So, You Wanna Make A Pokemon Go Clone?

I told you not to do it.

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But suddenly my 2013 blog post about displaying maps in Unity3D is now my top page of the month. There are lots of Pokemon Go clones being built right now.

Well, if you absolutely insist, here’s how I’d go about it.

Step 1: Raise tons of money

You’re going to need it. And it’s not just for user acquisition. You’ll need a lot of dry powder for scaling costs in the unlikely event this game is as successful as you’ve claimed to your investors. For small apps, accessing something like the Foursquare API may be free–but it will require an expensive licensing deal to use it at the scale you’re thinking of and without restrictions.

Step 2: Buy every single location based game you can

Just having access to a places API such as Foursquare or Factual isn’t enough. You need location data relevant to a game–such as granular details about places inside of larger locations that are of interest to players. Pokemon Go has this from years of Ingress players submitting and verifying locations around the world.

Nearly 10 years ago, there was a frenzy of investment in location based games. The App Store is now littered with dead husks of old LBS games and ones that are on life support. With that pile of money you raised, it should be easy to go on a shopping spree and buy up these games. Not for their users, or even the technology, but for the data. Most of these games may have been fallow for years, making their location data stale. Yet, it may be possible with machine learning or old fashioned elbow grease to work that data into a layer of interesting sub-locations for your game to be designed around.

Step 3: Plan for Database Hell

Designing for scale at the start is a classic mistake for any startup. You’re effectively building a football stadium for a carload of people. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t entertain the idea of scaling up a service once it’s successful.

Full disclosure, I’ve never built an app at the scale of Pokemon Go. Few people have. I suspect many of the server issues are related to scaling a geospatial database with that many users. It’s much harder to optimize your data around location than other usage patterns. Don’t take my word for it, check out this analysis.

It’s been years since I’ve looked at geospatial databases. Despite some announcements, it doesn’t look like a lot has changed. A cursory search suggests PostGIS is still a solid choice. Plus, there are a lot of Postgres experts out there that can help with scaling issues. MongoDB’s relatively new spatial features may also be an option.

As for fancier alternatives–Google App Engine is an easy way to “magically” scale an app. They have also started releasing really interesting new geospatial services. Not to mention some great support for mobile apps that may make integrating with Unity3D a bit easier. However, GAE  is very expensive at scale, and the location features are still in alpha. Choosing Google App Engine is a risky decision, but also may be an easy way to get started.

To avoid vendor lock-in, have a migration strategy in mind. One of which may be using your pile of money to recruit backend people from startups with large amounts of users.

Step 4: Get Ready for the Disappointing State of Mobile AR

Pokemon Go has sparked a lot of renewed interest in AR. Much like geospatial databases, not much has changed in the past 5 years as far as what your average smartphone can do. Sure, beefier processors and higher res cameras can get away with some limited SLAM functionality. But, these features are very finicky. Your best bet is to keep AR to a minimum, as Pokemon Go smartly did. Placing virtual objects on real world surfaces in precise locations, especially outdoors, is the realm of next generation hardware.

Step 5: ??????

Ok, this isn’t a precise recipe for a Pokemon Go clone. But hey, if you’ve completed step one, maybe you should contact me for more details?

There’s Nothing To Be Learned From Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go is a watershed moment in gaming. I’ve never seen a game have this much traction this fast. My neighborhood is filled with wandering players of all demographics, strolling around with phone in hand looking for Pokemon. Since the game’s launch, everyday has looked like Halloween without the costumes.

In general, the job of a venture capitalist is really easy. For most, you simply wait around for another firm to invest in something and then add to that round. Or, you can wait for something to be really successful and cultivate clones of it. I can guarantee there are now a few VCs with deals in motion to build a “fast follow” mimic of Pokemon Go.

Please don’t.

There is absolutely no way another developer can duplicate the success of this game. In fact, it remains to be seen if this game will be a success beyond its initial pop. No game has ever had an opening weekend of this scale–but still, remember Draw Something or maybe even Fallout Shelter? I’m enjoying Pokemon Go myself, but many of my colleagues are questioning whether it has legs. Regardless of that, any location-based game you may be thinking of making is probably missing a few key ingredients to Pokemon Go’s success.

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My pathetically low level character

Niantic has the Best Location Data in the Business

I’ve spent time building location-based service apps in the past. The biggest problem with making games that play over the real world is populating the map with interesting stuff to do. Firstly, there’s access to map data–on Pokemon Go’s scale, this is not cheap (although there are open source solutions). Simply having a map is one piece of the puzzle–you need to have information about how the locations are used. Which places are busiest? Where do players like to group up at?

