White Paper | The (Sometimes Dumb) Wisdom of Crowds: Experience Design and Augmented Reality in a Post-Pokémon Go World

Augmented Reality. It’s a phrase that’s been bandied about for over a decade. It’s a concept that’s come to life in myriad ways. But until the launch of Pokémon Go, the promise and pitfalls of AR hadn’t been laid bare on a grand scale. Now, as Pokémon Go ignites countless Facebook wars, propels Nintendo’s market value by upwards of $7.5B USD, and sees parks and public spaces overrun with children and adults—individually and in groups—running around gathering Pokémon and snagging treats at Pokéstops, we’re seeing the potential for fun, community building, and social engagement on a grand scale. But we’re also witnessing the problems inherent in building a massive AR based upon decisions made long ago, rooted in data collected in part from users, and disconnected from the realities of a changing world.

As a quick overview, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game1 played via a smartphone or cell-enabled tablet. Players traverse the real world, catching Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops to gather supplies, and battling at Pokégyms. Pokéstops and Pokégyms are “anchored” on the map to actual places, such as statues, fountains, signs, gardens, or specific locations in or near buildings such as churches. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, spun off from Google with investment from Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Google, after their successful launch of an earlier AR game called Ingress—and that’s where a number of the issues lie.

The Pokémon Go map is built in large part upon the Ingress map2. Ingress, while it has millions of app downloads (upwards of seven million), has a relatively small core player base (current estimates range from 350,000-750,000 active, regular users). Its rollout was also staggered, launching on the Android platform first, on December 14, 2013, and then for iOS on July 14, 2014. Without delving into the backstory, much of the action in Ingress revolves around portals—interacting with them to gain items, deploying items to claim or improve them for your chosen faction, defending them against the other faction. It’s this portal map that has seeded much of the Pokémon Go world—those portal locations have formed the basis for the Pokéstops and Pokégyms.

The portal maps were rooted, at first, on popular locations. This included not only obvious choices such as the Washington Monument, but also locations which were frequently geo-tagged in photos—in short, user generated data, where the original creator had no idea their geo-tagging would be used to site a real world game stop. In addition, Ingress players were invited to submit portal suggestions. Niantic was flooded with over 15 million suggestions, and the review and approval process was lengthy, opaque, and prone to inconsistency. One player might suggest a portal location and have it rejected, while another player would suggest the same place and get it approved months later. Over five million user suggested portals were placed.

Ingress, however, is a fundamentally and radically different game than Pokémon Go. For one, it didn’t have the power of a decades-long, beloved intellectual property behind it. It has a significantly smaller player base, even in when you compare the first bloom of launch, widespread press, and “try it out” adoption. While it supports social engagement and cooperation, the backstory of Ingress is one of intrigue and shadowy goings-on. It is aimed squarely at adults, and lacks the chance aspect of collecting items out in the real world away from portals that Pokémon Go has with its “gotta catch ‘em all” Pokémon gathering aspect.
And here’s where it all horribly collides. A quick search of geo-tagged photos reveals thousands of photos at places like the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sure enough, Arlington National Cemetery is littered with Ingress portals, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Medgar Evers’ tomb, the final resting place of Robert F. Kennedy, and more. And that’s translated to Pokéstops in what many consider sacred, hallowed ground.3 Similarly, the area around the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is rife with Pokéstops. But even if there weren’t stops at these places, Pokémon spawn all over the map, regardless of Pokéstops (though players can drop items at stops to lure Pokémon there). People could traipse through America’s iconic graveyard and memorial for service men and women snagging Magikarps and Psyducks. Or, as one New York author put it after visiting a variety of emotionally charged sites in the city, “That is a coffin of nameless orphans and that is a Pokéstop.”4

To put it mildly, it’s a problem with the game. Having the leadership of major memorials and venues come out and say they are trying to get their site delisted as a Pokéstop or gym does not make for great press. Homeowners who live in unusual or iconic buildings that are now private dwellings have found strangers in their yards and on their driveways at all hours of the day and night. And the process of delisting is fraught with challenges—within the game, one can “report an issue” with a stop or gym, but that is a general category of issue. At launch, there was no clear, obvious way for the director of a venue or the owner of a site to make an emergency or high priority request. Interestingly, many of the portals in Ingress at these challenging sites are relatively low level; that is, few people engage with them, perhaps out of a sense of propriety. The older, theoretically more mature audience of Ingress is likely more discerning about where and when it’s appropriate to play a game than an 11-year-old chasing a Pikachu, iPhone in hand.

All of this is not to say there aren’t positive aspects of Pokémon Go—far from it. Many libraries are reporting a surge in usage; colleges are cheerfully offering Pokémon tours, posting maps of Pokéstops and gyms on their campuses, and encouraging students to play together and responsibly. Players are self-reporting significant upswings in their physical activity levels (in order to incubate eggs that you can get at Pokéstops, you have to walk varying distances, in addition to the need to get out there and explore to find Pokémon, stops, and gyms). Kids and parents are frequently seen playing together in parks and playgrounds. Players are voluntarily leaving lures near children’s hospitals, so the kids inside who can’t walk the necessary blocks outside can still play the game. Within the Autism Spectrum parent community, there are already innumerable reports of children who typically avoid changes in routine and social engagement being willing to go to parks, engage with others, and try new things in the service of playing Pokémon Go. As a social experience, Pokémon Go is breaking barriers and getting people out and about—something many experience designers strive to achieve.

