The summer of 2016 was filled with sunshine and pokéballs. Two years ago, Niantic unleashed Pokémon Go on the world, and parks and city streets were filled with people who were trying to catch a Squirtle or Pikachu. And while the fervor has died down quite a bit, the game is still going strong. A steady stream of updates have introduced new monsters, features like co-operative boss battles and real-time weather effects, and more recently, Niantic added the long-anticipated option to trade pokémon.
According to analyst firm Superdata Research, these changes are working. The company says that in May, Pokémon Go’s “player base increased to the highest level since the game’s peak in 2016.” Just this week, 170,000 people traveled to Dortmund, Germany, for one of the game’s real-world events.
Typically, when a game has the success that Pokémon Go did, it means a wave of copycats come in to capitalize on the moment. But that didn’t happen — until now, that is. It may be two years after the game’s peak, but several major location-based, augmented reality games are finally here. And like Pokémon Go, they’re looking to utilize big, globally recognized properties like Jurassic World and The Walking Dead to lure players.
Part of the reason for the delay is technology. With Pokémon Go, Niantic was able to build on mapping data that it created for its first game Ingress. For most startups, creating that kind of trove of location information isn’t really feasible. But earlier this year, Google announced plans to open up its Maps platform to developers. This meant that studios didn’t have to worry so much about the mapping aspect, and they could instead just design a game. Similarly, on the augmented reality side, the introduction of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore have made it more feasible to introduce real-world elements into games.
Not coincidentally, with all of this tech available, a handful of new titles have come out to take advantage. Here’s what you can expect if you’re looking for a location-based experience beyond Pokémon Go.
Jurassic World Alive launched last month, and it’s… well, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a game that mixes dinosaurs with the Pokémon Go formula. The goal is ostensibly to travel around and collect as many dinosaurs as you can. The loop is largely familiar: when you open the game, there’s a map filled with creatures and points of interest. Instead of pokéstops, there are supply drops. In practice, they work the same, doling out useful items each day.
The collection element is a bit strange. Instead of battling monsters or capturing them, you launch a drone and fire needles at the dinosaurs to collect their DNA. You only have a few seconds to do so before the drone’s battery depletes. (The closer you are to the dinosaur, the more time you have.) Once you have enough DNA — which will usually take a few encounters with a particular dinosaur — you can clone your own. There are dozens of creatures to collect, and, naturally, there’s an AR mode so you can snap photos of yourself with a T. rex in your lap.
The game does include a battling mode (it unlocks once you have a team of four dinos), but for the most part, it doesn’t do a ton of new stuff. Most elements of the game have direct parallels to Pokémon Go, except here, they don’t feel quite as natural. Going out and tossing pokéballs makes sense, especially if you’ve ever played a Pokémon game or watched the show. But filling a Triceratops with needles so you can clone it is downright weird. Similarly, while it doesn’t seem that strange to head to Starbucks and get some pokéballs along with your iced coffee, Jurassic World Alive keeps asking me to head to Walmart to find rare dinosaurs. Given the number of transformative updates to Pokémon Go, Jurassic World Alive can feel dated by comparison. There’s little in the way of social elements or real-world aspects like the weather.
That said, Jurassic World Alive does have one advantage, perhaps due to the use of Google Maps. Pokémon Go still struggles quite a bit when it comes to rural and less-populated locations. Pokéstops and cool pokémon are generally few and far between. But I’ve found Jurassic World Alive’s map to be much more populated, even in areas far away from large populations.
The main differentiator between The Walking Dead: Our World and the rest of the location-based crowd is that it’s not so much about collecting things; it’s about killing them. Instead of cute critters or towering dinosaurs, the map in Our World is littered with undead walkers. It’s your job to clear them out through a fairly simple arcade game. You can use a variety of guns, but the thrust is always the same. You tap on the zombies to shoot, and you’re always aiming for the head. You can toss in a grenade when things get tricky, and you can bring along key Walking Dead characters, like the sword-wielding Michonne, to help you out. You can even switch on the AR mode to see what your bedroom would look like if it was crawling with zombies.
This darker tone doesn’t necessarily make you want to go outside and explore the way Pokémon Go does. It’s not like there are rare zombies to collect if you go to the right place. But the game does have a few interesting features. One is a building mechanic where you can place shelters across the map and save survivors. Our World is also perhaps the easiest location-based game to play without physically moving. You don’t have to be particularly close to a zombie to engage, and I’ve managed to get into quite a few skirmishes without actually leaving my office.
Unfortunately, Our World is also bogged down by a lot of the nonsense that tends to plague free-to-play games. There are multiple forms of currency, all of which you can buy with real money, and a dreaded energy mechanic that limits how much you can play. In general, the game seems designed to confuse you into spending money, with a lot of underexplained mechanics that necessitate lots of upgrading and collectibles. To make matters worse, Our World isn’t shy about this aspect: ads for new characters or deals on coins pop up constantly, providing a diversion that’s even less enticing than the zombie apocalypse.
These two releases are far from all that’s on the way. For one thing, Pokémon Go continues to grow. Niantic still says that battling — a feature fans have been waiting two years for — is in the works and coming eventually. It’s also working on new AR technologies to make that virtual Pikachu seem even more realistic. In addition to that, the developer is planning a massive reboot of Ingress for October, along with brand-new game set in the magical world of Harry Potter.
More importantly, just like Google, Niantic is opening up its platform to other developers. “We want other people to be able to make use of the Niantic Real World Platform to build innovative experiences that connect the physical and the digital in ways that we haven’t yet imagined,” studio head John Hanke told press in a recent meeting.
We likely won’t know what kinds of games will come out of these partnerships for some time (though there is a Maps-powered Ghostbusters game in the works). But there’s clear incentive for developers to follow Pokémon Go. According to analyst firm Apptopia, the game is expected to cross $2 billion in earnings by the end of this year. It’s managed to tap into a diverse, global audience, with a player base that’s estimated to be around 43 percent women, and the location-based aspect creates potential for all kinds of unique promotions. “It’s a game that demands to be traveled with,” says Apptopia’s Adam Blacker. “New location means new opportunity.”
The surprise isn’t that other game studios want a piece of that. It’s that it took so long for them to try.