Over the past month, I’ve been an outside observer (with connections) of the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon. I’ve talked to players, I’ve explained it to the ignorant, I’ve read a lot of pieces on it, and I’ve tried to shield my kids from knowing about it because they are completely Pokémon crazy right now and I do not have the time to be dragged all over creation to find Squirtlechumon with my phone. I love them unconditionally, but expressions of that love should have sane, defined limits.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking of how Niantic (among others) has used the real world as its MMO setting, overlaying the game on top of reality to make an… I don’t know… augmented reality? I should trademark that. And there are obviously advantages to doing that: The real world is quite literally everywhere, it gets people outside and exploring, it turns the mundane into the magical, and I have plenty of opportunities to mess with kids who aren’t watching while biking and looking at their phones at the same time. This game I call “Pokémon Go Fish!”
But if we can be frank for a minute, there are also some pretty severe drawbacks to co-opting the real world to be a backdrop for your fancy digital game. Let’s start with the element of physical danger, which is the dangling bait of every Pokémon Go clickbait story. Sure, Niantic puts that little warning on the screen and sure, most players are totally fine, but tragedy is bound to happen when you encourage people to go wandering about in unfamiliar territory without often looking around them.
Then we have to mention the rising chorus of voices of various institutions and locations that would much rather not have gamers running about their property. It’s hard to know where to draw the line on this; as long as a person isn’t trespassing it isn’t a crime, but some places you don’t want people playing games or making noise. Locally, there’s a Michigan couple suing Niantic for putting tons of Pokémon in a park right by their home, often prompting players to run over their lawn and make noise at all hours of the night. That would bug me too.
From a game design standpoint, if this sort of technology is to be used in future, perhaps more fully fleshed-out MMOs (and I would certainly be interested in seeing that happen), probably the biggest issue is that the landscape and buildings haven’t been made by the developers (obviously) but are just being used by them. You’re dealing with a wild and woolly world that’s been designed by forces outside of the development studio, and so the solution is to make the best with what’s already there.
So instead of shaping the world to fit the game, it becomes the other way around, and that can result in an awkward and (oddly enough) unnatural game. In the digital space, the sky is the limit for what devs want to dream up and design. In ARGs, you have to make the best of the foundation that’s already been laid. It’s not ideal.
Plus, if designers are making a game for the entire globe, then they have to deal with population density, the sheer size of the world, dangerous locations, and whatnot. There’s just no way that you can hand-craft all of that, so the solution is to either crowdsource it or make procedural generation software so that a computer can take a stab at placing everything.
Maybe a more traditional MMORPG could work in an ARG setting if players were given the keys to create their own kingdoms and dungeons, although I can envision a new set of dangerous possibilities arising from that and the lawsuits that would follow. Is this dungeon I’m about to explore the basement of a real serial killer who’s found the laziest way ever to collect his victims? Are companies manipulating the game to draw in customers and increase foot traffic?
It’s not a future I envisioned, but it seems to be one barreling our way right now. And I don’t think that solutions for making these games work on a wide scale and in greater depth than throwing balls at imaginary critters will require.