Pokémon Go and the evolution of publishing treasure hunts

Pokémon Go and the evolution of publishing treasure hunts

I have a soft spot for the year 1979 which to my mind was a golden year for music, creativity and technology invention.

Masquerade, Kit Williams' graphical treasure hunt book, was published in August 1979 after Jonathan Cape’s Tom Maschler challenged Williams to “do something no one has ever done before” with a picture book. The book sold over two million copies worldwide, spawned a series of similar geography-based treasure hunt books, and instilled in me a romantic belief in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Kit Williams' Masquerade

This year’s treasure hunt phenomenon is Pokémon Go. Launched in July, 75 million copies were downloaded in the first three weeks, and it was averaging 7 million downloads per day earlier this month. Yes, per day. Masquerade mobilised the nation, and so has Pokémon Go, but on a much larger scale.

The game will not only spawn clones (already Moscow Tourism has launched a game where you can “catch and take selfies” with Yuri Gagarin, Tchaikovsky, and Ivan the Terrible) but it lays the foundations for significant changes in the way content creators and publishers should look at digital strategies, storytelling and relationships with authors.

Before defining the future, it is worth placing Pokémon Go in context. 

Firstly, location-based games that let you play in and around your real environment are not new. I built one myself seven years ago with RTL Media which cast you as a spy on a mission to find our super-spy heroine along with other players. You could pick up secret communiqués, clues, even virtual weapons around your physical location, and influence the story. A variation of the platform was launched for the Dutch soap opera GTST where over half a million people played along with the storylines over two season. Audiences loved the storylines, but we were surprised that the location-based challenges were seen as the least attractive feature of the game. People wanted to play from their sofas, and were not yet used to drawing a link between the virtual world on their phones, and the real world around them.

Since that time, audiences have been steadily prepped for location-based and augmented reality games. Pokémon Go could not have had its success without FourSquare, without Google Maps, without fitness apps, without Zombies Run!, and without Niantic Labs’ experience incubated within Google prior to working on Pokémon. Indeed the CEO of Pokémon, Tsunekazu Ishihara, was already a high-level player of Niantic Lab’s pioneering game, Ingress. The stars aligned perfectly for the game’s launch.

Niantic Labs' Ingress

The attraction of these games is simple: they add a more interesting layer to the world we see around us. Pokémon Go shows us that people like seeing cartoon characters on their way in to work, but to see deeper creative opportunities, it must be looked at as a platform rather than a single game.

Pokémon Go has taught the world how to play with virtual, fictional overlays onto the real world. Imagine how many stories fit into this mold. Ghost stories that bring the spirit world alive through an augmented reality lens, crime classics that recruit you as the local detective. Imagine John Wyndham’s classic where triffids lurk virtually on street corners, where you forage for virtual clothing, food and triffid bolts. Alliances with other players  - mirroring the book’s story - would sustain the game indefinitely bringing The Day of the Triffids up to date, and perhaps Wyndham would have enjoyed writing it even more than the book. As with Masquerade, the real world has become a playground for stories.

When new media emerge, we adapt existing stories and structures we are already comfortable with before we start writing for that medium natively. Thus early websites were electronic brochures and early apps were websites.  As Marshall McLuhan said: “We look at the future through a rear view mirror”. Pokémon Go’s focus is not on story, but the platform does hint at what future stories could be.

Stories that were fixed, finished projects must be considered as fluid narratives which evolve depending on how people read them.  Moments that we experience in isolation reading a book can be shared as we experience others’ reactions – emotionally more akin to a theatre experience. The story itself changes in response to how many people are reading at that moment, where they are, and what time of day they are reading. Masquerade in 2016 might dynamically update the images and clues depending on how close people are getting to the solution – a fluid and sentient picture book that responds to Maschler’s challenge in 2016.

Hundreds of Pokémon Go enthusiasts gather to play in Hong Kong

All decent digital strategies are now focused on mobile devices, and starting to move beyond the rear view mirror approach and beginning to play with the native technological and creative opportunities that these devices offer. With Pokémon Go, we have just seen how effective this strategy can be, and how getting people out and about on an old-fashioned treasure hunt can prove so popular to so many. Now is the time to think creatively and give audiences stories they want now that the virtual world and real world have been bridged.