Analysis, Features

Pokémon Go Case Study — How Bad Customer Service Laid the Giant Low

Let Pokémon Go serve as a lesson: this is why taking your eye off the customer retention ball ends in disappointment for everyone

Adam Fout
May 16 2017

This article has been on my heart for a while now—it combines my greatest resentment and my greatest love into one flaming ball of disappointment.

Of course, I’m talking about Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is an incredible study in modern customer retention—or rather, an incredible study in a catastrophic failure of customer retention.

It’s a saga of impossible, overwhelming success, strange, unreadable brand reactions, unremitting customer suffering, loss, renewal, and redemption, and it all took place on a screen that fits in your pocket.

But, before I dig into this, let’s talk Pokémon Go numbers and orient ourselves here a bit.

A Success by All Measures

When Pokémon Go was released in the U.S. in July of 2016, people’s minds exploded. It was the most downloaded mobile gaming app of 2016, despite being released halfway through the year. By January of 2017, it had generated over a billion dollars in revenue for developer Niantic Pokémon Go was the most visible success of augmented reality that the nascent technology had yet seen. By late July, investors at Facebook, Instagram, and other companies running popular mobile apps started to panic—’ole PG was so addictive that users were spending increasingly less time on their social media apps .

This was happening in incredible numbers. At its peak, Pokémon Go had somewhere around 45 million daily active users and 27 million daily downloads.

That’s beyond insane because that was happening in the first month.

And that’s where we start to see the tragedy take shape—Pokémon Go started to decline somewhere around a month in. But no one would ever consider Pokémon Go to be a failure. Its starting numbers were so high that it had a long, long way to fall.

And even its bottom is still higher than most mobile games could ever hope to climb.

Technically, it’s still doing very well. As of even a month ago, it still had 5 million daily active users, and a billion in revenue over six months is nothing to sniff at.

The question is this—how does a game that basically took over the world in the space of a month disappear from everyone’s radar in the space of six? The answer is simple—a failure of customer service.

From Overwhelming Success To Underwhelming Has Been

Ok, maybe “has been” is a bit harsh—5 million users are a success, no matter how you slice it.

However, saying that Pokémon Go was simply a “success” is not paying credit where credit is due.

The game was a cultural phenomenon.

In the days following its release, people literally took to the streets. Laws were passed to deal with the insanity that followed. People were dying. Businesses the world over were trying to get on the Pokémon Go bandwagon. People were hooked.

I should know—I was one of them.

In Denton, Texas, where I spend many of my days, the downtown area was flooded with people playing the game. This was in the middle of July, in Texas, which means it was unbelievably hot. People who probably hadn’t seen the sun in decades had crawled out of their caves to search for elusive Pokémon.

Now, maybe I’m like a lot of gamers out there, or maybe I’m unique, but Pokémon Go grabbed me and grabbed me hard, and it got me outside and moving in a way I just hadn’t experienced in a long time.

And really, it just got me excited about Pokémon all over again.

It was released almost exactly 20 years after the original Pokémon Red and Blue were released, and it hit me right in the childhood. I was hooked—hell, I would leave work on my breaks, which I had previously reserved for meditation, to wander about and search for Pokémon.

And I wasn’t the only one—at some point, 45 million other people were doing it with me.

And then there were 5 million.

So What Actually Happened?

This thing had the potential to literally change our culture. I mean, for the love of Pete, we had friggin’ doctors endorsing this thing as the first real video game to combat obesity effectively in either a decade (if you count Wii Fit)).

We might have seen a real dent in the obesity epidemic in one of the populations most likely to suffer from it (gamers).

Instead, we saw a fun little fad that faded away. We saw a company that was poised to take over the world become content with just doing very well.

So, where did the failure come from?

As an avid player (for a short period of time), I’d be happy to tell you.

What Really Didn’t Work

This is my real beef with Niantic and Pokémon Go. It wasn’t that Pokémon Go was a technical failure (it was and it wasn’t). It wasn’t that the game lacked any depth or content. It wasn’t that the gameplay was inherently broken (it was) or that the game was ridiculously stingy with resources, forcing you to spend money (this happened for sure).

