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Don’t stress on the Poké-mess: Where next for location based game developers

Now that Pokémon Go has had its moment in the sun, developers and some other unexpected parties speculate as to where the next location-based hit will come from. It is a game worth reflecting on because on many fronts, it seemed to miss the point.

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The creation of game environments is informed by a similar range of psychological principles to their physical counterparts. Our interpretation of physical environments has a direct influence on our expectations of a digital environment as a player.

The similarities in physical and virtual experiences of the landscape are closer associated than ever before with photo realistic interpretations of the environment and highly immersive hardware to support that experience. A developer can capitalize on this deeply embedded relationship between humans and the environment, whilst emphasising the achievement of goals to progress a players’ experience conducive to the game. Critically, the developer’s perception of an environment can differ from that of a player’s and so a clear understanding of the context is key if it is to be a believable, engaging and meaningful experience.

Where game developers have much to offer is in the programing of space. They understand what will compel a player to explore an environment. They understand the mechanics that will engage players to create that sense of fun. In the context of the physical environment, that sense of fun is often lost amongst the prerogatives of the established disciplines who shape and govern our built environment, amidst the litigious society that we live in.

Games and apps present an opportunity to enhance the way we experience locations. The dynamic of programmed spaces, however, changes with the advent of location-based games and their content. Players may already have preconceptions of the physical locations that they play in. Others such as tourists will have none. It creates an opportunity to make locations more relevant as part of games where locals create the content and visitors consume it.

The explosion in use of Pokémon Go and volumes of people flooding into public open to play the game space demonstrated the raw potential of the tool. This was, however, perceived by many city officials as both an unmanaged mess and missed opportunity, taking them by surprise (and a few unsuspecting locals). A golden opportunity to make the game and future games an integrated part of the fabric of cities was not capitalized on. Not by the game developer nor by the city officials.

During this period prominent public locations became ‘pokéstops’ (a location to train Pokémon), but the game itself said nothing of the inherent significance of these locations – nothing of the history, the narratives, the events, the cultural values, or the people. The focus was purely on capturing Pokémon. Imagine if there was a greater integration of local knowledge as part of the game and what that could help achieve? Giving games exclusivity to space and integrating that locality as part of the city’s brand is an industry in waiting.