A Whole New World
I’ve been a sucker for augmented reality games from the first moment a friend introduced the concept to me. A few years ago, my friend, David, told me about a game called Ingress. A company called Niantic had created an interesting and immersive story in which there is more to this world than we see at first glance. There are portals leaking exotic material into the world causing bursts of insight and creativity among the people nearby.
An intelligent entity is trying to come through the portals to alter the course of human history. Two factions seek to control these portals. The Resistance wants to protect the world from the influence of the portals while the Enlightened want to usher it in.
I grabbed my phone, picked my team, and began driving around town hacking portals, capturing them, and creating control fields. In a lot of ways, the game felt like being a kid again. Ingress felt like a giant neighborhood game of Capture the Flag that never stopped.
The pinnacle of my Ingress experience came after my friend — and fellow TLS editor — Lucas started playing with me. I was an early adopter of the game, and if I could hit level five within a few days I would get the Founder Badge. Luc and I spent days stockpiling weapons and then launched out one night on a raid on enemy occupied Eden, NC.
We laid waste to every enemy-owned portal we could find, capturing them for ourselves. After hours of driving and playing, we created a control field running from Eden, NC to Bassett, VA to Chatham, VA. I felt unstoppable.
Then, I zoomed my map out and realized just how insignificant our act was. Our field was not that big. However, we attracted the attention of some bigger players and wound up helping out with some missions for people in larger cities.
As the due date of my first child approached, though, my time for the game slipped away. Once my daughter was born, I dropped the game altogether. I simply didn’t have time to travel enough to play it in an impactful way.
The notion of AR once again excited me with the announcement of Pokémon Go. If Ingress made me feel nostalgic, Pokémon Go nearly turned me into a child again.
My wife and I were staying with her parents when the game released, and in no time we were leaving our daughter with them so that we could venture into town to throw pokéballs at imaginary creatures. The second pokéstop we arrived at had a lure on it. Within minutes, the parking lot was packed with adults smiling awkwardly at one another with their phones out as one redneck, whose friends had dragged him there begrudgingly, stood on the roof of his pickup truck and yelled about how stupid we all were. It was a blast.
Trouble Keeping Up
Pokémon Go experienced record-breaking growth, quickly becoming the biggest mobile game ever. Many of my friends downloaded the game, and my social media feeds were filled with lighthearted teasing between factions. New friends were made as people connected with their new teams in controlling their town’s gyms. People who hadn’t prioritized physical health were outside getting a workout and losing weight. This game was everywhere you looked and impacting people in a positive way. However, the game was headed for troubled waters.
The game had frequent server issues that manifested themselves in a multitude of ways. This is to be expected of newer online games to a point, but they were frustratingly common and were not resolved in anything resembling a timely fashion. Today they are less common, but still not uncommon.
To exacerbate the problem, they stuck with release dates in new areas, bringing multitudes of new players onto servers that were already struggling. If server issues caused the waste of lures, incense, incubators, or lucky eggs…well, that was just too bad. If you knew the game was launching in a new area that day, you knew to avoid playing.
The complaints on server issues also began to reveal the first red flags that the game was being run by a company that could not or would not respond to its users. Their social media account would often tweet vapid responses about being overwhelmed and encouraged by so much interest with promises that they were working around the clock to fix those issues. What if you spent real money on items that were lost due to a glitch, though? Don’t ask Niantic. They have your money, but they don’t have an answer.
One of the earliest, and most damning, issues was the loss of the tracker. The tracker was a part of the app that showed you zero to three footprints under a pokémon. The fewer footprints you saw, the closer you were to finding that particular creature. With the first major update to the game, this feature was broken and there were no footprints under any pokémon. It was never resolved.
At launch, you could actively try to hunt pokémon. Now, you could choose to wander around hoping to luck into finding pokémon, or you could use a third-party tracker. That is until Niantic sent cease and desist letters to the third-party trackers, leaving us with nothing but the wandering aimlessly option. (This is one of the few things they issued an explanation on.) The loss of this feature went hand in hand with the loss of most of my friends in this game. It completely destroyed the fun of hunting pokémon.
