Pokémon Go is phenomenal. Just two weeks past launch, it’s the highest grossing app in all 33 countries that it’s launched in, with 21 million active users in the US alone (1/3 of US citizens ages 15-29, if we assume those usage demographics).
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Is Pokémon Go a Fad?
Pokémon Go’s incredible rise can be explained by several factors, and the debate has now turned to “is Pokémon Go just a fad?” It’s longevity will depend on how “addictive” it is: the strength of the habits formed by its users.
The 4-Step Pokémon Go Habit Loop
The “Hooked” model was developed by Nir Eyal to explain the habit formation for products, and Pokémon Go follows it like a blueprint. The more times a user goes through the 4-step loop, the stronger the habit becomes.
Step 1: Trigger
Pokémon’s trigger is very powerful: walking. Having used Pokémon Go only lightly for one week, I now find myself asking “I wonder if there are Pokémon around here?” whenever I start walking. Worse yet, there’s a feeling of “missing out” on a virtual world of treasure that may be surrounding me at any moment. And if I should forget to check, the app’s vibrate notification will get me back in the loop. Players will also become conditioned to think of the game whenever passing a known PokéStop or gym, making real-life landmarks powerful game triggers.
Step 2: Action
The trigger must lead to an action, and for Pokémon Go that’s as easy as looking at your phone.
Step 3: Variable Reward
Predictable feedback loops don’t create desire, according to Eyal. Casino slot machines wouldn’t be very addictive if after every pull of the handle (the action) you received 95 cents for every dollar bet (the statistically expected outcome on typical slots). There are three types of rewards, and Pokémon Go hits them all:
A) Rewards of the Hunt. Pokémon clearly invokes the primal urges and rewards of hunting.
B) Rewards of the Self. People desire a sense of competency, progress, and accomplishment. Pokémon easily feeds that need through experience levels, experience points (XP), winning battles, and collecting items.
C) Rewards of the Tribe. Players can join the red, blue, or yellow team, instantly connecting them with a global tribe and providing feelings on belonging, camaraderie, and contribution.
Step 4: Investment
The final step for building a strong habit is investment: not wanting to quit because of sunk time or costs. Clearly people are sinking plenty of both time and money into this game, and the massive, near-simultaneous launch in each country means that even slowing down usage would put you far behind your friends. With each time it’s played, the user finds themselves more heavily invested in continuing.
Like all modern mobile games, Pokémon Go’s habit formation loop is strong. It has especially strong Triggers and a simple Action, which should make the game easy to pick up, and hard to put down for good.