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.
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.
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.