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The Peninsula

Pokémon Go and the Potential of Augmented Reality Games In South Korea

Published February 10, 2017
Category: South Korea

By Patrick Niceforo and Gwanghyun Pyun

Pokémon Go is an augmented-reality (AR) mobile game in which users become Pokémon trainers and catch Pokémon outside. The developer, Niantic Labs, launched the game in United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 6th, 2016 and progressively expanded the game’s reach around the world. One of Pokémon Go’s unique features is that it has a social element; the game provides an opportunity to socialize and “catch” Pokémon with friends, which contributed to its explosive popularity.

Pokémon Go was released in the United States and quickly became the most popular augmented reality (AR) game of the year, beating out other titles such as Clash Royale and Candy Crush Saga. At its peak, Pokémon Go had roughly 20 million active users in the United States, and by the end of 2016, the game had garnered over $950 million worldwide. However, due to factors such as market saturation and a declining number of active users, Pokémon Go experienced a tremendous drop in revenue shortly after its launch. One estimate states that revenue dropped from $125 million in July to $15 million in November, with common complaints about the game including battery drain and repetitive gameplay. While the game was able to temporarily boost the number of active users with special events, Pokémon Go’s popularity has been steadily shrinking since its release.

While Niantic Labs launched Pokémon Go in many countries in North America and Europe, it did not fully launch in South Korea until January 23, 2017, despite the popularity of gaming there. At first, people guessed that the delay was because of the map used for the game. The South Korean government has not published a detailed map of the country outside its own borders, citing security concerns. However, on January 23, Niantic Labs suddenly announced the launch of Pokémon Go in South Korea without receiving the use of a detailed map from the government. Dennis Hwang, Chief Art Director at Niantic, explained that the delay was because they needed time to catch their breath after the huge response for Pokémon Go after its initial release. He also said the delayed launch is unrelated to the map issue because they only use publically accessible data sources.

Despite the delay, nearly 7 million people played the game during its first week in South Korea according to WiseApp, an app analytics company. Pokémon Go’s sales came in second place in the game category in both Google Play and the App Store during that period. Niantic Labs launched the game right before the Lunar New Year holiday, when many Koreans have extra free time.

However, many people in South Korea were pessimistic about Pokémon Go’s long-term success. Some predicted that this trend will be maintained only for two weeks as was the case in other countries such as the United States. Other people pointed out that people would not want to go out to catch Pokémon in January due to cold weather. In addition, people have pointed to repetitive game mechanics and the app’s susceptibility to hacking.

On a positive note, a Harvard study suggests that Pokémon Go and similar apps can, at least temporarily, boost levels of outdoor exercise. One of the study’s conclusions was that, on average, active Pokémon Go users walk 11 minutes more per day than non-users. On the other hand, the game has been criticized for increasing the level of trespassing on private property. Moreover, many have reported sustaining injuries such as ankle sprains and broken collarbones while playing the game. Based on a sample of tweets and news reports, one scholar estimated that over 110,000 Pokémon Go related road accidents occurred within a 10-day period in the United States. There is even a live “Death Tracker” with a worldwide list of deaths and injuries sustained due to Pokémon Go-related negligence.

Koreans also have been concerned about accidents related to AR games. The number of reported accidents related to Pokémon Go already have increased in South Korea. South Korean Police caught 36 drivers who enjoyed playing Pokémon Go while they were driving on the road from Jan 24 to Feb 2. Furthermore, there have been reports of safety and privacy issues at locations such as Gyeongju National Museum, a hot spot for catching Pokémon, where many active users have tried to enter flower gardens, run into walls, and trespassed in museum exhibits. On Feb 4, one girl lost her mother while playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go’s popularity opens the doors for a lot of potential in the AR field, and many Korean gaming companies are trying to develop their own AR games. Korean gaming companies such as Mgame and Hanbit Soft have plans to launch their own AR games similar to Pokémon Go. Mgame finished the second closed beta test for its own AR game, ‘Catchmon’ using AR and LBS (Location Based Service). Hanbit Soft also made ‘SoulCatcher AR’ using AR and GPS. They plan to launch their games during the first quarter of 2017.

Pokémon Go carries two major lessons as it enters South Korea’s national stage. First, Pokémon Go’s developers should focus on not only expanding their user-base, but also retaining it. Others have suggested several strategies for user retention including keeping popular features, introducing new features, and maintaining communication with the app’s users. Beyond Pokémon Go, there are other opportunities for apps to expand to different markets. A similar app, Pokemon Duel, is currently ranked number 1 in the United States but is unavailable in South Korea. South Korea has significant market potential for any popular app given that it has the world’s highest smartphone ownership rate– Niantic just has to figure out how to keep Korean Pokémon fanatics engaged with their game. Second, the game’s developers should prioritize safety in order to mitigate injuries sustained from playing the game. In fact, this concern was partially addressed in an earlier update to the game that prohibited gameplay when individuals were moving over a certain speed. South Korean users could take additional precautions by playing the game with friends and sticking to familiar, well-lit areas.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. Patrick Niceforo is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Jill Carlson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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