The long-promised augmented-reality game Pokémon Go rolled out to iOS and Android on July 6th, instantly becoming one of the biggest mobile games of all time, and a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon to boot. And then it broke.
The original plan was for the game to be gradually turned on in every territory around the world, starting in Australia, and then the United States before it would find its way to Canada, South America, Europe and finally Asia. By Friday afternoon, the game's rollout had completely stalled. It hadn't made it beyond the U.S. release – and players there were experiencing crashes and other problems.
"We're right in the middle of a staged rollout," said the game's developer, Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke, on July 8th – two days after the game was first released. "We've had the servers go up and down a few times in the last 24 hours, and we're getting the kinks worked out. Demand was much higher than what we expected, and we expected a lot, but as things took off on social media, we have gotten hammered."
How hammered? Hanke is reluctant to put an actual number on the enormous size of the game's audience, saying only, "It's a very large number of people all trying to play the game all at once. It's a few hundred percent more than we had expected."
According to analytics firm SimilarWeb, the game is already bigger than Tinder on Android devices, and 60 percent of those who have downloaded it are playing it every day. For some context, that means that in terms of daily active users, the metric used to measure how engaged an audience is, Pokémon Go is currently about the same size as Twitter. In the next few days it will almost certainly overtake the social network, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
This kind of global Pokémania is not new. Since 1996, the series has sold more than 300 million copies on Nintendo's own handheld systems, along with billions of dollars worth of T-shirts, toys, candy and other merchandise. The response to each new release is typically up there with the level of crazy we see for the really big pop culture stuff like Marvel movies and Star Wars. But Pokémon Go is different. Its mobile, social nature – and innovative use of both GPS location and augmented-reality – encourages people to go out into the real world, find Pokémon at real-life-locations and point their phone camera at stuff, making it a highly visible phenomenon that's already much-discussed outside of the gaming world.
Since the game launched, it's been all over social media. Dallas Mavericks players Devin Harris, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri shared photos from the team's locker room with a Doduo (a two-headed bird whose special ability is listed, matter-of-factly, as "tangled feet"). League of Legends teams Cloud9 and Team SoloMid were photographed playing the game when they should have been prepping for a match on Friday afternoon. In Texas, a man shared photos that went viral of his attempts to catch a Pidgey as his wife was in labor. In Australia, the Northern Territory Police urged Pokémon players to "look up, away from your phone and both ways before crossing the street. That Sandshrew isn't going anywhere fast."
Enterprising criminals are even using the game to target victims for robbery. According to the O'Fallon Missouri Police Department, a group of teens are suspected to have used the game to help them rob at least a dozen victims over the weekend before being caught. "Many of you have asked how the app was used to rob victims," it said in a Facebook post about the crimes. "The way we believe it was used is you can add a beacon to a Pokéstop to lure more players. Apparently they were using the app to locate people standing around in the middle of a parking lot or whatever other location they were in."
This huge amount of constant attention has continued to drive awareness and demand way beyond what Hanke and his team had ever anticipated. After the North American launch, players were reporting the game freezing or crashing. They were finding it impossible to log in, and seeing error messages telling them that the game's servers were down. "Due to the incredible number of Pokémon Go downloads, some Trainers are experiencing server connectivity issues," the official website announced. "Don’t worry, our team is on it!"
Fans were understandably pissed, for lots of reasons. Players able to download the game were angry that it seemed to only sometimes work, while fans in the rest of the world were frustrated that it wasn't even appearing in their app stores yet.
"When we launched, we put the game out in Australia and New Zealand first, and we did that silently. We didn't put out any messaging around that. That was deliberate because we wanted to absorb that first influx of players and make sure that the thing was working properly before we said anything about it being available," Hanke says. "We then proceeded with the U.S. launch in the second day as planned, and then we put out a statement."
That's when things really went crazy, and they've yet to relent. "We've been working to stabilize things, and absorb that influx of players, and then we'll move onto a set of additional countries until we complete the full rollout," he said. "It's all about managing that initial peak – that huge peak of everyone trying to get in at one time before it starts to level off a bit. Then our infrastructure will have an easier time of it. We're just trying to get over that initial hurdle right now."
Despite these early issues, Hanke is bullish on getting the game to a more stable place. "The core technology is holding up well," he explained. "We think we'll be in a position to continue the global roll out pretty soon." As of Monday July 11, the expectation is that the game will hit Europe and Asia before the end of this week.
Once the game is finally fully released everywhere in the world, Pokémon Go will continue to evolve. Just like that Jigglypuff you caught. "We really view it as a living breathing thing, the way MMOs are," he said. "So, regular updates, new features, fixes. We plan to continually enhance and extend the game, hopefully over a very long period of time. So yeah, things like additional Pokémon, I would expect to see in due time." He also confirmed that a highly-desired feature is in the works. "Pokémon trading is coming. It's not in this release," he assured us, "but it is something we're working on and committed to."