Pokémon Go’s best year yet shows novelty doesn’t have to wear off

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Pokémon GO’s best year yet shows novelty doesn't have to wear off
"You mean, people are still playing it?"
Photo: The Pokémon Company

No game dominated the summer of 2016 quite like the augmented reality blockbuster Pokémon Go. Raking in massive bucks and plenty of virtual column inches that summer, the game became a massive smash hit — before fading from view.

At least, that’s the perspective of people who wonder if anyone still plays Pokémon GOIn fact, not only do people still play it; the game just had its best year to date. What’s the secret to its longevity? And why is that a good thing for gamers?

According to new data from mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Niantic’s Pokémon Go pulled in a massive $894 million in player spending during 2019. (Based on both iOS and Android numbers.) That puts it ahead of 2016, 2017 and 2018 in terms of revenue. It also means that the game has earned a whopping $3.1 billion in player spending during its time on the market. Last year alone, the game received 55 million installs worldwide. 10 million of these took place in the United States, representing 19% of the total.

The popular narrative about declining interest in the game didn’t look wrong just a couple of years ago. Pokémon Go earned $832 million in 2016. That figure’s even more astonishing when you consider that it only launched halfway through the year. However, in 2017 numbers plummeted. Although it was still successful, the game fell 29% to make “just” $589 million over the course of 12 months. People, it seemed were falling out of love with the AR hit.

pokemon-go-worldwide-user-spending-by-year
Worldwide spending on the game from 2016 through 2019.
Photo: Sensor Tower

Pokémon Go’s surge in interest

Then something strange happened. In 2018, there was a renewed surge of interest. Worldwide spending jumped 38% to $816 million. Last year, it leaped even higher — hitting $894 million. What in the name of Pikachu was happening?

“Despite a dropoff in 2017 by comparison to its launch months, Pokémon Go has always been a significant revenue generator throughout its lifetime,” Craig Chapple, a Mobile Insights Strategist at Sensor Tower told Cult of Mac.

“A lot of this can be put down to how the game launched with fairly basic features, and how Niantic has developed it over time with significant updates – such as new waves of Pokémon and trading – and the plethora of in-game and real-world events it runs that are keeping players engaged and excited to play.”

In 2019, Pokémon Go introduced the popular (well, perhaps infamous) villains Team Rocket. This generated a large, temporary boost to revenue which helped catapult the game to its best year ever. But the game has also grown beyond its limited origins, with the addition of features such as raids, 3-on-3 battles, weather condition-dependent Pokémon, and more.

“If Niantic keeps adding more interesting new features and running various events, there’s no reason why 2020 can’t be another huge year for Pokémon GO,” Chapple continued.

More than just a novelty

As noted, it’s accurate (although perhaps a bit misleading) to say that Pokémon Go has had its best year yet in 2019. Pokémon Go‘s best three months ever for iOS remain July, August and September 2016. Those are the three months it launched.

But last year’s success shows that, while novelty will get you a good initial boost, continued investment in updating games pays dividends. As Chapple points out, 2019 has topped 2016’s lowest-grossing month on iOS three times — in August, September, and October. Furthermore, iOS gross revenue was impressively stable. In 2016, it peaked at $98 million in August and bottomed-out at $34 million in December. Last year, it peaked at $48 million in August and bottomed-out at $26 million in May. But for the most part it hovered at a little over $30 million per month. The months were it went over or under that were anomalies: not the norm.

In an age in which companies entertainment companies look to make as much money up front as possible, this is a weird kind of relief. Here in 2020, entertainment giants such as movie studios can make a larger-than-ever chunk of their profits opening weekend. This means there is less cause to think about long term revenue from word of mouth. The fate of a property is determined in its first few days.

Pokémon Go doesn’t subvert that formula. It was, after all, an enormous hit straight out of the gate. But it does demonstrate the importance of continuing to improve user experiences to keep people coming back. In terms of overall quality of gaming experiences, that can only be a good thing.

If you’re one of the very few people not to have tried the AR phenomenon, you can download Pokémon Go for free.