The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is really behind the Pokémon Go craze

See how Pokémon Go works, and why everyone's so crazy about it. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you see people — adults and kids — meandering around town these days, eyes glued to their phones, chances are very high they are not texting or looking at emails but searching for Pokémon, the cute, cartoon critters that debuted in Japan in 1996 and won the hearts of every fifth-grader since.

What the heck is Pokémon Go? An explainer for the out-of-touch and/or old.

On their screens, players of the viral mobile game “Pokémon Go” are seeing these creatures pop into existence alongside real-world physical objects. The mole-like Diglett peeks out of a toilet. A flaming demon Shetland called Ponyta gallops across the National Mall. A ostrich-like Doduo appears on top of the hold button of an office phone.

Capturing these little monsters isn’t just good for players. In just a few days since its July 6 launch, the game has become a national sensation, nearly overtaking Twitter in daily active users. It currently ranks as the most profitable game on Google and Apple’s app stores. On Monday, Nintendo’s stock jumped 25 percent. On Tuesday, it rose another 13 percent.

The game is perhaps the first real success story of the use of augmented reality technology, which blends the digital and real world together. The combined effect is part bird-watching, part geocaching, part trophy-hunting, with a heavy dose of mid-1990s nostalgia.

All that success means Pokémon Go won’t be the last of these types of games.

“It’ll get bigger before it gets smaller,” said Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst for Wedbush Securities. “I just hope that nobody actually gets killed walking into traffic.”

Indeed, not everyone has just found animated monsters through the game. Some caught trouble.

In Riverton, Wyo., 19-year-old Shayla Wiggins was looking for Pokémon along the banks of the Wind River when she found a real body in the water. Missouri police reported that four people used the game to lure victims to isolated areas and rob them.

One player said the game “put me in the ER.”

“Not even 30 minutes after the release last night, I slipped and fell down a ditch,” wrote a Reddit user (Yes, the game already has its own section of Reddit). “Fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in my foot, 6-8 weeks for recovery. I told all the doctors I was walking my dog. . . . Watch where you’re going, folks!”

Pokemon Go’s unexpected side effect: injuries

For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go invites players to hunt for digital Pokémon on their smartphones. The catch is that the game, unlike the original Nintendo series and most video games, requires physical exploration in the real world. The critters are placed using GPS and an algorithm by Niantic Labs, a software and gaming company.

To collect Pokémon, players walk to a location and spy them on their smartphone. With an upward flick of a finger or thumb, as though playing the world’s tiniest game of skee ball, the Pokémon Go player attempts to capture these creatures with Pokéballs. Repeated captures of the same type of creature yield candies. Feeding enough candies to a Pokémon causes it to grow in power. Powerful creatures battle at gyms, which are digital arenas located at real points of interest.

One of them is the fountain on the White House’s North Lawn. (Players must stand on the civilian side of the fence, of course.)

What happens when Pokémon Go turns your home into a gym

Perhaps the only bad news this week for the game’s developers is that the app’s immense popularity is crashing servers. The game frequently freezes. As of Monday, it was still difficult to sign up to become a new player. International rollouts of the game have been delayed while Niantic and the Pokémon Co. figure out how to keep things up and running.

Undoubtedly, some gaming analysts said, the success of Pokémon Go will inspire clones. Developers are likely being pulled into meeting rooms this week and ordered to make something like this app, said Timothy Carone, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

“It’s easy enough to duplicate from a technical perspective,” Carone said. Capturing the right user experience, however, is not nearly as easy. There are, after all, few franchises that work as well with augmented reality as Pokémon does.

21 pro Pokémon Go tips, from people who spent the whole weekend playing it

The game’s real-world interaction just happens to match the premise of the franchise, which features characters journeying from gym to gym as they capture and train adorable monsters that they find in the wild.

Its makers also have made the game highly shareable. The delight of seeing a little monster pop up on the sidewalk in front of your home, or, in one case, on the bed of your wife while she’s in labor — has been social media gold for players.

The game was a much-needed win for Nintendo, which Pachter, the Wedbush gaming analyst, estimates will make at least $25 million from the app this year, despite not having developed it. The Japanese company is a part-owner of the franchise’s parent company, the Pokémon Co., and had the right to keep Pokémon games exclusively on its own consoles. Still, the fact that Nintendo gave its blessing to the game is a sign that it is loosening its long-held resistance to mobile games. Nintendo has developed three apps so far with a mobile game company, including its Miitomo social network, which was a modest hit when it was released earlier this summer.

But there has been nothing like the success of Pokémon Go. Despite the enthusiasm around the new app, some are not sure how long it will last.

“It’s a craze,” said Pachter. It may have a long shelf life for a craze, he said — at least as long as it takes most people to catch every Pokémon— but he doesn’t see it lasting forever. “Pet Rocks lasted more than 100 days, too,” he said.

New mobile game ‘Pokémon Go’ takes the world by storm

epa05421306 Two high school students play with the new game 'Pokemon Go' on their smartphones on Flinders Street in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 12 July 2016. Pokemon Go, a Global Positioning System (GPS) based augmented reality mobile game, is proving to be 'enormously' popular since software development company Niantic opened access to it on 06 July in the US. EPA/JULIAN SMITH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT (Julian Smith/EPA)

Read more:

The non-gamer’s guide to playing Pokemon Go

Don’t fall for these dumb Pokémon Go hoaxes

Why Pokemon Go’s creators need to be careful or they could destroy the game