When Emily Lydic was growing up in the late-1990's, Pokémon hysteria ran rampant through the rural Midwest, but she didn't feel like she could participate in it. Although Pokémon was wildly popular, the boys she knew were mean about it, and she didn’t know any girls who were fans. Lydic dealt with the exclusion by dismissing the whole franchise, but that changed when Pokémon Go launched in the summer of 2016.
Since then, Lydic has played a lot of Pokémon Go; she's caught some of the rarest creatures, walked over 2,500 miles, and accumulated approximately 50 million XP. Now a member of Team Valor of Boston, the 27-year-old Lydic is an official Pokémon Professor — a designation given to the most dedicated fans who help share the enjoyment of the game with others — with The Pokémon Company.
While the allure of catching every one of the 441 Pokémon available in the game may seem the biggest reason for its success, for many people like Lydic, who's met some of her closest friends through Pokémon Go, the true draw has been the real-world Pokémon community.
Pokémon Go shattered download and sales records when it was introduced in 2016, utilizing a unique mix of Niantic’s Augmented Reality (AR) technology and Nintendo’s monster-catching franchise. When the mobile video game first debuted, some critics wondered whether the game would be sustainable and attractive to users beyond its fad stage. Two years on, Pokémon Go is showing no signs of going away any time soon, with more than 800 million downloads.
In May, Nielsen data tracking company Superdata revealed that Pokémon Go was still one of the most popular mobile games, with 147 million monthly users still playing. That's the most since the game’s peak in 2016. (The specific numbers have since been removed from the report.)
Since its debut, according to SensorTower, Pokémon Go has grossed over $2 billion worldwide.
According to Pokémon Go product manager Matthew Slemon, the game's enduring popularity goes deeper than the addition of hundreds of catchable Pokémon, real-world weather updates, or new rewards. The community of players and the game's social aspect, he says, has allowed the game to grow organically. Lydic agrees.
“I love seeing the same faces at raids and events — it’s been a great way to make friends who share my hobbies,” Lydic tells SYFY WIRE. In addition, Lydic is a senior researcher for the Silph Research Group, an initiative dedicated to collecting in-game data and analyzing it to figure out underlying game mechanics.
Lydic is also a moderator of the Pokémon Go Boston Facebook group, which boasts more than 8,000 members. She became even more involved in that community after her ex-boyfriend’s death in early 2017.
“He was really into Pokémon, and we had played the game a lot together,” she says. Her knee-jerk reaction was simply to delete the app from her phone. But after spending some time without it, she realized getting back into the game and connecting with people was her best chance at keeping the grief from destroying her.
“His favorite Pokémon was Tyranitar, so I named my first Tyranitar in his memory and made a Facebook post asking the community to please consider naming the Pokémon after him,” Lydic says. “There are a lot of Pokémon in Boston who are named Bobby, and that still makes me cry to think about. It made me feel like people really cared.”
Lydic says the Pokémon Go community helped her immensely at a time in her life when she really needed to feel connected to people. It even went so far as to help her land a job.
“My friend Sarah, who I met through PoGo, went to Nairobi, Kenya on vacation and came back with a Tropius for me,” Lydic says. “You can only catch Tropius in certain places in the world, and it’s one of my very favorites, so I was really excited, and we started talking more and becoming closer friends. We met up to trade and talked about her job, and she ended up referring me. It was a change I really needed, and it wouldn’t have happened this way if we didn’t both play this silly little game. It’s amazing.”
According to Niantic, more than 400,000 trainers joined several global Pokémon Go events worldwide to unlock rewards in September. In a release last month, Niantic reported more than 113 million friend connections had been made with an astonishing 2.2 billion gifts being shared since the company introduced new social features at the end of June.
Slemon says that while the company won’t share exact numbers of players who still play Pokémon Go, he’s happy to see the numbers have steadily been climbing since the initial shrink after the 2016 launch.
“We’re not expecting it to get back to the fad level at launch, but we’re happy to see the player base grow and be stable,” he tells SYFY WIRE. “We’re hoping to keep this going for the next five to 10 years.”
It’s important to offer new gameplay options, new moves, gear, and events, and to offer a varied gameplay experience to retain big players, Slemon explains. At the same time, Niantic is careful not to make the game so complex that newer, more casual players aren't dissuaded from joining.
Still, not all players have been happy with some of Niantic’s decisions.
Amy Hughes is a Level-40 player and moderator of the Boston Pokémon Go Facebook group. She says a lot of long-term players struggle with trying to find workarounds for the way Niantic thinks players should play, versus the way they actually want to approach the game.
“We've had a lot of suggestions for simple things they could change to help hardcore players a lot, and it seems like they don't pay attention,” Hughes says. “I don’t think they understand how much work players and player communities do to improve the game.”
Slemon says while all of the players are important, they do try to listen to the most intense players and follow some of their suggestions.
“We do try to listen to big players but we’re also trying to maintain a balance for newer players just joining up,” he says.
As far as new additions to the game, Lydic says she loves the raid system, in which players team up to take down more powerful Pokémon, and the spate of Community Days, which are centered around a different species each month and exclusive moves.
“Anything that gets people together to play makes me feel energized and connected to other people,” she says. “For Community Day, people go all out, dressing up, giving out handmade buttons, planning dinner together afterward. It’s my only monthly social event that I’ve never bailed on.”
Hughes agrees, saying the raids offer an opportunity to coordinate with friends to take down super-mons. She’s even teamed up with players from work, occasionally taking a mid-day break to defeat raid bosses. The community days, she says, also stand out as a fun, new addition.
“That's a blast because for three hours, pretty much everyone around you is having fun playing,” she says. “People dress up in their favorite PoGo gear, some people hand out stickers or buttons, and everyone has a great time. When a particularly strong one appears, the word spreads quickly around the park and everyone rushes to try to catch it. Nearby players will cheer you on when you announce a particularly good catch.”
The biggest success of the game has been those big social moments, Slemon says.
“Those are unique experiences and encourage people to have face to face interactions,” he says. “You’ll have very diverse players coming from different populations and while they may play other games on other platforms, they’ll still get together to play Pokémon Go.”
When it comes to upcoming features, Slemon is tight-lipped, but says there are a number of fun ones in the works.
“I think the Adventure Sync is a good example of what Pokémon Go can do, and things like that deliver the kind of unique experience we’re going for,” Slemon says.
Two years on, Lydic believes Pokémon Go has made the lives of players better, especially hers.
“This morning, I woke up at 6 a.m. to go walk around a park to hunt for a shiny Ponyta,” she says. “If you had told me in June 2016 that I would wake up at 6 a.m. to go exercise, I would have said, 'Bulls**t.' It makes me feel healthier, happier, and more connected to other people. I don’t know any other video game that is designed to do that.”