What can we learn from Pokemon Go about designing incentive systems?

Last time I looked at why Pokemon Go is fun. Here’s what we can learn from it’s game mechanics.

What can we learn from Pokemon Go about designing incentive systems?

Start with why. Give people a purpose.

I want to be the very best, like no one every was. To catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause.”

-Pokemon Theme Song

Clear purpose established. Being the best means beating other people in battle at these gyms or collecting all the Pokemon.

Give simple instructions for how to achieve their purpose.

They need strong Pokemon, how do they get those?

  1. Walk around
  2. Catch Pokemon
  3. Train them
  4. Bring your pokemon to battle other teams at gyms

Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, but here are the different paths that you can take towards becoming the best. It involves a lot of walking and waiting. It’s a lot like fishing actually.

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Make it advantageous to recruit their friends to help them.

This is way more fun when you do it with friends. It’s like you’re going on an epic adventure and you’re probably going to need a team to beat the other team at the gym.

People like being part of teams. Teams provide identity, belonging and purpose.

What draws people into the game?


I found out of about the game from a friend, who found out from their Facebook feed.


To many people, Pokemon bring back fond memories of spending hours playing a fun game.

Low time commitment

It’s easy to get into because the game doesn’t take much time to play.

Novelty and quick progress

At first, everything you catch is new and leveling up is pretty fast.


The game doesn’t teach you how to play it. It makes you feel special when you learn it’s secrets and share it with your friends.


What keeps people in the game?

Friends / News

Even if you managed for forget, new people discovering the game and posting it on Facebook sucked you back in. Just walking by Central Park, you can see lots of people standing around and playing at night, which makes you want to play the game.

Random rewards

There’s been research done by psychologist who showed that random rewards reinforced behaviors the most. Randomness is everywhere in the game: catching pokemon, which pokemon appear, what pokemon hatch from your eggs, what items you get from pokestops.

Progress bars

In the game, there’s progress bars for everything to show you how you’re doing and how far you are from completing the next challenge. Trainer level, egg hatching, pokedex, and candies needed to evolve. As you progress through the game, things get harder but not so hard that you can’t handle them. It kind of puts the blinders on you like a horse and keeps you focused on what’s straight ahead. Playing the game is easy. In life, you have to make your own progress bars and it’s not nearly as clear cut and you also have to know where to go.

Competition / Glory / Honor (“My life for Aiur” mentality)

At the higher levels of the game, it really comes down to making a better pokemon than everyone else and showing them off at the gym, which are like leaderboards. Rarer pokemon tend to have higher power caps, so that incentives people to go off the beaten path. The game gives gyms proment positioning and makes taking over enemy gyms easier by giving you six pokemon to use. This gives everyone a chance at holding the hill and feel the glory of winning.

What makes people quit?

The game keeps freezing


My ears keeps freezing

No one wants to walk around when it’s 30 degrees outside.

The virus harms the host

If you think of Pokemon Go as a virus, anyone who’s played pandemic would know that you don’t want to kill the host too quickly because it’s able to be spread to another person. In this case, if the game starts to take over too much time, people will stop.

People get bored

After you’ve caught most of the common Pokemon, you have to go out of your way to catch more, which might not be worth the effort. Then progress is slow to level up or catch Pokemon and people will get bored.

The competition gets serious

Horseraces aren’t fun if you’re way in the back, so once the gyms get to a high enough level, it becomes discouraging because you’re comparing yourself to others and you feel bad each time.

The competition isn’t fair

No one likes being part of a rigged system, whether that’s Pokemon or the economic system. Right now, the items in the game give people advantages, but most of them still require the user to commit a lot of time to getting results. If you can start trading or buying Pokemon, it might spell the end as people with more money can just buy what they want and people who grind through the game feel cheated. Part of the promise of the Pokemon theme song is that any 10 year old kid can become a Pokemon master. It’s like the American dream. If you walk around long enough, wait long enough, you will get your reward. That dream should not just be for the 10 year old kid with rich parents.


What makes Pokemon Go so fun?

Pokemon Go has been blowing up this week. As a product manager, I like to figure out what make products great, so here’s what’s I like about Pokemon Go.

What makes Pokemon Go so fun?

Pokemon Go is nostalgic because it fulfills the childhood dream of actually being a Pokemon trainer, except now we’re adults so we can go whereever we want and we have no curfew. Attributing it’s success to just nostalgia is oversimplifying and not recognizing that it addresses real psychological needs.

It turns an ordinary walk into a chance to catch a rare pokemon, an epic triumph. Much of life is routine and drudgery. This turns ordinary moments into potentially exciting ones.

It gives clear direction for how to be the very best in an otherwise open-ended world. A lot of young ambitious people want to be the best, but what the best means and how you get there are ambiguous. Pokemon Go is easy because it has answered those questions for you. Religion has a lot of value to a lot of people because it provides an organizing view of the world. It tells you what to do and tells you how to do it.

It shows progress in a world where you often don’t have a clear measure of progress. How often do you know for sure how well you’re doing in your job or your relationships. These are difficult cognitively taxing questions. If only life had progress bars too.

It helps break down walls between us and strangers on the street. In New York, standard protocol is not to talk to people on the street. This game is an easy way to connect people in the same way that sports teams are fodder for small talk.

It makes me walk even more. I already walk 5 miles a day, but now I walk 20% more.

It gives people a fun casual activity to do with friends at any time that doesn’t (necessarily) involve going to a bar. When you friends what they want to do, the first two things that come up are going to a bar or a having dinner. Museums are great, but there just aren’t that many things you can do at night. It’s addressing a real hole in the nightlife scene for people who don’t want to go to bars.

For these benefits, what does it cost me to play this game?

It’s not a big time commitment because you actually have to walk places to play the game and I mostly play it as I’m already walking to places.

Sure, my phone will die faster (so I bring a battery).

I have to recognize that games like this are meant to be addictive. Even if you’re not playing the game, it may affect how you experience other pleasures. In the brain, connections that are used more often are strengthened. If you spend too long getting most of your enjoyment from one source that may crowd out other enjoyable things.

The mind share is the biggest cost to playing the game. Just like how I only drink with friends, maybe it’s best to only play Pokemon Go with friends. And for goodness sake, pay attention when you’re crossing the street. #priorities