Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, and along with them the latest demo of the company’s powerful ARKit, a technology designed to use Apple products to project virtual overlays onto the real world in a vision of Augmented Reality that could stand to vastly change the way we conceive of tech in the world.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about in the last year, mostly because of Pokémon GO, a blended AR game that swept the world last summer and continues to operate under the radar now. And CEO of Pokémon GO developer Niantic Labs John Hanke wrote about Apple’s presentation in an interesting blog post, where he says that AR holds a better promise for the future than the dystopian vision of Virtual Reality.
“Colorful animated creatures can inhabit our backyards and parks, waiting to be discovered,” he writes. “Games beyond anything we can imagine today will be played out. Not by humans wired into Matrix-style pods, but by human beings walking, running, exploring, talking and connecting in the real world.”
Hanke’s post talks about a lot more than the specificity of games, but it’s games we’ll talk about here. The thrust of the post contains a great sentiment, utopian in its Google-ness but grounded in what’s happening today. And that dream is why I’ve been so drawn to Pokémon GO in the year and change it’s been in existence. Still, a dream is a dream, and so let’s look at this next to the reality of the game right now.
Right now, Niantic’s big project with its AR game is a feature called “EX Raids,” where the EX is short for exclusive and Raid refers to the ability to battle a powerful Pokémon along with other players. It means that only people who have fulfilled certain opaque requirements are able to participate in the Raid, and even then only at a particular time.
So in a world where AR has the ability to transform the way that people interact with the everyday world, and in a world where Pokémon GO stands as a beautiful way to use technology for getting people outside and talking to each other, Niantic is spending valuable time and resources on a feature explicitly designed to exclude.
EX Raids aren’t the worst thing: they add a sense of rhythm, a sense of occasion and, most importantly, a sense of challenge. All of these are things that Pokémon GO has been missing, and all of these are perfectly fine things to add into the game.
But I question why its a focus right now, when the game still has limited social options, when it still doesn’t facilitate direct player interaction, and when there’s still very few new features for people during their first couple dozen hours of gameplay. There’s a bit of a disconnect between promise and reality here, like there always is, but I’m not sure that the current development goals are well-aligned with bridging that gap. If these are the goals, shouldn’t new features be designed to include as many players and potential players as possible?
Pokémon GO is an amazing game in a lot of ways, but mostly for the way it energizes people, something we see with Legendary Raids today and something we saw way back at launch, when the streets were filled with eager trainers that hadn’t yet gotten bored and given up.
There are genuine moments when it seems to fulfill an early promise of AR: using technology to transform the world around us and get us to see our surroundings in a new way. And yet those moments can wind up fleeting, mostly because Pokémon GO falls apart on the actual game elements of its execution.
Game design is where the rubber meets the road for the noble sentiments of AR possibility, where the the app sees just how well it can move beyond being a good idea to being a good experience. It could stand to improve. I know a ton of people that eagerly snapped this game up on day one, excited to go out and hunt, only to give it up a week later when the design fell short.
AR is a powerful tech, and Pokémon GO has already shown what it’s capable of. But Niantic would do well to remember this true north for their game, asking themselves if each new feature furthers these simple goals of getting the most people possible to get out, explore and connect. Raids did that, but mostly for a core of dedicated players.
EX Raids are too particular and not nearly inclusive enough to further those goals. I don’t know what else is coming down the pipeline, but I hope that when the next thing does the developer can take a step back, remember what AR is capable of, and use this game to chase those dreams.
It’s a rough world out there, and I genuinely believe that it is made better by filling it with Pokémon. But those Pokémon are only really there if more people can see them.
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