Saturday, August 28, 2021

A field guide to LBGs: Pokémon Go

Today I am kicking off my LBG Field Guide series with a game that is likely familiar, and so will form a useful point of reference for future posts, Pokémon Go. This is really the standard LBG against which most others are judged  right now, sort of like EQ in the early 2000s or WoW from about 2005 on in the MMORPG scene.  It is also supposedly one of the most profitable games on the planet, with a staggering 166 million users and more than a billion in revenue in 2020.  As a point of reference, only eight countries in the world have a larger population than Pokémon Go.  Next week I'll continue this series with a game that has a very different tone (to put it mildly), Walking Dead: Our World.  

Pokémon Go

What do you do?  The basic gameplay loop of Pokémon Go is to catch random pokémon.  You can play it entirely as a collector, just trying to get as many species as possible.  For this approach rare variants called "shinies" that have a slightly different appearance from the base specimens are highly sought after.  You can also play it as more of  simple RPG, looking for the pokémon with the best statistics and attacks for either group PvE (taking down raid bosses),  PvP battles with other players, or attacking and defending gyms. You have to pick which of three global teams, Instinct, Mystic or Valor,  that you will associate yourself with when you start playing. 

Pokemon Go for an active player in the country.  This is what my street looks like when I fire up the game.  We live in the boonies, so there isn't a heck of a lot around.  However, the game has also figured out that there are two very active players at this location so it has made my yard an active spawn point. Besides that random handful of pokémon, a hot air balloon with a member of Team Rocket (NPC bad guys) that I can challenge to a duel comes by about once an hour.  Sometimes random presents from advertisers also arrive by balloon.   

What is the world like?  In addition to  random pokémon wandering all around you, the game adds Stops and Gyms to the world.  A Stop is an area with a disk that you can spin every five minutes for random items (e.g., balls that you use to catch pokémon, potions to heal your pokemon).  Gyms are buildings that can also be used to get supplies of items like a stop, but primarily are the focus of asynchronous PvP battles.  They are also the areas where raid bosses, which often require teams of players to take down, can be challenged.

This is what the game looks like if you play in a more public area.  You can see a stop and three gyms in the background, as well as a new pokémon species that was recently released.

Asynchronous interactions: Gym battles. If a gym is held by a players of a different team, you can fight the pokémon in the gym to take it over.  It can take a while to defeat everyone in a gym that has a really good defensive team, but it is quite doable even with fairly weak pokémon.  The exception to this is if owners of the pokémon defending the gym are actively healing them as you fight.  A determined defender with a lot of resources can hold you off, but this is extremely rare. 

The primary asynchronous interactions focus on gyms.  This one is being guarded by two pokémon, including a Garbodor (the evolved form of Trubbish, below).  I could fight them, knock them out of the gym and place a pokémon of my own in the gym. That would bring me a few coins if members of my team are able to hold the gym long enough. A more friendly interaction involves presents.  You can send and receive presents from anyone on your friends list once every 24 hours.

If a gym is held by a member of your team, or if you clear it of defenders yourself, you can add a pokémon to the gym.  If the gym is held by your team long enough, you will get up to 50 coins for the game's currency as a reward.   The reason that determined defense of a gym is so rare, is that the reward maxes out at 50 coins after a few hours.  After that, there is no in game reward for holding the gym any longer.  This ensures a pretty steady turnover of gym ownership.

Far and away the main thing you do is catch and manage pokémon.  Here I am trying to catch a Trubbish, the trashbag pokémon, one of the newer designs.

How do you interact with other players?  Primarily you either challenge other players to PvP battles where your pokémon fight, or you group up with other players to take down raid bosses.  Both of these activities can be undertaken either with players that you are hanging out with in real life, or remotely with players that are on your friends list.  Until very recently it was only possible to participate in a raid if you were physically standing near the same gym.  However, this year the game added remote raid passes, which allow you to join a raid from any distance if someone on your friends list invites you, or to join random pick up groups that are fighting raid bosses within roughly a quarter mile radius of your current location.  You can also send presents to players on your friends list once per day.  When opened, a present grants a random supply of consumable items, much like spinning a stop.

If you are playing purely as a collector, shiny pokémon are the ultimate prize.  They are rare variants of normal species that have a slightly different coloration.  Here is my shiny Trubbish I caught in my front yard one day.  She is more black instead of the olive green of most Trubbish.  Some of the super rare ones can even sell for a bit of cash on the pokémon black market (because of course some people take the game too seriously . . .)

Is it good exercise?  It depends.  If you are in an urban area with lots of stops and gyms, walking around to spin them for goodies and to look for new pokémon is really helpful.  However, if you are out in the country, in many areas there are no stops and no gyms.  In these locations, it doesn't make much difference whether you walk around or not.  Pokémon will generally only spawn if you are burning incense, and that works almost as well sitting on your couch as it does walking around.  When I lived on the city I got a lot of exercise walking from the game.  Now that I live in a rural area, I get very little exercise from it unless I decide to go into town.

