Pokémon Go has indisputably been one of the biggest video game successes of 2016. Though the title's popularity has waned in recent months, at its peak it was bringing in millions of dollars per day and garnering mainstream awareness and mass media attention in a way few games have managed before.
The title also raised the bar for location-based games, previously a little explored area beyond the game's own forebear Ingress and a handful of promotional apps for titles like Fable III and Darksiders 2. Since then, countless companies have been looking at how they can recreate the success of Pokémon Go, with map provider Ordnance Survey keen to have developers use its own database to build the next sensation.
However, it can be argued that building on and surpassing the success of Pokémon Go will be difficult, nigh on impossible given everything the title had in its favour: a popular brand, an experienced developer in Niantic, and the mighty Google Maps database running at its core. Developers may be surprised to learn, then, that there are other solutions out there that can power location-based games.
One such solution is California-based start-up Candy Lab. GamesIndustry.biz caught up with CEO Andrew Couch to discuss whether there is room for more games akin to Pokémon Go and how such titles can build on the foundations laid by the monster-catching app's phenomenon. The most important message Couch had for developers is that, while the technology is out there, creating such a title is no easy task. Developers need to think beyond the map and explore the real world it represents.
"The best way to do this is unfortunately the long way," he told GamesIndustry.biz. "Build your game one location at a time so you know specifically where you're sending your players. Someone died playing Pokémon Go because they walked off a cliff. If the developer cared about people's lives, they would never have placed a location icon that you have to be within five metres to collect next to a cliff.
"Developers needs to step out of thinking like a developer or technologist, and visualise what older people, younger people, people who speak different languages, and the public in general are going to think when they go to any location the game sends them to. Think about that first, then build an experience around that."
"It's so easy for developers to write a script that pulls all the locations in and superimposes it on a map. But that also leads to the possibility of someone walking off a cliff."
Andrew Couch, Candy Lab
Couch elaborated on the responsibility for studios to be mindful on the locations they use in these games, reminding them that virtual stops are broadcast 24 hours a day. If a point is in a particularly bad neighbourhood, is there the potential for someone to walk down a dark alley at 4am while playing?
"If yes, then don't put a stop there," Couch stressed. "It sounds like common sense but it's so easy for developers to write a script that pulls all the locations in and superimposes it on a map. That will give them 1,000 locations in one city, but it also leads to the possibility of someone walking off a cliff."
The Candy Lab exec advises developers to physically go to each location, if possible. Obviously this is highly impractical when building a title that spans the globe, but if the experience is more centralised or the studio is preparing for a local beta test, putting the team into the players' shoes can dramatically influence and potentially improve the game.
"Before you sit down to build your game, have your locations in mind, the ones your first experience is going to be launched in," said Couch. "Go to each one so you can feel what your users are going to feel when they're there, so when you're back home at your computer you're setting it up in a way that you know is going to work well in that particular spot."
Pokémon Go's locations have caused a lot of trouble for Niantic. In addition to the death of a man falling from a cliff, various complaints and lawsuits have been filed by people claiming the studio is to blame for Pokémon hunters trespassing on their private property. Most recently it was revealed Niantic would be taken to court in The Hague after users flocked to a protected beach in the Netherlands.
The long-term for location-based
While Pokémon Go continues to break new records, Niantic's release has suffered huge drops in active users in the last few months. This can partly be attributed to updates and fixes that affected the game's balance, but Couch believes there's another crucial factor behind its decline.
"Our opinion is that the game mechanics weren't good enough to keep people going, and once you've collected all the content pieces, there's no reason to use it," he said.
"Visualise what the public are going to think when they go to any location the game sends them to. Think about that first, then build an experience around that."
Andrew Couch, Candy Lab
"Something we'd like to see developers do in future is not just think of a game with a start and an end, think of a way to loop it so the experience continues on. If there's 20 dragons users have to collect within a city, what happens after that last dragon has been captured? Are there more dragons in different locations? Do players restart? Developers need answers to these questions before they launch."
Candy Lab is confident that location-based games have "a healthy future" ahead of them, hopeful that Pokémon Go wasn't just some flash in the pan. Naturally, the pull of the brand contributed significantly to the game's success, but Couch believes the title has "woken people up" to the power of this technology - not just among the public, but within the industry.
One growth area he expects to see taking shape over the new few years is non-gaming brands and marketers getting involved in location-based titles. Again, Pokémon Go has led the way here with McDonald's sponsoring the game in order to set up 3,000 of its Japanese outlets into gyms for users to battle over.
"Companies are not going to buy an app like Pokémon Go, or make their own - they just want people to come into their stores and buy things," said Couch. "So they'll pay to have an in-game lure outside their store. They would look at what location-based games or AR apps are based in their city and target the ones with the largest userbases."
Couch has one last piece of advice for developers: optimise for older devices. While it can easy as a tech-centric industry to assume users are keeping up to date with the latest handsets and focus on the processing and graphical power these afford, their userbases are smaller than you might expect.
"More people out there have iPhone 4s and old Android phones than we all think," he said. "A lot of us are forward tech, so we think everyone out there has the iPhone 7 or Apple Watch Series 2. But they don't. The average person has tech that's two or three years old."