s08e15: The Location-based Pokemon Game Company

GPT says "Pokemon Go is just enhanced by various Best Tons"

0.0 Context setting

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 and a mild, overcast day in Portland, Oregon.

No doubt News is happening outside whether I like it or not.

Meanwhile, I am listening to Party Ben’s mashup (as Glee’s Will Schuester explains, “a mashup is when you take two songs and mash them together to make an even richer explosion of musical expression”) Galvanize The Empire (Chemical Brothers vs. John Williams).

Today: one long one, about one thing that caught my attention.

1.0 A Future for Videogames, Some Scene Setting

Punchdrunk, the immersive theater company, and Niantic, the Pokemon Go location-based game company, announced today that they're going to be collaborating. For the full breadth of breathy coverage, there's the Punchdrunk announcement, Deadline’s Hollywood entertainment industry take (you know, the jealous one), The Verge for popular tech culture (and their Vox Media sister gaming take from Polygon). Oddly, I can’t see anything on Gamasutra yet for the Proper Games Industry Take, which… I’m going to read a lot into that probably isn’t there about how the Proper Games Industry still feels about mobile, AR and immersive theater.

I started writing a bunch about a possible, interesting future for videogames in February this year after I got back from IXDA 2020 in Milan, all excited from a conversation I'd had with someone about Google's Stadia. (Ah, February, back when COVID-19 was merely a glimmer on the horizon, when I was only mildly nervous about traveling to Milan, before the Milan outbreak became apparent, and when Delta were asking me about whether I’d been to China when I flew back to the US through AMS).

I'll come back to the Stadia part later, but I want to pull out this part today, about what I think about Niantic.

Some of you who follow me might know that one part of my weird internet career is made of videogames. Specifically, massively multiplayer online alternate reality games. This started back in 2001, when I was on the player side of the curtain for Microsoft’s Beast, the alternate reality game marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg’s film A.I.

Soon after, I’d join Mind Candy with my brother, where we worked on the Perplex City alternate reality game

Later on, Adrian and I would found Six to Start and start making more alternate reality games, win some awards (you’ll forgive me if I still fondly look back on winning Best Experimental and with genuine shock and surprise, Best of Show at SXSW).

Six to Start is best known for Zombies, Run! now and I went off taking my make-native-internet-entertainment sensibility off to the ad agency world for a few years, working with clients like Nike, Facebook (yeeees), Sony and… Kraft. (You are not allowed to call Velveeta “cheese”).

Niantic is best known as “that Pokemon Go location based augmented reality game company”, the one that keeps cropping up in news stories about people heading out to Pokestops in the middle of nowhere and compromising the security of military installations (no, not Strava).

I first got to know of Niantic when I was working in advertising, on a global world cup campaign for Coca-Cola. We had a high-level partnership with Google, so Renny Gleeson, my several-layers-above boss as head of global interactive strategy traipsed us down to LA to meet with a super secret group, a startup incubated inside Google.

It was a little bit before Ingress launched, and I’m going to be pretty candid in this bit.

I didn’t think Ingress was very good, and I still think it fell far short of what it could’ve achieved. The creative (cyberpunk-y) definitely didn’t work for me, at all, with what we were looking for a Coca-Cola campaign, which hinged around “happiness”.

The setting was a two-faction cyberpunk-y resource battle over exotic matter which felt hokey to me, plus the whole thing was literally dark and very trenchcoat-y, and there wasn’t a way that felt, well, complementary and not outright insulting for the two to work together, rather like if Coca-Cola had inexplicably appeared in the middle of The Matrix.

I did think (and still do) that founder John Hanke’s vision was admirable: to use technology to get people to go outside and connect. I just didn’t have a good personal connection to the game design and narrative. But what do I know, there are a whole bunch of people excited about the forthcoming triple-A Cyberpunk 2077, what with its Chekov’s misogyny, anti-trans and racist stall set out before launch.

I also thought that the design of Ingress was sophomoric: in my opinion, the game relied too much upon a) seeing where points-of-interest were on a map; and b) heading out to get them.

