EeGeo CEO Ian Hetherington discusses the potential ways in which developers can build on the success of Niantic's location-based phenomenon
As we approach the end of 2016, it would be easy to say that Nintendo’s Pokémon Go has been the biggest game of the year, and for a good reason.
The mobile app is incredibly well designed and its success lends to its constituent parts; it has a comprehensive map courtesy of Google, a legacy IP license with a loyal following and an ideal character structure courtesy of Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. Thanks to these companies, ample funding has been available while domain knowledge, core engineering talent and an understanding of virality stems from Niantic.
The initial hype around the game may have subsided, but the conversation around the role augmented reality will have for the gaming market has only just started.
AR: A New Gaming Genre
Before Pokémon Go landed, the gaming industry was stagnant with many developers attempting to replicate the success of Clash of Clans and others. The gaming audience, especially mobile gamers, was ready for something new and innovative. Pokémon Go delivered that through its seamless blend of embedded familiarity of the Pokémon characters, fondly remembered by most ‘90s kids, with the game mode of choice: mobile play.
AR is nothing new and has in fact been at the top of developer’s agendas for some time now, but the launch of Pokémon Go signified the first game that has successfully delivered a captivating experience. It’s the first game that has truly engaged a consumer audience and sparked their interest in this style of gameplay.
Make way for the copycat
The last thing the gaming industry needs is a rush of Pokémon Go copycats. However, when any new entertainment experience comes to market, particularly one as successful and unexpected as Pokémon Go, it’s to be reasoned that competitors will look to offer a similar experience to join the party. The reality is you don’t need to be the first to a technology, you just need to use it best.
Instead of the copycat approach, iteration and innovation is needed to make sure that consumers are continuously engaged and the AR genre is moving forward in line with consumer expectations. As such, developers should see Pokémon Go as an opening up of new possibilities in AR gaming rather than an exact product pro-forma.
What we are likely to see is a wave of funding injected into creative AR ventures. VCs will be on the lookout for potential investments and will most likely be competing to secure the right solution.
The last thing the gaming industry needs is a rush of Pokémon Go copycats.
VR: It’s here to stay
Pokémon Go has sparked the public’s interest in other areas of mobile gaming, especially VR. It’s even rumoured that Niantic is optimising the next generation of the game to be compatible with Google Cardboard. VR will expand the genre by enabling players to engage with each other while not being physically present. The possibility to meet up with other players and play the game in another country could extend the games appeal.
In essence, VR closes the interaction loop opened up by AR gaming. While AR has allowed players to compete with one another in real world locations on mobile and Pokémon Go has challenged social barriers and encouraged players to interact with each in a more physical way, extending the game to VR means that real world interactions can happen in tandem with digital interactions.
This merger happens in a more engaging model of the real world or a more compelling 3D map that will deliver an enhanced, immersive experience. With a mixture of VR and AR, players can compete at the same Pokémon Gyms, for example, in person as well as digitally. Imagine a Pokémon battle happening in Times Square, with players competing from the location while gamers from around the world “teleport in” to be a part in a collaborative gaming event.
To achieve this next level immersive experience, the technology will need to run deeper than Google maps with an overlaid UI. Designers using VR need an engaging play environment that is optimised for both AR “presence” and VR “tele-presence”. It may be difficult for Google to deliver these capabilities through Streetview and Google Earth alone but a more compelling solution is achievable with an enhanced geometrically accurate model of the real world: 3D mapping.
By tapping into the power of 3D mapping for improved user experience, developers will be able to create games that integrate AR and VR’s distinctive viewpoints.
Dynamic 3D Outdoor Maps
Currently, the Pokémon Go experience focuses on an avatar that moves through the game in a flat Google map, overlaid with a UI to reveal nearby Pokémon. Imagine what gameplay would be like if this was set in a videogame-like, geo-spatially accurate model of the real world.
Rendering these gameplay elements into an interactive mapping environment makes for a more dynamic gaming experience. Add to that the possibility of mapping indoor space, and the game could have a new, scalable world that will allow players to seamlessly navigate building interiors floor-by-floor. With more intuitive 3D visualisations and accurate indoor positioning, it is much easier for designers to create mixed reality experiences.
Aside from enhancing the user experience indoors is where the real commercial potential for AR/VR gaming lies by encouraging discovery and gathering people at new locations. 3D building map APIs unlock a whole range of AR and VR experiences, allowing retailers, hotels and other destinations to offer their guests entirely new ways of exploring and socialising, while also playing a game. This potential connection with retailers will open up a new way for these AR/VR games to gain advertisers and revenue.
To achieve this next level immersive experience, the technology will need to run deeper than Google maps with an overlaid UI.
More than smartphones
Right now, Pokémon Go is optimised for smartphone use and while smartphone use is unlikely to decrease anytime soon, the next generation of Pokémon Go should be designed to be compatible on multiple platforms. More sophisticated mapping platforms offer cross-platform SDKs that help developers not only build apps for iOS and Android, but also for Windows, OSX, WebGL, Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and browsers.
With a wider device universe and augmented gameplay styles, these games can attract a wider user group and encourage more applications than Pokémon Go and encourages better AR/VR integration.
The Next Generation
The next generation of Pokémon Go will maximise its use of AR and introduce the exciting capabilities of VR with a feature set that can be used for Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and other VR hardware.
Mapping technology opens up new possibilities for developers that are keen to create the next Pokémon Go experience. While the game has won the rights to the monster-catching-mobile-game position through its use of AR and Google Maps, there is a much greater opportunity to create games that can be just as successful just outside of that niche.
Developers can expand on the core underlying treasure-hunting element and AR experience and put their own spin on it using VR. With the help of sophisticated 3D mapping technology, real-world gaming experiences will be improved for both developers and gamers, and the next generation of Pokémon Go will go beyond just chasing monsters.
Ian Hetherington is CEO of 3D maps platform EeGeo. He is perhaps best known in the games industry as co-founder of Psygnosis, and was instrumental in bringing WipEout and Lemmings to market.