Why Not? Ep. 1d - Pokemon Go: AR Games
As I’ve said earlier in this series, I could be wrong about everything with this. This is a new field and I’m not sure to what degree the established rules hold true. This could be Facebook games all over again, where the difference in playstyles and people playing meant that a lot of traditional thoughts were no longer absolute.
My biggest question is how much can I ask from a player with a game like this? Walking around is an entirely new currency and different players will value it very differently. This is also true for time, which is the default ask designers make, and cash, which microtransactions have brought in, but I have yet to develop a baseline value for walking.
Also, how much more can I ask from players? People seem to be comfortable with going within walking distance of where they already are and occassionally making an expedition for the express purpose of catching Pokemon. Can I ask them to drive somewhere? Can I ask them to do so with a time restriction? Are fetch quests a reasonable ask?
Also, does tech change these equations? Giving me a path and distance estimate for destinations like gyms and pokestops would completely change the way I play.
I feel that the strongest thing that this game has accomplished is to change the way that I look at the world around me. This isn’t the first time that a game has evoked this feeling. Games like Mirror’s Edge, for instance, make you think about the city as parkour routes which, while less direct than Pokemon Go, is in essence the same feeling.
Despite that, the camera integration was inconvenient enough that I dropped it quickly. It was cool for a few minutes, but it didn’t add enough to make me unhappy to lose it. The camera would theoretically make the game exist in the same world that we do instead of one that is adjacent, but parallel. For Pokemon Go though, it was unrealistic enough not to succeed at that. The game was just more enjoyable with the feature turned off. Having to tilt my phone around to catch Pokemon was just more of a cost than I was willing to pay, especially as it actually made the game harder and chewed through my battery. I feel that unless the camera integration is done strongly enough that you cannot just turn the feature off, it’s probably not worth doing, and even in that case, you need to understand that this feature asks even more from your players. It did help people produce photos to share online though.
Is this the strength of the technology though? Is it that it lets you very directly immerse yourself in the game in this way, where the world itself appears different? Is this what future AR games should perfect? Essentially, is the strength of AR in how it can sell a fantasy?
What scares me is that I’ve seen fads in game design come and go and when the dust settles, it tends to be the most easily digestible version of the game that survives. Often the things that excite players are not the same things that excite designers. Unsurprisingly, players value their fun over the dreams of designers. I would be surprised if this turns out any differently. Making the game something that is convenient for the players is more important than the promise in your head.
I’m not sold on the real world benefits of games like this. I think that we need to move past the old stereotype of gamers as unathletic. Gaming has become part of the mainstream, and there is necessarily a wide range in fitness levels for players. The world doesn’t need a game to trick gamers into getting healthy, many of them were doing fine well before Pokemon Go ever showed up. This is not to say that having the game exist is a bad thing, and I am sure that a number of people have benefited from the fact that it exists, I just reject the patronizing nature of this as a goal.
Much of what people talked about when this game was at its peak was the social interactions that the game engendered. A large part of that piece was the novelty of being an AR game, which the second big AR game is going to find harder to capture. Pokemon Go had incredible penetration at launch and it’s possible that an AR game needs that kind of dominance to get the same value from people socializing that Pokemon Go did. Running into other people at a game location at a random time requires a lot of people to be playing at once. Additionally, I’m not going to shout out to a stranger on the road that I see playing an AR game if there’s a large chance that we’re not even playing the same AR game.
This game is essentially an MMO, but it’s a very anti-social one. They did well to let everyone catch the same Pokemon, that avoids competing over limited resources and encourages players to share that they’ve found a Pokemon. However, it was a pain to go around with a largely Mystic team when I was Valor. Additionally, incense is just inherently a very anti-social feature.
Once, at a video game meet-up, someone spotted a Flareon and so we made a small impromptu party to go catch it. And so we did, and it was fun. We later tried an expedition to a local park which fell apart as none of us could connect to the game. Nevertheless, this was unique and enjoyable.
As a whole though, I didn’t enjoy the socialization that this game brought about. It’s mostly been pretty awkward. Honestly, I don’t like random people. I don’t like the casual hate and pettiness I get from them. It is worse for many, but I do have my share of weirdness and I do not like being reduced to those traits.
This game doesn’t do anything to really help me here. I normally don’t have anything to say to the person I just met. It does feel as though we’re sharing a secret in how we have access to more of the world than everything else, but there is nowhere to go from there. This is where the game would benefit from some icebreakers designed into the experience.
