on smartmobile gaming: Miimoto (a kind of gamified chat) what was clearly a fundamental learning in terms of user profiling for their own and further Pokemon Go experience. In my oppinion this experience was crucial to deal with the opposite interests of the departments involved: DS and smartphone ones.

If this was not enought, Google had been sucessfully testing the use of gamification to obtain huge amount of data throught Ingress Game. Thanks to geolocated gamification and some outlines of Augmented Reality Google rose up an army of volunteers which allow Google to mine very valuable information about street distances, timing to get arrival points and, most important, information about themselves and Nintendo was not going to let the opportunity of get a very important allie like that in order to obtain even more and more users and data.

Ingress Game Screenshot
Promotional image of Ingress.


I have mentioned previously that any gamification project start is defining Revenues and how these have to be achieved thanks to users developing new behaviors according to the needs of these Revenues. Every behavior we need to be developed in our gamification projects are being executed into the GameWorld/GameSpace and that means to do things such as to use more a credit card, to consume a medicine regularly or to do more exercise.

According to the Gamification Model Canvas framework (and our evolution influenced by Fogg’s theories, among others) the behaviors can be divided into three different types: Point, Lapse and Path, reflecting a very useful behavior change scale to facilitate the progression and make it more acceptable for users to help them even to generate new life styles. By general any gamification project have to meet specific Revenues in a limit period of time, maybe this is the reason why gamification projects usually don’t last so they don’t try usually to set path-behaviors in users. The persistence of the effect of gamification projects also is limited.

In the case of videogames the most desired Behavior to be developed in gamers should be Path kind of, that is, any company is happy to make its game the most played and during the longest period of time as posible (until the next new game release), even better if monetization matchs this behavior. There is no exception in the case of Pokemon GO, where the use of the game for a long time is one of the main goals. Nevertheless to produce a long term engage our recommendation is to distribute user’s effors into Point kind behaviors in a first level to, lately, get it into Lapse and (in case) finally to Path.

In this sense we can find some points in common between Pokemon Go and any Gamification project in which the Behaviors are not only present in GameWorld but also in the GameSpace, that is, what happen inside and outside the screen. This relationship can be found in any Augmented Reality game, in this kind of games GameWorlds expands into GameSpace, hence the Behaviors are planned to be developed in two levels: inside and outside the app or platform.

Behaviors in Pokemon GO are close related to space usage, this is, to navigate and executing more complex tasks each time: from to catch very common pokemon to find true rarities and, finally, after training and evolving them, to conquer and defend gyms (they are specific places addresed in physical space). During this process there are some other agents interacting, these agents are also generating some Behaviors which also impact in the monetization, this is, in the Revenues.


Gamification Model Canvas’ fifth step: to define aesthetic elements which motivate players to action.

Pokemon Aesthetics are not very different from other previous Pokemon games. Aesthetic elements (emotional enjoyment) have been translated almost literally from previous version of the game to the actual for smartphones.

When a Game Studio is planning to make a new game and specifically an AR game the main barrier is indeed to use the smartphone as a filter for the reallity. Most of AR games have not deserved to go down in history except Niantic work Ingress which teach us how AR go far beyond just overlaying 3D CGI images over a picture of your real environment but to generate spooky presences thanks to geolocation technology and making user to feel there is an energy portal in a park 100m far from home. Results? Maybe the first sucesfull AR videogame for smartphones with more than 350k highly recurrent and engaged users. Even when the main barrier for engagement (Simplicity) is physical (to go down the streets smartphone in hand) this was ironically its main strenght in a kind of resilient movement.

If the main pitfall of AR Games is getting our ass up and go outside to play, in Pokemon GO could not be any other way but thanks to a good game design and to a good Game World-Game Space translation (y la experiencia de Niantic) this pitfall has been met.


Quinto paso en el Gamification Model Canvas, definir los elementos estéticos que motivarán a los jugadores a la acción.

Pokemon Aesthetics are not very different from other previous Pokemon games. Aesthetic elements (emotional enjoyment) have been translated almost literally from previous version of the game to the actual for smartphones.

Pokemon and also Pokemon Go have been designed to ‘invoke’ some of our aesthetic feelings:

  • Collecting, of both objects and in-game creatures.
  • Achieved Challenges or increasing progress when pokèmons are being evolved but also when main character is levelling up
  • Fellowship, when meeting other players making pokèmons combat each other or socializing when caughting pokèmons together walking down the street
  • Fantasy. Sensation of being part of an amazing adventure caughting creatures from another world with very attractive super-powers to be developed.
  • Discovery. Finally and maybe the most important is the exploration feeling, we asuming the fact that thanks to Pokemon GO we are not beeing represented by an avatar but being this avatar itself, projecting ourselves into our own world which has been modified, enriched with AR. So, now, in order to make experience go forward we have to move, to walk to explore and re-discover the real space.


