Chasing pokemons – a dive into the GNSS-based gaming industry
The article uncovers the particularities of the location-based games market by exploring what this game category has to offer and pinpointing the areas that require extra attention
The evolution of gaming
Gaming has been an essential part of our daily lives for millennia and will without a doubt keep its prominent position for the generations to come. As our society develops and matures, so do our methods of entertaining ourselves. What started off as a bunch of stones and bones managed with the help of technological advancements to reach impressive levels of sophistication. The invention of computers spurred the new era of game development which resulted in the creation of such legendary games as Pac-Man and Tetris – recognised and beloved all around the world. Then, with the mass adoption of personal computers and gaming consoles, titles like The Sims and Counter-Strike came into existence and stole the hearts of millions of gamers globally. To put things in perspective, the aggregate size of the gaming market is forecasted to reach approximately 135 billion euros in 2020, which represents a 9.3% year-on-year growth. Mobile games alone account for over 66 billion euros in sales, making it the largest subgroup of the industry.1 Interestingly, almost half of both market estimation figures represent the demand from the Asia-Pacific, while Europe accounts for less than one quarter.2 One of the more recent sensations which swept through the continents with lightning speed and caused craze among the young and old was mobile-based Pokemon Go. Since going live, the game has generated around 2 billion euros and broke multiple records, making it the most successful mobile game of all time.3,4 The use of AR and one of the most iconic anime franchises definitely played a major role in the extraordinary popularity of the game. Yet, it is the less shiny and often overlooked factor which served as the basis for the entire existence of the game – leveraging of the full potential of the modern GNSS technology.
The origins and classification of GNSS-powered games
Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, Pokemon Go was not the first-ever game to actively make use of positioning technologies. In fact, it was not even Niantic’s – the game’s creator studio – first attempt at using location data in their product, considering that they released Ingress back in 2012. However, even that is far from being the roots of GNSS-based gaming, as titles like Geocaching could be dated back to as early as 2000. Since then, multiple games have been launched, most of which could be classified as belonging to one of the four categories.
“Search-and-find” game mode, as the name suggests, challenges players to arrive at the predetermined destination as quickly as possible or ahead of the competition, if there are any, without much regard of the route or approach.5 The abovementioned Geocaching is perhaps the most famous representative of this gaming group and focuses on searching for “treasure boxes” left by other players.
From the first glance, “follow-the-path” might look rather similar to “search-and-find” but while the latter focuses on the ultimate endpoint, the former prioritises the exact path the players are tasked with taking. Deviating from the set route often results in penalties for non-compliant players, with the punishment being sometimes as high as a complete disqualification from the game.5 Tourality is a great example of this game type, as the players are challenged to complete a given route within the allowed time limit.
Made globally popular by Pokemon Go, “chase-and-catch” is probably what the majority of people would associate with a GNSS-based game. While being similar to “search-and-find” play design, “chase-and-catch” comes with an extra twist – the desired object is not static and, thus, has to be followed and captured. There exist two further subgroups: a single-player mode where the chased object is an in-game digital item or alternatively a real human in the case of a multiplayer.5 The Target is a great example of the latter subcategory, prompting players to divide into a “thief” and several “policeman” groups and organise a vicious chase through a neighbourhood.
Lastly, a less common but equally interesting game pattern is “change-of-distance” whose primary distinction is the absence of a final destination or ultimate target, replaced by the concept of increasing or reducing a distance between two entities.5 One application of this idea is the game called The Journey which unlocks new parts of the story only after a particular distance has been walked.
Limitless opportunities for creativity with GNSS
The use of GNSS data, in particular when combined with other modern technologies such as VR, opens up seemingly boundless opportunities for game developers to experiment with and explore. This considerable potential could be manifested in games with not just varying mechanics but even more so with a different feel and purpose. Naturally, entertainment is the key motivation for the creation of any game, with location-based games (LBG) not being an exception. This is far from being a revelation for anyone, and many development studios focus solely on this factor aiming to produce the next big market hit and reap the respective financial profits. Still, there are several other notable considerations which could often be found at the root of the game design.
One of such commonplace aspects is the educational motive where the intention is not only to help players to have fun but also enable them to learn something new and fascinating. LBG’s have a unique trait in the way that they manage to establish a closer connection between the virtual settings of the game and the actual physical world surrounding the players. This helps to deliver a more visual and comprehensive story by submerging the players into this combined real and virtual environment. Such approach has proven to work particularly well for historical settings with people walking through certain city locations and using the app to overlay what they see with relevant imagery from the past as well as narrated story increments.5 For instance, hearing about the division of Germany into parts might be rather interesting, but simulating an escape from East Berlin to West Berlin with the wall and patrols in the way would definitely provide for a much more captivating and immersive experience.
