The Most Successful Augmented Reality Games: What Makes Them Work?

March 13, 2017
pokemon go app on a mobile device

Augmented reality is still in a fledgling state, with phones, their data connections and their cameras only recently reaching a point in the market where it’s viable for large numbers of people to participate. While phones and tablets naturally dominate in this space, a few interesting and popular efforts have been made on handheld and console gaming systems as well. In this post we’ll check out six of the biggest hits so far, and unpack them to see what makes them tick.

1) Pokemon Go

Things have cooled down significantly in Pokemon Go since the monster summer of 2016, when it peaked at 45 million players and was sometimes so overwhelmed that servers were crashing. It’s still going to go down as AR gaming’s biggest single success to date, however. A lot of that had to do with the enduringly strong Pokemon brand, with many young adult users returning to the franchise for the first time since they became enchanted with it as children. Aside from the neatness factor of actually catching wild Pokemon out in the real world, Pokemon Go worked from an AR perspective due to the need to socialize to learn where to find different types of Pokemon, how to make use of advanced features of the game like Gyms, and just laughing about how ridiculous it looked to be running around a parking lot chasing a virtual Jigglypuff.

2) Invisimals

Sony’s Invisimals series isn’t as well-known as some of the phone games listed here, as it’s only available for their somewhat niche handheld PSP and Vita systems, and the first entry in the series further required users to purchase a special camera attachment for the PSP. It was actually basically the same concept as Pokemon Go, however, except the original Invisimals came out in 2009! As such, it shared the same strengths: the “cool factor” of scouring the real world to find game characters overlaid in them, and the need to socialize with other players to make progress. As of this writing there are already nine entries in the series, with the most recent being Invisimals: The Resistance for the Playstation Vita system.

3) Ingress

Created by Pokemon Go developers Niantic with support from Google, Ingress can be described as sort of a game of virtual “capture the flag.” Players divide up into teams, who have portals scattered throughout their location that they must protect while also attempting to capture the portals of the other team. The portals tend to be located at public areas of cultural importance, like monuments and parks. Niantic actually repurposed the portal system from this game for the Pokestops and Gyms in Pokemon Go. Teamwork is absolutely vital to play the game successfully, and people have actually used the game’s portal placement feature to create art and as a method of social activism.

4) SpecTrek

Hunting ghosts is a natural fit for augmented reality phone games, and SpecTrek has been the most popular game so far to capitalize on the idea. Players have to physically locate ghosts, which are placed near them and found via Google Maps, and then scan and catch them before a timer runs out. SpecTrek was additionally promoted as a fitness game, as players will often have to move quickly to catch all the ghosts in an area within the time limit.

5) AR Invaders

A big challenge that augmented reality games currently face is being able to dynamically place characters and monsters over real world terrain in a way that looks natural. If your game objects are confined to the skies, however, that’s much less of a problem. That’s the approach that AR Invaders takes, having players fight off an alien invasion that’s descending from space. AR Invaders incorporates a multiplayer option, and the game can incorporate either 360 degrees of space around you or 180 degrees (optimized for sitting down). AR Invaders is a fun modern spin on Space Invaders, but be warned it’s an older title and many users are reporting issues with getting the app to work properly on newer phones.

6) Wonderbook: Book of Spells

As with Pokemon Go, Wonderbook has the benefit of a heavyweight license: in this case the wizarding world of Harry Potter. It’s also one of the very rare cracks at trying an augmented reality game on a home console system, in this case the Playstation 3. Players see themselves on camera as they sit in front of the book, and have to both manipulate the virtual book and use hand gestures to cast spells. A window-in-window approach takes you through the game’s virtual environments to battle foul creatures, and characters sometimes place curses on you that cause goofy things to happen to your on-screen representation.

So what’s the common theme here? A big brand name certainly helps, and new technology can certainly bring people to the party, but success has been centered more around the game’s social features than anything else. Even if the social aspect of the game is strong, however, developers should still expect their AR games to have a relatively short shelf life — at least among the casual players who will make up the bulk of the downloads.

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