Just the term itself is enough to get many hardcore gamers up in arms. We associate it with everything wrong with modern gaming: the nickel-and-diming, the pay-to-win mechanics, the in-app purchases and endless grinds. Even if a game looks good, the instant we hear “and it’s free-to-play!” we check out. There are so few examples of free-to-play games done right that gamers are naturally suspicious of any game that doesn’t charge up front. We know that at some point, we’re going to hit a paywall, or that players who pay will do better than those who don’t, or that we’ll be subjected to never-ending ads, or forced to give up our personal details to “marketing partners,” etc. Many of us don’t bother with free-to-play games at all anymore as a result.
But Pokémon GO is not one of those games. Pokémon GO does free-to-play gaming right.
As with other games in the franchise, you’re tasked with catching all the Pokémon and training them in order to battle other players and take control of gyms. Pokémon will appear randomly on the map or you can hunt down specific ones using a basic hot-cold location tracker. Once you find a Pokémon, you throw Poké balls at it until you’ve caught it. You can find specific locations marked as Pokéstops and visit those to get a handful of items and some experience points. You’ll pick one of three teams to align yourself with, then represent your team while taking over gyms owned by other teams.
Those are the basics of Pokémon GO. It’s a little too simple and a little too shallow, but for whatever reason, it managed to grab hold of a massive portion of the mainstream audience and now it’s easy to see people playing Pokémon GO wherever you are. A big reason for Pokémon GO’s success, of course, is that it’s free-to-play. You download the game for free and can play it for as long as you want without paying a dime. With most free-to-play games, that feels like an empty promise. Sure, you could play it for free, but at a certain point you’ll hit the inevitable paywall where the game ramps up the difficulty to the point where it would be near-impossible to continue without shelling out some money. Or it’s free-to-play but you’re inundated with ads. Whatever the reason, most free-to-play games squander their goodwill and players drop off in droves. That’s not happening with Pokémon GO, and it’s because the game is doing a fantastic job balancing out its monetization to ensure a great experience for everyone.
It’s hard to give a specific hour count of how much I’m played Pokémon GO due to the unconventional nature of it, but suffice it to say: I’ve played a lot. And in that time, I’ve never once felt pressured to buy anything. I recognize completely that by buying a few items here or there, I could make the game easier for myself, remove the occasional speed bump or just get a competitive edge. Sure, I could always just buy more Poké balls, for instance, to refill my inventory when I run out, but I’d rather just take a walk through the downtown area, through the local university, or wherever else there’s a high concentration of Pokéstops around instead and reap the bonus experience points at the same time. I don’t feel like it’s necessary at all to buy my way out of walking around and playing the game, though of course, I’m lucky enough to live close to areas with a denser concentration of Pokéstops; I could totally see why someone without an abundance of choice around might want to take the easy road and spend a dollar or two for a refill.
If you don’t want to buy anything in Pokémon GO, you don’t have to. You aren’t going to gain a massive advantage over other players by any means. Sure, if you bought 100 Lucky Eggs to give yourself a never-ending double experience points gain, you could certainly do that, but your trainer level isn’t the end-all-be-all of Pokémon GO so be my guest. You can’t buy Pokémon, and that’s what matters. You can’t just buy an Aerodactyl because you haven’t been able to find one on your own and want to shortcut to having caught ’em all. You can’t just buy 50 more Gastlys to get enough candy to evolve one into a Gengar. There’s no buying your way to a Charizard here. Nothing core to the game can be bought, so it’s very easy to ignore the shop if you want to without feeling slighted in the least.
If you’re finding people in your area with rare, high-level Pokémon, I can almost guarantee you it’s because they’re putting the time in to find those Pokémon.
But if the shop is so inessential, how are they making money, right? That’s the natural next question. Well, it’s a combination of the standard free-to-play business model, where a tiny slice of the audience contributes most of the revenue, and some truly savvy business deals. There’s real money to be made all around with an app that funnels players to specific locations. After all, Google only hired Niantic to make Ingress because it wanted to crowdsource walking paths. In the case of Pokémon GO, the monetary benefits are a little more direct.
Look at Pokémon GO’s Japanese launch for a perfect example of how Niantic Labs and The Pokémon Company are using the game’s success to land smart marketing deals. In Japan, the game launched with a sponsorship deal with McDonald’s, ensuring that 3,000 of the fast food franchise’s location are marked in-game as gyms. It’s the rare kind of marketing deal where everybody wins: Niantic and The Pokémon Company obviously win because businesses like McDonald’s are cutting them fat checks. McDonald’s wins because the deal will attract more customers to their locations who will now hang out, catch Pokémon and buy food. Players win because they have more gyms in their area at locations they might already frequent anyway and they don’t have to pay a dime to keep the game profitable. It’s a brilliant move.
Similarly, I’ve seen firsthand how small and local businesses are using in-game “lures” to drive more business to their shops. In the game, a lure can be placed at a Pokéstop by any player to attract more Pokémon to the area; any player near that Pokéstop will reap the benefits of it, so dropping a lure is a surefire way to attract players hoping to take advantage. That’s a perfect opportunity for a business looking to keep a steady stream of customers. Lures can be bought for a dollar or less in the in-game shop, a small cost that the increased traffic will outweigh. I’ve seen many of these businesses advertising their proximity to Pokéstops, offering small discounts to specific teams and to whichever team owns a gym nearby. Some of the shop owners I talked to told me that they’ve seen significant increases in revenue since the game came out since more people are out and about and it’s easy enough to pull them in with some clever marketing. Again, everybody wins.
Pokémon GO is a fascinating game. It’s became a cultural phenomenon in the span of a few days and its popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It’s easy to see how being free-to-play enabled this kind of fervor and it’s worth studying what Pokémon GO does right in how it monetizes compared to other, similar games that most players would balk at. Let’s just hope other developers are taking notes as well.