Another noteworthy benefit of many GNSS-based games is their positive impact on people’s levels of physical activity. This comes in stark contrast with much of the gaming sector which is often blamed for contributing to the issue of obesity. Even the console games marketed as part of the sports and fitness category often offer only limited opportunities for exercising due to the reliance on a stationary gaming device which constrains players to only several meters of motion range. Yet, when considering LBG’s, the possibilities for doing sports are far-reaching, allowing users to stay in shape while tapping into the competitive sides of the activity.5 It is important, however, to stress out that the number of burnt calories would primarily depend on the exact type of the game as well as the individual player’s motivation. Walking around one’s district in search of Pokemons presumably will not trigger intense physical training, whilst challenging one’s friends for the fastest lap around a park is considerably more likely to cause one to break a sweat.
The advantages which GNSS opens up for the gaming industry could be enjoyed by not just the end-users of the app but also various other parties. Advertisers, for example, could use the location data of the players to make targeted in-game advertisements of nearby establishments like cafes or restaurants. GNSS-based advertisement could go even further and actually have a direct impact on the movement of the app users by luring them to certain locations, such as malls or supermarkets, with the help of strategically placed in-game tokens. LBG’s could also be used for doing labour-intensive and mundane tasks. One vivid example is the creation of accurate and up-to-date maps which requires the collection of an enormous amount of data.5 This could be crowd-sourced from the players who would, for example, need to take a picture and fill in a comprehensive description of a location that they wish to purchase in a Monopoly-style game.
Challenges to tackle
One of the drawbacks of GNSS that scientists have been working on for the past few decades is the high-power consumption. While of less importance for stationary objects with a constant power supply, the efficient use of energy is particularly crucial for mobile phones which have only limited battery capacities. As such, there is a risk of GNSS-enabled games significantly shortening phones’ functional time, prompting users to refrain from playing such games, or even draining the battery to such extent that long play sessions would not be possible altogether.5 It is worth mentioning, however, that over time, the positioning technologies gradually increase their power efficiency and phone batteries expand their capacities, making the energy constrains slightly less pressing.
Linked to the previous issue, another challenge to consider is the accuracy of GNSS. There is a rather evident trade-off between the two factors: to make the positioning service more accurate, querying has to be made more frequently which means consuming more energy. To reduce the burden on the batteries, some sacrifices to the accuracy might need to be made which could partially undermine the gaming experience. This should particularly be considered in the case of “chase-and-catch” games where without adequate location precision, certain tasks like catching the in-game object could prove to be especially difficult.5
It is also crucial to note that location inaccuracy could in certain cases be the result of some form of cheating. Therefore, LBG’s need to be able to differentiate malicious actions from unintentional inaccuracies and punish the former cases whilst providing support to the latter. The simpler types of cheating could be in the form of using supplementary equipment such as, for instance, a bicycle or even a car to gain an unfair speed advantage. More sophisticated cheaters, however, could go as far as to tweaking the game for it to manually send GNSS coordinates which do not correspond to the actual user’s location.5 As a result, games based on an interaction between players as well as GNSS-based advertisement might be seriously undermined by such malicious activities.
An important look at the controversial aspect of privacy
To further the discussion of the ethical considerations, an elephant in the room has to be addressed – the notorious issue of privacy. This is of particular relevance for the EU with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and some Asian countries like Japan where strict privacy standards have been implemented. The concern arises from the fact that positioning data is very private and sensitive by nature since it could be used to infer an array of personal information. Where people went to, how long they were there, and with whom they met – these are some of the aspects of their lives that people would prefer to keep private. Yet, the GNSS-enabled applications, in particular the free ones, often base their business models on collecting this confidential information and sharing it with or selling it to the third parties such as advertisers.
Even though users have the right to decide for themselves whether to use a GNSS-powered app or not, making an informed decision often proves to be rather challenging as developer companies tend to minimise the visibility of their data management processes. This is reflected not only in poor policy communication with the users regarding the data usage but is further exacerbated by different storage policies that firms employ ranging from near-immediate deletion of the collected data to a lasting possession. The latter, especially when combined with a lack of comprehensive encryption for reliable data protection, could increase the risk of successful hacker attacks. As such, by agreeing to share their geolocation to receive local weather forecasts or news, people could unknowingly expose themselves to the danger of the intrusion of their privacy.6
All in all, being a major catalysing technology, GNSS gave birth to a new generation of various mobile games that boast a growing community of loyal fans. Whether the veteran Geocaching, the world-famous Pokemon Go, or the emerging Randonautica, GNSS-enabled games have their unique charm that lures new audiences to the field. While players go through novel and fun gameplay experiences, they are also often able to learn or exercise as a bonus. At the same time, various firms could use the location data for more targeted advertisement and numerous other applications. Yet, it is vital to remember the efficiency-precision trade-off of the GNSS technology and set adequate preventative measures against cheating to ensure the best possible gaming experience as well as ethically and responsibly treat the collected private location data.