With my experience in live events for alternate reality games, I worried that not enough people would want to do this for what I felt was base-level gamification (I have points, you have points, let’s get more points to beat the other team). There’s got be really good reasons to go outside to get points for large numbers of people. What I mean to say is, the crucial question isn’t whether you can get people to do this, or whether people want to do this: it’s whether you can get enough people to do this.

Of course, I was wrong, and Ingress turned out to be for-some-values-of-success-successful. But, I maintain that it’s more complicated than that: most other attempts to build a location-based game like Ingress weren’t funded in the way Niantic was. I don’t know how much of a budget Niantic Labs had, but it certainly wasn’t trivial, and by budget I mean the budget for runway: not how much Niantic had access to in a quantitative sense, but how much time Niantic (and thus John Hanke, a Very Important Googler, responsible for — deep breath — Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Local, Streetview and more) would have until Hanke didn’t need to be kept happy any more.

Let’s put it this way: if you were Larry or Sergey and the Googler who’d just been responsible for a whole bunch of Google’s business model, potentially the most important part after advertising, said that he was bored and wanted to leave, and you were sitting on a frankly irresponsible amount of cash, would you not be persuaded in some way to say: “look, here, just stick around and… do something.”

The second was that, well, launching a game like this from Google’s platform felt a bit like cheating for the rest of us trying to make location-based games. Google’s platform then - as now - offered unparalleled opportunity for customer acquisition. Any other competitor would have to do an unreasonable amount of acquisition spend. Most previous attempts at location-based games were for marketing campaigns, mostly for now-defunct cell carriers or mobile phone companies (the people who worked on these know exactly what I’m talking about), and most definitely did not come with business models. Of two location-based…things that started at roughly the same time, the one I thought was super fun because it was so-slightly more game-y than the other has disappeared (Gowalla), and the other, Foursquare, is now arguably a location data broker for advertising and business intelligence.

In other words, nobody had the oodles of money to spend to try to find a sustainable business model for, at the time niche location-based games. Not even the VC-backed ones. And of the VC-backed ones, Foursquare turned into the data-mining business. Google was one of the places, one of the only places, I think, that could’ve had the combination of strategic important and strategic indifference, money and back-end engineering resource to pull something like this off. Which also leads us to…

… Lastly, the sweet, sweet data. In principle, Niantic would have (or could have) access to location data invaluable for designing a brilliant location-based game. You’d know what geographies to launch in. You’d know what cities. You’d know exactly what device platforms to target. I’ve got more on this later, so you’ll need to keep reading.

So it’s more like I couldn’t see how Ingress could fail at Google - it would certainly attract hundreds of thousands of players. I have to admit now that I’m impressed that it’s kept going, but I still maintain that it met a latent need for games that do this. That doesn’t mean I think it does it well.

This is a big lesson for anyone in business or starting a company: in some ways, for some goals and contexts, you only have to be successful enough to get to the next thing.

Which, of course, leads on to Niantic’s second act.

When Niantic got the Pokemon IP and announced it in 2015 I remember talking with friends and pretty much thinking: well, this is it. They’ve won.

Pokemon Go has become massively successful, but my question for Niantic would be - do they know why?

It’s my understanding that their follow-up new IP, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, has been underperforming. Or, at least, performing at a vastly different scale than Pokemon Go is. Why might this be?

I think there’s a bunch of reasons, and I’d be worried that what Niantic have is a platform, their Real World Platform (which is fine!) without knowing what kind of games would work on it, and perhaps most worryingly, without knowing what kind of games to encourage on it.

If Ingress felt like it was cheating (and by cheating, I mean, “benefiting from a certain structure and system that other attempts at location based games did not have”) by launching from inside Google, then Pokemon Go was, like, double triple infinity cheating. Think about it. You’ve got an IP that’s

a) literally about collecting things (a core game mechanic!)

b) in the real world

c) where collecting does not require episodic content

d) and launched in 1996, 19 years before Pokemon Go was released

Contrast Pokemon Go against Wizards Unite: the actual story of Pokemon is about collecting things and playing them against each other. There is no such direct gameplay, core loop analogy for the Harry Potter IP, so you have to create something from scratch. There’s no investment, emotional involvement, or, frankly, 20-odd years of discipline around reinforcing the concept that’s literally already existed before the game launched: Gotta catch ’em all.