Friday, August 27, 2021

New Post Series: A Field Guide to Location Based Games (LBGs)

Lately I have started to become really enamored of location based games (LBGs*).  For example, Pokémon Go is one LBG that you are almost certainly familiar with.  However  that is but one of many games in this emerging category.  What they all have in common, apart from being phone games, is that they use GIS to figure out where you are physically located and to determine which objects in the imaginary world of the game you can interact with.  There will generally be a few things in or near any random spot where you happen to be.  But to get to new objects and really make progress, you often have to walk or drive to new locations.  They also usually incorporate real world elements, such as streets and buildings around you. 

Pokémon Go is one of the few LBGs I think I can safely assume most readers are familiar with.

I find the potential of this genre really intriguing.  For example earlier this year I speculated that they could form a major stepping stone between PC and Console based MMORPGs (e.g., Everquest, WoW) and the true 3D virtual worlds we have been reading about in sci-fi for ages (e.g., the Multiverse).  What I didn't realize when I wrote that post is that there are so many of them out already, and how many MMO design elements these games are already experimenting with. There are always interactions with other players, generally some mechanical RPG elements (stats, levels, equipment to collect), and they are also all online by definition.   

However the LBG genre is really exploding right now.  Shown here is Walking Dead: Our World which I will be posting about after Pokémon Go. 

Like MMOs, they have a shared world that can only be seen and interacted with by you and other players of the game.  They also very often contain digital objects you can interact with and alter, changes that will be seen by other players whether you happen to be online or not.  In fact these asynchronous interactions with other players, even if still generally somewhat limited, are a hallmark of LBGs. That and walking, lots of walking! 

I also find that very few location based games are being covered by bloggers or news sites that I follow.  It's a bit surprising to me, because these games by-and-large do play like some sort of stripped down experimental MMO.   It's also really hard to figure out which ones are worth trying from the limited coverage that I can find for most of them.   

To try and kick start a conversation about this budding genre, I am going start posting impressions of random LBGs that I try.  In all of my posts I will use a standard format, with the goal of the series slowly becoming a proper guide over time.  I will be focused on answering a series of questions that I hope will help readers decide if they might like a game, and that I also find very interesting from a design perspective.  

What do you do?  What is the basic gameplay loop and / or goal of the game?  All of the ones I have tried so far involve walking around and either collecting stuff and/ or getting into some kinds of battles.  However I have read about some where exploration appears to be the entire point of the game.

What is the world like?  What kind of world does the game create for you to walk around in?  Most of these games seem to be powered by Google Maps.  However Niantic and a few other companies seem to have have developed their proprietary maps of the world.  For example, Pokemon Go, Ingress and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite are all published by Niantic and consequently have buildings to interact with (or lack them entirely) in exactly the same spots because of it.  Regardless of how they generate the base map, the games vary a lot in terms of what fantasy elements they layer on top of it.

Asynchronous interactions?  One thing that all these games seem to have in common is some way to interact with other players whether you happen to be online at the same time and place or not.  If finding other players to hang out with in a MMO can sometimes be challenging, in a LBG, where the gaming space you are sharing is literally the size of a 1-to-1 scale planet, it can sometimes be all but impossible.  Because of that, these games generally allow for you to affect the world in some way. If other players happen to visit a location you have interacted with they can see whatever changes you have made, and sometimes try to undo them. These persistent shared elements are probably the aspect of this new genre I find the most interesting.  

How do you interact with other players?  When you are on at the same time as other players how can you interact with them?  What can you do with players anywhere, vs players that happen to be in the same spot as you? Many of these games have interactions you can only engage in if you happen to be in the same general location at the same time (e.g., think walking up to a dungeon or grouping up for a raid in a MMO and you won't be far off).  At the same time, most of them also have pretty typical matchmaking, in one form or another, that can hook you up with players anywhere for a short interaction like a PvP match.

Is it good exercise?  Another thing that I really like about these games is that they often encourage you to walk.  A LBG can be a very fun way to get a bit of exercise.  For example my wife and I got to be in very good shape, at least in that we could easily walk for hours non-stop without tiring, from playing Pokémon Go when we lived in town.  The only other game I have played that does a better job of gamifying exercise is Ring Fit Adventures on the Switch, and tricking you into exercise is literally the entire design goal of that game.  That said, some of these games making walking a lot more fun and rewarding than others. 

I am going to leave this up for 24 hours, so that at least a few people will read it, and officially kick off the series tomorrow with an overview of Pokémon Go.  I expect most readers to be familiar with it, and so I think it will serve as a useful point of comparison.  From there I will be moving in to Walking Dead: Our World, and then Orna.  Regardless of whether my interest in this project waxes or wains after my initial posts, I am going to be very interested to see where this genre goes in the next few years.  This really feels like the emergence of something well and truly new to me.

 *LBG: I considered LBMG (location based multiplayer games) to avoid potential confusion with commentary on LGB and LGBT games and social issues, but decided I was probably being paranoid.  However if you have a strong opinion about it let me know in a comment.