So, You Wanna Make A Pokemon Go Clone?

I told you not to do it.


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?

Displaying Maps in Unity3D

There have been a few recent examples of real-world maps displayed in Unity3D apps. The first one I noticed was the playfield in the infamous Halo 4 iPhone app that came out late last year. For unknown reasons, I was really into this game for a few months. I hung around my local 7-11 scanning bags of Doritos so much that I thought I was going to get arrested for shoplifting. Eventually this obsession led to me wanting to duplicate the map display used in the game. Here’s how I did it.

Google Maps Plug-In

Naturally the first place I looked was the Asset Store. It turns out there is a free Google Maps plug-in available. The only catch is that it requires UniWeb to work. UniWeb lets you call REST APIs and generally have more control over HTTP requests than Unity’s own WWW class allows. It can be a necessity if you’re using REST API calls but it restricts your code stripping options. This will bump up your binary size.

This asset’s sample scene works flawlessly. It downloads a map from the Google Static Map API and textures it on a cube. The code is clean and well documented, featuring the ability to request paths and markers to be added to the static map. Most attributes can be tweaked through the inspector–such as map resolution, location, etc.

I made a lot of changes to this package. I really wish it was open source. Free code assets really should be in most cases. I will try to isolate my changes into another C# file and post a Gist.

The first change I made was to add support for themed Static Maps. If you look at this wizard, you can see that there are a lot of styling options. This appears to be the same technique used in the Halo 4 app because with the right set of options you can get something that looks really close. Supporting styling in Unity3D is just a simple act of appending the style parameters to the end of the URL used by the Google Maps plug-in.

Displaying Markers in 3D

The next thing I wanted to do is display the markers as 3D objects on top of the map instead of having them inside the texture itself. This requires 3 steps:

  1. Determine where the markers are in pixel coordinates in the static map texture.
  2. Calculate the UV coordinate of the pixel coordinate.
  3. Calculate the world coordinate of the texel the UV coordinate resides at.

Step 1 can be tricky. You have to project the latitude and longitude of the marker with the Mercator projection Google Maps uses to get the pixel coordinate. Luckily, this guy already did it in PHP to create image maps from static maps. I adapted this code to C# and it works perfectly. You can grab the Google Maps utility functions here. (All this great free code on the net is making me lazy–but I digress)

Step 2 is easy. This code snippet does the trick. The only catch is that you have to flip the V so that it matches with how Unity uses UV coordinates.

Step 3 is also tricky. However, someone with much better math skills than I wrote a JavaScript method to compute the world coordinate from a UV coordinate. It searches through each triangle in the mesh and sees if the UV coordinate is contained inside it. If so, it then calculates the resultant world coordinate. The key to using this is to put the static map on a plane (the default scene in the plug-in uses a cube) and use the C# version of this function I wrote here.

3D objects floating over marker locations on a Google Static Map.

3D objects floating over marker locations on a Google Static Map.

Here’s the end result–in this case it’s a display for the Donut Dazzler prototype. 3D donuts are floating over real-world donut shops and cupcakes over cupcake bakeries. I got the locations from the Foursquare API. This is quite easy to do using UniWeb.

Slippy Maps

The aforementioned technique works great if you just want a static map to display stuff around the user’s current location. What if you want to be able to scroll around and see more map tiles, just like Google Maps when you move around with your mouse? This is called a Slippy Map. Slippy Maps are much more elaborate–they require dynamically downloading map tiles and stitching them together as the user moves around the world.

Thankfully Jonathan Derrough wrote an amazing free Slippy Map implementation for Unity3D. It really is fantastic. It displays markers in 3D and pulls map tiles from multiple sources–including OpenStreetMap and Bing/VirtualEarth. It doesn’t use Google Maps because of possible TOS violations.

I couldn’t find a way to style map tiles like Google Static Maps can. So the end result was impressive but kind of ugly. It is possible with OpenStreetMap to run your own tile server and run a custom renderer to draw styled tiles. I suspect that’s how Rescue Rush styles their OpenStreetMap tiles–unless they are doing some image processing on the client.

Either Or

For my prototype I ended up using Google Static Maps because Slippy Maps were overkill. Also, pulling tiles down from the servers seemed much slower than grabbing a single static map. I suppose I could add some tile caching, but in the end static maps worked fine for my purposes.

Keep in mind that Google Maps has some pretty fierce API usage costs. If your app goes viral, you will likely be on the hook for a huge bill. Which is why it might be worth figuring out how to style free OpenStreetMap tiles.