Augmented Design

Augmented Design: The Development Philosophy of Pokemon Go

By Doug Buffone - VAR Consultants

 

Pokémon Go’s success is truly staggering. The game is currently the most downloaded and highest grossing gaming app. Everyone seems to be playing and talking about it. At one point earlier this week it even caused Nintendo’s stock to soar 45% (despite the fact that the company only owns 33% of The Pokémon Company). As with any massive cultural phenomenon, analysis has come from seemingly every possible angle and source. However, within the VR/AR industry, most commentators are focused on touting the app’s success as concrete proof of AR’s mass-market viability. While there is a kernel of truth to this notion, there are much larger lessons to be gleaned from the game’s development.

Pokémon Go should act as a prime case study on how to design an experience for the new AR medium. Developer Niantic Labs deconstructed the pop culture behemoth and built an entirely new experience that gives us all the sense that this is how Pokémon is meant to be played. While the branding and AR elements were drivers of initial interest, key underlying gameplay characteristics were completely reimagined, further propelling the unparalleled passion and dedication among users. Pokémon Go is a triumph because the developers successfully expanded upon an AR premise with novel gameplay mechanics. These combined efforts delivers a vastly improved core Pokémon experience.

Fundamentally, Pokémon Go nails the original wish fulfillment of the Pokémon franchise — exploring the world, seeking adventure and interacting with fantastical creatures. The original Game Boy games, Pokémon Red and Blue (Green in Japan), were an inspired attempt to recapture the enjoyment of exploring the outdoors and collecting bugs. The creator of the franchise and namesake hero of the Japanese version of the games, Satoshi Tajiri, utilized the creative freedom of video games to build an experience that encompassed the essence of his childhood passion: “Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I.” [1]

Bug collecting was the catalyst and inspiration, but the Pokémon video games turned into a pocket-sized version of the hero’s journey and eventually much more. A hugely popular TV show, card game and subsequent versions of the video games all relayed the rallying cry of “Gotta catch ’em all” to an entire generation of kids. All fans were desperately seeking a deeper experience and, despite the breadth of content, nothing completely satisfied. That is, until now.

Pokémon Go delivers a remarkably fresh take of the original experience that started the craze. As CEO of Pokémon Go developer Niantic John Hanke described, “The whole world of Pokémon is based on the trainer going out into the woods and finding Pokémon with his Pokédex and Poke Ball…[now] you can live the story of being a Pokémon trainer.”[2] Whereas in the past fans could only dream that they would find Pokémon hiding in their backyards, players now have the ability to discover and capture the creatures both in their immediate surroundings as well as at thousands of points of interest throughout the real world.

AR makes this experience possible. Hologram make it seem as though the creatures are running around the streets, sitting on your shoulder or appearing from countless other areas. However, the sense of realism is far from perfect. Mobile phones have limited computer vision abilities and therefore the game can’t define the edges of objects. Players regularly encounter creatures that are projected in positions that contradict the basic laws of physics. Yet, despite this, the excitement and joy that players undergo when encountering a Pokémon in the real world is palpable. To minds mired in fantasy, it just makes sense. In a post-Pokémon Go world, we all will now expect that we should always be able to interact with the creatures in this way. From this perspective, AR augments the core enjoyment of the gameplay mechanics and the Pokémon franchise itself.

 

However, the AR element is just one component that fulfills the original promise of the games. Niantic had to address the hugely important social component of the Pokémon experience. Unlike many other handheld games of its era, the Pokémon games were all built on a social gaming foundation. In original games, players were unable to collect all 151 creatures scattered throughout the world without having both versions of the game — Red and Blue. Using the Game Boy’s link cable, players could connect their devices to trade their creatures and battle against each other. Social collaboration was necessary to complete your quest.

While Pokémon Go could have relied on ubiquitous wireless and cellular networks to create a social element, Niantic went to square one and innovated on how players connect and interact as well. A now obviously brilliant evolution to facilitate social interaction, they retooled the GPS-based gameplay system from their previous title Ingress and fully integrated it into Pokémon Go. This GPS-based gameplay system is the entire reason that you encounter such a steady stream of people playing the game in public. Players need to congregate around and battle over strategically important points of interest — gyms. Even if every one of your friends wasn’t playing the game right now, these locations allow interactions to occur and fan camaraderie to form. This crucial gameplay innovation allowed Niantic to fulfill and then ameliorate the competitive and collaborative components of the original Pokémon games.

Many commentaries have been correct to identify the role that Pokémon Go has served as an evangelical tool for AR. Now instead of trying to explain the technology through complicated hypotheticals, people will be able to illustrate the principles by referencing the popular app. Yet, despite this ancillary benefit, it was really Niantic’s ability to develop reimagined core gameplay feature coupled with AR that makes Pokémon Go a watershed moment. In a world of seemingly endless sequels, the game ushered in an innovative paradigm shift so great in extent that players can’t imagine experiencing the Pokémon franchise the old way ever again. 

Developers must realize that AR’s characteristics cannot serve as the primary driver of the experience. This is a gimmick that will quickly cause the game or application to be forgotten. In order for both AR and VR experiences to be successful, developers must be iconoclasts willing to completely reinvent systems. Pokémon Go proves that the new industry needs more companies who are willing to embrace that holistic development philosophy.

Sources:

[1] "The Ultimate Game Freak" (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html)

[2] “Living the Trainer Life with Pokémon Go” – Roberto Baldwin (https://www.engadget.com/2016/06/10/living-the-trainer-life-with-pokemon-go/)