Dubai business owners try to catch a piece of Pokemon Go's popularity

Smartphone-toting players of Pokemon Go are giving tech-savvy businesses worldwide a push as owners use the mania over the game to draw traffic and increase sales.

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality (AR) game that users play by roaming the real world looking at the app. Gamers use their smartphones to catch Pokemon characters such as Pikachu.

Pokemon are usually found at landmarks such as art installations. But for US$1, a user can purchase the 100 “Pokecoins” required for a lure – a 30-minute module that attracts Pokemon to a particular area. Shop owners are doing this as a way of luring characters – human as well as digital – to their premises.

The Dubai gameshop Geeky Lizard immediately experimented with lures upon the game’s release last Friday, being just upstairs from a “Pokestop”. The owner Omar Sharif Al Ali, 34, said that he has been organising a WhatsApp group through social media requests, with 35 people added just in two days.

Being one of the busiest days out of the week for the company, Mr Al Ali plans to release lures on Friday, which he expects will increase traffic threefold from last week’s lure-chasers. “I’m offering lures from 5pm and onward every time three people show up to the counter,” he said.

In The Dubai Mall near the dive waterfall, one gamer said that lures were being used on Wednesday at three Pokestops that highlighted nearby businesses.

Another Dubai player, Mohamed Fardan Hamidon, 28, said that playing the game had given him a new look on the city he was born in. “Dubai now isn’t a place you’d walk around because of the weather, but this game has taken me to see things that I never would have noticed if I wasn’t looking for Pokemon,” he said. “And I could see that working for businesses.”

But this might not translate well for every business.

“I would go into a McDonald’s or a retail store, but I might not go into a car dealership,” Mr Hamidon said.

San Francisco-based Niantic Labs revived the Japanese classic using the framework from its previous AR game, Ingress. Players joined a team leading them to real life locations for “portals”, which allowed users to obtain equipment or strengthen a team’s position.

Niantic’s chief executive John Hanke told The National that the company had made deals with the mobile shop Softbank and the convenience store chains Lawsons of Japan and Circle K of the United States. “We have a ‘cost-per-visit’ model. It’s been great to see it take off with business owners in Pokemon Go and we’re very excited about the opportunity long-term,” he said.

This model allows brands to sponsor different parts of the game, paying a fee per person that visits at the location. Even the popularity of the game has already reaped big rewards, with $7.5 billion added to the electronics company Nintendo’s market value on Monday alone.

While the UAE may be slower to take off, other small vendors in places such as New York have already used the Pokemon craze to heighten business activity.

The game was initially released in the US, Australia and New Zealand, but can be tapped via virtual private networks in other countries. It was released on July 6 and five days later had been downloaded 7.5 million times in the US alone.

KC Smithsen, the editor-in-chief of New York-based, a podcast network focused on portable games, said that he saw a snow-cone vendor set up under a Pokemon lure to get noticed. “Players flock to those things, and they’ll often hang out for the full 30-minute duration,” he said, adding that the owner dubbed his dessert flavours “Mystic Blue”, “Instinct Yellow” and “Valor Red” after the game’s three rival teams. “The sense of competition between these teams has already taken such hold that, honestly, if he had a sign tracking how many people bought each flavour, I’d buy two just to put my Team Mystic at the top where it belongs.”

Mr Smithsen, who has been involved in the mobile gaming sector for more than a decade, said that he expects more people to use bicycle sharing programmes, such as the Byky stations found throughout Dubai. “Many players in the US are using them to quickly jump between Pokestops and to hatch eggs, which require you to travel up to 10 kilometres to free the Pokemon inside,” he said, adding that cars do not work as the game does not count distance travelled above a certain speed.

“The last time the world experienced anything like this was with World of Warcraft, and the factions of that game eventually got their own [soft drink] flavour among other things,” he said.

Blizzard Entertainment of California released World of Warcraft in 2004. At its apex in late 2010 the game had about 12 million subscribers. By November 2015 that base was down to 5.5 million, and the game’s parent company said it would stop providing fresh numbers.

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