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5 Ways to Improve Pokémon GO from a Location-based Game Designer

Wes Leviton of Adrian Crook & Associates offers his insights based on firsthand experience with location-based mobile games

If I'm honest, Pokémon GO's overnight ascent to cultural phenomenon is bittersweet for me. As a former designer of location-based games, I've seen firsthand their ability to blur the line between the real and virtual worlds. I've discovered the unique gameplay possibilities that present themselves when games know where you are.

The idea of location-based games had been a dream of mine since the first time I used Google Maps on the original iPhone. That dream quickly became a passion in early 2009 when I read The Big Game Manifesto, written by Frank Lantz of former New York based game developer Area/Code Inc. In my opinion it's required reading, not just for aspiring location based game developers but for anyone looking to advance gameplay possibilities in the age of connected devices.

It would be another two years before I joined Red Robot Labs where we created location-based games Life is Crime, Life is Magic, and Friendly Fire. Though we never had an audience quite the size of Pokémon GO we did find success with a dedicated, sometimes rabid, group of fans that loved location based gameplay and together we pushed the boundaries of what games could be.

We did a lot of things right with Life is Crime and we certainly had our share of missteps along the way. With that being said, here is my list of 5 things I would do to improve Pokémon Go.

Increase the number and frequency of points of interest

Whether you're in Paris, France or Paris, Texas, location based games must offer players interactive points of interest within a reasonable distance to drive long-term engagement. Creating a rich environment where players can stake their claim is a powerful mechanic that drives engagement and retention while competing with other players to maintain status promotes in-app spending. The Lack of PokéStops and Gyms is a big problem for many players in rural areas. In fact, you don't need to stray very far from the big city to find yourself in a sort of digital wasteland.

"Niantic should strongly consider expanding the interaction radius for Pokémon capture to 100 meters. The increased capture radius will greatly reduce instances of overzealous players getting into trouble"

While Pokémon are generated procedurally allowing them to be captured anywhere, PokéStops and Gyms are located at predetermined positions. Without easy access to these locations players are missing out on a big piece of the game.

To alleviate this problem Niantic should further leverage existing infrastructure common to nearly all small towns to help fill in content gaps. This is not a new concept, as we know that Niantic is fond of using churches as PokéStops but, for many players, these locations can still be hard to come by. There are over 14,000 McDonald's and 120,000 gas stations in the United States. If just a handful of these locations were represented in game many players would find themselves closer to interactive content. In my experience with Life is Crime oversaturation of points of interest was typically not a problem. The abundance of interactive locations allows players to carve out a slice of the world for themselves while they gain confidence, eventually branching out into more heavily contested locations.

Increase the interaction radius

Unlike traditional videos games, location-based games need to consider player safety and property access when designing content and interactions. Pokémon GO features an ultra restrictive interaction radius that requires players to be within 40 meters of a PokéStop, Gym, or Pokémon to interact with it. While this tight restriction has sent millions of players gleefully out into the streets, it's caused players with disabilities to feel left out, resulted in numerous cases of trespassing and even the discovery of a dead body.

To help promote player safety Niantic should strongly consider expanding the interaction radius for Pokémon capture to 100 meters. The increased capture radius will greatly reduce instances of overzealous players getting into trouble while having a minimal impact on the overall gameplay experience. I anticipate that we will see an increase to the capture radius within the next few weeks.

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PokéStops and Gyms would greatly benefit from a sizable increase in interaction radius. While I don't see it happening anytime soon I believe increasing the PokéStop and Gym interaction radius to at least 1km would create new engagement opportunities for players stuck at home or in any position where they're not able to move to precise location. During my time on Life is Crime we doubled our interaction radius to 2km and found a major increase in engagement and a noticeable uptick in IAP.

In order to preserve the spirit of the game, players that are closer to PokéStops and Gyms could receive a bonus based on their proximity.

Allow players to shape the world

One of the biggest issues facing a location-based game is communicating the presence of other players in the game world. Game maps often appear dull and lifeless as each street begins to look exactly like the next with no real discernible difference from one region to another. Empowering players to decorate the world around them with vanity items brings life to the game world and communicates to other players that the world is alive and ever changing.

Vanity items could be unlocked by a number of player metrics such as level, performance at the local Gym, travel to different landmarks and regions, or completion of sets in the Pokédex.

Tolerate geo cheaters, but level the playing field

There are numerous applications available that makes it trivial to "spoof" your location allowing players to virtually teleport to anywhere in the world. While the great majority of Pokémon GO players will play the game honestly, a small percentage of players will undoubtedly resort to faking their location to avoid walk/driving around town. As developers, we're often quick to implement countermeasures to prevent such behavior in the name of fair play.

