From China to Spain, Lookalike Apps Reign Where Pokemon Can’t Go

  • Go Pikachu and CityMon Go are topping rankings in China
  • App is available only in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand

Pokemon Go fever is gripping would-be monster trainers in countries from China to Canada where the app isn’t yet available -- good news for nimble developers looking to make a quick buck.

A sprinkling of apps looking to cash in on the surprise hit are topping mobile-download rankings from Germany and Spain to Singapore and Sweden, according to market researcher App Annie. Citymon Go -- led by a character with a striking resemblance to 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.

Pokemon Go was released last week in the U.S, Australia and New Zealand to instant acclaim. It’s become a social phenomenon as Americans and Antipodeans alike prowl bars and pizzerias -- even police stations --- in search of “pocket monsters.” The app, developed by Niantic Inc. and Pokemon Co., has swelled Nintendo Co.’s market value by 59 percent, or more than $11 billion, in just four days because it owns stakes in both companies.

Developers had laid bets on the Nintendo franchise’s money-making potential, taking advantage of a resurgence in demand for Pokemon-themed content. Consider Catch Em! (Pokemon’s slogan is Catch ‘Em All), a clone of Flappy Bird, a short-lived game that also entranced legions.

Go Catch Em All! Hungry Monster.IO is one of the more popular worldwide: it topped free-app rankings in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the U.K. and Switzerland, App Annie says. It borrows elements of last year’s Agar.io, where a cell in a petri dish gobbles up neighbors to grow.

“People can see that these games are not the real thing, but they download in hopes of recreating some of that experience until the actual app arrives,” said Serkan Toto, founder of consultant Kantan Games Inc., which specializes in Japanese mobile games. “Because the development cycle is very short, all you need is a handful of developers to duplicate pretty much any mobile game in a matter of days. Or at least make it look like a copy.”

A Japanese-language guide for Pokemon Go even managed to stay at the top of free app rankings in Italy for three days. Instead of game tips, the app aggregates Pokemon news and serves up ads. In Canada, the $0.99 Pokedex database of monster-stats has been the most downloaded paid app since July 7, shouldering aside perennial mainstay Minecraft.

Most successful smartphone titles fall into a handful of genres such as matching or physics puzzles like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, or tower-defense strategy games like Plants vs. Zombies. Because the mechanics are easily replicated, follow-the-leader has become a viable business strategy.

This may not be the case with Pokemon Go. The game weaves together precision mapping and augmented reality, or AR, which overlays a virtual world onto the real one. The technology comes from Niantic, a company Google spun off last year.

That hasn’t stopped the Chinese makers of Citymon from trying. Like the smash hit, the game allows players to pick nearby battles using location data. But it lacks the AR capability, which means characters cannot interact with real environments. It’s been available on Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Myapp.com store since March, months after Nintendo first unveiled the concept. Citymon’s developers weren’t available for comment. Skymoon, the developers of Go Pikachu, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear when Niantic will trot out Pokemon Go elsewhere. For now, Chinese fans hankering for the real deal can buy Australian or New Zealand Apple accounts online. While that opens access to the Pokemon Go app, users face a world barren of pocket monsters or battle hotspots -- those are populated by developers.

“There are templates for programmers that you can buy for $60-70, put your own graphic skin on it and have a match-three puzzle game,” Toto said. “You cannot do that with a game like Pokemon Go. This game is really an ambitious concept and not as easy to copy as Candy Crush, for example.”

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