A few words about Google’s #PokémonChallenge

So yeah. Google wanted to be cool. I still don’t know wether they pretended to deliver a super-fun experience or it was just a silly April’s Fool, but the thing is that I cannot find any reason that convinces me to not consider #PokémonChallenge an absolute and mastodontic FAIL.

But let’s go step by step. I think that what happened deserves a deep reflection. It all started with a viral video:


A viral video where Google presented an amazingly cool and fun transmedia experience, some kind of augmented reality ARG. A revolutionary new step not just in the Pokemon franchise, but also in the whole industry of videogames and entertainment. This video showed the apparent materialization of something I had been claiming (and I’m 100% sure I’m not the only one at all): if contemporary technology makes it possible, why not an augmented reality Pokémon ARG?

But it was a fake. My excitement and expectations plummeted when I downloaded the Google Maps App and started tricking with it. ‘Really? It’s all about finding random Pokémon within the WORLDWIDE virtual Google map and catching them with only a click? Seriously?! What the F*CK!’. If Twitter could check people’s thoughts, I bet this one would have been trending topic.

But anyway, I’m a Game Designer and I love games. It’s both my passion and my career, so I had to dive deep in such a mainstream event. And I played. And ‘I catched them all’ (the image above proves that). I did… and it was frustrating.

I’d like to analyze the #PokémonChallenge experience through some Game Design theories. You might argue that theories are just that, theories… but some of them are quite trustworthy.

1- Let’s start with a standard definition of what a game is. I’m gonna quote Jesse Schell:

“Games cannot simply be problem-solving activities. One who plays them must also have that special, hard-to-define attitude that we consider essential to the nature of play. So, a definition that nicely covers all ten qualities might be: ‘A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.'”

Google gave us a goal: become a Pokémon Master and be part of their team. The challenge was supposed to end on the 2nd of April… Well, it’s the 3rd and I haven’t seen any announcement. Neither in the game platform (the app) nor their social networks. But the lack of feedback isn’t just limited to the final outcome: the #PokémonChallenge hasn’t provided any kind of feedback at all during the whole experience. Well, yes: a progression bar telling you how many Pokémon you had already caught. Brilliant! Seriously, do you think this is enough? One of the most important things for games to keep players engaged and motivated is to give them constant and meaningful feedback. Otherwise, the ‘playful attitude’ Jesse Schell mentions disappears and the game becomes a no-game. To summarize: a badly defined problem to solve that, due to the lack of feedback, is not approached with a playful attitude after a little time playing.

2- Let’s analyze this now through the lens of Mark LeBlanc’s ‘8 kinds of fun’. We are gonna go through all of them to see what happens:

  • Physical Sensation: the fake experience (the one in the video) would precisely be revolutionary and great because of this pleasure. Unfortunately, the real one doesn’t provide it at all.
  • Fellowship: The experience itself doesn’t provide any kind of fellowship. Google even doesn’t encourage users to collaborate: the goal they set is to compete. But they don’t give any statistics or whatever in the platform. The experience has finally become such a social thing because it’s so boring on its own that users have decided to connect and share it by themselves. Therefore, another clear NO.
  • Fantasy: Maybe. Yes, it’s about Pokémon, a fantastic universe. But to be honest, if it’s limited to see small icons of Pokémon within a map and that’s it, the sense of being part of a fantastic world disappears soon. Therefore, YES…BUT NO.
  • Narrative: Identical as the previous one. Badly implemented to the point that it disappears.
  • Discovery: Maybe the only pleasure provided. Yes, it’s about discovering Pokémon! But come on, if it’s all about good luck and I don’t have (and cannot have) a clue about where to search, I’m not discovering: I’M WANDERING. And wander is not discover. Again, badly implemented, which makes the pleasure disappear.
  • Expression: 0%. Missing!
  • Challenge: The challenge is there. The feedback just isn’t. Therefore, if I’ve got a challenge but after a while I don’t know if I’m succeeding or not, the challenge disappears. I face a challenge to be successful, not to be the rest of my live wondering if I did well.
  • Submission: Well, you just have to read through the activity in social networks related to #PokémonChallenge. People is frustrated. Nothing else needs to be said, then.
  • I would make this argument stronger by analyze it through the lens of the 16 Basic Desires by Steven Reiss, but I think it’s not needed. It’s clear enough.

3- Balancing. A big part in the success of a game (or a fun experience) is balancing. Making sure that the experience the player has is adapted to his level of expertise. Making sure that it isn’t boring neither frustrating. And well… I don’t think they have even considered that. The #PokémonChallenge experience doesn’t evolve within itself. It’s the same from the beginning to the end.

