Real-world game design for mobile has its roots in pervasive game design, augmented reality, mixed reality, ubiquitous gaming, and a dozen or so other classifications. None of these are perfect, but real world is the most accommodating and carries the best chance of entering mainstream parlance. While the pioneers of this niche are largely slaughtered under the banner of location-based gaming, Niantic’s Pokémon GO, built on substantial learning from Ingress, has finally delivered.
Raincrow Studios has been in the real world sandbox for several years, piloting concepts and developing an ecosystem to rapidly produce real world titles. These concepts provide a natural environment for AR elements. In our flagship title Covens, launching late 2016, players will be able to view a physical location through their device and see magical wards placed by other players to protect the location. It also works well for collectibles that can be triggered off of real world symbols (think: a Starbucks logo or a custom symbol at a night club). Strong real world design accommodates AR not for the sake of AR, or to cue up a buzzword, but because it works swimmingly within the flow of the game.
With advances in map augmentation and device hardware and a healthy amount of hard-knock learning, the iron is hot for real world games.
Here are 8 key takeaways from our experience
It’s a real world game. Don’t hide the real world. Never cloak or hide the map entirely. It’s tempting! These games work best on recognizable, real-life maps. This was the chief mistake of early LBG studios as they dropped an opaque curtain between the player and their familiar streets.
The challenge of critical mass. Players must comprehend immediately: “I’m not alone. There are others in my city, and across the world.” There’s a charm to seeing a map full of players that few other designs can provide. We accomplish this with more than 40,000-plus player markers from alpha testing that can be used to provide early content. This is one of the few game designs that allow you to make good use of dormant players. While you no longer track them, their markers can easily be brought to life with simple A.I. logic. These are your zombies. Love your zombies. If you don’t have a go-to-market partner that can get you burst UA at launch, consider piloting in a single city to make this more achievable. It was a pleasant surprise for us how few players were needed in San Francisco to give the game vitality. For example: in the alpha of our vampire title, it was nearly impossible to walk 10 blocks without receiving a push notification (with an audible crack) that you were “bitten” by another player.
Accommodate limited virtual movement, but significantly incentivize actions when the player is in their true/physical location. We believe virtual movement is essential. Every player, no matter how remote or sedentary, must be able to play a role and easily engage content. This only undermines the concept if you allow too much virtual movement. Consider making your players much more powerful in their physical/true form, reducing their power and limiting game content when they use virtual travel. Example: Certain premium locations cannot be claimed unless you are physically at the location; certain spells (actions) can not be performed, certain pets can not be found. Of course, it helps if the theme of your title makes sense for virtual travel. Witch and vampire lore allows for “astral” travel.
Avoid too much game. Since you’re asking people to play throughout the course of their day, make sure a player can perform a meaningful action loop in a short session. We designed this around a crosswalk test. If the user could launch Vampire Tribunals, select another player, bite that player while waiting at a crosswalk, we were happy.
Place claiming. Local competition is key: players battle more fiercely over places they know. They will spend more to protect meaningful locations. Most Vampire Tribunal players frequently said they were more concerned with dominating their own city than the rest of the world. Location claiming should provide a vanity element as well, allowing players to leave their mark on the map for others to see. In our titles, a sigil can mark a claimed location. Players that win seasonal tournaments are represented on monuments in the area they have conquered. For example: “2017 Winter Tribunal. Sheidrac, Dark Witch of the Coven Charismatics. Level 101” is seen by all who select the monument.
Come to meet the player. This is rooted in traditional pervasive game design principles. In a good real-world game design, the player is always at play. Player movement must be meaningful. You don’t have to track a player with high frequency, but the movement of players should be significant to your design. Push notification drives engagement, like “You’ve been cursed by Dark Witch Drusilla, you will lose 9 energy every minute unless you are cleansed.”; “Beware. The demonic Nine Killer is near.”; “It’s Red Sunday! Drink deeply for double XP today.”; “The Blood Moon has risen! 2X energy until dawn.”; “Your Coven sister Adara needs your help to claim a nearby location.”
Build for social, but accommodate the lone wolf. Make communication (chat) simple. Embrace strong social obligations created by guilds/covens/houses, but always accommodate the lone wolf. Our pilots attracted well-employed, well-educated players, especially moms, that often wanted to play discreetly and with few companions. They also attracted hardcore socializers that spent far less but provided a significantly higher reproductive factor as they openly celebrated the game within their societies and invited more players.
Live news feed. Create an in-game news channel. Players love to see their name in lights. This also becomes an important strategic element. For example, powerful vampires would watch the news to know when a certain vampire they were hunting was on the move. News items like: “ShadowThief is on a blood bender in Mexico City” would tip them off and the chase was on. Our most powerful characters also earned such a reputation that the channel would come alive when they landed in a certain area. “Time to cloak! TequilaLady is downtown.”
Travis Fox is cofounder and chief operating officer of Raincrow Studios.