Creating a follow-up to Pokémon Go is an impossible task. The game was the kind of breakout success that had never been seen before — and might never happen again; it’s hard to overstate how the game was absolutely everywhere when it first launched in 2016. People were trespassing to catch Squirtles as the game set App Store download records. The wish fulfillment that came from seeing pokémon in the real world created a sensation that, even years after its peak, remains one of the biggest games in the world.
It was only natural that developer Niantic would try to follow that with something new. But re-creating the lightning in a bottle that is Pokémon Go hasn’t gone quite as planned, despite Niantic snapping up some enviable properties to adapt. After a year of early access, Catan: Settlers will shut down later this month. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which launched in 2019, didn’t fare much better: the game is closing down next January. It’s not just Niantic, either. Microsoft also had little success with the short-lived Minecraft Earth. A monster-hunting Witcher game debuted in the summer to little acclaim.
The obvious answer is that Pokémon Go was a fluke and that real-world, augmented reality games don’t have much of a future beyond catching pocket monsters. But there might be another reason for the string of failed releases: everyone is aiming too high.
Two things can be true. Pokémon Go is a once-in-a-lifetime hit that will never be replicated, and location-based AR games have a future beyond it. You don’t need to look much further than Niantic’s latest release, Pikmin Bloom, to see that potential future.
Whereas Minecraft and Harry Potter both seemed like an attempt to create the next big thing, Pikmin is much less ambitious. To start, it’s barely a game at all. Pikmin Bloom is more of an app designed to encourage walking by making it more playful. I’ve been using it for around a week, and it’s more like pleasant background noise than an immersive game. You collect pikmin and fruit to feed them by going out for walks, and you can also grow new creatures by, you guessed it, walking.
It’s a simple sort of gamification that adds just that little bit of extra incentive to head out of the house. It also has some charming Nintendo-esque touches (the game was co-developed by Nintendo and Niantic’s Tokyo studio), like the way you wave goodbye to your pikmin when they go out on expeditions or the scrapbook-like journal the game creates each day to remind you what you did. The simplicity of Pikmin Bloom is what makes it work.
As live service games have become more dominant, they’ve also run into an issue: players only have so much free time. Fortnite, Destiny, Genshin Impact, and League of Legends may be massive ongoing hits, but they also leave little room for other similar games. The same is true for Pokémon Go-style real-world games. The current iteration of Pokémon Go is surprisingly demanding; it requires going out to gyms to battle and navigating the tricky world of raising the strongest possible pokémon.
Players have latched onto that, and many are willing to invest what Pokémon Go asks. They’ve been doing it for years at this point. But it’s also clear that other AR games aren’t able to capture the same level of attention. You can’t just take the Pokémon Go formula and tack it on to another fictional world, even one as popular as Harry Potter. If you could, we wouldn’t have this deluge of games shutting down.
Which is what makes Pikmin Bloom so clever. It’s unassuming and demands little from you; it’s even set in one of Nintendo’s more niche fictional worlds. But the app also utilizes many of the things that made Pokémon Go such a success. The real-world integration gives you an excuse to venture a little further on a walk, so you can sow a few more flowers. The pikmin-planting mechanic encourages extra steps since walking helps make them grow. And then there’s the AR component, which lets you see what the cute, colorful plant creatures look like crawling around your living room or hanging out in a local park.
Pikmin Bloom isn’t destined to be the next mainstream hit. It’s unlikely that we’ll see it create a deluge of memes and local news reports. Instead, it posits a much more realistic future for location-based AR games — one where a few small apps fit neatly into your life.