Pokémon GO and Haunted Planet: A Tale of Two Genres
Nintendo has really nailed it with Pokémon GO, and even as a competitor I am pleased to see their success. My company, Haunted Planet Studios, has been making location-based augmented-reality games for smartphones since 2008, but more about that later.
For the last few years, I’ve seen Nintendo as the somewhat under-resourced cousin to Microsoft and Sony. Other than their (considerable) IP, Nintendo’s only real trump card (if it’s still okay to talk about “trump” cards) was their brilliant flashes of innovation. Combined with their ability to keep novel products secret for long enough to genuinely surprise the market, this gave them a real edge over their bigger cousins. The best example of this is of course the Wiimote, but the Wiimote is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I was honestly getting a bit worried about Nintendo’s ability to survive.
No longer so with Pokémon GO. Nintendo’s shares are up. By a lot. Go Nintendo!
In Haunted Planet, we’re working on something new, but unlike Nintendo, we’re not going to keep it secret. For years, we’ve been making location-based augmented reality games of the mystery variety — adventure games set in the real world. In titles like Bram Stoker’s Vampires and The Amazing Transfabulator, you play a paranormal investigator, collecting mysterious photos and cryptic audio recordings in your neighbourhood and ultimately solving a mystery. Recently, however, we’ve been turning our game engine into a user-generated content platform. Due to launch later this year, the Haunted Planet platform lets people make their own games that use the augmented-reality features and locative game mechanics from our games to create their own mysteries and tell their own stories. People can use their own graphics and their own audio (or some of ours, if they prefer) and set the games in their own neighbourhoods, or anywhere in the world. In many ways, we see this as is Geocaching 2.0.
The thing that Pokémon GO got really, really right
The challenge of getting location-based games to work is considerable, and while Pokémon GO is far from the first (others include Shadow Cities, Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary, Parallel Kingdom, and of course our own Haunted Planet games), it’s the first to achieve real scale. Even Ingress, by the same studio that authored Pokémon GO, did not achieve anywhere near the scale that Pokémon GO has, and certainly nowhere near the same growth rate. The reason is that Pokémon GO has managed to do some really important things really well, and Nintendo and Niantic Labs deserve all the credit for getting these things right. At last, location-based gaming is mainstream! And we’re grateful to Nintendo and Niantic Labs for making it so.
Of the many things Nintendo and Niantic Labs got right, by far the most important was to use the Pokémon IP. The Pokémon world is perfect for a location-based game. Besides the obvious brand recognition, this universe already has a collection mechanic (capture) as well as game mechanics that allow the Pokémon to level up (training) and interact (battle). But perhaps most importantly, Pokémon GO in 2016 hits a sweet spot in terms of player demographic — a perfect place between relevance and nostalgia. People who remember Pokémon from the 1990s are now in their 20s and 30s and own smartphones. Importantly, they are no longer kids. This means they can play location-based games on their own (which kids can’t), and if they have children, their fond 1990s Pokémon memories and familiarity with the universe will likely make them excited about Pokémon GO as a family activity. Pokémon GO would not have been a success in 2006 and likely not in 2026 either, but in 2016 it is perfect. The IP brings a player base with exactly the right characteristics: age group, autonomy, familiarity with (and nostalgia for) the universe and its game mechanics.
Any game needs players to be profitable, and on top of that, multiplayer games need critical mass for the multiplayer features to work. Location-based games that use a territorial mechanic (which most do) also need their players to be co-located, so they can interact and conquer each other’s areas, compete for location-specific resources, etc. As a result, marketing efforts have to be regionally focused, which limits scaling to those regions. Grey Area Labs ran Shadow Cities did admirably well in their regional marketing efforts, but eventually they ran out of money. Niantic Lab has done this really well with Ingress, which of course has the backing of Google. The Pokémon IP freed Nintendo from these problems completely; its strength and perfect fit for location-based gaming gave Nintendo access to a global, savvy and excitable audience in exactly the right age bracket to engage in the excitement themselves and share it with the next generation.
What to do if you don’t have the Pokémon IP
In Haunted Planet we took a different approach. We realized we weren’t going to have the marketing budget required to scale as a multiplayer experience, so we made our games single-player. Where Pokémon GO is the MMORPG of the real world, the Haunted Planet games are the single-player adventure games. Our most successful game, Bram Stoker’s Vampires, is a short riff on the novel Dracula, which takes less than an hour to play, available on both Android and iOS. The game turns your smartphone into a paranormal detection device, places encounters randomly around you and gets you to explore your neighbourhood while you solve the mystery. We have deliberately chosen simple game mechanics that reflect what paranormal investigators do — you gather evidence, which means taking photos and making audio recordings. You don’t collect characters and you don’t level them up. It is a mystery adventure game.
The decision to go with single-player results in a very different approach not just to gameplay but also to story. Where each Haunted Planet game is essentially a short story, Pokémon GO works as a sandbox, a playground within which players perform their own actions to create their own stories. In this regard, it is similar to Shadow Cities, which contained a complex mythical backstory that framed players’ own stories, and to Ingress, which adopts a complex science fiction universe that serves as a backdrop in a similar fashion. Pokémon GO’s enormous advantage is that it doesn’t need to develop its universe from scratch — the Pokémon world already exists, players are already familiar with it and even with the idea of gaming within it too. I’ve written more on game mechanics and narrative in Shadow Cities, Ingress, Parallel Kingdom and the Haunted Planet games in this book.
While Pokémon GO isn’t the first of its kind, it is finally bringing location-based gaming into the mainstream. Once again, Nintendo has changed everything, and this will certainly be to the benefit of every game studio working in this field. As a small and under-resourced segment within the overall games industry, location-based games finally on the map.
Now the real work begins.