14 August 2016
The game has built its success on a largely single-player experience – but to really leave a mark on players, developers should focus on the interpersonal angle
A location game overlaying the city, with players able to hunt monsters, capture stations, battle each other, build guilds. A virtual imagined world connected to the physical one by a database of locations and human “check-ins”.
It’s not Pokémon Go. It’s Chromaroma, from the UK games company Mudlark. And it’s not from this year. It was released in 2010.
Augmented reality games have been in development for the last 15 years, and I ran Mudlark from 2005 to 2011. Our biggest success was Chromaroma, which overlaid London and connected with players’ Oyster cards, letting people battle with fantastical weapons and armor. It was part Risk, part Monopoly, part Foursquare. But we made games and experiences – we called them mixed reality and transmedia – that, honestly, we struggled to explain to people.
Fast forward and the global hit Pokémon Go hits the “transmedia” sweet spot perfectly: a license that combines 90s game nostalgia, Japanese color palettes, full spectrum imagination and friendly competitiveness.
I asked my young son why he thinks the game has struck such a chord and he replied that he considered it the manifestation of every Pokémon player’s dreams. Perhaps not realizing what he was saying also applied to the game designers, he added: “The game is basically letting us all do the things we have been imagining for years.”
The game focuses on some core mechanics often overlooked by western developers – collecting, sorting, cataloging – allowing players to learn complex rules and mechanics driven through the discovery of a brand new world. World-building, 18 races of Pokémon, multiple ways to evolve creatures, multiple in-game currencies and running in countries around the world.
But to keep Pokémon performing at solar levels, there are number of things the developers will need to focus on, including upping the person-to-person experience.
At the moment, Pokémon Go is a very single-player-focused experience. Collect, wander, leave Pokémon in gyms, look through inventory. Games really start to leave footprints on a soul once a person-to-person experience is felt.
Trading, sharing and battling Pokémon between players is going to be key to the next wave of success. Complementing the discovery of Pokémon will be in-the-moment trials and tribulations of connecting with people: in cafes, at the bar, at work, and – the game launched just in time for summer holidays and long walks – in the schoolyard.
These more in-person connections will demand in-game communication, such as chats, likes, pokes, seeing another person’s profile and person-to-person communication.
Once there’s interaction, then we’ll have clans, clubs, and teams, which will lead to leaderboards, competition and collaboration.
And as developers get better at layering objects, people and information on to the physical world, they need to build mechanics that are interesting and engaging.
It would be similar to what happened with Foursquare. Other companies tried to replicate the social network using similar check-in ideas and brand partnerships because they thought it was a singular phenomenon.
But it wasn’t about the specific check-in. It was that Dennis Crowley of Foursquare knew the value of location-based services. Messages that connect to you when it matters – recommending where to look, suggesting where to go.
Commercially, the scene looks ready to include some form of advertising, whether attached to Pokéstops or connected to points of interest. It is only a matter of time before we see McDonald’s Gyms or Pepsi Stadiums. Generation Z may ignore these – they’re already used to skipping ads and avoiding in-game promotions, and they are generally immune to display ads. But will the pausing of the Pokémon game to watch a mini-game push these players away, or drive advertisers into new spaces?
And what if Niantic Labs makes the physical world shine brighter in the game? Rather than focus on the virtual rewards and the virtual interactions, what if the company starts to drive players to discover new places? What if it is the kids who discover the routes we take home in the car, via the local Poké gym, instead of the adults using Waze or Google Maps?
Choosing a route could become less about the quickest way home, and instead about a local Lickitung nest. Will Pokémon fuel our imaginary worlds, or become another graveyard of advertising?