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 Challenge of Building Augmented Reality Games In The Real World

InnAR Wars Splash Image - B

Last week I submitted the prototype build of my latest augmented reality project, InnAR Wars, to Google’s Build a Tango App Contest. It’s an augmented reality multiplayer space RTS built for Google’s Tango tablet that utilizes the environment around you as a game map. The game uses the Tango’s camera and Area Learning capabilities to superimpose an asteroid-strewn space battlefield over your real-world environment. Two players holding Tangos walk around the room hunting for each other’s bases while sending attack fleets at the other player’s structures.

Making InnAR Wars fun is tricky because I essentially have no control over the map. The battlefield has to fit inside the confines of the real-world environment the tablets are in. Using the Tango’s Area Learning capabilities with the positions of players, I know the rough size of the play area. With this information I adjust the density of planetoids and asteroids based on the size of the room. It’s one small way I can make sure the game at least has an interesting number of objects in the playfield regardless of the size of the area. As you can see from the videos in this post, it’s already being played in a variety of environments.

This brings up the biggest challenge of augmented reality games–How do you make a game fun when you have absolutely no control over the environment in which it’s played? One way is to require the user to set up the play space as if she were playing a board game. By using Tango’s depth camera, you could detect the shapes and sizes of objects on a table and use those as the playfield. It’s up to the user to set it up in a way that’s fun–much like playing a tabletop war game.

For the final release, I’m planning on using Tango’s depth camera to figure out where the room’s walls, ceilings, and floors are. Then I can have ships launch from portals that appear to open on the surfaces of the room. Dealing with the limited precision and performance of the Tango depth camera along with the linear algebra involved in plane estimation is a significant challenge. Luckily, there are a few third-party solutions for this I’m evaluating.

Especially when looking at augmented reality startups’ obligatory fake demo videos, the future of AR gaming seems exciting. But the practical reality of designing a game to be played in reality–which is itself rather poorly designed–can prevent even the most amazing technology from enabling great games. It’s probably going to take a few more hardware generations to not only make the technology usable, but also develop the design language to make great games that work in AR.

If you want to try out the game, I’ll have a few Tangos on hand at FLARB’s VRLA Summer Expo table. Stop by and check it out!

How To Support Gear VR and Google Cardboard In One Unity3D Project

Google Cardboard is a huge success. Cardboard’s userbase currently dwarfs that of Gear VR. Users, investors, and collaborators who don’t have access to Gear VR often ask for Cardboard versions of my games. As part of planning what to do next with Caldera Defense, I decided to create a workflow to port between Gear VR and Cardboard.

Always keep a Cardboard on me at ALL TIMES!

I used my VR Jam entry, Duck Pond VR, as a test bed for my Unity3D SDK switching scripts. It’s much easier to do this on a new project. Here’s how I did it:

Unity 4 vs. Unity 5

Google Cardboard supports Unity 4 and Unity 5. Although Oculus’ mobile SDK will technically work on Unity 5, you can’t ship with it because bugs in the current version of Unity 5 cause memory leaks and other issues on the Gear VR hardware. Unity is working on a fix but I haven’t heard any ETA on Gear VR support in Unity 5.

This is a bummer since the Cardboard SDK for Unity 5 supports skyboxes and other features in addition to the improvements Unity 5 has over 4. Unfortunately you’re stuck with Unity 4 when making a cross-platform Gear VR and Cardboard app.

Dealing With Cardboard’s Lack of Input

Although Gear VR’s simplistic touch controls are a challenge to develop for, the vast majority of Cardboards have no controls at all! Yes, Google Cardboard includes a clever magnetic trigger for a single input event. Yet, the sad fact is most Android devices don’t have the necessary dock connector to use this.

You have a few other control options that are universal to all Android devices: the microphone and Bluetooth controllers. By keeping the microphone open, you can use loud sounds (such as a shout) to trigger an action. You can probably use something like the Pitch Detector plug-in for this. Or, if your cardboard has a head strap for hands-free operation, you can use a Bluetooth gamepad for controls.