Niantic has this data from years of running Ingress–pretty much the largest location-based game ever made. Over the years Ingress was running as a project fully funded and supported by Google, Niantic built an incredibly valuable data layer on top of the real world that has been repurposed for Pokemon Go.

You could possibly license similar information from other companies (Foursquare comes to mind), but Niantic’s data is probably more geared towards the activity patterns of mobile gamers than those who want to Instagram their lunch. (Granted, there’s a lot of overlap there)

Pokemon Is One of the Biggest IPs in the World

Previous to Pokemon Go, even prior to Ingress, there have been plenty of location-based games. Anyone remember Shadow Cities? Or Booyah? They may have just been too early–back then there weren’t enough smartphones to solve the density problem you have with location-based games. Now that smartphones are ubiquitous, how do you get enough players to fill up the world map? One way is to use one of the biggest video game IPs on the planet.

The demand for Nintendo IPs on other platforms is unprecedented.  The fervor for Pokemon in particular is huge–with lots of false Pokemon apps taken off Google Play and the App Store over the years. Investors have responded to this craze, with Nintendo’s stock jumping 25% since the release of Pokemon Go.

There really isn’t another IP as big as Pokemon that can be applied to a game of this scale. Sprinkle a little Pokemon on to a little Ingress and the results are explosive.

There’s nobody else on the planet that can do this. 

The Basics of Hand Tracked VR Input Design

Ever since my revelation at Oculus Connect I’ve been working on a project using hand tracking and VR. For now, it’s using my recently acquired Vive devkit. However, I’ve been researching design techniques for PSVR and Oculus Touch to keep the experience portable across many different hand tracking input schemes. Hand tracking has presented a few new problems to solve, similar to my initial adventures in head tracking interfaces.

The Vive's hand controller

Look Ma, No Hands!

The first problem I came across when designing an application that works on both Vive and Oculus Touch is the representation of your hands in VR. With Oculus Touch, most applications feature a pair of “ghost hands” that mimic the current pose of your hands and fingers. Since Oculus’ controllers can track your thumb and first two fingers, and presumably the rest are gripped around the handle, these ghost hands tend to accurately represent what your hands are doing in real life.

Oculus Touch controller

This metaphor breaks down with Vive as it doesn’t track your hands, but the position of the rod-like controllers you are holding. Vive games I’ve tried that show your hands end up feeling like waving around hands on a stick–there’s a definite disconnect between the visual of your hands in VR and where your brain thinks they are in real life. PSVR has this problem as well, as the Move controllers used with the current devkit are similar to Vive’s controllers.

You can alleviate this somewhat. Because there is a natural way most users tend to grip Move and Vive controllers, you can model and position the “hand on a stick” in the most likely way the controllers are gripped. This can make static hands in VR more convincing.

In any case, you have a few problems when you grab an object.

For Oculus, the act of grabbing is somewhat natural–you can clench your first two fingers and thumb into a “grab” type motion to pick something up. In the case of Bullet Train, this is how you pick up guns. The translucent representation of your hands means you can still see your hand pose and the gripped object at the same time. There’s not much to think about other than where you attach the held object to the hand model.

It also helps that in Bullet Train the objects you can grab have obvious handles and holding points. You can pose the hand to match the most likely hand position on a grabbed object without breaking immersion.

With Vive and PSVR you have a problem if you are using the “hand on a stick” technique. When you “grab” a virtual object by pressing the trigger, how do you show the hand holding something? It seems like the best answer is, you don’t! Check this video of Uber Entertainment’s awesome Wayward Sky PSVR demo:

Notice anything? When you grab something, the hand disappears. All you can see is the held object floating around in front of you.

This is a great solution for holding arbitrary shaped items because you don’t have to create a potentially infinite amount of hand grip animations. Because the user isn’t really grabbing anything and is instead clicking a trigger on a controller, there is no “real” grip position for your hand anyway. You also don’t have the problem of parts of the hands intersecting with the held object.

This isn’t a new technique. In fact, one of the earliest Vive demos, Job Simulator, does the exact same thing. Your brain fills in the gaps and it feels so natural that I just never noticed it!

Virtual Objects, Real Boundaries

The next problem I encountered is what do you do when your hand passes through virtual objects, but the objects can’t? For instance, you can be holding an object, and physically move your real, tracked hand through a virtual wall. The held object, bound by the engine’s physics simulation, will hit the wall while your hand continues to drag it through. Chaos erupts!

You can turn off collisions while an object is held, but what fun is that? You want to be able to knock things over and otherwise interact with the world while holding stuff. Plus, what happens when you let go of an object while inside a collision volume?

What I ended up doing is making the object detach, or fall out of your virtual hand, as soon as it hits something else. You can tweak this by making collisions with smaller, non-static objects less likely to detach the held object since they will be pushed around by your hand.

