Why Pokémon GO Will Devour, Not Propel, Augmented Reality

One of the most gratifying rewards of an 17-year career in business is recognizing when things I’ve experienced in the past repeat themselves. Trend-spotting builds confidence.

I mention this because I had a front row seat for Pokémon’s first act and I’ve launched three augmented reality mobile apps, so I know the category pretty well. Put the two experiences together, and I’m pretty sure I know how Pokémon GO will play out:

As long as Pokémon is active in the market, the franchise will totally dominate the market for augmented reality (or AR for short) games.

For that reason, I find it difficult to look at Pokémon GO as a launch pad that will enable more AR content and games to thrive by teaching the market how to interact with the medium.

My relevant experience here spans two different career stops. At Atari, I was responsible for the marketing of several video games based on Japanese anime franchises, most notably Dragon Ball Z. Atari generated over $100 million in revenue annually for a year or two from this portfolio, but on Nintendo devices we ran into the Pokémon buzz saw.

Pokémon’s installments for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS were so successful that collectively, for several months in the early 2000s, all Pokémon titles together accounted for more than half of all sales revenue for the entire Nintendo handheld category. In other words, it was devouring the market.

Fast forwarding to the early 2010s and my work for Nokia, I helped launch three AR apps. JobLens and its sister product, Internships Lens, used AR to help job seekers find opportunities in the offices near them. They just opened the camera on their phones, and the app displayed job openings in an overlay so users could “see” those jobs around them, know who in their social media networks could introduce them to the company, estimate salary, and even find real estate information to help size up the quality of the housing market nearby.

I also helped launch an AR game called DreamWorks Dragons Adventure, based on the hit movie franchise, How to Train Your Dragon. It used HERE Maps information to create a game map that was skinned with the look and feel of the movie world, but with routes and attractions based on the real world. It grabbed traffic and even weather data to enhance the connection between game and reality. What Pokémon GO does for the walk about town, Dragons Adventure did for the drive.

All three titles were extremely well made, highly ranked by consumers, and well covered by the press, yet none of them achieved the download volume we had hoped for, even allowing for a smaller overall user base of Windows and Windows Phone users. All three of these apps would have worked very well without AR, which meant that the most differentiating, novel thing about all three of these Nokia apps really didn’t resonate.

Since then, I’ve observed that most apps don’t need AR, which is why the category had been starved for a hit. If Pokémon could whip the likes of Goku and Vegeta (both Dragon Ball Z heroes) 10 years ago, today’s weak field of AR titles never stood a chance. Pokémon will devour it, too, just as it did the handheld gaming market.

Pokémon GO already is a worthy runaway success. I’ve played it, and so, too, have a whopping 10 million other people in just the last two weeks. If you want to learn more about it, the team at Inside have put together a terrific synopsis here. Better yet, download and play the game for yourself. It’s a lot of fun.

Just know that its wild popularity has everything to do with a video game franchise and play pattern that, as with Mario Bros. and Zelda, Nintendo has spent decades perfecting. It has very little to do with augmented reality, a category that is likely to remain moribund outside of its first true breakthrough title

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