Because of this general lack of input, many Cardboard apps use what I call “stare buttons” for GUIs. These are buttons that trigger if you look at them long enough. I’ve implemented my own version. The prefab is here, the code is here. It even hooks into the new Unity UI event system so you can use it with my Oculus world space cursor code.

Gear VR apps must be redesigned to fit within Cardboard’s constraints. Whether it’s for limited controls or the performance constraints of low end devices. Most of my Cardboard ports are slimmed down Gear VR experiences. In the case of Caldera Defense, I’m designing a simplified auto-firing survival mode for the Cardboard port. I’ll merge this mode back into the Gear VR version as an extra game mode in the next update.

Swapping SDKs

This is surprisingly easy. You can install the Cardboard and Gear VR SDKs in a single Unity project with almost no problems. The only conflict is they both overwrite the Android manifest in the plugin folder. I wrote an SDK swapper that lets you switch between the Google Cardboard and Oculus manifests before you do a build. You can get it here. This editor script has you pick where each manifest file is for Cardboard and Gear VR and will simply copy over the appropriate file to the plugin folder. Of course for iOS Cardboard apps this isn’t an issue.

Supporting Both Prefabs

Both Oculus and Cardboard have their own prefabs that represent the player’s head and eye cameras. In Caldera Defense, I originally attached a bunch of game objects to the player’s head to use for traces, GUI positioning, HUDs, and other things that need to use the player’s head position and orientation. In order for these to work on both Cardboard and Oculus’ prefabs, I placed all objects attached to the head on another prefab which is attached to the Cardboard or Oculus’ head model at runtime.

Wrapping Both APIs

Not only do both SDK’s have similar prefabs for the head model, they also have similar APIs. In both Cardboard and Oculus versions, I need to refer to the eye and head positions for various operations. To do this, I created a simple class that detects which prefab is present in the scene, and grabs the respective class to wrap the eye position reference around. The script is in the prefab’s package.

Conclusion

For the final step, I made separate Cardboard versions of all my relevant Gear VR scenes which include the Cardboard prefabs and modified gameplay and interfaces. If no actual Oculus SDK code is in any of the classes used in the Cardboard version, the Oculus SDK should be stripped out of that build and you’ll have no problem running on Cardboard. This probably means I really need to make an Oculus and Cardboard specific versions of that CameraBody script.

The upcoming Unity 5.1 includes native Oculus support which may make this process a bit more complicated. Until then, these steps are the best way I can find to support both Cardboard and Gear VR in one project. I’m a big fan of mobile VR, and I think it’s necessary for any developer at this early stage of the market to get content out to as many users as possible.

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.

VR in 2014 = Mobile Games in 2002?

The first VRLA Meetup last week was awesome.  The performance capture studio at Digital Domain in Marina Del Rey hosted a series of impressive demos as well as live presentations on the current state and future of VR applications.  The venue could only hold 100 people, but 300 registered.  Mobs of interested VR consumers, developers, and producers had to be turned away at the door.

VRLA winding down. (Photo via John Root)

VRLA winding down. (Photo via John Root)

After this event, it struck me that VR in 2014 is reminiscent of mobile in the early 2000s.  Back in 2002 I attended the first GDC Mobile Gaming Summit.  It was at a jam-packed lecture hall in San Jose where presenters demoed the latest in technology and gave their thoughts on where the industry was heading.

At that point, mobile phone hardware was clunky and primitive.  Most phones were still sporting 80×50 monochrome screens with maybe 100k of RAM available for programs to run.  Even if you were ‘lucky’ enough to have one of these devices, it was nearly impossible to figure out how to download games.

In 2002 almost nobody knew how to monetize mobile games.  The hardware could barely run games anyway.  Yet, these people knew it was going to be a big deal.  The room was filled with excitement and anything could happen.