For most VR developers these are the first two things you encounter when designing and experience for hand-tracking VR systems. It seems Oculus Touch makes a lot of these problems go away, but we’ve just scratched the surface of the issues needed to be solved when your real hands interact with a virtual world.

Why I’m All In On Mobile VR

Last month I released Caldera Defense, a Virtual Reality tower defense game on Gear VR. This is the second Gear VR title I’ve worked on, and the first I’ve built and published from the ground up. (Not including my Oculus Mobile VR Jam submission) Caldera Defense is a free early access demo–basically a proof of concept of the full game–and the reaction has been great. Thousands of people have downloaded, rated, and given us valuable feedback. We’re busy incorporating it into the first update.

Caldera Defense featured on the Gear VR store

Originally I planned to use this as a demo to fund an expanded PC and Morpheus launch version of the game with greatly improved graphics, hours of gameplay, and additional features such as multiplayer and second-screen options.

However, pitching even a modestly budgeted console and PC VR game experience to publishers, or even the platforms themselves, is a tough sell. I’m sure at E3 next month we will see all sorts of AAA VR announcements. Yet, many traditional funding avenues for games remain skeptical of the opportunity VR presents.

Since the Caldera project began last year, mobile VR has morphed into a unique opportunity. With over a million Google Cardboards in the wild and new versions of the Gear VR headset in retail stores worldwide, there will be millions of mobile VR users before there’s comparable numbers on Oculus desktop, Vive, and Morpheus.

Is it possible that mobile VR will be a viable business before it is on PC and consoles? Most of my colleagues are skeptical. I’m not.

The economics work out. Due to the mobile nature of the experience, games and apps for these platforms tend towards the bite-sized. This greatly reduces the risk of mobile VR since assets optimized for mobile are simpler and casual VR experiences require less content to be built overall.

I can make a dozen mobile VR minimum viable products for the same budget of one modestly scoped Morpheus experience. From these MVPs I can determine what types of content gains the most traction with VR users and move in that direction. I can even use this data to guide development of larger AAA VR experiences later.

By this time next year it will be possible to monetize these users significantly, whether through premium content or advertising. It may be more valuable to collect a lot of eyeballs in mobile VR than breaking even on a multi-million dollar AAA launch tile. As we’ve seen in the past, acquiring a huge audience of mobile players can lead to tremendous revenue streams.

Being on the Oculus desktop, Vive, or Sony’s Morpheus deck at launch is an enormous opportunity. In fact, I’m still searching for ways to produce the console and desktop version of Caldera Defense. However, if you lack the capital to produce at that scale, smaller mobile projects are much easier to bootstrap and the upside is huge.

Adult Contemporary Video Games

One of my favorite Combat Jack podcasts of 2014 is when they interviewed legendary hip hop producer, Marley Marl over the Summer.  Marly Marl invented the modern hip-hop sound most take for granted and created the Juice Crew, one of the most important groups of MCs ever.

The Juice Crew

Before producing hit records, Marley had a career as an on-air DJ, starting on Mr. Magic‘s show on KISS-FM in New York.  In the ’90s he went on to host “Future Flavas” with Pete Rock on Hot 97.  Marley Marl was also still producing hit albums for the likes of LL Cool J and Lords of the Underground.

Times change, and Marley Marl isn’t producing music for 20 year olds anymore.  While many DJs desperately hang on to their fading youth, Marley tried another tactic.  He moved over to WBLS which plays old school hip hop for a mature audience.

it just so happens, rap fans in their fourties and beyond have far more disposable income than those in their teens and twenties.  His WBLS show has gone on to be a great success.  It turns out that despite being a youth-powered movement, there’s plenty of advertising dollars in hip-hop appealing to older rap fans.

This got me thinking about video games.

A lot of veteran developers are debating about the decline of AAA games in the face of the disruptive waves of free2play and mobile.  Many gamers in their demographic agree.  If that’s the case, why not appeal to this older audience?

The challenge to monetizing these gamers is that although they have the same taste in games they may have had over a decade ago, their play styles are vastly different due to lifestyle changes.  If you’ve got kids or a demanding job, perhaps you no longer have 120+ hours to spend playing an RPG. However, you might digest the same style of game in shorter episodic bursts on a tablet or smartphone.

Some developers have caught on to this and produce what I call Adult Contemporary Video Games.  A good example is the 1980s pencil and paper RPG, Shadowrun.  Microsoft’s attempt at AAA shooter based on Shadowrun was an abject failure (although I quite liked it).  Five years later, Harebrained Schemes went from a surge of support on Kickstarter for “Shadowrun Returns” to a series of popular mobile and PC downloadable games based on the franchise.

