Augmented Reality is the next big thing. You should prioritize innovation over feature completeness. Probably those are the two most important UX sentences of the last two weeks. Please read the article if you want to catch all the UX lessons I’ve learned from Pokémon Go. Comment if I missed something.
1. User experience doesn’t need to be perfect at launch
Back in 1999 when the original Pokémon games were launched in Europe (’98 in North America, ’96 in Japan) they provided the best UX on GameBoy. IGN even rated them with a perfect 10/10 score, calling it a masterpiece. When games were released on ROM cartridges, with no online update/patch available, game developers had to release a very polished, thoroughly tested product or fail miserably. The gaming industry learned that lesson many times, but the most quoted example might be ET the Extra-Terrestrial from 1982.
Fast forward to 2016: Pokémon Go is very far from being polished or even finished. What’s wrong with it? The list is very long, just a few examples: bugs, servers being down, re-logins, slowdowns, crashes, and outrageous requests (like taking full account control for your Google account, so it could read even your emails or files on Google Drive).
How can they get away with this cowboy-coded app? First, augmented reality is so innovative and so novel, and such a perfect fit for Pokémons, that players will forgive minor and even major issues. Second, the game can and will be updated automatically. Continuous improvement is the cornerstone of modern UX.
2. Immersion just leveled up
Immersion is a very important ingredient of a successful game and is always considered great user experience. Players should feel like part of the game, ideally part of an imaginary world, and a captivating story. Last year’s best game (arguably) was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, created by CD Projekt RED. The Polish team behind that game achieved the immersion with a brilliant story, amazing 3D graphics and overall good user experience. Niantic’s Pokémon Go had a much easier route, with augmented reality.
The other day I found myself throwing a PokéBall at a seagull instead of the Pokémon. Some people were even more immersed, even entering a minefield. This article is not about the dangers of augmented reality. The best UI is when you don’t realize there is a UI.
When you are launching an augmented reality game, it’s also very important to pick the right time. Q4 is usually the best time to launch AAA titles in the gaming industry. But when you take people out to the streets to take a walk and hunt Pokémon, July seems to be the best time to launch. Basically, every aspect of product development is changed by this evolution of immersion.
3. “Gotta catch ’em all” doesn’t apply to features
Seemingly critical features are missing from Pokémon Go. In the late ’90s, Pokémon Red and Blue allowed players to trade Pokémon between two cartridges via a Game Link Cable. Two decades later you can’t trade Pokémon. There is no PvP (player-versus-player battles), you only fight automated Pokémon defending Gyms. There is no friends list, not even a leaderboard. At first, it was a shock to discover that this year’s biggest hit in the mobile gaming industry has no in-app social capability of any kind. Not even a simple Facebook/Twitter share button.
But social media exploded with Pokémon. My Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn walls are full of Pokémon-related content. (Most likely Google Plus is where the Gastly are spawning.) And an even more interesting phenomenon happened: people kept talking to each other about Pokémon in the real world. I know it sounds really odd, and at first, it would feel very unnatural, but you can actually talk to people on the streets of London (or any other city for that matter). Not message them, but actually, use your own voice without any other device.
I’m certain new features will be implemented soon, but someone at Niantic stopped the feature-cram efficiently, which greatly contributed to the immense success of the game. This should apply to the products you or your company is working on. You need to focus on a handful of amazing features, and postpone everything else post-launch or maybe to version 2.
4. Put the most common action above the fold
On the Pokémon character page, there are 4 actions you can do without scrolling down: favourite (star), rename, power up and evolve. Yet the most frequent action is transfer. There is little point in keeping duplicates of low CP Pokémon. At some point, you will need to get rid of them because the number of Pokémon you can have is limited. When you transfer one of your critters to the Professor you get candy (used to power up and evolve your other Pokémon of the same type). To do that, you need to scroll down, click the button and confirm the choice in a dialog box.
How would I solve this? Put the Transfer button above the fold (maybe just below the portrait of the Pokémon) and remove the confirmation, but add an “Undo” or “Get them back from Professor” button. I think this would make the experience much better. (Needs testing, though.) This is something to consider for any app or game, not just Pokémon Go: Frequently used things first, the rest below.
5. Learn while you play is great UX… if it happens
Most games nowadays don’t have long manuals or rulebooks. Which is understandable, because most players don’t want to read 10+ pages before being able to play the game. (I have learned many games with complex rule-sets, like Mage Knight or Twilight Imperium, not to mention DnD and MTG.) It is preferable to teach players how to play the game while playing it. Unfortunately, this is one of Pokémon Go’s major drawbacks. The basic onboarding idea is great, and it works: Professor Willow frames the narrative and will tell you the basics. Sadly the professor will not go into much detail. I still haven’t figured out why my PokéBall curves from time-to-time. (It’s definitely not the throwing motion itself, maybe a gust of wind, but that’s not really explained.) The paw-prints is another question mark, but at least there is a very good article explaining that.
Older gamers often accuse modern games of “too much hand-holding”. But that can be beneficial in the early stages of the game, to ease the learning curve. I hope that future augmented reality games will have better and more thorough immersive, learn while you play tutorials. Hint: Hearthstone’s tutorial is really good, and surely part of its success.
6. Use familiarity to your advantage
Even for a breakthrough innovation, it helps to build the user experience on familiar previous experiences. Pokémon Go relies heavily on the user’s familiarity with how map based apps work. The buttons look like buttons in other web apps, the star to make a Pokémon your favorite also doesn’t need explanation. You don’t need to explain the story, or what a Pokémon is. Sure it would be helpful, as some people might not be familiar with some of the aforementioned things.
Chosing the primary target audience (25-35 year olds with quick adoption rates for new technologies) is also a genial use of familiarity because they already had fond memories from their childhood. This is why the game includes only 1st generation Pokémon. Truth to be told they are the most iconic ones, but many of us might have nostalgic feelings towards them. Even those who have never played the original GameBoy games will surely recognize Pikachu.
7. You should start focusing on augmented reality
It’s the next big thing, and that’s where the big money is made. In less than two weeks Nintendo’s shares have risen by more than 120% adding $23 billion to Nintendo’s market value. That’s bigger than the GDP of a smaller European country. But not only Nintendo shareholders are getting richer. Apple is estimated to make $3 billion in 2 years from PokéCoin sales in the app store.
Now it’s obvious that augmented reality can and will be the next big thing. I’m not saying that you should ignore everything else, and go full AR. If you want to stay ahead of the UX industry, try spending 80% of your time researching desktop/mobile UI and UX, but the remaining 20% on augmented reality.