As designers of location-based entertainment and educational experiences, Thinkwell has long touted the promise — and challenges — of technologies such as AR, and the idea of using a mobile device to enhance and augment a visit to a theme park, museum, or attraction with gamification and social interaction. The experience since the launch of Pokémon Go highlights the need for owners and operators considering an AR overlay or component to take some serious precautionary and planning steps:

  • Think about your audience. As we’ve shown, part of the underlying issue with Pokémon is not just the different gameplay, but also the radically different and bigger audience. Creators need to think about who will be playing the game and how they engage with the world. One very smart thing that Niantic did relates to safety: if a Pokémon appears on your map, it can be caught from where you are (you can even switching from AR mode to on-screen play mode to make it easier). There’s no need to cross a busy street or hop a fence. Given that children and teens are playing, this was a savvy design choice.
  • Consider where engagements happen. Choose wisely, to be blunt about it — and if you are in essence outsourcing the location selection to data someone else has generated, have a review process and standards in place prior to launch and scrub your map accordingly. You cannot rely on user generated data to make responsible, thoughtful, mindful, or empathetic choices.
  • Have a clear process for handling people roped unwittingly into the game. It took over a week from launch for Niantic to unveil a way for ‘owners’ of questionable locations to quickly and permanently delist their locations; it’s unclear how the new system will prioritize delisting or how quickly requests will be addressed. Until Niantic quietly rolled out this system, the bad press and angry location owners continued to churn, and the damage is done.
  • Think through the ramifications of open world play. Pokémon can spawn almost anywhere, and this is a problem. A site such as a cemetery or memorial should be able to request that theirs is a ‘clear zone’ where no Pokémon spawn; currently they cannot. If you are developing a game that extends beyond the boundaries of your site, it behooves you to think about where gameplay is appropriate and inappropriate, and structure the game accordingly.
  • Work with location owners. While some location owners, such as small businesses benefitting from an uptick in traffic, welcome Pokémon Go players, others are still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that a fountain on their property is suddenly attracting people. Consider developing an informational kit that provides these location owners with contacts for reporting issues, ideas for how to capitalize on player presence, and an explanation of the game itself.
  • Be prepared to capitalize on unexpected positive outcomes. The positive effect of Pokémon Go on some children with ASD is an unforeseen, yet fantastic, effect of the game, that Niantic could build upon, perhaps by partnering with advocacy groups to develop targeted materials around the game. The active exercise aspect of Pokémon Go is another aspect that could be highlighted — imagine an ongoing tally of gross distance walked, or calories burned, by all current players? Groups developing new ARs should be willing to leverage unforeseen positive outcomes.

Much of the issue with Pokémon Go and AR in general boils down to the fact that it’s just new, uncharted territory. Or is it? It seems with any new technology and subsequent pop-culture craze that emerges from that technology, there is bound to be challenges, pitfalls, and hand-wringing. Before Pokémon Go, Sony Walkmans were distracting people into accidents — and now headphone-listening in public is something we’ve all adjusted to responsibly. Before Pokémon Go, videogames were “rotting our brains” and keeping kids indoors — and now it’s a burgeoning artform creating all new forms of social storytelling. There will always be folks in the herd whose bad behavior will ultimately get them thinned from said herd — but as designers, we can help craft experiences that will guide the audience in the right direction, with the right motivation — slowly creating audiences that are thoughtful, engaged, and maybe, hopefully, even more community-minded.


1 For an overview of AR, see http://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-augmented-reality-works.html
2 http://mashable.com/2016/07/10/john-hanke-pokemon-go/#iOfQr1i7vmq3
3 http://www.firstcoastnews.com/news/local/holocaust-museum-is-a-no-go-for-Pokémon-go/271981022
4 http://elitedaily.com/social-news/Pokémon-go-tragedy-sites-nyc/1549925/

White Paper | Intellectual Properties and the Branded Experience

Thinkwell’s 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report Focuses on Consumer Trends in Location-Based Entertainment Infused with Intellectual Properties

The recent surge in popularity of intellectual properties (IP) appearing in everything from theme parks and attractions to merchandise and museums had us at Thinkwell wondering whether this phenomenon will be an enduring profit generator for IP owners and the operators of entertainment and education venues. Does the presence of an IP lend credibility, trustworthiness, and value to a venue and would consumers be willing to visit this venue more often? Especially as more location-based entertainment (LBE) venues start to incorporate IPs, would visitors spend more money and time on their experiences and should IP owners start to license their properties more heavily to explore that possibility?

