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Pokémon GO is a Minimal Viable Product

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed Pokémon GO shatter app store records, dominate social media and drive stock market valuations. The game now has over 100 million downloads1. Experts are estimating the game is generating 10 million dollars a day.2 Pokémon mania has swept the world.

“In product development, the minimum viable product (MVP) is the product with the highest return on investment versus risk. It is the sweet spot between products without the required features that fail immediately when shipped and the products with too many features that cut return and increase risk.”3

Pokémon GO accomplished this with a minimum viable product (or MVP). The technology industry is still debating the wisdom of MVP releases. One side argues, shipping products missing features or with known bugs damages the user experience, while the MVP camp argues, “you’ve waited too long if you ship a perfect product.” I side with the latter, provided you are intentional with what you release and provide the right level of support for your users. Launching Pokémon GO as an MVP, the Niantic (the creators of the game) team was able to ship faster, gain valuable user feedback, and save resources.

Why is Pokémon GO a Minimum Viable Product or MVP?

I’ll argue that Niantic’s first Pokémon GO release and MVP started with this promotional video:

Niantic introduced the overall concept of the game and several key features in this video. Niantic could now gather feedback and adjust their plans.

Niantic set a vision and outlined the games features from a high level in the video. Releasing this video Niantic received initial user feedback without having to write a single line of code. This early feedback allowed Niantic to prioritize their backlog based on how their customers responded to their video, instead of guessing. We get a glimpse into Niantic’s roadmap by comparing the features in their first application release versus the features highlighted in their introduction video.

Here are features I saw in the video released in September 2015:

  • Capturing Pokémon with augmented reality
  • Battling for places
  • Exact distances to Pokémon (Not Present)
  • Throwing Poké Balls with augmented reality (Not Present)
  • Trading peer to peer (Not Present)
  • Battling Friends (Not Present)
  • Team battling for common reward (Not Present)

Only 2 of the 7 features featured are found in the initial game release. And two main features of the current release, stopping at Poké stops and hatching eggs, are not found in this video. This comparison allows us to see how Niantic dynamically shifted their backlog. With the success of the game, it is hard to argue that Niantic needed to wait until the app was complete to ship.

I would argue the paradigm for a release should not be completion but rather value. Niantic clearly brought value to their users with their application release.

How did releasing a MVP benefit Niantic?

Shipping a MVP saved the Pokémon GO team precious time and resources. Trying to complete your entire backlog before shipping will likely be detrimental. You may spend too much effort on features users don’t care about, and not enough on features users are passionate about. The Pokémon GO team clearly has a roadmap and large backlog. But they shipped without completing this list. They now have the benefit of millions of users giving them feedback, to shape what they prioritize and how they do it.

Niantic now has millions of users to demonstrate value to potential partners. Lining up partners with data is far easier than without data. Speaking with Forbes, Niantic CEO John Hanke stated that sponsoring Poké stops was an idea they have had for monetizing the game from the beginning, and brought over from Ingress.4 Imagine the effort it would have taken to convince a restaurant to pay for a Poké stop before their release. Now business owners, according to Hanke are saying “Please, please, please.” Niantic’s launch gave credibility to a secondary feature without them having to spend a dime on marketing. In Japan, they launched sponsored Poké stops though a partnership with McDonalds.5

Niantic could quickly establish a feedback loop. As Eric Reis discussed in the lean startup, the faster a company can ship, gain feedback and iterate, the faster it can gain users. Niantic clearly values learning and innovating. Hanke explained, “We intend to iterate and work on these specs right up until the moment it ships. Stuff evolves until the last minute.” However, Niantic isn’t afraid to apply the lessons they learned from previous projects. Pokémon GO shares its map data with an earlier game called Ingress. Niantic used data they had and itinerated off their previous game. If you load ingress and Pokémon GO in the same location, you will notice Poké stops and portals share a common database. Releasing to millions of users worldwide gave them millions of interactions to learn from.

What can you learn?

Build a healthy backlog. Having more features than you ship in first release allows you to plan and build for the feature. Work with key stakeholders to set the vison for the product and build a roadmap. Do not be afraid to change plans or pivot based on feedback from your MVP.

Ship Early. Do not wait until every bug is fixed and every feature perfected. The art of the MVP is to ship with the right number of features to gain feedback without creating frustration. Waiting too long will cost time and money from building features without feedback.

Create a Feedback Loop. A key part of releasing the MVP is building a structure to capture user feedback and to also act on it. A key part of releasing the MVP is having clear paths to hear what users are saying. Keep the development teams close to customer service and feedback mechanism.

Quickly Building, shipping and capturing feedback will get better features to your users faster.


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