On Opaque Rules as Icebreakers
It pains me to admit it, but hiding the rules of your game can give players a topic of conversation. It’s valuable to the player receiving the information and that makes the conversation worthwhile for the player. Whether intentionally or not, this is a major part of talking about Pokemon Go. I absolutely hate this technique though.
First of all, it creates a lot of player frustration. This is hardly surprising, when you fail to explain how to play your game, players will be frustrated. Not knowing how to interact with the pieces of your game is frustrating. Making poor decisions becuase you did not understand what the decision was is also frustrating. This is only natural.
You can actually mitigate this frustration by making sure that you only obscure non-essential data. If the data simply provides a small edge instead of being critical to good play, then hiding it can serve well to give players a sense of discovery when they find it and makes for good grist for conversations between players. An interesting observation is that you can do much of the same by introducing a high level of computational complexity to your game. Sequences like the ladder in Go function almost exactly like hidden data would, although the less arbitrary nature and higher player burden of computational complexity keep them from being identical.
My second issue with this is that it is non-renewable. There are only so many weird rules for players to learn. The internet is a lot of what makes this technique possible as players can always look up information that they need, so the friction this creates is never insurmountable. However, it also breaks this method as players can and will look up how everything in the game works.
I don’t fully understand Pokestops and I’m not sure why exactly they were designed the way that they were, but they are a fundamental piece to the AR experience, so I’m going to decompose them a little bit.
Matching Them To Real World Locations
The fact that Pokestops are tied to real world locations is key to the feature as a whole.
- Are intrinsically more interesting than random positions - This is effectively adding to content each of these stops, but in a way that integrates very well with AR. There were definitely a couple of points where I found something cool in a neighborhood I thought I knew.
- They make the real world feed more into the game experience - This adds to the feeling of seeing a secret side of the world. This internal narrative is better served by having in-game landmarks also be real-world landmarks instead of random locations.
- Is impossible to balance and leads to a very uneven experience - The real world is not balanced. Some areas just have more landmarks than others. In some areas, I cannot walk at my normal pace as I would miss stops and in others I can go for kilometers without finding a single stop.
- Requires a lot of content - There is a lot of data here about real world landmarks. This would normally be quite expensive to make, but in this case was all user-generated content. The problem is that your users do not the have the same motivations as you do, and so this solution adds to the imbalance.
- Often trivial locations - There is also no quality control around this. Some locations are interesting, but many are not. Having a department store be a location is mundane enough to detract from the experience.
- Issues with the real world bleeding into the game - There are places that should not be part of your game, such as the Holocaust Museum.
- Hurts exploration - Players optimize their routes, and so given that the stops are fixed an the start and end points of my daily walks are fixed, the game discourages me from exploring once I have the optimal route as it is a less efficient use of my time.
Points of Interest
Pokestops function as points of interest common to all the players, which has a number of effects on the game as a whole.
- Encourages players to converge - Naturally, if there is a fixed place for people to go to, meetings are inevitable.
- Provides another entry point to the economy - Time and walking are currencies already used by a fair bit of the game, but Pokestops add going to a specific destination. Adding this additional input allows the economy to grow more complex.
- Does not provide any reason to interact with other people - Having players converge at a point is meaningless unless they interact with each other. The feature does nothing to encourage players to talk to each other, and so they often just pass each other by.
- Economy is now broken - The problem with this as it is currently implemented is that the designers have no control over the ratio of the number of Pokestops you encounter to the number of sinks for this currency that you encounter (typically Pokemon). So, you see a lot of cases where people have more Pokeballs than they know what to do with, which fills their bag, making them unhappy, but you also see a lot of cases of players who never have enough Pokeballs, which makes that group unhappy.
- Interaction is very quick - I can often do this without even breaking stride.
- The fiction is weak - This has no precedent in the Pokemon universe and no effort was made to add some.
Although this is a key part of how the game interacts with the real world, it doesn’t commit to any of the benefits it could generate and has a number of adverse effects on the rest of the game.
While Pokemon Go has really done a lot to push AR forward, it is hard to imagine that the AR games of the next few years are going to look identical to it. This game has proved the utility of a number of new design tools, but is in no way the entirity of what can be achieved with them. I’m really looking forward to seeing future games push the boundaries that Pokemon Go has now defined.