4- As said, what’s great about games is that they give players the control to face problems. To be super heroes. Therefore, their success cannot be 100% under the effect of a random force. It’s clear that random is a fundamental thing in games because it makes the experience slightly unpredictable, but not to a point of be the main thing. Specially not in a game where ‘you have to become a master’. If I can’t use my skills to face the challenge, how can I demonstrate that I am (or simply be) a master, sirs?

5- And this leads to the 5th point of this analysis. If I don’t have any clue about how can I beat the enemy, what can I do? Cheating. It’s the one and only way I can control the experience, it’s the only way I can beat him by using my skills (sadly but true, the cheating skills). And that’s why thousands and thousands of people (I would say almost everyone) has cheated in this game. It’s a big fault that the system allows that, but it’s even more sad that it encourages to do it.

6- So yes, in terms of motivation, engagement and, in the end, fun, my humble opinion is that #PokémonChallenge is a big fail. I cannot see it properly triggering any of the four kinds of intrinsic motivation that the RAMP model sets: relatedness, autonomy, mastery, purpose. None of them is properly provided. This makes that #PokémonChallenge can be really addictive the first few minutes (maybe hours?) because of the quick extrinsic motivation it provides but in the end players get to a point where they get bored and/or frustrated. And the memorable experience instantly becomes miserable.

7- I would find many more reasons and arguments to support this, but I think that it’s enough to give an overall impression. You could have done something great Google (like what you show in the video), and you messed it up.

At this point, I’d like to figure out WHY Google did that. I can identify some possible reasons:

  1. They just wanted to raise awareness on Google Maps. They wanted to do something cool and mainstream to be ‘in the top of the wave’. Cool. Fair enough. But… really? I cannot believe that brilliant people from Google can create such a badly designed thing.
  2. They wanted to get a lot of people using their app in a short space of time to test it. It worked, congratulations. But a lot of people is frustrated with you because of that, are you happy? 😉
  3. It really was the April’s Fool (even it started the day before). Which would be disgusting. Don’t play with people’s expectations. And, if this is the case, I’m expecting a ‘haaaa-ha-ha, it was a joke!’ message. Fool doesn’t mean bad experience, not at all.
  4. Maybe they really want to hire a Pokémon Master. Maybe. Then, do it. But designing a bad experience is not the best way to attract people to your team.
  5. Or maybe there’s a hidden reason I cannot see that completely turns all the things I’ve said to bullshit. Honestly, I guess it’s the most probable reason. I cannot expect less from Google, I still think they are brilliant. I hope so.

And that’s it. I felt I had to tell my impression about what happened the last two days… as in my opinion it has been an exaggerated fail, a really poorly designed experience. I’m gonna end up with a short reflection.

People in Disney (who certainly know ‘something’ about fun and memorable experiences) state that it takes 37 magic moments to make up for one tragic moment. Google, you’ve got some work 😉



2 thoughts on “A few words about Google’s #PokémonChallenge

  1. Well, in my opinion, I think that this “game” is (apart of an April Fools’ Day joke, of course) nothing but a marketing experience. Think about it, you have been searching for Pokémons for several minutes, and you can’t find more; you have searched (using Gmaps app, inside Google system) in every place you can remember (work brain, work…where else can I go to find that annoying monster?) and finally, tired of getting no results by yourself, you’ve googled (using, of course, Google services) for help, getting some more places to search for.
    Well, I think, contrary to you, that Google acquired what they wanted: for one, two or the days the “game” lasts, they are getting more people using their system, taking advantage of a well known franchise (which in turns gets profit of Google advertising) to attract this people.
    Also, apart from that, they surely have been able to steal a smile from gamers.

    Anyways, very good article Ferran, ets un crack 😉

    • 100% agreed! It certainly is an experience apparently designed as a Marketing campaign. But in the end, it is an experience (or it is supposed to be). And an experience an be memorable but it can be miserable as well… depending on how you design it! The thing is: you may have had a lot of people tricking with it. Sure. Loads of people. But are they happy after the whole thing? What’s their opinion? As far as I have noticed (and I’ve actively been part of the social community coming from this), the result is in several cases frustration and disbilief. ‘What’s gonna be next?’ / ‘Google, give me my Mew’ and so on are the most frequent comments.

      The idea is GREAT, awesome, revolutionary. As u said, it steals a smile from gamers (and even non-gamers). But an idea without a well-designed experience behind it is just this: an idea. An idea that generates great expectations and doesn’t fulfill them… which leads to frustration and so forth. It is really shocking for me that such a brilliant company like Google has failed that way!

      PS: but anyway… as you said, it is just an opinion! hehe 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s