Pokemon Go could crash and burn this way

Server outages and a legion of players with short attention spans do not make for a good combination.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
3 min read
Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

I first encounter the problem after spotting and catching a Bulbasaur a block away from my office. Instead of a screen confirming the digital monster is mine, I get a white Poke ball-like icon in the top left-hand corner that spins and spins and spins.

Later that day, I encounter two men taking turns posing for photos next to a Pokemon, which is superimposed on their phone's screen, layered on top of the real-world background caught by the camera. I ask if they've had problems actually catching the creature, and they nod.

It's the latest mobile equivalent of the Mac "spinning wheel of death" or the Windows hourglass. This one's inside Pokemon Go.

Pokemon Go, released last week, is already a cultural phenomenon. It has garnered more users than Tinder and is closing in on Twitter. Its success added $7.5 billion to previously irrelevant Nintendo's market value in just two days. Heck, even the decades-old Pokemon theme now dominates Spotify.

The concept behind the game, which turns people into Pokemon trainers using their phones to hunt for digital creatures in the real world, is certainly strong.

But the undercurrent to all it's success is that execution is weak.

Server issues have kept folks staring at that spinning ball, and the game continually crashes. Nintendo and developer Niantic have struggled to keep up with demand.

So take this as a warning to Nintendo and Niantic. These kinds of early hiccups bode poorly for the longevity of Pokemon Go. The game benefits from a wave of curiosity, nostalgia and a genuinely unique mobile experience. But these problems, as well as headlines that the game can access more of your Google account than you would like, could quickly sour gamers.

And this isn't like Nintendo's traditional console business, where gamers plunk down money for a physical system and game. Pokemon Go is free to download, and gamers have little investment or reason to stick around.

Just ask Rovio, the company behind the Angry Birds games. The once-killer app for the iPhone is virtually forgotten as a game and lives on as a movie instead. The App Store is littered with high-flying apps that quickly falter. Ingress, the augmented reality mobile game from Niantic that Pokemon was based on, was a flash in the pan. People, after all, have short attention spans, and the next hot app is always around the corner. Just like Pokemon Go, that next hot app will likely be free.

"It's had by far the fastest rise of any game, but it's building off nostalgia from those who played other versions earlier in life, and it's also a fairly time-intensive pursuit," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. "It's hard to imagine that being sustainable, especially once we get past the summer and people's lives get busier again."

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Technical glitches kneecapped the prospects for another game riding on a wave of nostalgia. Remember the debut of Simcity in 2013? The highly anticipated reboot of the classic game fizzled after Electronics Arts failed to provide the necessary server support, leaving people disconnected and unable to play.

Nintendo and Niantic weren't available for comment. But to its credit, Niantic told Business Insider that it was delaying the global rollout of the game until it got a handle on the demand.

The good news is it's not doom and gloom just yet. Another mobile game, Simpsons: Tapped Out, infamously crapped out when it first launched, causing Electronic Arts to pull the game to fix the server issues. After it returned, the game became a monster hit for the company.

"Users are able to write off a lot of the initial issues because they're so attached to the brand," said Jordan Edelson, CEO of developer Appetizer Mobile.

I realize that my failed pursuit of a Bulbasaur is a first-world problem. But there are real consequences for Nintendo and Niantic if that problem isn't addressed.

In the meantime, I'll keep restarting Pokemon Go in a bid to catch them all. I am still interested in playing. For now.

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