It was how Niantic treated players. That was the problem.

For you to really understand the problems from the customer service angle, you’ll need to understand the problems with the game itself—the technical problems, gameplay issues, and content holes all played a part in the disastrous customer service that followed. So, let’s start with the technical side.

Niantic delivered what was, essentially, a broken product in many ways. However, the value that customers found in that product was so high that, at first, it didn’t matter—Pokémon Go was, in many ways, a first of its kind.

Apple didn’t invent the tablet computer or the mouse or the MP3 player, but they sure did make them sexy. Pokémon Go spoke to something deeper inside many players, just as the iPod did, once upon a time. Pokémon Go paired the tech that Niantic perfected on Ingress and paired it with one of the most recognizable IPs in modern history.

Pokémon is a monster of a franchise. It’s not a fad, it’s not going to die or go away, and Pokémon Go is going to ride on this fact for a long time.

So Niantic rode the wave of innovation/Pokémon for a while. They took augmented reality, (which had been around for quite some time) and made something with it that was really a one-in-a-billion type thing, one of those points in history where creativity and technological innovation come together at the perfect place, in the perfect vehicle, and at the perfect time to spark something in the human soul, to inspire literally millions of people.

Elvis did it. The Beatles did it. Star Wars did it. Pokémon Red and Blue did it.

And then Pokémon Go did it.

And, for a moment in time, things were beautiful. And Niantic made an absurd amount of money. And players got sucked in.

As we collectively started to dig deep into the game, we found some problems. The first was that the game was shallower than it looked. Though there were technically 150 Pokémon in the game, it became apparent that this number was heavily controlled by the area you lived in. Some poor bastards in small towns were only going to see 5 or 6 Pokémon in their area. Ever.

But we can get around that. We have cars. Go to the city! Go on a journey!

A lot of people did this, and still the number of available Pokémon was small.

This, however, is a content problem, and it’s small potatoes—what made Pokémon really great (the original game and all the successors) was that you were able to bond with your Pokémon over time—they were as much a character in the game as your actual character.

Because of the system for leveling up Pokémon in Pokémon Go, this was not only impractical—it was impossible. It never made sense to “level up” a Pokémon; the only real way to do well in the game was to just find newer, stronger Pokémon.

This is a game mechanics issue, but not something that Niantic was willing to address. Gameplay itself had its own problems. Taking over gyms—a key component of the game and the only real way to earn certain critical pieces of in-game currency—was impossible unless you were a power player with friends. People were hacking the system and artificially inflating their characters and statistics to a point where average players didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever taking over a gym.

There were just lots of people with lots of free time and lots of friends who were going to take over the gym. So, lots of casual players were locked out of a key component of the game.

Then, there were content/game mechanics issues that dovetailed. For instance, a bunch of Pokémon were only available in eggs, which you had to walk around with for miles and miles to open. And, once you hit about level 20, you had to work very, very hard to get to the next level. Fine if you’re playing games inside, maybe. Maybe not so fine if it means spending hours and hours walking around outside—you just get tired.

But there were technical problems too. The game glitched constantly. The servers got so overwhelmed so regularly during that first month that the game was literally unplayable except in the wee hours of the night. The tracker didn’t work at all. You basically had no real way of figuring out where the Pokémon were, which was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the original Pokémon games—the hunt.

Then Niantic took the tracker away completely…

All of this combined caused a lot of problems, but those problems were solvable. The game could easily have kept its huge fanbase—it had a powerful draw that truly transcended age, sex, race—EVERYONE was playing! If only someone from Niantic had talked to us about it.

This is the reason Pokémon Go is just another successful game and not a global phenomenon.

Because, in all of this, the players got left behind.

Niantic’s Oversight

So, how do we go from tens of millions of players to a mere five?

We ignore our customers.

Here is a game that you love, with content that you love, that basically doesn’t love you back.

Here is a game that rewards only the hardest of hardcore players.

Here is a game that is filled with bugs.

