Pokémon Go: Designing augmented reality games for mobile

After the UK release of Pokémon Go last week, we asked game developers and designers how to get the best out of augmented reality gaming, and what it could look like in the future.

Fullerton, United States - July 13, 2016: Image of people playing pokemon go game on an iphone smartphone devices. Pokemon Go is a popular virtual reality game for mobile devices.
People playing the Pokémon Go game on their smartphones

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, chances are you will have come across the global phenomenon that is Pokémon Go.

Following the popularity of its initial launch in Australia, New Zealand and the US earlier this month, the augmented reality (AR) gaming app – based on the original Pokémon game designed for Nintendo Game Boy in the 1990s – has caused similar hysteria among UK fans since its release here last week.

To give a glimpse into just how successful the app has been so far, it now has more daily users than Twitter on Android phones in the US, according to analytics site SimilarWeb, and Nintendo shares ended on Tuesday up 14.4% at ¥31,770 (£228), more than doubling its gains since the game first launched.

As far as AR apps go, the concept behind Pokémon Go is fairly simple. Niantic – the California-based mobile game developer and spin-off from Google’s parent company, Alphabet – has created the multiplayer app using geolocation technology. Players are able to walk around the real world catching virtual monsters, such as Pikachu, and then train them to fight other monsters.

While Pokémon Go certainly isn’t the first game of its kind, the fact that it has had a huge impact on the mobile gaming world in such a short space of time is likely to pique the interest of designers working within the AR field.

But it is going to take more than a few monster holograms and some 1990s nostalgia for others to emulate that success, according to Adrian Hon, founder and chief executive officer at London-based independent game developer, Six to Start.

“If Pokémon Go was called Monster Hunter and it was just a bunch of creatures that you had never heard of, people wouldn’t care anywhere near as much,” Hon says. “[Nintendo] was able to make it work because it has this brand that has been around for 20 years and sold hundreds of millions of copies of its games.”

It is crucial then for designers to avoid the temptation of opting for Pokémon Go “knock offs”. Instead, he says, they ought to be focusing on developing games that look beyond cashing in on the novelty factor.

Hon – alongside co-creator and lead writer, Naomi Alderman – is part of the team behind Zombies, Run!, the immersive audio AR app designed to make jogging more exciting by placing the user at the scene of a “zombie apocalypse” through the use of sound. Players have to undertake tasks such as collecting supplies, rescuing survivors and – of course – running away from zombies.

The app has proven hugely successful since it was first launched in 2012, after an initial $73,000 (£56,000) crowd funding campaign. It currently has over three million downloads and a quarter of a million active players. Hon puts much of this success down to creating a simple yet engaging narrative.

“We developed a really strong story in a really strong world,” he says. “Pokémon Go doesn’t have a story, but Pokémon the brand does…If you can’t use an existing brand, then you have to work really hard to make sure that the one you make is really strong, because that’s ultimately what people are going to care about.”

Hon also makes the point that – with the exception of Pokémon Go, which requires people to actually get off the sofa and leave the house in order to catch Pokémon and progress through the game – the majority of AR apps are only likely to have lasting success if designed to complement the user’s existing lifestyle.

“With Zombies, Run! we’re very keen on not requiring the user to look at the screen all the time…because for us we didn’t want people to have to alter their habits,” he says.

Six to Start’s AR app, Zombies, Run!

Other experts maintain that it is important for designers to take advantage of the fact that AR gaming apps incorporate elements of both reality and fantasy.

“There’s obviously something spectacular about seeing effectively holographic overlays of things seeming to exist in an environment that does exist,” says Nicolas Roope, creative partner at digital consultancy, Poke.

“But I think there has to be a reason to use a real environment…otherwise if the elements you are using are pure fantasy, then why not just present it within a full virtual reality environment?”

As well as the social design elements Roope says ought to be considered (particularly with multiplayer games like Pokémon Go, which has the capacity to create subcultures by facilitating physical meetings between game players based close by), he also thinks designers should keep in mind the more technical aspects of designing for AR.

While they may not physically be involved with the coding side of app game development, for example, Roope maintains that the two things go hand in hand.

“Thinking in game design is also understanding the logic…how do you pack the space in a room, how do you make sense of different surfaces and make the characters work within the architecture?” he says.

“The more you are able to do that, the more delightful and real these elements will feel.”

Ustwo’s VR app, Land’s End

As for the future of AR gaming on smartphones, it remains to be seen how much more complex designers will be looking to develop apps like Zombies, Run! and Pokémon Go, or whether they may shift their focus altogether towards fully immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR).

Peter Pashley, head of development at Ustwo Games, says the game developer chose to work with VR when designing gaming apps such as Land’s End – which is set among the dramatic landscapes of an ancient civilisation – because it provides “the ultimate medium for escapist experiences”.

But he sees the fundamental design challenge for both VR and AR mobile apps as the same: “to get the player to believe what they’re seeing is real.”

While the current version of Pokémon Go, for instance, is quite basic when it comes to using AR to superimpose monsters on to the real world, Pashley expects that designers could move it on a lot further in future versions.

“You can totally imagine a more advanced version, using Hololens or Magic Leap tech, where you see these creatures take cover behind real walls, [or] you can bounce Pokéballs around real corners,” he says.

For the most part though, Pashley thinks that designers will opt to go one of two ways when designing AR games for smartphones as they become more advanced.

“The mobile market usually tends towards simplicity,” he says, “so I think we’ll see a splitting of this new genre into titles more focused on the geo-social aspects and those which push the limits of the AR tech.”

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  • Erlich Stewart July 28, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Aimee, Great Article!
    The world is going gaga over Pokemon Go! I heard that the game is now valued at $1 bn. Wow, that’s huge. But, like you mentioned, this goes good for other games with similar gameplay too!
    Zombies, Run! has been doing very well and I think there’s a similar scope for upcoming games in the segment too. Augmented Reality Integrated games are now in demand. I’ve come across tutorials and guides ( like this one http://bit.ly/2agXVMo ) that actually explain How to make a Game like Pokemon Go. In coming days, I expect a lot of games similar to Pokemon Go cropping up on the Play Store in coming weeks and some of them may earn too, if not in Billions, Thousands and Millions for sure. Its actually not a bad idea if you see, to invest in such games. They can make you money.
    Thanks, Gotta Catch’Em All!

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