The 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report was created to answer questions like those. For the past two years, Thinkwell has published Guest Experience Trend Reports that investigated the behavior of guests as they explored theme parks and museums and how technology could be utilized to enhance or improve their visits. For the 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report, Thinkwell examined not only the behavior of guests as they navigated experiences, but also the reasoning behind deciding to go and make purchases at LBE venues.
Thinkwell had a nationwide survey conducted that polled over 1,000 adults with children to analyze their spending choices at family-friendly LBEs, specifically family entertainment centers, children’s museums, aquariums & zoos, and restaurants. The goal of the survey was to determine whether families would be inclined to visit one of those venues more often and spend more money on purchases if they were completely infused with a specific IP from a major motion picture, television show, video game, or book.

The results, while not entirely surprising, confirmed that families are indeed willing to spend more on an experience at an LBE if it featured a specific intellectual property. What was surprising however was that the results showed respondents would be less willing to spend an increased amount of money or time at an IP-specific educational experience versus an IP-specific entertainment experience.
Most respondents still preferred authentic and traditional experiences at children’s museums and didn’t necessarily feel that adding an IP would increase the value of the educational experience. Even at zoos and aquariums, which toe the line between education and entertainment, a smaller percentage of respondents stated they would pay more for things like annual memberships, merchandise, and souvenirs at an IP-specific location. But when going out for fun at family entertainment centers however, a much larger segment of respondents stated that they would be willing to spend more money and time on an IP-specific experience.

Entertainment Versus Educational Experiences
An astonishing 76% of the survey respondents stated that they would enjoy the experience at a family entertainment center more if it were infused with a recognizable IP from a motion picture, television show, video game, cartoon, or book. More than 62% of respondents also said they would be willing to spend more money on food, souvenirs, and merchandise if they included characters or imagery from a favorite IP. Not only did respondents claim that they would be willing to spend more money at a family entertainment center if it was IP-specific, 72% also stated they would visit more often than if it was a generic LBE venue.

Though an impressive 61% of respondents also stated they would visit a children’s museum more often if there were exhibits based around a child’s favorite IP, only half of respondents stated they would be willing to pay more for an annual membership, merchandise, or souvenirs despite having IP-specific elements at the museum. In a more traditional educational institution, respondents did not feel that having IP-specific exhibits added any value or incentive to visit the venue more often, nor were they inclined to spend more money on purchases there.

Even at a zoo or aquarium, which blends education and entertainment, only little more than half of respondents stated they would want to visit more often if there were IP-specific exhibits. Because respondents claimed that the primary reason they visit a zoo or aquarium is to spend time together as a family and not to see new or existing exhibits, having IP-specific overlays would not be a compelling enough reason for visitors to visit more often or purchase more merchandise or souvenirs.

While the previous three LBEs might be reserved for special occasions or weekend activities, 76% of respondents stated that eating out at a restaurant is a normal weekly activity. If an IP-themed restaurant was an option in addition to casual chain restaurants, fast food restaurants, and neighborhood restaurants, a majority of respondents stated that it would be a logical choice for their families when eating out. Particularly since a kid-friendly atmosphere was the most important factor for families in choosing a restaurant, having an IP-specific environment would please kids and parents alike, with Disney™, Star Wars™, and Harry Potter™ being popular IPs for influencing families on their themed restaurant choices.

The Why and Why Not
The study conclusively revealed that respondents would indeed be willing to visit an IP-specific LBE venue more often and spend more money on these experiences. But what were the motivating factors for these preferences? Based on 1,032 open-ended answers, the respondents who were more likely to prefer an IP-specific LBE stated that the experiences would be “more fun,” “make the kids happy,” and “make the experience more special.” These respondents felt that seeing recognizable or familiar characters and elements would be a treat for the kids and would be far more entertaining that visiting a generic LBE.
For the respondents that did not feel more inclined to visit an IP-specific LBE, cost was the biggest deciding factor against choosing these experiences over generic ones. These respondents did not feel that an IP-infused experience added any value for the implied increased cost, nor did they feel that the quality of the environment, food, merchandise, or souvenirs would be any better at an IP-specific LBE. Other consistent responses were that an IP would make the experience “too commercial,” “trendy,” and “distracting” so that families wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy their time at an IP-specific LBE.

The Value of Intellectual Properties
After examining the survey responses, the 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report concludes that IP owners can absolutely benefit from licensing and infusing their IPs into family entertainment centers, children’s museums, zoos & aquariums, and restaurants. Respondents were generally positive about wanting to experience IP-specific LBEs and were willing to pay more money and spend more time at these venues. So to answer our initial question about whether extending an IP could be an enduring profit generator, the study confirms that there is a demand for it and IP owners should invest in meeting that demand.
“Thinkwell has believed in the power of an intellectual property in attracting and retaining guests since the very beginning of the company,” said Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer. “This study highlights that the value of blockbuster brands and IP is only getting stronger, even in an increasingly crowded market, and that the public’s thirst for IP hasn’t been quenched yet.