During my time on Life is Crime we explored many options to block geo spoofing but decided against it because our data indicated that geo cheaters were far and away the most engaged players and had an insanely high conversion rate and the time it would take to effectively block a small number of cheaters would take away from the development of new features.

"With each passing day more and more data about the world around us is collected and made available online. Tapping into this data to create a dynamic and living virtual world represents the next generation of location-based games"

Ultimately, we decided that the best way to level the playing field between geo cheaters and honest players was to provide a limited time in game portal to major cities powered by soft currency where prices varied based on your distance from the destination. Players loved the feature and destination cities quickly became hotspots for competition with highly contested cities becoming the "big leagues."

Use real-world data to make the virtual world come alive

Location based games make clever use of road and point of interest data to craft large worlds for players to explore, but this data represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg of what's available. With each passing day more and more data about the world around us is collected and made available online. Tapping into this data to create a dynamic and living virtual world represents the next generation of location-based games. Additionally, real-world locations and sponsorships are going to drive revenue for Pokemon GO, and many other companies are implementing in-game sponsorship ads in mobile games already.

Imagine accessing flight tracking data to generate flying Pokémon on the map in real time, or leveraging the USGS seismic API to place special collectables on the map after a seismic event. How about using a lightning strike API to increase the drop rate of electric type Pokémon the day after a lightning storm.

Final Thoughts

As a game designer who has long believed in the potential of location-based gaming and devoted a small portion of my career to the advancement of the genre, I'm genuinely happy to see the success that Pokémon GO has achieved in such a short time. I hope the team a Niantic can continue to push the genre to new heights and open the door for other location-based games to enter the market.

In the past two years since I've moved on from location-based games, I've been asked by many in the game industry if I thought the genre was dead. To that, I've always said no, location-based games have yet to have their day in the sun. With Pokémon GO it appears that their day has come and they're ready to shine.

Wes Leviton has a 15-year history of creating successful games across mobile, social, and console spaces. For a more detailed analysis of Pokémon GO's strengths and weaknesses and how your design and product management team can learn from its success, subscribe to AC+A's Teardown Club service. Teardown Club delivers mobile game deconstructions - packed with actionable design insights your team can use - directly to your inbox every week.

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Latest comments (8)

Jeremiah Moss Software Developer A year ago
Interesting.

For one, it should be noted that other location-based game designers should probably be taking notes from Pokemon Go, considering its success.

Using churches actually makes a lot of sense: There are over 300,000 of them. McDonald's and gas stations could potentially help, but if you compare the numbers, you begin to appreciate why they allowed churches to become gyms or pokestops. You are, in fact, more likely to be near a church than a McDonald's or a gas station.

"To help promote player safety Niantic should strongly consider expanding the interaction radius for Pokémon capture to 100 meters."

50 or 60 might be good as well.

They should also continue to flag unsafe locations, and have the game avoid generating content in those areas. Unsafe areas can come in all shapes and sizes. Some military posts might be off-limits to the public, or have large sections off-limits to the public. Expanding the radius can only do so much.

"While I don't see it happening anytime soon I believe increasing the PokéStop and Gym interaction radius to at least 1km would create new engagement opportunities for players stuck at home or in any position where they're not able to move to precise location. "

Wait - an entire km?

That would defeat the purpose of the game.

I understand some players aren't able to get out and about, but that's still really the purpose of the game. Being able to play while sitting at home would really defeat the point. Maybe in rural areas they can give such an extreme a radius boost, but in the suburb where I live, that would just lead to being no different than a regular PC or console game.

Also, that might overcrowd very high density areas such as the Mall of America, which is chock-full of Pokestops and gyms.

Vanity items sounds like a cool idea - although there are enough privacy issues already in this style of game. There have already been plenty of reports of crimes connected to Pokemon Go. Serious consideration should indeed be given to the safety of the player. Still, it might be worth investigating how this can be done. It would have to be done very carefully, though.

I'm excited to see this type of game take off. It has encouraged me to get out more often and find places I never knew existed, which I think is a really huge positive :). I definitely applaud one of these types of games seeing such explosive success, and I pray that it's not a flash in the pan. I'd love to see plenty more of it in the future!
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Cynically speaking, the game needs AR-lampposts the players AR-urinate on, by holding smartphones to their crotch areas. Nintendogs Go. Because that is what players are reduced to anyway. Not players of a game, but neurotic reaction automatons.
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Anthony ChanA year ago
@Klaus, I take it you are not an active member of the PoGo storm ;)

I so far love the game, however, I do agree with some of Wes' points.
1. Increase the number of POI - most definitely. The difference between city and suburb and then rural are stark - almost surreal. You can go from a bustling city to absolute nothing on a commute home from work. I think Niantic should develop a method in game to take a picture and submit geo-tagged photos of potential stops. Niantic needs to set the rules of course (so that dick wads don't start photographing lightposts and sewer grates), but I think that would definitely increase engagement.