Shadowrun for iPad

This is a smart strategy–delivering content aimed at an older audience on newer devices.  Those of us who grew up not on just the original RPG, but the SNES and Genesis games were ripe for a new entry in the series.  This model has also seen success with Wasteland 2, and surely the upcoming Bard’s Tale sequel will continue the trend.

It remains to be seen if you can develop a new IP targeted at this audience.  A lot of what you hear on Adult Contemporary radio is old artists making new music.  In games it may be the same. So far, the genre seems to bank on nostalgia by resurrecting classic franchises for an older audience on new devices with updated play styles. Especially if you include teh current wave of retro remakes. While some veteran developers excel at creating games for the new mobile f2p masses, others may be more suited for this viable slice of the market.

A Weekend at Oculus Connect

I spent this past weekend at Oculus Connect and have just now had the time to process what I saw. For Oculus to go from a humble Kickstarter project a few years ago to a capacity filled conference rife with amazing demos and prototypes by countless developers is mind-boggling. I know I said VR in 2014 is like Mobile in 2002, but the pace of progress is staggering. The maturation path for VR is going to be MUCH quicker. Is it 2005 already?

...and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

…and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

As I stated before, Gear VR is the most important wearable platform in the universe. I’ve been developing Gear VR games for a while and am thoroughly convinced this wireless, lightweight platform will have far more reach than VR tethered to your desktop.

The GearVR demo area.

The GearVR demo area.

The apps on display were great, but I even saw a few Gear VR demos from random developers in the hotel hallways that blew away what were officially shown in Samsung’s display area. Developer interest for Gear VR is very high. Once it’s commercially available, a flood of content is soon upon us.

Despite the intense interest in the platform, I spoke to a few desktop and console developers who dismissed Gear VR as a distraction and are ignoring it–which I think is really short-sighted.

It’s true that there may be a division in audiences. Gear VR may be the larger, casual audience while apps built around Oculus’ astounding Crescent Bay platform could be for a highly monetizable market of core enthusiasts. Either route is smart business. Depending on how long you can hold out for customer traction, that is.

Oh, and Crescent Bay…was a revolution. There’s probably not much more to be said about it that hasn’t already–but the ridiculous momentum behind Oculus’ path from the DK1 to Crescent Bay makes me question the competition. Oculus has hired all of the smartest people I know and have billions of dollars to spend on VR R&D–which is their main business, not a side project. Will competitors like Sony really commit enough resources to compete with the relentless pace of Oculus’ progress?

Why Consoles Didn’t Die

Yeah I was wrong. But hey, so were a lot of people. The PS4 barrels ahead with the fastest selling console ever. Microsoft is making a lot of similar but highly qualified statements about the XBOX One which leads me to believe it’s lagging behind significantly. Still, the recent European price cut and upcoming tent pole releases may perk things up.

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Regardless, most console doom predictions haven’t come true. This is because Microsoft, and primarily Sony, changed their business models in response to the looming threat from mobile and tablets. If consoles kept going the direction they were in 2008, we would see a totally different story.

What changed?

No more loss leaders.

Consoles historically launched as high-end hardware sold at a loss–but still quite expensive. This peaked last generation with the ‘aspirational’ PS3 debuting at nearly $600 in 2006. The idea behind this business model was that they’d make it up in software sales and eventually cost reduce the hardware.

This time, Sony took a page out of Nintendo’s book and built lower cost hardware that can at least be sold close to breakeven at launch. The downside being that the tech specs are somewhat mundane. Price sensitivity wins over performance.

Dropping the gates.

The tightly gated ecosystem that dominated consoles for decades would have been absolutely disastrous if left to stand. Sony has largely obliterated their gate and gone for a more authoritarian version of Apple’s curated model. Surely the most significant evidence of mobile’s influence on console to date. Microsoft has also adopted this posture with their ID program. The indie revolution is heavily influencing games, and allowing this movement to continue on consoles is a smart move. Especially when fewer and fewer studios can execute at a AAA level.

Users didn’t move.

A lot of analysts mistook stagnant console numbers for lagging demand. It turns out, there really was just nothing else to buy. Despite hype about core games on mobile–that transition has yet to happen. Most titles console players would recognize as ‘core’ games have utterly failed to gain traction on tablets. Core gamers want core games exclusively on console or desktop while reserving mobile for a completely different experience.

Eventually we’ll see a major disruption in how and where games are consumed. It’s going to take longer than one console generation to transform core gamer habits. It also may be too early to tell. After all, we’re only a few months into this generation.

The fact is, the AAA economy isn’t sustainable. Massive layoffs, even while Sony is basking in post-hardware launch success, shows not all is well with the AAA end of the spectrum.