There are many other issues and it seems that more appear every couple of weeks. The breakout and escape rate of pokémon obviously increased, which strikes many users as an effort to pull cash out of them by forcing the purchase of pokéballs. The way hatching eggs works is broken, and if the servers fail at the moment your egg hatches, you may lose that pokémon.
If you are a rural player, you might as well not waste your time playing, because contrary to how you would think things would work, the game is designed to spawn more of these wild creatures in the cities, and almost none of them in the countryside.
As you gain level, it eventually becomes nearly impossible to progress without spending real world money. (Unless you want to take a year to go from level 38 to 39.) As all of these things pile up with little response from Niantic, the game that rapidly ascended to 40 million users has lost over 12 million users in a month, and the player base will continue to decline.
The Future of Mobile AR
For all of its post-launch failures, Pokémon Go demonstrated that augmented reality games can be successful. The idea of running around interacting with another world recaptures the fun and imagination of youth that most of us lose as we age. Undoubtedly, there will be other augmented reality projects to come. What can they learn from the successes and failures their predecessors?
1: Build an interesting world.
Everyone loves a good story. An interesting world draws us in as we seek a brief escape from the mundane day to day tasks of our present one. Ingress’s mind-altering entities coming through portals and Pokémon Go’s world of capturing and training monsters did this with excellence. Whatever comes next has to include a world that fascinates us and makes the effort of playing worthwhile.
2: Make a fun game.
Ingress was a more complex capture the flag. It took effort, but it worked and was rewarding. At launch, Pokémon Go was a lot of fun. As the object of the game (capturing and training stronger pokémon) became unattainable, the fun of this game dropped off. It is okay to be complex. It is okay to be challenging. But, you never want the player to feel that the game is impossible or, worse, unfairly tilted in favor of the game runners.
3: Build your community.
If your game is a multiplayer game, you want to build those experiences where strangers can meet and immediately click over a shared experience. Having factions gives you both people working toward a common objective and rivals that encourage you to work with your allies. If it’s not a multiplayer game, you still want to create a story and a concept that gets people talking to one another about your game.
4: Don’t get in over your head.
AR does not necessarily have to be a massive multiplayer experience. Games like Zombies, Run! and the forthcoming Night Terrors are both augmented reality games that are designed in a way that a single player can enjoy playing. If you do pursue multiplayer, however, you have to make sure the game works. If it becomes more than you can handle, you need to slow down on rolling out new features and entering new markets until you can get things running smoothly again.
5: Respect people who financially support you.
It is totally respectable to earn money off of a game you develop. You worked hard and you earned it! However, when you know that there are glitches that are taking away items that people spend money on, that needs addressed immediately. If you deliberately alter the mechanics of the game dramatically to push more sales, that is malicious. If you make it impossible to level without spending considerable sums of cash, people will quit playing your game. If people are supporting you financially, be appreciative of them.
6: Listen to your users.
I know some people are terrible at offering criticism and feedback, but when people are expressing legitimate concerns, you need to listen. You need to let them know you’ve listened by responding. Even if you don’t quite have the problem figured out yet, let them know you’re working on it, and then demonstrate that you are. Telling us you’re working on an issue and then rolling out multiple updates with new features that no one has requested which don’t fix the current issues communicates that you don’t care about your users. And if you don’t care, they won’t either.
In spite of fading interest in Pokémon Go, the game definitely generated a lot of interest and multitudes of people had fun with it, if only for a little while. Augmented reality is a style of game that will continue to generate excitement among those who long to recapture the imagination of childhood as they run around in the real world with friends while interacting with fascinating, unseen worlds. Pokémon Go may not recover from its missteps, but it can still stand as an inspiration to future game developers who see the amount of interest augmented reality can generate. This genre will be a staple in years to come if developers are willing to learn from the successes and failures of these early AR games.