2. Players shaping the world - I think this should be reserved for last if not at all. I don't disagree with Wes' point from strictly a location based game perspective. But TBH, I would venture the way the world looks is not the primary concern for the PoGo crowd. If the PoGo players had a say, I think factors that increase the depth of what we could use our pokemon to do would be paramount to all other proposed improvements. We already can live out the dream of catching pokemon in the 'real world'. However, a way to battle other players on the fly, and ways to differentiate our favorite pokemon other than finding one with higher CP would be preferred over creating a "beautiful living map".

3. Distance to trigger POI - I have to agree with @Jeramiah who commented above. 1KM is a bit ridiculous. I think the spirit of the game is to catch pokemon the way 'Ash sets out to be the greatest Pokemon Trainer ever'. Travel high and low to find and catch pokemon essentially. If you can play this game from your couch, that is a BIG NO NO. Nintendo will now go down in history as creating the most popular anti-game. They have fully succeeded in selling to the masses a game that gets you off your butt to play. Letting people play this game sitting at home, is against the spirit of the game and that is just not cool - not to mention, this is the most awesome way to 'role-play' a pokemon trainer for those who are that 'hardcore'. However, Wes' point of safety is accurate. Increasing the radius by an additional 50m to 100m MAX could mean that you are walking and could hit a more precarious POI safely would be awesome :)

4. Tolerate Geo-cheaters - I have a mixed feelings on this; for one main reason - Trading. I already mentioned the spirit of Pokemon, and obviously Geo-cheaters would totally spoil this for others who are actually working to 'become the best trainer'. However, they would totally destroy trading. My concern is once PoGo has settled and the number of player have built up decent supplies of spare pokemon, geo-cheaters could technically have an advantage. I noticed that while all pokemon are available everywhere (talking to players from around the world) they are available at different player levels and at different densities/frequency. A geo-cheater would be able to catch pokemon and trade them to other players destroying the geographic restrictions imposed for each pokemon. It would essentially destroy any upcoming economy for pokemon trading when trading finally arrives. I understand the geo-cheater who doesn't live close to any POI or for personal reasons cannot go outside or go far, but the trade-offs to allowing such behavior are pretty steep.
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Show all comments (8)
Steven Hodgson Programmer, Code in Progress LtdA year ago
In order to preserve the spirit of the game, players that are closer to PokéStops and Gyms could receive a bonus based on their proximity.
Wouldn't this lead to more trespassing from the 'overzealous' players who wish to maximise what they get.
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Shawn Clapper Programmer A year ago
I don't know why this "finding a body" thing keeps being brought up as a negative of the game. Are people saying bodies should never be found or...?

Considering the number of people playing Pokemon go it's reached a point where anything that happens to anybody will also happen to someone playing the game. So like if X out of X million people find a body every year, a similar amount will find a body and also play Pokemon go. Same with accidents and mugging etc.

There is going to be no shortage of people having strange things happen to them while playing. At least as much strange stuff as already happens to people before they played.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shawn Clapper on 19th July 2016 7:10pm

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All great points, and a good article.
We in the Digital Out-of-Home entertainment (DOE) sector have been working with location-based gaming for a number of years, and already a number of major theme parks run permanent and traveling attractions that use location-based attributes. But it is Pokemon-GO that has fired the enthusiasm.

I think the announcement by the developers of Pokemon-GO to support sponsored location (advertising / monetization) of locations to attract foot-fall - this illustrates how the companies involved see the future. McD will definitely be using this scheme as well as many other venues hoping to draw a crowd - pulling players from the home.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by kevin williams on 20th July 2016 3:25pm

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, AzoomeeA year ago
A game can never be too big to take feedback. These sound like good points and the knowledge out to be shared.
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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire InteractiveA year ago
Location-based games create a ludic fallacy because they violate criteria 1 for games - games must occur in a (safe) non-real space. Games were safe simulations for practicing potentially dangerous adult skills before homo sapiens even existed. They still are.

Not only are Warcraft land and Candy Crush land not-real-places, so are baseball diamonds, tennis courts and football fields. The magic circle, people. That is where games exist. Come on.

When you break that rule, players get hurt and you, the designer, are responsible. There are already a whole list of Pokémon Go injuries demonstrating why, even if you think you it is ok to play a game in a public space, that city bus driver didn't get the memo. This is game design malpractice.
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