Niantic’s Pokemon Go has shaken up the mobile game industry more than any other game in recent memory—and no one saw it coming. At the time of the game’s release, all eyes were on other exciting trends in mobile games like virtual reality or the innovations of Clash Royale in the realm of social play and eSports.
But PoGo changed the conversation, turning heads toward a trend no one was really watching: location-based games. Despite the seeming apathy, location-based games aren’t a new phenomenon. The real-world treasure hunt game Geocaching was released in 2000. But before Pokemon, few location-based games were successful (outside of Niantic’s own Ingress). Pokemon Go has proven the genre is worth a second look.
“I don’t think Pokemon Go has opened the genre up, but has merely refocused developers on the genre,” says Jeremy Irish, CEO of Geocaching. PoGo is on pace to earn well over one billion dollars in its first year, and industry experts agree that it will inspire many devs to try their hand at creating location-based games. But whether they can get it right remains to be seen.
Location-based games benefit from relevant IP
Those with experience in location-based gaming believe many of the PoGo imitators will fail. Adrian Hon, creator of location-based fitness game, Zombies, Run!, says PoGo‘s success stems largely from the IP of a recognizable brand, as well as gameplay that’s logically suited to the real world. Though players are already demanding more location-based games—with investors and developers looking to supply the need—there are very few brands other than Pokemon that would be suitable to this style of game.
In fact, a location-based, monster-collecting game actually existed prior to PoGo. Ivan Lee, currently a product manager at Apple, founded Loki Studios, which released Geomon in 2011. Geomon featured similar gameplay to Pokemon, but with its own creatures called Espers. Geomon was successful, reaching profitability and accumulating over a million users, but then Yahoo! acquired the studio in 2013. Consequently, the internet giant decided to shut down Geomon over concerns the game couldn’t maintain popularity.
Lee told Inc. that he believes PoGo‘s advantage to Geomon was direct access to the original Pokemon IP. If Lee were starting again today, he says he “would focus on large team-based mechanics. In Pokemon Go, players are expected to choose teams and capture key points of interest. If a game is able to play off of this, I think we can create hubs where people aggregate for gaming.”
Location-based games are fueled by familiarity
One recent location-based success can be found at Reality Games, which released its first game Landlord Real Estate Tycoon in early 2015. Landlord is a Monopoly-esque board game where players virtually own properties and collect in-game cash from real-world locations—anything from a local Apple Store to a nearby monument. CEO Zbigniew Woźnowski says the game has seen some eye-opening retention stats including day 30 retention of over 30 percent (the industry standard is 10 percent).
Woźnowski doesn’t think it’s advisable to force a player to get up and walk around in order to play a location-based game, though. Landlord is successful, he believes, simply because players recognize and feel a connection to the properties available for purchase around them. He and the team at Reality Games are betting that players will respond similarly to any real-world data. For instance, they have an upcoming game called Weather Challenge that will allow players to guess the weather forecast in specific locations—without actually stepping outside to experience it.
Location-based games require real-world data
The problem for game devs looking to create their own location-based games is that real-world data isn’t always easy to come by. PoGo is built on a database which was originally assembled for Ingress, Niantic’s first location-based game. Not only did the database take time to build, but it was assembled by a team with years of experience working on Google Maps and Google Earth.
One way for devs to collect the data quickly is to partner with apps like Swarm (previously Foursquare), which have spent years collecting location-based data and can license it to developers. Seeing this demand for data, Woźnowski says, his team’s true goal is creating a new real-world data service for other small game developers rather than creating new games.
While the initial days of PoGo’s launch saw a great deal of skepticism over whether the trend would last, just months post-launch it’s clear that the game has made a lasting impact. As Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai put it, PoGo is one of the rare game changers in the industry.