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Notice anything different about this summer? How about: There are fewer monster catchers around.
Last year's viral craze, Pokémon Go, no longer is flooding parks, churches and main streets with smartphone-toting users trying to catch the virtual monsters that overlay onto real-world streets, lawns and benches.
That doesn't mean the hit game and its money-making engine have gone away. The game has 65 million monthly active users, according to game developer Niantic Labs. That's a drop from its peak of 100 million in August, according to Apptopia. But that's still high enough to stomp on the fanbase of giants such as Candy Crush Saga (61 million) and Clash Royale (8.5 million). It's generated $1.2 billion in revenue, the research firm says, and gave part-owner Nintendo a needed boost to its brand.
It also has generated a surge of interest in augmented reality (AR), with tech giants including Apple and Facebook announcing plans to invest in the medium earlier this year. Most smartphone users who aren't chasing Pokémon may not have used AR. But soon they will.
"It put validity to this notion augmented reality could be successful on a smartphone," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.
But to some surprise, Pokémon Go ended up being that mythical tech unicorn — a hugely popular game that others just couldn't replicate. Flouting expectations, it didn't result in copycat experiences following the launch of a viral mobile game, such as the flock of apps launched in the wake of mobile gaming phenomenon Flappy Bird's ascent in 2014.
John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, attributes this to the complex map data the game requires to discover Pokémon, combined with millions of users searching at once.
"It's more like a World of Warcraft than a Flappy Bird," Hanke said during an interview with USA TODAY, referring to a massive multiplayer game that requires infrastructure to support it.
That's somewhat of a relief to the legions of municipal authorities and law enforcement who encountered new, unexpected problems as a nation happiest on the couch decided to take a ramble, taxing park services, trampling through cemeteries, and, in some cases, making users prey to criminals.
Paul Hoppe, chief of police for Wyoming, Minn., said his department dealt with issues tied to the game six to eight months after launch but have now stopped. "We are not experiencing the issues we were seeing last year when it first came out," Hoppe said. "Most of that has gone away." Authorities in Baltimore and Goochland County, Va., confirm a similar dip in complaints.
Developers have been slow to introduce AR games off the heels of Pokémon Go's popularity, but it's a matter of time before more experiences hit app stores, said P.J. McNealy, founder and CEO of Digital World Research.
"It's a huge eye-opener," he said. "AR hasn't had a killer app before this."
The success of Pokémon Go is partly why bigger names are stepping forward with plans for AR. Last month, during its annual developers conference, Apple introduced ARKit, allowing developers of apps for iPhones and iPads to create AR experiences. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted big plans for AR during its developers conference in April, claiming the company will make the smartphone camera "the first augmented reality platform."
The idea for Pokémon Go was born from one of Google's classic April Fools' pranks. In 2014, Google posted details of a spoof update to Maps where players could use their mobile app to hunt down and capture Pokémon, which were previously featured in traditional video games, card games and television.
Niantic Labs already had experience with the type of game its developers envisioned for Pokémon Go, through their earlier mobile game Ingress. It featured two factions battling each other by capturing portals virtually housed in real-world locations.
Hanke says after learning one of Google's engineers, Tatsuo Nomura, had been in touch with Nintendo to work on the April Fools' project, they contacted him in search of a connection with the Japanese video game giant. Nomura now serves as Pokémon Go's product manager.
"Expectations in the first days were single-million-digit downloads," Hanke said.
As Pokémon Go began its climb up the charts, Hanke was traveling to Japan. Hanke received text messages from his wife on Pokémon Go, updating him on its progress. Before long, the game made appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Most "shocking" to Hanke: Justin Bieber running around Central Park in search of Pokémon.
"When it hit that pop culture radar at that level, it was one of the moments where it was like, 'Holy crap, what have we unleashed here?' " he recalls.
Hanke said the studio's goal was 50 million downloads in six months. According to research firm SensorTower, Pokémon Go hit the milestone in 19 days.
At its peak, Pokémon Go was last summer's viral phenomenon. If your grocery store or mall hosted Pokéstops — in-game locations where users can collect items to help catch Pokémon — then you likely witnessed crowds of people wandering around and swiping away to "catch 'em all."
"It got people out of their house, playing a video game in a completely different way," Blau said. "People just found that refreshing."
The ability to view the creatures in the real world through your camera contributed to its viral nature, as users spread images of Pokémon in odd places all over social media. It also got smartphone owners moving, a boon to small businesses who thrive on foot traffic. The game required players to walk in search of Pokémon and even more rare, hatchable eggs discovered at stops that net even more creatures.
"It was novel for a lot of people not to be going to a movie or a bar or a restaurant — sort of the normal things that you do — but to have this other excuse to just get out and take a walk," Hanke said.
There were moments where users took the hunt of Pokémon too far. Police departments warned players to use caution following reports of trespassing or suspicious people spending time near Pokéstops.
After spending most of July and August 2016 atop the mobile download charts, interest in Pokémon Go faded. Since then, downloads spike with big updates. In February, Pokémon Go introduced 80 more creatures to capture. The game peaked at #16 overall on Apple's App Store that month, climbing from as low as #249, data from analytics firm App Annie says.
Niantic continues to push updates to maintain its base. It just launched a major update to Gyms, locations similar to Pokéstops where players congregate to battle with their trained Pokémon. It also added Raids, opportunities for groups of players to work together to take down a more challenging Pokémon creature. Other features are being explored, too, Hanke says, including updates to how Pokémon fight and player vs. player battles.
Now that Pokémon Go opened smartphone owners' eyes to AR, Hanke says we'll see more experiences for your smartphones. "I totally expect that competition to arrive. We've heard from other companies in the industry about projects that they're working on, so we'll ultimately see that."
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