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Why Niantic bought a tabletop game developer

Sensible Object's Alex Fleetwood on joining the Pokémon Go firm and the future of location-based games

This morning's news that Niantic has acquired UK developer Sensible Object may have raised a few eyebrows.

The studio is arguably best-known for Beasts of Balance, a crowdfunded tabletop game that saw players stacking animal and element-themed figures. The order in which they are stacked affect what happens in the companion mobile game, where the creatures from the table evolve and breed. Not an obvious fit with Niantic's portfolio.

Its next major release was When In Rome, a voice-activated trivia game for smart speakers. The globetrotting theme does at least tie-in with Niantic's reputation for games built around the real world, but it still doesn't quite make sense.

alex

Alex Fleetwood, Niantic London

As we speak to the studio's founder Alex Fleetwood, we learn more of the team's history and Niantic's logic became much clearer.

Prior to Sensible Object, much of the team worked at another London start-up called Hide&Seek, also founded by Fleetwood. This design studio specialised in outdoor games and "AR games in different contexts," although it mostly worked for clients in the culture and media sectors.

It ran a large outdoor gaming festival at the city's Southbank Centre -- much like Niantic's own events for Ingress and Pokémon Go -- and operated "immersive installations", such as 'The Building Is...' in Paris' La Gaite Lyrique. This project saw a number of game-like installations placed throughout the venue that explored what life would be life if buildings had feelings or emotions.

Perhaps the most relevant example is Tate Trumps, a mobile app developed for the Tate Modern museum where players wandered around the galleries "collecting artwork you thought could beat other artworks in a fight." Each painting had different characteristics with varying scores, just like Top Trumps.

It's these types of projects Niantic CEO John Hanke was already aware of when he met the team on a trip to London.

"We were exploring different options for the business -- fundraising and so on," Fleetwood tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We reached out to him and that's where the acquisition interest first materialised."

"There's something about feeling like you're entering a different world or that your world has been transformed in an exciting way"

He continues: "AR is a rapidly evolving space. What we have is a real depth of experience, both in developing AR products that scale and also tackling new platforms, taking on the new challenge of working with something like voice AI and figuring out how to turn that into a game. We also have this long history of working in London on events and experiences that are aligned with the kind of large-scale public events that Niantic has been running within Pokémon Go."

The acquisition also marks the formation of Niantic London, of which the Sensible Object team will form the core. They will also be joined by the folks at Matrix Mill, a team that spun out of University College London to research AI, machine learning and computer vision.

While Niantic London will still be supporting Sensible Object's previous releases and, for a time, supporting Niantic's titles, it is already prototyping its first original title.

"We're going to be working on games based on the Niantic real-world games platform -- location-based titles, things that are in line with Niantic's mission of getting people outside, getting them to exercise, getting them to interact in the real world," says Fleetwood.

While Niantic was obviously interested in the team's past experiences as Hide&Seek, the knowledge it gained as Sensible Object could also be of use. For Beasts of Balance, the crew learned how to build a digital experience that interacts with physical objects, while When In Rome was built around voice AI technology. Given that Niantic's titles -- Ingress, Pokémon Go and soon Harry Potter: Wizards Unite -- all seem to be built around the same formula, could Sensible Object bring something new to the table?

The Sensible Object team will form the core of Niantic London and are already working on a new location-based game

The Sensible Object team will form the core of Niantic London and are already working on a new location-based game

"Yeah, I really hope we can," says Fleetwood. "And London's got a pretty unique mix of games studios, tech companies and more experimental start-ups like ours. I think that melting pot aspect of London is really valuable when you think about the Niantic real-world platform. How can we think about new differentiated and interesting play patterns in game mechanics and experiences that leverage this new platform?

"I also think, if we look forward a couple of years, 5G will be well established, there'll be another generation of phones. All these advances in computer vision will continue. This is a very rapidly evolving space in terms of what's possible.

"In a couple of years, 5G will be well established, there'll be another generation of phones, advances in computer vision will continue. This is a rapidly evolving space"

"We're an experienced team of artists and engineers who have been making games in this domain for a long time. So we're bringing that experience to bear on the incredible potential that the platform offers."

While Niantic has built its business around the premise of real-world games, the success of Pokémon Go has yet to be beaten and some might argue that's down to the IP. The gameplay formula was much the same as its predecessor Ingress, but while that was set it in a nondescript sci-fi version of our world, the addition of Pikachu and chums suddenly made the concept of running down the street to reach a location on your in-game map much more appealing.

It's a concept other developers have since tried to apply to other IP, including Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park and The Walking Dead, yet these don't seem to have had the same impact. Was the Pokémon franchise more compelling than Niantic's real-world gameplay? Fleetwood doesn't think so.

"There's all kinds of different aspects we're keen to explore," he says. "Pokémon Go is now a sustained mobile success, and I think that's a testament to the gameplay as well as the IP because it's now over two years old and still performing incredibly well. That's really impressive, and I think that's a benchmark for mobile game performance."

Fleetwood is convinced there's an appeal to Niantic's real-world game formula that goes beyond IP, and a potential the company has yet to tap -- if only because the technology and mobile infrastructure hasn't allowed them to. And he's keen to see how Niantic London can help evolve the premise that its parent has been working on since the beginning.

"There's something about feeling like you're entering a different world or that your world has been transformed in an exciting way," says Fleetwood. "When you're walking down the street, there's a sense of possibility and potential.

"Pokémon Go captures that incredibly well, the idea that there might be a rare Pokémon just around the corner. It's that really simple but thrilling idea of how you might see the world and experience moving through the world. Bringing the world to life and feeling like you're engaging with your environment is a really key point.

"Then I look ahead a little bit to what might be possible with 5G, higher processing, lower latency, higher data rates and I think about multiplayer. What are the different play patterns you can start to open up a bit once you've got the ability to offer different kinds of multiplayer experiences in public spaces? I think that's a really complex challenge, and not one that's obvious to solve, but it's certainly something I as a designer am really interested in."

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Latest comments (1)

Huge congratulations to Alex and the team! I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this means we'll see a Niantic AR-powered Alternate Reality Game (an AR-ARG?) launching on the long-rumoured Apple AR headset. That would be amazing....
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