Since then, mobile gaming has created a huge new audience for games that has disrupted the traditional game industry, forcing a shift in how console games are designed and delivered.  Now mobile gaming is obvious, but back in 2002 there were many naysayers–despite the fact that in Japan iMode had been successfully delivering mobile games since the late ‘90s.

To me, VR in its current state feels the same way.  The hardware is huge and clumsy.  There is some precedent for VR applications stretching way back to the 1990s with Virtuality and Battletech Centers.  And there’s a lot of consumer interest–evidenced by all the successful VR and AR hardware kickstarters in addition to the attendance of VRLA this month.

The top question on everyone’s mind is “how do I make money in VR?”  This was the same question asked by many about mobile in 2002.  Back then, the path was more obvious.  Qualcomm’s BREW and Japan’s iMode already had established billing models for mobile content.  Right now, it’s unknown who will pay for VR experiences and what form they will take. A lot of this is a hardware question. Nobody really knows what the iPhone of wearable gaming will be like–but when it arrives, it will be revolutionary.

These definitely are uncertain and exciting times for this new medium–which makes it much more fun to develop for than established platforms.

Game Developers: Don’t Compete, Disrupt.

In the old boxed retail model of games, publishers often waited for an “off year” to capture a hit title’s audience. For instance, a publisher would release a competing open world game the year after a Grand Theft Auto installment to monetize GTA fans who are looking for a similar experience. This successful strategy spawned many hit original properties despite its “fast follow” basis.

Today’s hit games such as League of Legends are constantly updated services and thus never have an “off year.” As discussed in a previous post, we’re in a winner-take-all game economy. Top games consume all of the time and money of their players.

It’s exceedingly expensive to go toe-to-toe with a leading game-as-a-service. Not only do you have to compete with the top game’s deluge of content and social network, but you must overcome the switching cost users bear to move to a new game. A player could have thousands of dollars invested in his League of Legends character. Now you want him to start all over on your new, unproven MOBA?

Competition is possible, but only with deep pockets. The only company posing a distant threat to League of Legends is Valve with DOTA2. Not only have they made an excellent game, but are lavishing massive development and marketing budgets to compete with the frontrunner.

What can you do if you’re not among the most financially successful developers in the world? Don’t compete, disrupt.

READ THIS BOOK.

As described in my bible, Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation typically arrives in a form that’s lower quality than the established player, but cheaper or more convenient to use for a low-end customer.

This low end customer is not as profitable, and thus not very interesting to big companies. The disruptive product’s quality improves steadily. By the time the threat is noticed by the incumbent, it’s too late. The disruptive competitor is attracting the old guard’s high-end customers.

A modern example might be what the tablet did to the netbook and is now apparently doing to notebooks.

How does one develop a game disruptive to the established players? Is it even possible to do so? After all, there are flaws when you apply the low-end disruption theory to consumer products. Let’s look at few vectors of disruption and how they may work in games.

Cost

World of Warcraft’s plunging subscriber numbers may be showing that Blizzard has fallen victim to Innovator’s Dilemma in the form of free2play competition.

F2p originally meant lower quality, lower commitment, and (supposedly) cheaper-to-play MMOs. Now, all major releases from Western companies inevitably become f2p. The quality bar has risen to where it’s possible to match or surpass the incumbent combined with a dramatically different business model.

Convenience

How about making a game more convenient to access? One way developers are trying is by bringing established PC f2p genres to mobile. The idea is that by making a MOBA simple to play on a tablet, it’s possible to capture a segment of the desktop customer. This ignores the fact that tablet-owning hardcore LoL players are still looking for an experience uniquely crafted for mobile–Not simply a long-session MOBA plopped into an iPad.

The problem when applying business model advice to the games industry is that most are based around solving a problem. The only problem games (and entertainment in general) may solve is boredom. When you aren’t solving a problem or “pain point”, you are selling based on other emotional qualities such a branding or user experience.

Lessons can be applied–but perhaps not literally. Which is fine. Slavishly following any business model or development methodology ends up in the creation of a process cult.