Q+A: Pokémon Go Introduces The General Public to Augmented Reality Gaming

The popularity of Pokémon Go opens a world of opportunities for augmented reality game design, according to Drexel’s Frank Lee.

Niantic, Inc., a San Francisco-based software development company, made waves in the world of mobile gaming July 8 when it released a mobile augmented reality game that is the latest edition of the wildly successful Pokémon franchise that started in the ‘90s. Pokémon Go, has been the most-downloaded app for iOS and Android since its launch and has added an astounding $7.5 billion to the market value of its primary backer, Nintendo, virtually overnight.

In the world of video game design, Pokémon Go’s success could signal a shift toward the sort of game that tracks its players in their actual environments and creates interactivity around them and with other nearby players. While these augmented reality games have been around for a handful of years, Drexel’s resident video game industry guru Frank Lee, PhD, suggests that the technology environment is now primed for the games to become more prevalent.

Lee, who directs the Entrepreneurial Game Studio in Drexel’s ExCITe Center, recently weighed in on the success of Pokémon Go and the state of augmented reality games in the industry.

Does the success of Pokémon Go signal a tipping point for augmented reality games? Or is it simply a function of the historic popularity of Pokémon?

This is likely the tipping point for this type of augmented reality game. And it’s bringing a whole new style of gameplay to the public.

The reason a game like this is able to be so successful now is one, the mass availability of high-powered smartphones (basically mobile computers) with GPS; two, availability of detailed mapping services (i.e. Google Maps and Apple Maps); and three, availability of a fast mobile network including the current 4G and upcoming 5G cellular networks.

It is the wide availability of these three things coming together that is allowing for this new gameplay at the commercial level. Add to this the popularity of Pokémon, a beloved brand world-wide, and you have a perfect storm.

Why is this particular augmented reality game faring so well?

Certainly, Niantic isn’t the first to have ideas about these types of games, but up until Niantic’s 2012 title, Ingress, most pervasive mixed-reality games had been research projects housed within universities or large companies. But Niantic has taken pervasive mixed-reality games to a new level, demonstrating that location-based gameplay with augmented reality is possible on a large scale and will be accepted by the public.

Ingress showed that a critical mass of technology was present to make this type of game work. With Pokémon Go, they are aiming for massive adaption using a worldwide beloved brand, with an eye on commercialization. They are not just looking at 7 million downloads, but hundreds of million downloads and hundreds of million players.

It’s not surprising that John Henke, the founder of Niantic, is at the head of this effort. He was the founder of Keyhole, Inc., a mapping startup that was acquired by Google and became the foundation for its mapping services. It isn’t surprising that he saw the potential for these types of gameplay and created Niantic, which was originally part of the Google X project before being spun off as an independent company.

How does the integration of geoinformation into the game create new opportunities for monetizing it?

I suspect they are charting new areas for monetization, since they are at the vanguard of this type of pervasive mixed-reality game. But they have models that they can borrow from. Monetization models from Square, Yelp, and others companies that are location-based can be examined, and monetization models from free-to-play games on mobile like Candy Crush, such as monetizing purchases of vanity items or power-ups, can also work. It has awesome potential for monetization. It’s a new area, but they have plenty of examples from both of these worlds to draw from.


For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, assistant director of media relations, bef29@drexel.edu.