Augmented reality gaming is in its infancy. It wasn’t until July 2016 and Pokémon Go‘s release that most people had even experienced it. Fast-forward to 2018, and game designers are trying to figure out how to adapt role-playing narratives to this emerging platform.
Tag of Joy cofounders Zilvinas and Sarunas Ledas have some tips for adding a narrative to your AR RPG, though, and they shared them during their “Crafting RPG Narratives in Real-World Environments” chat yesterday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Their studio made Monster Buster: World Invasion, a game where you collect and fight monsters.
If it sounds similar to Pokémon Go, that’s because it is. But by using a few techniques they’ve discovered since releasing the original Monster Buster on Windows Phone in 2014, they’ve found a way to add some basic narrative to their AR monster battler.
The cofounders of the Lithuanian AR studio noted that augmented reality games aren’t all that different from massively multiplayer online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft.
“Location-based AR is an MMO, just because it has a server and simulates a game world, exactly like MMO in PC games,” Sarunas said. “It also has a map — all MMOs have a map. The world has a map as well. The difference — the map in AR is the world.”
And the avatar is the player, not a character, in the world. “You are playing the game and are in the virtual world as well as the real world,” he said.
To establish narrative, game makers often turn to in-game solutions such as quests, world-building (lore and such), characters, and cinematics, and they can even use blogs and videos outside their games to fill in gaps. These work in AR narratives, too. You’ve just got to be careful with quests — if you use a museum or a zoo as a real-world location for a quest, you might want to swap it with similar locations in other cities (such as a pet shelter for a zoo) that don’t have those places.
Tag of Joy found that chaining quests is also one way to build narrative in AR games. “We added exploration and objectives through challenges and chains of challenges — find characters in places, historical places, and find something out by finding different objects. Each gives one piece of info,” Sarunas said.
However, he cautioned the audience on how to use AR and the unique challenges of setting a game in the real world. “Don’t overuse it — find the balance,” he said. This is especially important when designing quests. You need to consider where a player is — in a city, near a cemetery or a lake. What objects are nearby? Are players near monuments, supermarkets, or a bookstore? The next step is to consider if you want to include a location that a player needs to walk to … and if it’s too far away. Or how weather, or even the time of day, plays into the game you’re making.
“[Requiring] your player to play in snow may not be that simple if it’s summer where your player is,” Sarunas said. It’s also hard to tie a quest to evening hours if people are playing in the daytime hours. And don’t create a quest or an event that might tied to feeding something near water because “if none is nearby, it might not motivate the player to play the game if they have to go 100 kilometers or 1,000 kilometers to get to water.”
Cinematics are a tougher challenge — they take more work for AR games, or designers can turn to overlays to add in-game movies. External media works, too, but every time you use that, you do take your players out of the game and out of their immersion. Fortunately, AR characters can have dialogue without much trouble, just as in traditional games.
Zilvinas noted that AR game designers can learn from people who make alternate reality games, overlaying narratives of a fictional world on the real world. “Players influence state of fictional world by doing things in real world,” he said. “In ARGs, it’s about going to places and finding clues and objects and other puzzles — finding other people, discuss, find clues, the same ideas adapt to all location-based games.”
But again, the duo cautions designers to beware tying mechanics like leveling up to locations.
“Most players can’t travel to other countries or other cities. They can’t level as most MMO games do,” said Zilvinas, talking about players going from one region to another in a game like World of Warcraft as they level up. “You can’t do that in location-based games, can’t go to other places so often enough to not engage in game.
“You’ve got to support low- and high-level players in same location.”