Pokemon GO, and Why Mixed Reality is Still Uncertain

Mixed reality technologies will succeed based on content, not on technology.

Pokemon GO Players in Sydney
A group of players playing Pokemon GO together. Brendon Thorne / Stringer

Is Pokemon GO the harbinger for more augmented reality games? The technology has been around for a while, but nothing has ever reached the kind of useful critical mass that Pokemon GO reached in the first two weeks of its existence. In total, the game managed to make over $35 million in less than 2 weeks in a staggered rollout launch, and at one point dwarfed the entire rest of the gaming market. Not to mention that it was clearly having a major impact on culture, with sports teams running promotions, brands trying to capitalize on the hysteria, and police departments warning players of the game. Like with many crazes, the odds of other developers trying to make similar augmented reality games into a hit seems like an inevitability. But Pokemon GO should instead serve as a warning to developers of augmented reality, virtual reality, geolocation, and other forms of alternate reality technology: it's about the content, not the technology underneath.

Previous augmented reality games have been nowhere as popular

Perhaps the strongest evidence that augmented reality alone can't sell a game is indirectly comparing Niantic's previous title, Ingress, with Pokemon GO. Ingress has been available for several years, and thanks in part to their nature as a Google-owned company for much of their existence, they had a funding and marketing base that drew enough players to provide a sizable database that Niantic went and used for Pokemon GO. In fact, the reason why so many religious buildings are Pokestops is that they have a narrative significance with Ingress.

But Ingress, for however okay it did, was perhaps the most notable augmented reality game to release in the last few years. And while it perhaps was more popular than anyone could have realized, with the large number of portals that became Pokestops, it never sparked anything even close to the craze that Pokemon GO has managed to do. Ingress is a niche curiosity in comparison to what Pokemon GO peaked at in popularity.

It's not just the technology, it's the content

Essentially, the dichotomy seems to be that people are willing to play augmented reality games, they just aren't willing to play them because they're augmented reality. Give them the right content, and they'll dive right into them. This is concerning for the smaller, more creative developers who often take risks on new platforms – the first alternate-reality game to become a bona fide hit is a popular Nintendo-affiliated property. Not even Sony and Nintendo could have done so with AR-focused content as they launched with on the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS respectively. If they can't sell an idea without interesting existing properties, then what hope is there for a startup with a good idea and a fun game? Essentially, it seems to be saying that augmented reality is merely a way for companies with popular brands to make those brands even more popular. Or, perhaps Pokemon GO is just a pure anomaly: the right property that could work for augmented reality, mixed in with the craving for Nintendo content outside of Nintendo systems that Nintendo has really yet to provide.

This should be a cause of concern for companies like Magic Leap that are doing augmented reality and for virtual reality companies. Essentially, they have two challenges. One is to make a new form of technology work well enough to be entertaining. The other is that they need to ensure content exists that keeps users around. The first is a real challenge on its own. New types of entertainment often have rules and complications that are tough to properly figure out for a long time. Virtual reality is very young, and it's seeing loads of challenges with how to properly do games.

It's quite possible that virtual reality might not become popular based just on the quality of the technology. At least with augmented reality like Pokemon GO, it was using devices that people already were using. Adding in new hardware that people have to buy will not help the adoption of new technology. This is actually why mobile may be so important to virtual reality's mainstream adoption because everyone has it. 

The dual challenge of creating new technology and content for it

What this all means is that anyone who is a fan of particular technologies needs to be hoping that content is on the way. Virtual reality at least has this down. Many developers, both funded operations and curious independent developers, are producing interesting virtual reality content. Even Fallout 4 is coming to the HTC Vive. Gear VR on mobile has Minecraft, the backing of Eve developer CCP, and already a decent userbase. Magic Leap is being very secretive with their augmented reality technology, but they have hired unique talent like Neal Stephenson and Graeme Devine to work for them in various capacities.

But the biggest concern is that new technology might just be used to enhance existing brands. Pokemon is a long-running franchise that's had such a cultural impact that many people were vaguely familiar with it. Combine a new technology with access to something that people already want, and you get a hit. And it may be the developers taking risks and figuring out the challenges of the early days of new technologies that wind up providing merely the backbone for large brands to continue their prominence into the future.

However it happens, the lesson from Pokemon GO and augmented reality is simple: neat technology can attract people for a few minutes. Great content will keep them.