Go, Go, Go!

Can Orchard Road retailers learn something from the world’s hottest game?

Pokémon Go

By Low Teck Mee

There’s a new game coming to your smartphone. To play it, you can’t loll on your living room sofa or ensconced yourself on a toilet seat, or be bound to your work desk. In fact, you’d have to get off your butt. And you’d have to be somewhere—anywhere but indoors. You’d have to move—yes, from point A to B.

The game, as you may have already heard, is Pokémon Go, and it has taken the world by storm even when it has so far been launched only in three countries. It is reported to hit Singapore (and the rest of Southeast Asia) soon, with rumours saying that we can download the app as early as next week.

For the truly impatient, I’m not sure that’s soon enough. Outraged that he couldn’t play the game on our backward island, a Vietnamese-Australian man working here recently charmed local Facebook users when he shared, under the familiar blue top bar, what was on his troubled mind: “You can’t fucking catch Pokémon in this piece of fucking shit country”. Alas, posting frustrations isn’t like posting selfies.

Like a child deprived of a favourite toy, the guy wasn’t able to balance on the edge of reason. As passionate as he was about Pokémon Go, he did not acquaint himself with the known fact that developer Niantic was holding off rolling the game in other regions, including Asia, as their servers have been crashing due to the wildly overwhelming response. Forbes even said that “the launch has been an unmitigated disaster.”

Pokémon Go outdoorsPokémon Go outdoors 2Screen grabs of Pokémon Go promotional video

Fury destined for social media rarely ever takes into consideration the responsiveness of others. It is understandable why the outburst is maddening for so many citizens.Despite scoring 2nd out 144 countries in the Global Information Technology Report 2014 by the World Economic Forum and despite being ranked last year by Akamai Technologies as the nation with the world’s fastest average Internet speed, our city is still thought to be stuck in some crap hole.

Barbs didn’t bring any Pokémon out and none were caught. With the resultant Netizen anger, also directed at his employer, the guy lost his job.

Not until this online fiasco did I really pay attention to the craze that Pokémon Go has become. Launched just last Wednesday, the game has caught on so dramatically that there’s talk Hollywood is interested in making a movie of it. Very soon too, it seems, as no studio is going to make an Angry Birds out of this one.

By now, many know what Pokémon Go is, but for those alien even to Candy Crush, the game allows players to hunt down, capture, and train Pokémon, much like the way it was when played with the mid-Nineties Game Boy consoles, only now you just need to toss a ball—known as Pokéballs—at them rather than battle the Pokémon. The action is set in the real world as seen through the smartphone’s camera. Pokémon Go prods you to walk around and call at Pokéstops to stock up requirements such as Pokéballs, potions and incense, all paid for with Pokécoins of course.

Pokémon Go screen shotsPokémon Go screen shots

Most interesting to me is the augmented reality (AR) in which the game has to be played. It had me thinking of what such a premise could do for businesses trying to ensnare people into location-based activity, such as offline shopping. What I also find compelling is that with Pokémon Go, “go” is the operative word. Here’s an app that, in bringing into play, the user has to move or proceed to or from a location, physically. You have to be in an actual place, surrounded by landmarks and people. Most mobile games before Pokémon Go does not entice you to leave where you already are, at the point the game is played.

“Get on your feet and step outside to find and catch wild Pokémon,” goes the encouragement on the Pokémon Go website. That sounds to me like a rallying call Orchard Road retailers desperately need to communicate.

It is, of course, ironic that it takes the virtual world to get people into the real world just as it is bizarre that Pokémon Go’s dimension is accessible via our own. It is, however, such a co-presence that can potentially narrow the gulf between online and offline retailing. If the game has shown that the reality—even augmented—is, in fact, in the app installed on people’s mobile devices that draw them out of their comfort zones, then perhaps similar apps can also be used to lure shoppers into a store to spend.

I suspect retailers know this, but it is possible that none is willing to invest in such an outdoor-bound gaming/cellular experience. Or, perhaps, too many are occupied with battling e-commerce, taking on those online stores that put people comfortably in their own sheltered domains that these traditional store owners are not able to conceive or fathom a digital and augmented pathway that connects shoppers to their very physical front door. Orchard Road sure needs PokéStops.

Pokémon Go homepageThe homepage of Pokémon Go

If retailers are unwilling to put in the development cost of creating this augmented trail to their stores, perhaps they could collaborate with Niantic to designate their premises as PokéStops. Already such an idea has been proposed. And it isn’t terribly new since it is fundamentally like the known commercial spaces identified as stops in Ingress, another Niantic-developed AR game.

I should say that, like most people here, I have not played Pokémon Go. But based on user reports, it is quickly addictive and awfully fun. When was the last time Orchard Road had the ability to elicit such a reaction? Maybe with a GPS-enabled app and cute overlays on real-life locations, the tide will turn. Never mind the risk of the disgruntled f-bombing social media sites because they can’t get what they want. The Web community has its ways with dealing with people like that.

In the end, as we transit from the virtual to the augmented, what most of us want from retail or an afternoon shopping is an immersive experience, one that captures the imagination, and allow participants to have some fun. Orchard Road, when Pokémon was first introduced, may have had those qualities, but that was a different time. These days, digital longings as much as material desires define the modern consumer.

Now, which Pokémon do I want to pounce on? Not Pikachu. It’s Purin (also known as Jigglypuff)! But the real question is, how do I capture the smartphone zombies that will now surely overrun the city when Pokémon Go finally arrives?