Game developers around the world watched in astonishment as Pokémon Go, a mobile version of the beloved 1990s game from Nintendo, became an instant hit -- rocketing to the most downloaded app on both Apple and Android phones.
It's too soon to say if its success will reshape the $25 billion mobile gaming industry, but this much is certain: The surprise hit will inspire copycats.
"You're going to see other developers potentially changing their pipeline to incorporate augmented reality or location-based technology," said Mike Olson, an analyst at Piper Jaffray Cos. "Those plans are probably being put in place right now." He said he wouldn't be surprised if Activision Blizzard added such functionality to Skylanders, its role-playing game featuring toys.
Pokémon Go has been released only in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand so far, and already nimble developers are making lookalike apps for places where the game isn't available. A few cashing in on the craze have topped mobile-download rankings from Germany and Spain to Singapore and Sweden, according to market researcher App Annie.
The game Citymon Go -- led by a character with a striking resemblance to Pokémon's Pikachu -- became China's most downloaded Apple iOS game in the past few days. Go Pikachu, a board-game populated with cartoon monsters, is now one of the 20 most-downloaded games on wandoujia.com, an Android app store.
Pokémon Go's long-term influence on the industry will depend largely on whether the craze endures and whether rival game makers can duplicate the underlying technology. The Nintendo game brings together two key features: the location-mapping common to many apps, and augmented reality, or AR, which overlays a virtual world on the real one. After downloading the app, players navigate an animated version of Google Maps, searching for Pokémon characters to capture and add to their team.
The technology comes from Niantic, a company founded by Google and spun off last year. In 2013, Niantic created Ingress, in which opposing teams capture "portals" based on real-world landmarks. The game is mostly a cult phenomenon, and the basic concept didn't become mainstream until Niantic teamed up with Nintendo to create Pokémon Go.
Some analysts see the game's success as a big lift for artificial reality, which has yet to live up to its hype. "This is the first time that there's mass adoption of an AR application," said Joost van Dreunen, who runs SuperData Research. "This could be the Angry Birds of AR."
Angry Birds, created by Rovio Entertainment, brought mobile gaming to the masses when it debuted in 2009. Droves of developers flocked to build mobile games after its success, and gaming companies probably will seek to replicate Pokémon Go's achievement as well, Mr. van Dreunen said. If the Pokémon Go juggernaut continues, he said, developers of other top-grossing mobile games, such as Supercell Oy's Clash of Clans or Activision's Candy Crush, could be encouraged to add a location component to existing games.
Duplicating Pokémon Go's success won't be easy. Niantic has had years to refine the technology, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. This makes the mechanics of the game difficult to replicate, even as other developers try to pile in, he said. At the same time, the enduring popularity of Pokémon is a big driver of the new game's success. The millennial generation grew up with the franchise, which has almost 20 feature films and seven generations of handheld games. In addition to young fans, there's an entire generation of grownups who can tell the difference between a Pikachu and Raichu.
Olson, the Piper Jaffray analyst, says imitators are inevitable because "that's the nature of mobile gaming. There will be other games that have moderate success but it's unlikely we'll see another game have this much success at least right out of the gates."
Furthermore, some analysts said Nintendo's Pokémon Go success will be fleeting. Its augmented reality technology is fairly rudimentary. Users have complained of server issues, miscreants are already seizing on the phenomenon to lure unwitting players into traps, and in some cases the game gains access to Gmail and other Google apps without a player's knowledge. Finally, there's the fickle nature of gamers.
"The game requires couch potatoes to get off the couch, and the novelty will wear off when they get tired or when their phone batteries die," says Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst. "I give this four months at the top of the charts, then it will fade."
-- Bloomberg News