The $20 million Pokémon game that started as a joke - CNBC Africa

The $20 million Pokémon game that started as a joke

Southern Africa

by Jay Caboz 0

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Hordes of Pokémon fans have left their homes to venture out on the streets of Africa with smart phone in hand and their eyes glued to the screen to play a game that has gone viral, here is why.

It began as a joke. Literally.

Even if you are living under a rock, the Pokémon Go trainers would message you to see if there was a Pokémon under it.  

In a week, the app, which was launched on July 6, has been installed on twice as many phones as the app Tinder. It is on the cusp of overtaking Twitter for daily active users. It generates an estimated $2 million a day through instore app purchases and sent Nintendo's share price skyrocketing by 53% adding $7,5 billion to its balance sheet.

According to research firm App Annie, Pokémon Go hit the top of the charts for revenue and downloads on both iOS and Android in a matter of days.  Even though Pokémon Go is only officially open in three countries, the game is generating well over $1 million of net revenue for inventors Niantic Labs who have a one third partnership with Google and Nintendo.

It all sprang from an April Fool's joke in 2014, when the Pokémon Company teamed up with Google to invade Google Maps with Pokémon. John Hanke, who had been CEO of Keyhole, Inc. that developed the initial software for Google Earth, took it seriously.  With his company Niantic Labs he pitched the $20 million idea to Nintendo and Google.

In 1996 Pokémon was mere a popular Gameboy game and worked its way into everyday speech. It was adapted into an anime which took the United States by storm.  Twenty years later, 'trainers' can venture forth into the real world to capture, train and fight for any of 146 types of Pokémon.

Off the beaten track finding Pokémon

South African fans from the streets of Johannesburg to the boardwalks of Cape Town, have also gotten in on the action. The game starts with choosing your character. Players, called trainers, need to walk outside and search for Pokémon.  The creatures appear in all types of locations from parks to shopping centers. Once they appear on your screen, trainers need to catch them, by throwing a ball. The idea is to 'catch em all'. Trainers then level up their Pokémon to battle other trainers in gyms which appear in set locations. They call it called an augmented reality mobile app, where reality is overlaid by the game on your phone.

It has meant players are spending so much time on it that they are getting sore legs, some walking as far as 20 kilometers a day to catch a rare Pokémon. So sought after are the rare ones that hundreds of followers halted traffic on Interstate 880 to catch a MewTwo, the rarest of rare, in California.

Even South Africans have found themselves caught in even stranger places.

"My next door neighbor caught me standing right against their garage door trying to catch a Growlithe in their house, I was speechless and struggled to explain my situation cause my voice was to shaky," says Michelle Lubbe, 23 years old a graphic designer /  SEO specialist

"I was parked outside the Swaziland Embassy in Pretoria yesterday noon trying to catch a Charmander, I was there for like 2min, and the security immediately came up to me and ask what I was doing, I said I was going to leave now, just looking at my map for location, he say if you don't leave soon, I am going to call the police," says Shuai CW Wang, a 28 year old Finance Officer working at NGO Luke International,  who was on the way to the post office to pick up post during a lunch break.

There are real dangers.  Pokémon trainers have been caught with off guard in rising cases of Pokémon related muggings. One of these victims is Pokémon trainer Iggy Twiggy, who was stabbed in the knee whilst on a hunt for a Ekans, a snake Pokémon, on Rooihuiskraal Road Centurion.

"As I was aiming with my phone I was attacked in an attempted mugging. I fought back. He then tried to stab me, but I know a bit of martial arts, I pushed his arm down and the box cutter blade went into my knee. I disarmed him and used the blade on him as he came for me again and it went into him I can't remember where it hit him but he ran away. I limped home as I was close, thank goodness, and treated my wound. Luckily it wasn't deep. I think a taser or pepper spray would be great to carry as Pokégear," he says.

Chat rooms on Discord and facebook's Pokemon Go South Africa, with more than 2,700 members, have been ablaze with tips and forays into the jungles on the cities.  Even at night they will gather, by cell phone light, in parks to catch a rare Pokémon. More than a few police have been caught off guard on their midnight meanderings.

"Last night myself and a friend dropped a lure module on a Pokestop in Douglasdale and some fellow late night Sunday poke trainers pulled up to catch some of the action. We were minding our own business being safe and then the cops pulled over and searched us and they had a hard time believing the fact that we were all playing a mobile game," says Tristan Hallam.

Businesses Luring Customers

African businesses have also been in on the action. By paying for 'lures', with real money,  you can attract Pokémon to a location. Shop owners like Willem van der Schyf, director of Capital Craft Beer Academy, a restaurant  in Centurion,  have used lures as a way of attracting more customers by holding 'lure hangouts'. The 30 year old van der Schyf grew up playing the game on his Gameboy in the 1990s.

"On Tuesday morning I explained the game to my business partners and told them how great it was to meet other players at the Poke-Stop in Groenkloof. I pitched the idea to them that we advertise on social media that we would be activating a lure next to Capital Craft that night and we made the post that afternoon. 30 people arrived at Capital Craft to come and play the game."

 "Although the sales weren't significantly higher than a regular Tuesday night, it was the vibe and excitement that made the evening extremely special. That and the fact that I leveled up twice in two hours without much walking."

"After the first lure, 3 other people activated lures as well and the Poke-Stop was active until around 21:00 that night! The battle for the Toni's gym next to us also raged on during this entire time, constantly switching between Blue, Yellow and Red," says van der Schyf

The next time you catch a bunch of nerds with their heads down in the middle of nowhere playing a game, you now know why: a $20 million investment into an April Fool's Joke that went farther than most.