The second part is that Pokemon as a story and a game is set in the real world. In that it’s set on this world. The whole allure of Harry Potter is that it isn’t set in the muggle world. It’s set in that other world. So how does augmented reality work in that sense? It doesn’t, from a narrative point of view. You would need to come up with a new reason for the wizard world to bleed through into the muggle world to be able to use AR to view it, which again, is absolutely fine! But you’d need to create it, which sure, you’re drafting off a well-known IP, but gosh, that Pokemon IP is super-targetted.

The third part is a little more hidden, I think. You can try to create a non-episodic game around something like Harry Potter, but from what I’ve seen, the attempt was to do so by slightly iterating upon the Pokemon Go engine. You go from place to place and collect things, and you have a bit more range in terms of your character class. You go to other places to rest. And… that’s it? In its worst reading, Wizards Unite is a re-skin, with the potential to see augmented reality wand effects. Notably, the launch video for Wizards Unite was a super exciting race around London with wand effects and monsters coming in and everything and the actual game is… nothing like that? I mean, it doesn’t feel like that? Whereas you don’t even need a video for a Pokemon Go game, you just say: hey, you can find Pokemon with your phone. Go for it.

And lastly, to underscore the point: Pokemon was 19 years old when Pokemon Go came out. People had been trained, for 19 years, to expect this game. No wonder it’s doing better than Harry Potter.

The question is, can Niantic do something that approaches anything near the level of Pokemon Go’s success?

Meanwhile the promise is of Niantic developing a Real World Platform that is part game engine, part server infrastructure for location based games, part middleware for massively multiplayer games (anti-cheat, etc.), all your monetization stuff, and bits and pieces to tie all the augmented reality stuff together across the two main mobile platforms. Which is fine.

If you believe that augmented reality is going to be a thing (and it probably will, just a combination of both later (ie, not now) and earlier (ie, like it took the games industry forever to acknowledge that mobile gaming might be a thing) than people expect), then having a Real World Platform is totally a thing that needs to happen. So maybe that will be their deal. I am not persuaded that Niantic yet know, based on what they’ve released, what a platform might need to look like to support super compelling game applications.

I went back and took a look at how Pokemon Go came to be, and the story I’m putting together isn’t necessarily one that’s strategically kind to Niantic. Dean Takahashi, a veteran trusted games journalist, did a pretty good interview with Hanke, Niantic’s CEO and Mike Quigley, the CMO at Niantic, and they pretty much give the game away in the second question: Hanke says that the Pokemon collaboration was: driven in large part by Mr. Ishihara and the Pokemon Company. The way it’s told is that Ishihara was a fan of Ingress, and saw the potential in Pokemon using Ingress’ technology.

In other words, the content, game design and IP saw the potential in the technology, bringing the two together. In the interview, Hanke agrees:

This is a Pokémon experience that’s brand new, and yet it goes back to the very origin of the franchise. It’s about a kid who goes out in the world and finds Pokémon. If you strip away a lot of the complexity and stuff that’s been added on, it’s the most basic expression of that concept. [Venturebeat]

I know I’m cherry-picking, and I clearly don’t have all of the context or all of the information here.

What I think I’m trying to point out is that there’s directions that could work really well with something like Niantic’s Real World Platform, and that Harry Potter was not one of them, which leads on to the next question.

Nothing, I don’t think, is going to be as massive a hit as Pokemon Go has been for Niantic.

Wait, that’s hyperbole.

It would be foolish of me to say that there’s no chance anything could ever be bigger than Pokemon Go. And yet, Pokemon Go is really big. It is, essentially, Niantic’s iPhone, but it’s not their own IP, which again you’d want if you were a games studio, but isn’t necessarily what you need or want if you’re a platform/operating system for augmented reality games and you have a different business model.

But I think you do need, though, I think, the examples of what you can do with that platform if you want others to develop on it. And I do feel you need examples that are credible to creators, because otherwise it does seem a bit like cheating: you too can build a game as successful, like Pokemon Go, on our platform… if you have something like Pokemon.