But, most importantly, here is a game that is run by a company that is absolutely incommunicado about any of the issues you’re experiencing.

Now, all you have to do is fix the damn bugs and communicate that you’re working on the issues in order to get people to forgive you.

But Niantic did none of that.

They became notoriously silent.

Even the most foolish business owner knows that customer service is the core of a successful business. That, if you ignore your customers, if you ignore their complaints, if you won’t even bother to talk to them and let them know what you’re doing to fix the problems, you’re going to lose them.

Niantic had continuing technical problems. They delivered a product that wasn’t ready for delivery. So Niantic, for reasons that probably only Niantic knows, decided the best way to deal with all the issues was to not talk to their customers for long periods of time, and then, when they finally decided to talk, to do so in a way that showed they probably weren’t listening to their customers in the first place.

A Failure to Value Customer Retention Took Pokémon Go

And so, Niantic took a hit right to the customer retention—Pokémon Go came out in early July, and by late August, numbers were dropping rapidly, and they never really recovered.

Personally, I got sick of the silence. I sent an email or two asking for help with a small problem in the game and was flatly ignored. I got tired of searching for information on if and how and when the technical and content and gameplay problems would be solved.

If they had just released, geez, even a damn press release from time to time in those early days saying “Hey, so, like, we’re sorry about the glitches and stuff. We’re working on them. Here’s when we think they’ll be fixed. Also, we heard what you have to say about content and gameplay issues, and we have plans for that too. Just, like, literally wait until this day, and it’ll be addressed, and can you please just wait a bit?”

If they had done that, I would have said, “Yes, yes I will wait. Thank you for letting me know what’s going on.”

I loved the game so much, and I don’t think I’m alone here. I think many players were deeply invested in this game and willing to forgive Niantic a great deal. I think it would have been simple to address these issues, but for the love of Bob, these people didn’t even open a Twitter help account until April of this year.

You know, after everyone left.

By ignoring their customers, by keeping silent on issues, and by appearing tone deaf when they finally did respond to issues, Niantic drove off customers, most of whom will never return.

Technical problems were not the issue for Niantic. Content problems were not the issue for Niantic.

Their handling of it was.

Brands Big and Small Can Learn a Great Deal from This

Lesson numero uno—pay attention to your customers! Communicate with them, spend time addressing their concerns, think about their experiences, or, at the very least, acknowledge the negative CX they’re experiencing (if you don’t have the resources to fix it). Try to fix the customer experience when you can… I mean, damn, just think about the customer experience in the first place! Before you even launch.

Niantic eventually did the right thing.

They have finally started taking the steps necessary to provide an improved customer experience, to fix the technical and content issues that people are experiencing, to connect with customers (they even sent me a few emails!), and to generally pick up the ball that they dropped so long ago.

But it may be too late.

I know that, when I got an email from them inviting me back, I deleted it.

I had moved on. And I think a lot of other players did too.

By any standard, Niantic is overwhelmingly successful. A billion in revenue in 6 months? That’s retirement money, folks. That’s never-having-to-work-again-for-the-rest-of-your-life-and-also-buying-a-desert-island-and-a-yacht-money.

And they’re still hugely successful. 5 million players? That’s crazy successful in the mobile gaming world. But it makes me wonder about what could have been.

I wonder how the world might have been different if Bill Gates had been content with Windows just being a little program that a few folks loved at first and then forgot about, an OS that only a handful of techies used, while the vast majority of us stayed with Mac. If they’d been ok with just being successful.

If they’d let go of their plans to conquer the world and said, “This is enough.”

I’m sure Niantic is happy with what they’ve accomplished, but think about this—how is a world in which Pokémon Go is a passing fad, how is that world different from a world in which Pokémon Go became a staple fixture in every household.

How would things be different?

I guess we’ll never know.


The guide to advanced customer segmentation


Adam Fout

Adam Fout, resident content and brand sorcerer at BlueSteelSolutions, guides brands through the mystical process of creating website and blog content that enchants customers and entices leads. He also writes fiction in his free time at My Website

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