Pokémon GO was an app that bored quite a few observers during a lengthy E3 Q & A this year, a session most entertaining for Shigeru Miyamoto's "who's your daddy" moment when he unexpectedly announced a release date for the Plus add-on - to the bemusement and surprise of Niantic and Pokémon Company executives. As you may have noticed, however, the app's now quite popular. It's gone viral, to use the phrase that's actually apt - there is no media outlet not riding the GO wave, to the point that parody articles exist to point out that it hasn't yet been touted as a solution to global warming - give it time, that angle's coming.
So yes, there's been a lot written about it, including on these pages, though we've resisted the urge to report on all of the grisly crimes discovered as a result of the app (real and potentially fictional) and some of the craziness that's flooded the web. Figuring out what to share and what to dodge and have a little cry about in a dark corner is tricky. Yet to ignore it is madness, even if you're not in a first-class seat on the hype train - the fact is the app's impact has been staggering.
Statistically and otherwise it's been one of the most intriguing cultural phenomena of 2016, and that's before its global roll-out has even been completed. It's easy to smirk and criticise Niantic for server issues, as some have, but it's dealing with ridiculous volumes of traffic; it's a miracle the app is working at all, frankly. Niantic happens to have spun-out of Google in the past, so we imagine the killer-robot-purchasing search engine giant has offered some assistance behind the scenes, too.
In any case, an interesting side-effect of the Pokémon GO craze is the attention paid to Nintendo as a result, which is an oddity for a couple of reasons. For one thing it's not a Nintendo game, but rather an evolution (bonus points for that one, yes?) of Niantic's Ingress. The apps are very different in theme, but utilise similar technologies to drive the real-world AR (augmented reality) experience. Nintendo is a major investor in Niantic alongside The Pokémon Company and Google, so is a player on the publishing and financial capital side, and was no doubt a key part of strategic conversations that got the project off the ground. Yet to be clear, Nintendo's one partner among a few, with Niantic being the true development driving force behind the game everyone's playing.
Nintendo's relationship is extended, of course, due to its notable ownership percentage (reportedly 33%) in The Pokémon Company; that business is certainly independent of Nintendo in how it operates, but the relationship is a close one. The aforementioned E3 Q & A was an example of this, with major executives from Nintendo, The Pokémon Company and Niantic sharing the stage. Shigeru Miyamoto's focus on the Plus accessory and his spilling of a July release was also telling - Nintendo is involved in the process (to some degree) at a high level, even though it isn't actually leading the development.
Despite this offset status for Nintendo, being a key investor and involved party but not actually being responsible as the core developer of Pokémon GO, the splurge of interest in the past week has benefitted the big N a great deal. It's the tentpole name associated with the project, and so a lot of the narrative has been centred on the impact for Nintendo, what it proves about the company's prospects and so on. Even at an investment level share prices in Nintendo have spiked this week (and are now settling down), even though financial analysts acknowledge that Nintendo's share of potentially monstrous revenues is relatively modest.
For Nintendo, ultimately, the timing of this success story is perfect. Few that follow the company would disagree, we suspect, with the statement that it's been a flat year or more for Nintendo. There have been tough circumstances behind that - the passing of Satoru Iwata being a particularly painful moment - and the company has also been in a holding pattern as it sits on the reveal of its 'NX' platform. Miitomo earned initial buzz but faded quickly, and perhaps with the exception of the interest and excitement around The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at E3 this year, Nintendo's successes in social media traffic and mainstream media coverage have been few in number. In the broad conversation around the gaming industry, Nintendo has often struggled in recent times to get noticed in a crowded marketplace.
The assumption was that the NX reveal would be a turning point but it's come sooner thanks to Pokémon GO, despite all we've said above about Nintendo's off-centre role in its release.
The positives for Nintendo, then, are numerous - a lot of people are talking about the company. Granted, they're not talking about Nintendo hardware, but the past week has brought a significant boost to the big N's current-day brand awareness, while also taking Pokémon to the top of trending lists. You simply cannot buy this kind of exposure, and it's a demonstration of the power that the web now has in spreading a product. This is an app that's being widely played in countries where it isn't even released yet. Niantic, The Pokémon Company and Nintendo aren't even spending many dollars in marketing, mainly because the focus is on finishing the roll-out of the release. All of this exposure is happening with next to no input from those that created Pokémon GO - the public has embraced it and it's flown.
Financial benefits will remain unclear for Nintendo, especially due to the aforementioned fact that it's not the only company involved in the product. Yet with large swathes of the public connecting the big N to GO there are the obvious long-term benefits, assuming all stays rosy with the app and its popularity endures at decent levels. When the promised Animal Crossing app arrives, for example, there are decent prospects that a lot of the media (social and otherwise) will pick up on the fact, as it's another 'Nintendo' app which will surely have addictive social and sharing mechanics. AC will actually be a Nintendo / DeNA release, of course, unlike GO; many, in all likelihood, won't be bothered about the distinction. Considering how Animal Crossing: New Leaf - with its clunky social integrated features on 3DS - struck a nerve with the public, Nintendo will already be watching and learning from Pokémon GO to try and recreate the same affect in the cute world of bug catching and tree shaking.
Beyond free publicity, welcome revenues, huge buzz and brand recognition, what are the so-called 'cons' for Nintendo? Equally applicable to Niantic and The Pokémon Company, the challenge is to first of all get the game running smoothly, and then to keep the voracious userbase happy. The worst fate for a viral hit is to end up as a temporary fad - see Flappy Bird - so the challenge is to turn incredible initial interest into long term engagement with a decent chunk of that audience. GO has the potential to do this simply due to the Pokémon brand - more 'mon from addition generations, trading, competitions and more can be features that keep players hooked. These sorts of additions are planned, though Niantic will need all of its experience and nous to push these updates through smoothly.
A more dangerous unknown is whether a run of 'incidents' could turn mainstream media and public opinion against the app. There's been a slew of stories about abduction plots, the risks to inattentive players, people's property being trespassed upon, and other sensitivities around some Pokestop locations. At the moment a lot of these stories on buzz-worthy media (and others besides) have a "gosh darn isn't this something folks" tone, but that could easily turn. The companies involved never likely thought GO would take off this dramatically, and its nature as an AR game that has addicted players doing silly things brings problems outwith the developer's and publisher's control. If problems occur 'because of Pokémon GO' and a lot of outlets decide the app is a bad thing, the tone in the media could swing. So far negative angles like that are outnumbered by excitement around the app, but it's an ongoing risk with limited means of control.
One thing is hard to dispute once you move beyond the pros and cons - this frenzied period around Pokémon GO, in which it's impossible to avoid, is a welcome boost in exposure for Nintendo. It may ultimately have a role of major investor and perhaps some privileges of supervision over the project, but regardless of that when many talk about GO they talk also about Nintendo. Nintendo and Pokémon are red hot right now, a wave which both can ride for the foreseeable future.
After an extended period where many headlines and opinions of Nintendo ranged from lukewarm to uninterested, the big N is enjoying another spell in the bright lights of public attention. It's almost like that period in 2006 when everyone seemed to talk about the Wii - Nintendo is once again being associated with a game changer, even if its role in the AR revolution is more modest than in the era of motion controls.