I’m a fan of Punchdrunk’s work in a few specific cases: they do great immersive set pieces. They have been creating experiences that people want to go to, at a level of detail and a level of experience that makes other people want to go to them, too. They are, for enough people, just enough: just enough story, just enough wandering, just enough spectacle. It’s as much a difference for me that Punchdrunk’s just enough isn’t enough for me or, at least, that I think it could be much better. But what do I know: I haven’t been as successful as Punchdrunk.

I say this having met Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s Artistic Director. There was a scene in London a long long time ago when this was all happening and we knew (still know?) a bunch of the same people because I do think we all share dreams of creating something in this weird, open gestures vaguely direction of ever better storytelling and interactivity and, for me, location has always been one of those axes.

And yet: I wouldn’t necessarily call Niantic a games company for all the reasons I bring above because, and this is going to sound awfully gatekeepery of me, I don’t really think Niantic has been that good of a games company, at least, in my own personal, shifting and idiosyncratic definition of “games”. There’s the argument that none of this matters because millions of people are out there playing Pokemon Go and, well, if you ask them if it’s a game and they say it’s a game then, well, it’s a game.

I can see it, though, as a simple game, that is not interesting and not particularly deep, so I’ll go with that. Punchdrunk’s press release says:

Having long dreamt of working with the biggest players in gaming, we are proud to announce our partnership with Niantic, the leading augmented reality company behind popular gaming experiences IngressPokémon GO, and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. [Punchdrunk]

Punchdrunk don’t make games. They could make games, but those games wouldn’t be what they currently do. They could add game mechanics to what they do, but I don’t think Niantic are the ones to partner with if they want to add deeper, non-shallow mechanics to Punchdrunk experiences.

Let me give you an example: I’m not persuaded, right now, that Niantic are able to add game mechanics more sophisticated than collect/fight/disclose content to a Punchdrunk experience, and if I were to be disparaging, they benefited from a bunch of balancing in Pokemon Go that already existed from the Pokemon CCG.

This doesn’t mean you can’t redefine the rules of mobile gaming, but I maintain that there are if not rules of games (he says, looking pointedly at the books on his desk by Salen and Zimmerman, and Salen and Zimmerman, and Koster and Schell) then there are certainly forms, and even in location based games, there are behaviors that we’ve learned work and do not work. And certainly in location, which is immature or embryonic and has still been waiting for that thing, there are undiscovered forms and rules.

I mean, this is a good time for Punchdrunk to be able to announce this. People aren’t going back to theater in large numbers, immersive or not, any time soon. Doing something in augmented reality does give Punchdrunk a place to play and entertain and immerse that doesn’t solely rely on having a bunch of people in the same space. But I think we’re still, absent Pokemon Go, in the Creative Labs Nomad phase, a sort of “well, Laserdiscs are great, but there’s only a couple of films worth getting”, and not yet in the iPod phase.

I am genuinely intrigued by what they’ll be able to build together. Perhaps Niantic have some new AR technology that is much more fine-grained and isn’t at a coarse location level.

Perhaps it’s AR that’s integrated on the small scale where, I don’t know, you can wander around a real world set looking for audio logs left by previous inhabitants and collect them to unlock more narrative.

Sorry, that was mean.

I mean, perhaps you can wander around a real world set looking for a virtual key that you can use to unlock a real door in order to unlock more narrative.

Both Niantic and Punchdrunk are good in some specific domains, but I don’t as yet see the thing, or evidence of prior skill at the thing, that will make a really great collaboration between the two. And yes, I know that my criteria for “really great” is frustratingly opaque, so I will try to be more specific. In my personal, mental health-inducingly high standards, I’d say “really great” is a combination of at least three of the below:

  • critically acclaimed

  • popularly acclaimed

  • sustainable as a business

  • provocative of further creative work

I mean, I can look at the above list and it’s very clear why I have issues.

There were lots of smaller things that caught my attention, but I think I’ll stop here for the day.

(Oh wait, one super quick one: I’m disappointed in what’s being reported as the direction Apple is taking Apple Arcade in; I think there are other ways to improve subscriber growth and retention; what if they brought Annapurna Interactive in-house?)

Three quick requests:

  • I’m still looking for work, so if there’s anything me-shaped that you know of, please get in touch, or if you know any me-shape-looking-for-people, please consider finding out if an introduction would be good (see section 2.0 of this episode for what I’m looking for)

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