Gamification Model Canvas is based on MDA paper, according to this paper dynamics are the actions generated by the interaction between players and game mechanics, the things we can ‘do’ within the game… And what does Pokemon allow us to do? What actions (Dynamics) can we develop in order to enjoy (Aesthetics) the most?

One of the innovations we made in GMC is to modify Dynamic nouns to Dynamic verbs, we found nouns appear as pasive statements in opposition to what a dynamic really is: a active action, a verb. One example is Scarcity, in 1.0 GMC appears as just as “scarcity” but in 2.0 it was changed to “to deal with scarcity”, Why? Because just “scarcity” could be interpreted as so many ways as “provoke scarcity to other users” or “to avoid scarcity in the system”.

Gamification Model Canvas Dynamic card Evolution
One of the GMC dynamics boardcards with the new modification.

Pokemon Go’s game mechanics are perfect to generate a lot of very addictive Dynamics, even some of them are not set in our Canvas. Following the relationship between Aesthetics and Dynamics:

  • We use “to deal with scarcity” and “exploring the physical espace” to provoke Discovering feelings
  • Challenge feelings are based on “to compete”, “making grow the status” and “to be creative” dynamics
  • Fantasy is related to storytellig so “enhancing the identity” and “visualizing the progress” are helping this way
  • Fellowship is produced throught “attending an appoinment” dynamic, either for an appointment into the GameWorld/GameSpace to catch Pokemons with friends, protect gyms or sharing information in Youtube, Blogs, etc.


All the previous would be not possible without Mechanics, this is, the result of game (gamification) design, the developed rules of the game that establish not only the world and the characters but the rules and meaning inside the game.

Pokemon has been based in the same premise: in a mechanic of searching and hunting creatures with special skills we have to evolve to compite each others obtaining more and more experience so we are able to unlock more places to visit and getting more creatures. In some of the console classics the final goal is to develope all the main plot and to become the best Pokemon Trainer having every different creature at the highest level of evolution. No doubts it is a very addictive formula thanks to the high number of possibilities and interactions between space, characters, objects and creatures.

Items Catalogue in Pokemon Go mobile game
The catalogue of objects is one the most important mechanics in Pokemon Go

Based on this argument, the most interesting thing of this version of Pokemon are its new innovations in terms of game components which help us to design all this ludic ecosystem, that means the Mechanics:

  • Points. As xps (experience points) that allow user to know its progress
  • Levels. Both for main character (us) and for the must-to-evolve Pokemons. Go high in levelling let us to access more mechanics
  • Progress Bar. To visualize the levelling progression -Leaderboards. Not only as a top players list but as teams (blue, yellow, red), in order to force players to decide between them
  • Virtual Currency. Pokecoins to evolve faster the pokemons and buy add-ons
  • Countdown. The stepts you need to unlock items.
  • Missions. As combos to achieve some goals/badges
  • Catalog / Inventory of items you need obtain to success.
  • Badges as levelling up representations we get achieving some missions
  • Randomness of Pokemons appearings in different places
  • Virtual Goods to improve our creatures
  • Avatars as our self-representation in the game and representation of Pokemons

In Summarize

Obviously the success of Pokemon is the good result of a perfect cocktail of all the game design mechanics, how they interact betweem them are the perfect mixing. The dynamic of collecting both objects and creatures in the game extends the game timing a lot, the hope of finding every creature helps us to deal with the anxiety of trying to reach the main goal and the evolution of them extends far beyond the time and effords we have to expend in making them grow up in power.

Our competitive feelings are satisfyed when fighting in gyms that it is too a method for level comparison between users which show us our development within the game and the evolution and power level of our creatures, otherwise we will have to expend more time and resources to evolve our pokemons in order to conquer new gyms and defend owns.

Thanks to the evolution of our creatures we will be able to achieve more challenges and socialize with other teams’ players, fighting against them produces socializing aesthetics so we don’t feel alone playing the game. This feeling becomes more strong thanks to storytelling, the feeling of being part of both fantastic and epic adventure within a mixing of real and digital space, a new hybrid place inhabitated by a lot of different creatures with special powers.

Finally and maybe the most important thing is the aesthetic of exploration and descovering which are not only the ‘standar’ projection of ourselves into the digital space thanks to an avatar but walking down the ‘real’ streets in order to spin the wheel of the game, discovering new real spaces, discovering a new mixed world of bits and atoms. Never before gameworld has been so present in the gamespace.

[1] Grimshaw, M. 2010. Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments. University of Bolton, UK. pág. 89